The American Dreamer – showing on MUBI at the time of writing – is an intriguing, reflexive 1971 documentary about Dennis Hopper, shot during the production and editing of his directorial magnum opus The Last Movie. The film, by L.M. Kit Carson & Lawrence Schiller, captures relentless-zeitgeist-barometer Hopper in a revealing moment of self-discovery, transgression and vanity.
We find Hopper holed up in Taos, New Mexico and spend only a fraction of screen time on the production of The Last Movie. Instead, the film conveys Hopper’s rapport with Carson and Schiller and his idea of what this documentary portrait should be: this involves Hopper surrounding himself with hip young women (“play bunnies”), in a scenario that resembles a harem as much as it does a love-in. He also spends time in the surrounding countryside pondering life and firing automatic rifles.
Hopper – an actor capable of murky depth and raw humanity (see The American Friend & Apocalypse Now) – actually comes across less intriguing as himself, in the guise of bohemian commune leader, than he does usually as an actor. In his acting work we often see his powerful empathetic qualities at work, in even the most troubled characters. Here Hopper appears self-absorbed and chauvinistic, posturing even, in his efforts to be the radical figure that he was known to be.
But as the artifice slides away, so does his attempt at masking it. Speaking directly to the filmmakers and to the camera, he reveals his willingness to participate in the film, in spite of the potentially negative outcome. As in many of his best performances Hopper allows us to see the truth of the character and here he rather knowingly reveals himself; flaws, superficiality and all.
Fortunately Carson and Schiller engage with their subject with the degree of humour he demands. The film opens with a scene in which Hopper greets them naked at the door of his house, before getting into the bath in front of their eyes (and the camera lens.) In another scene he strips off and walks down a suburban street in Los Alamos (the home of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the hydrogen bomb), as an act of liberation against the hidden violent history of the place.
As Werner Herzog has said: “filmmaking can easily turn you into a clown” and in its way The American Dreamer does so to Hopper. Yet, this film doesn’t diminish his place as an artist, for Dennis Hopper was forever a risk taker and cinema is so much richer for his life and legacy.