True Icon of a False Prophet: Dennis Hopper as "The American Dreamer"

Now playing on MUBI: A quasi-documentary on Dennis Hopper turns into a vertiginous farce of American self-regard.
Mike Opal

L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller's The American Dreamer (1971) is exclusively playing on MUBI through March 12, 2016.

Photo by Lawrence Schiller

With a budget of $1 million, 1971's The Last Movie is the cheapest film ever to be considered a major folly. Tugging on his beard and watching a rough cut, Dennis Hopper prepares for his new project's inevitable critical disemboweling. He knows, after all, that among many delirious and noxious (though often brilliant) self-referential shenanigans it features a gigantic breast ejaculating milk onto Hopper's own receptive face. With self-aggrandizing irony (or is that ironic self-aggrandizement?), Hopper aspires to Orson Welles's career trajectory: "I can become Orson Welles, poor bastard." He declares his debut, 1969's Easy Rider, his Citizen Kane and The Last Movie his The Magnificent Ambersons. Nevertheless, the response to The Last Movie scared him away from directing for nearly a decade, rather than duplicating Welles's indomitable retreat to self-, European, and B-studio funding. So if Hopper left the comparison incomplete, documentarians L. M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller expanded it for him by making his version of F for Fake, with Hopper as Welles, the forger, and the biographer. The result is The American Dreamer.

Carson was four years past starring in David Holzman's Diary, a marker of the mockumentary's decisive shift from ethnographic docudrama to aspirational celebrity narcissism; Schiller was transitioning from icon-in-decline photojournalism (you've seen his pictures of Marilyn Monroe) to a career in cinema. Ostensibly a documentary of Hopper's life as he edits The Last Movie, they never intended to make a straight film. Even in outline, this is a film about a film about a "film" about a film, without ever settling into the coherent repetition of a mise en abîme. Since its completion 35 years ago, The American Dreamer has played only on campuses and in the occasional festival. Being given a new theatrical release in a restored version, as well as its first home video release, the film has a logline that barely resembles the involuted comedy Carson and Schiller made.

It's tempting to approach The American Dreamer as piece of film history, a record of a thing that happened, an explanation for a directorial career only slightly less puzzling than that of fellow New Hollywood martyr Michael Cimino. But Schiller, who co-edited the film, chopped to bits the crew’s seemingly endless footage and assembled it into a vertiginous farce of American self-regard. Hopper willingly participates, full partner in a performance piece, but just as often seems like a genuine blithe spirit trying to actualize radical politics into a design for living. When the opening titles credit him for the actor he is ("Dennis Hopper as THE AMERICAN DREAMER"), his act seems unconstrained by cinema. Neither character study nor profile, we watch the development of a persona, assisted and motivated by the "power of film" that, for 81 minutes, supplies him with a bully pulpit and a stream of initiates into an inchoate, female-only (except for him) sex cult hosted in his den. The extremely long culminating orgy is a parodic, claustrophobic microcosm of celebrity and American abundance, but the film starts with a microcosm of itself.

Before mentioning visiting Charles Manson in prison (two weeks before, so Hopper already had the beard), before calling himself a lesbian, before voicing support for coup-preparation gun ownership, before leading an off-key sing-along, before tossing off, "Never say anything unless you want it to become a reality," before disrobing in the suburbs while describing dreaming about disrobing in the suburbs, he drives into the desert. In shallow skies the color his denim uniform will have faded to by 2016, in the dry landscape around his home in Taos, New Mexico, the camera plays with the artifacts of its presence: its shadow on weeds; the dense, swarming grain of 16mm film; concentric lens flares widening as the camera zooms into the sun, or a string of magenta bubbles bursting as it pans away. The grubby frontier becomes the stage for the longest of Hopper's many extemporaneous, beard-tugging monologues on America. The film continually circles back to it, punctuating his homestead's cultish bacchanalia with one of the few speeches not addressed to a girlfriend, groupie, Playmate, or otherwise captive audience of anonymous, white nubiles. Particularly po- faced and crouched in the Southwest's red dirt, he serves as his own Greek chorus, rehearsing epigrammatic radical politics that are never so idealistic as they are idealized.

For example, "It's very difficult at times, if you believe in evolution, not to believe in revolution." Schiller splices the aphorism into footage of an Indigenous community's powwow into which Hopper insinuated himself, footage immediately preceded by him and an indistinguishable associate firing handguns into the desert. Through pure montage, a caustic, sardonic political consciousness emerges: Western cinematic iconography turns into the image of the white settler colonialism that it always was, while Hopper’s call for revolution lands with sick irony. The revolution has come and gone, celebrated every July 4th. While his violence is playful, the film intimates a naive and ultimately tragic aggression. He fires his gun at nothing but the landscape, claiming it.

There we see the queasy questions at the film's heart. What is America to the American Dreamer? Upon what American realities is the American Dream actualized: the depopulated free space of the West, the elaboration of neoliberal capitalism, or simply people themselves, fellow Americans? Carson and Schiller offer the morbid and hilariously Kafkaesque idea that the American Dream is real, but proceeds as the absorption of anything that looks or sounds like progress, rebelliousness, or radical language into service of hegemonic desires. If Hopper is playing at all times, where does that leave the peripheral characters, his housemates, coworkers, lovers, flings? He loses interest in The Last Movie's postproduction, pausing to leer at a woman in the editing bay. While a Playboy model analyzes eyelines for the art hanging from his den wall, he stares at her chest, justifying his inattention with pot-addled meta-discourse. "You know what this reminds me of?" he asks. "You know, our whole dialogue about art. What it really gets me into is thinking that I'm at a cocktail party, and now it's time to talk about art. . . . Is that heavy? But it does. I know that you didn't mean it that way, and I didn't mean my answers that way, but that's what it finally got to be," as he scoots closer and closer to her on the couch. The lilting cadence with which he orates is one for the annals, but his rhetoric careens from vague if basically accurate insights into cynical opportunism. A comedy of manners for the free-love crowd ("I don't believe in reading") curdles into brittle satire in the domestic sphere. Formally, the film climaxes with a nude massage circle; thematically, everything is dénouement after Dennis Hopper takes mounted antlers from the wall and places them over his crotch, thrusting at the congregation.

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L.M. Kit CarsonDennis HooperLawrence Schiller
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