The Last Movie, the classic “lost” film from Dennis Hopper, is a postmodern muddle containing occasional flashes of brilliance, but those moments alone can’t light-up a dated story which reeks a little too much of creative self-indulgence.
As far as directorial debuts go, it doesn’t get much better than Easy Rider: a film which proved so lucrative for its backers that it helped usher in the New Hollywood era of creative risk taking by big studios. Unsurprisingly, Hopper was a beneficiary of that very same adventurous spirit, with Universal hoping that he could replicate the success of Easy Rider courtesy of a $1 million budget and a promise of minimal studio interference. The result was The Last Movie, a long-time pet project of Hopper’s which combined his interest in abstract art, radical film editing techniques and a metafiction approach to the Hollywood Westerns which Hopper himself had frequently starred in.
Sadly, the film fell flat at the box office and also proved unpopular with critics. Whilst the problems surrounding The Last Movie were compounded by Hopper’s substance abuse issues and bad reputation amongst executives, he always maintained that the film was ahead of its time: too brave and too original. At the distance of close-to-fifty years since its first release, a new 4K restoration will allow audiences to consider the truth of Hopper’s assessment, but the likelihood of a full vindication for Hollywood’s favourite bête noire seems doubtful.
The film remains something of a challenge to watch. Its chopped-up structure can be confusing and since much of the story takes place on a film set, it revels in a gleeful commentary on film-making and fiction which has certainly lost some of its novelty over the years. Whilst Hopper clung to the idea that future generations would come to appreciate his artistic brilliance, what most stands out about The Last Movie is how out-of-place it feels in the age of political correctness and identity politics.
Modern viewers will probably wonder at the degree of sensitivity shown towards the Peruvian locals where the film was shot, who happen to play a crucial role in the film’s narrative – and one which is more than just a little condescending. (It will come as no surprise that the women in this film are also treated badly, both in the story itself and in the overall conception of the film which is one of Hemingway-like masculinity and alcoholic self-pity). This isn’t to say that the film is a total failure, there are moments of spellbinding camera work throughout, but frequently dull exchanges of dialogue and a lack of narrative interest suggest that the film was probably most enthralling to the director himself.
The Last Movie is preoccupied with machismo and intoxication, with some suggestion that the creation of art may be the greatest intoxicant of them all. Since Hopper famously holed up in his home editing suite to cut the film whilst in the grips of a severe substance abuse problem: it may be that art is imitating life, another quirk of the relationship between truth and fiction which bears a smart irony so long after its release.