Sunday, January 17, 2016

#1,980. The American Dreamer (1971)

Directed By: L.M. Kit Carson, Lawrence Schiller

Starring: Dennis Hopper, L.M. Kit Carson, Lois Ursone

Line from the film: "The artist must really be alone. He has to be alone"

Trivia: As originally intended, this film played mostly on college campuses

After the surprise success of Easy Rider, its director (and co-star), Dennis Hopper, became one of the hottest commodities in the motion picture industry. Hoping he’d deliver another box-office sensation, Universal studios gave Hopper $1 million dollars, as well as full creative control over his next film, a pet project of his titled The Last Movie. Once production wrapped on The Last Movie (which was shot on-location in Peru), Hopper, to avoid the executives in Hollywood, set up shop at a house in Taos, New Mexico, where he would spend months editing the film.

The American Dreamer, a 1971 documentary by L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller, chronicles this long, arduous post-production process, and, in addition, is an in-depth exposé of the filmmaker himself.

Shot mostly in Taos, The American Dreamer does, on occasion, provide a glimpse into the filmmaking process. There are scenes with Hopper in the editing bay, discussing The Last Movie with co-editor David Berlansky, and at one point we eavesdrop on a meeting between Hopper and his agent, who’s gently pressuring his client to give the studio an idea of when the film might be finished. But it’s clear early on that, at this stage of his career, post-production wasn’t one of Hopper’s strengths (while with Berlansky, he calls the editing process “boring”), and it’s not long before we realize he’d rather be doing something else.

Sure enough, Hopper spent more time partying in New Mexico than he did working on The Last Movie. In one of The American Dreamer’s more explicit sequences, he jumps into a bathtub with two naked girls, then proceeds to make love to them. With plenty of alcohol and marijuana to keep him "busy" (not to mention a steady stream of women), it’s a wonder Hopper got any work done at all (which might explain why The Last Movie was a critical and commercial disaster, a film so bad it’s listed in the book “The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made”).

But, in my opinion, the best scenes in The American Dreamer aren't set in either the editing bay or the bathtub. At several intervals throughout the film, Hopper talks directly to the camera, discussing his past and divulging his innermost thoughts and feelings (“I know that now, I’m really lonely”, he says early on, adding that it’s the role of the artist to be alone, even if “being alone is a painful scene”). Away from the groupies and the hangers-on, Hopper reveals more about himself in these sequences than he does at any other point in the film.

Yet, despite its behind-the scenes revelations and unbridled debauchery, The American Dreamer is not a pure documentary; much of it was obviously staged (like the moment when Hopper, making a statement about the absurdity of suburban life, strips off his clothes and strolls bare-ass naked down a neighborhood street). In fact, in a recent interview, co-director Lawrence Schiller called The American Dreamer not a documentary, but a movie in which “an actor plays himself”. Still, there’s no denying the film has its share of genuine sequences (at one point, Hopper chastises Schiller for continuously filming people who didn’t want to participate), and even if Hopper was acting, there were times when he let his guard down (especially when discussing his still photographs, which were clearly very important to him).

So, is The American Dreamer a document of a filmmaker’s self-destructive nature, or is it a premeditated farce? I’m guessing the truth lies somewhere in-between. And even though Hopper’s philosophical observations sometimes feel like the ramblings of an egotist, The American Dreamer remains a fascinating study of an artist who, however briefly, lost interest in the creative process and let himself go.

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