Posts Tagged ‘Dennis Hopper’

The American Dreamershowing 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.

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As Spike Lee arrives on Vimeo on Demand with the crowdfunded horror Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, there couldn’t be a better time to revisit – and rightly celebrate – the film’s visceral and poetic predecessor Ganja & Hess in original form, directed by revered playwright, novelist, actor and filmmaker Bill Gunn.

What began as a low budget vampire flick – produced to cash in on the success of 1972’s Blaxploitation cult classic Blacula – became a fascinating parable on addiction & redemption. The film can also be seen as a blood relative of subsequent left-field vampire gems, including George A. Romero’s disturbing Martin (1977) and recently Jim Jarmusch’s elegant Only Lovers Left Alive (2014).

Ganja & Hess zones in on anthropologist Dr. Hess Green, portrayed with stoic detachment by Duane Jones, famous for his considerably different and impressively commanding lead role in Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968). Contradicting the oft-repeated mythology of the vampire transformation occurring due to a bite, Hess becomes immortal when his schizophrenic assistant George Meda (director Bill Gunn) stabs him with an ancient ceremonial dagger.

Ganja, played by the striking and elegant Marlene Clark, then arrives searching for the vanished George and hits it off with the attractively enigmatic Hess. In a similar spirit to Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s superb 1970 film Performance, the film takes on a dark and sensual air, as the pair hole up in Hess’ remote country house and indulge in a transgressive vampiric lifestyle, feeding on murder victims to satisfy their need for blood. This is contrasted with rousing footage of African American church services and dream sequences of tribal scenes, which accentuate the deathly turmoil of their vampiric state.

But plot does not dictate form in Ganja & Hess; Gunn’s approach to its assembly grew out of improvisation and inspiration rather than pre-ordained logic. It is important to note that this new Blu-ray and DVD release from Eureka Classics represents Gunn’s original cut of the film, which screened in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 1973, to great acclaim. This differs from the much circulated commercial edit, which was (for financial reasons) re-structured adhering to the original script, after predominantly white New York critics slammed the film with the withering reasoning that it “was not the time for a black art film.”

With the perspective afforded by hindsight, as well as the admission that racism played a role in the film’s original reception, it is clear to see that Ganja & Hess was at the cutting edge of American cinema in the 1970’s. The film blurred the boundaries between art cinema and horror and ushered in Bill Gunn as a daring & poetic director of African American cinema. The film can be seen as a relative of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), or even Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), in it’s disregard for traditional cinematic form and a need to break through longstanding modes of perception; a mission that is still entirely necessary today.

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Happy Birthday to Francis Ford Coppola, one of Hollywood’s finest storytellers and the man who brought us The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, Rumble Fish and Tetro to name but a few of his films.

THE GODFATHER (1972):

APOCALYPSE NOW (1979):

RUMBLE FISH (1983):

TETRO (2009):

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An interesting French documentary covering the last days of legendary Doors singer Jim Morrison, who passed away in Paris 40 years ago this July.

Definitely worth a watch if you are a fan of The Doors and a French speaker.

If you don’t speak French many of the interviews are in English, though you will have to keep your ears peeled through the dubbing.

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A little gem:

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