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Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Review: The American Dreamer (1971)

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These days, Dennis Hopper is remembered primarily as a great actor. This is true, even if there are a number of questionable films on his résumé. In the 1970s, though, he was considered more than just an actor. He was an artist, and beyond that, he was a countercultural icon.

Hopper had started acting in the 1950s, and appeared in two of James Dean’s three films—REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956). His 1961 foray into the genre film, NIGHT TIDE, has a small audience, as does 1966’s QUEEN OF BLOOD, but it wasn't until 1967 that he started to appear in the types of films that would make him famous. That year saw him in a supporting role in the hit film COOL HAND LUKE, but more importantly for our purposes, larger roles in the biker flick THE GLORY STOMPERS and the drugsploitation film THE TRIP. It was the latter that teamed Hopper up with costar Peter Fonda and screenwriter Jack Nicholson, setting the scene for their immortal collaboration EASY RIDER in 1969.

EASY RIDER, which Dennis Hopper had a leading role in, was also his directorial debut. It planted him (and his costars) firmly in the consciousness of a younger generation that was slowly realizing peace and love was getting them nowhere, but not quite ready to embrace a harder, harsher sort of rebellion. The media covered him and the youth culture adored him, and everyone waited breathlessly to see what he would do next.

It was a two-year wait for THE LAST MOVIE, a non-linear metafictional western influenced by Hopper’s affiliation with avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Not at all the straightforward story that audiences were anticipating, it bombed spectacularly, putting a mark on Hopper’s promising career. But during the editing process of the film, another film was being made: the documentary THE AMERICAN DREAMER from Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson.

Tub Time: Duo
THE AMERICAN DREAMER follows Dennis Hopper as he ostensibly crafts his edit of THE LAST MOVIE, though in truth, very little work seems to be getting done. Instead, we witness the epic procrastination that took place as Hopper gets good and loaded on beer and marijuana, shoots firearms, laments the lonely life of an artist (despite the fact that he’s rarely, if ever, alone), engages in orgies, and waxes philosophic about every subject under the sun.

In some scenes, he expresses himself clearly, if not succinctly. In many, though, he’s obviously addled. He speaks with passion and conviction, but what he’s trying to say is lost in the purple haze of weed smoke and body odor that is par for the course of communal living. As an individual, he’s intense enough and charismatic enough that we’re all too happy to smile, and to nod along with him. Hell, we might even inhale deep enough that he starts to make sense. Because we want him to make sense. That’s how fascinating of a character this American Dreamer is.

Even if you've never seen THE LAST MOVIE—which, let’s admit, most of us haven't—this documentary still seems somehow important. Probably more important than any of Dennis Hopper’s fictional film roles. THE AMERICAN DREAMER acts as many things: behind-the-scenes footage of the movie-making business; portrait of the actor as a young man; and a capsule of an era long gone. It’s manic and it’s freeform and it’s difficult to take in—just like the business, the actor, and the era. Most importantly, it’s always fascinating and endlessly entertaining.

Tub Time: Solo
Which kind of takes the sting out of how it feels to find out that THE AMERICAN DREAMER isn't really a documentary at all, and this isn't the real Dennis Hopper. “It’s an actor playing a role in what you think is a documentary,” says Lawrence Schiller. It’s Hopper playing Hopper (the role he was born to play) and relishing his inherent Hopper-ness. He’s thrown himself into the Dennis Hopper myth and emerged like the Phoenix, the same and yet changed, burning brighter as a legend than he could as a man. He was giving the people what they wanted, and what they wanted was him…just dialed up an extra notch or two.

Not quite a documentary, then, but it certainly remains a document of all the same things it claimed to be reporting on. The situations may have been plotted, and the details may have been stylized, but there’s more truth hidden in this fiction than could ever be captured in your standard film.

The Revolution Will Be Televised
Whether it was initially intended or not, the themes that permeate THE LAST MOVIE and THE AMERICAN DREAMER coincide quite nicely with each other—movies about making movies, reality versus fantasy, the power of unconventional storytelling. In later years, Hopper recognized this and mandated that MOVIE could no longer be shown publicly unless it was paired with DREAMER. It seems as if the two films are fraternal twin brothers, separated at birth until reunited by their father. But even then, they resided mostly in the shadows, rarely screened, barely even existing.

THE AMERICAN DREAMER is finally available to take home, thanks to the folk at Etiquette Pictures (who kindly supplied me a screener), and though it was a fabulous meeting, I can't help but want to complete the family reunion.

We want THE LAST MOVIE, and we want it now.

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