I have long been fascinated by the career of Dennis Hopper, the attractive young star who got his screen start in the 50s working for noted figures like George Stevens and Nicolas Ray only to become the poster boy of the counter culture in the 60s thanks to films like The Trip, The Glory Stompers and, of course, Easy Rider. With a career spanning six decades and including every genre and mode of production likely possible, Hopper was steeped in cinema. But, despite being a prominent screen presence in the 50s and 60s, Hopper sort of vanished – though not if you looked for him – following the early 70s and up through the mid 80s and that was mostly due to The Last Movie.
I’m not sure that we will ever see Hopper’s actual desired cut of The Last Movie, if such a thing even exists, but the film that was eventually released nearly destroyed his career. Following the success of Easy Rider, he could basically do whatever he wanted, including taking about a million dollars of Universal’s money to Peru to make a film that nobody knew anything about and then shooting about forty hours of footage and retreating to Taos, New Mexico to edit it. And that’s where The American Dreamer is born. Sort of.
Lawrence Schiller and Kit Carson set out to document the editing of The Last Movie and it turned into a lot more, thanks to Hopper. According to Tom Folsom’s great biography of Hopper, “Hopper: A Savage American Journey”, much of The American Dreamer ended up being staged including the now notorious orgy sequence in which the filmmakers pick up a bunch of random women at the Santa Fe airport, ask them if they know Dennis Hopper and if they’d like to have an orgy with him and then they bring them all back to the compound to Hopper’s astonishment (and glee). The result is a film less about The Last Movie than about the result of The Last Movie not only on Hopper’s career but on Hopper himself. Folsom claims in the book that Schiller and Carson were at a loss as to why Hopper was willingly throwing away his career on The Last Movie and, subsequently, The American Dreamer. Folsom notes “Hopper appeared to be doing it because it was the image that was right to lead to a glorious, spectacular failure. Perhaps a work of art in itself.” He then goes on to quote Hopper comparing his sophomore directorial effort to that of The Magnificent Ambersons and he to “poor bastard” Orson Welles. It’s there that The American Dreamer seems most apt.
It’s safe to say that we’ll likely never see whatever it is that Dennis Hopper actually wanted to release for The Last Movie – or the mythical Alejandro Jodorowsky cut either – but The American Dreamer sort of fills that in for us. Watching Hopper wax philosophically, claim he’s a God and bathe with multiple women in a bathtub isn’t just calculated spectacle as “documentary,” it’s another attempt by Hopper at directing something even if the credit is attributed to someone else. In a way, The American Dreamer feels like it is actually truly the last movie for Hopper, the one where he gives it all up and leaves Hollywood for good. Despite its fabrications, it is an important piece of Americana, capturing a very specific moment in time between the freewheeling late 60s and the soon-to-be-ushered-in new Hollywood of the 70s. And Hopper was there for it all, whether the industry wanted him or not.
Vinegar Syndrome imprint Etiquette Pictures have brought The American Dreamer to disc for, what I can tell, is the first time officially and it’s a cause for celebration. The liner notes included mention that the 2K scan provided was made from the four remaining 16mm theatrical release prints. The negative for this was apparently lost in a fire and the prints remaining were in circulation from playing at various college film societies in the 70s. The prints were naturally in different degrees of shape and a bonus feature (more on that soon) goes into detail about the restoration process. As for how it looks here, it looks fucking great. Aspect is 1.33 and the 16mm is noticeably grainy – as it should be – with no noticeable fading or serious damage present. It’s almost remarkably clean, with some dirt and debris popping up once in a while, but for the source that this transfer was created from, it’s clear that a lot of work had to go into this. Really stunning work here. Audio is mono only, as it should be, and the track sound solid. I needed to adjust my volume a couple of times, but that tends to happen with mono tracks and it is void of any distracting hiss or distortion. Exemplary restoration work in all aspects.
Supplements start with a very worthwhile booklet featuring an essay by Chris Poggiali titled “The American Dreamer and the Heyday of Campus Film Programming” which is about exactly what you’d think. It’s a thorough piece for how few pages it runs and it includes some great archival photos of programs and advertisements for The American Dreamer. It’s the type of scholarly supplement that we rarely see anymore and makes a nice reading companion to Folsom’s book. On to the disc itself we have a half hour making of titled “Fighting Against the Wind” and a seven minute preservation featurette titled “A Long Way Home.” The former provides some nice context on The American Dreamer and avoids feeling like an EPK or anything too “fluffy.” But the latter is the real gem here. I’m a huge preservation nerd so I may be biased but hearing about how this all came together via the Walker Art Center is fascinating, especially since they go over the biggest issues in preservation: funding and provenance. It’s a special type of supplement that I’d love to see more of going forward. A DVD copy of the film is also included.
The American Dreamer is really astonishing filmmaking, both as a document of a specific time and place and as a film of and about one of our most interesting iconoclasts. Etiquette Pictures have gone above and beyond with the restoration work here and the supplemental package only furthers that with quality content that is as edifying as it is entertaining. This is a really special release. Very highly recommended.