1971’s The Last Movie was Dennis Hopper’s follow-up to the era-defining Easy Rider. It was also famously something of a grand folly for the artist, whose career went into a near-decade tailspin following the film’s critical and commercial failure.
Shot during The Last Movie’s protracted post-production period and subsequently screened as a companion piece alongside it, The American Dreamer (launched worldwide on MUBI from 12th February after being shown in select cinemas this week) is very different from the making-of exposé it may initially appear to resemble.
It’s neither a bruising, edge-of-sanity experience like Hearts of Darkness, nor a revealing, behind the mask portrait of Hopper. What you get is something close to a mockumentary (predating that subgenre by several decades) where Hopper, credited as a co-writer on the film, plays a heightened version of himself (if such a thing was even possible).
One of the few moments in the film where it looks like there’s a genuine glimpse of the actor occurs during footage of The Last Movie’s torturous editing process. A grimacing Hopper is enveloped by reels of hanging film strips as he painfully watches the rough cut of his intended masterpiece. This too, however, could be yet another fake construct within the film.
Even with that inherent artifice, The American Dreamer certainly captures the freewheeling spirit of that era. There’s a fragmented, rambling quality about it – Hopper’s stream of conscious conjuring up some thoughtful moments amongst the more eccentric stuff, such as when he talks passionately about the about lack of respect for a visionary like Orson Welles.
His random musings also feel strangely prophetic at one point when he discusses the kind of factory mentality he sees the Hollywood film industry becoming in the not-too-distant future.
Filmmakers Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson (the latter of whom would go to work with Hopper again as co-writer of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel) also know how to wring humour out of the kind of rock and roll excess unfurling in front of them.
This is particularly evident towards the end of the film where Hopper has a room full of big-haired hippy chicks hanging on his every spaced-out pompous word, and the (staged) opening scene where the duo’s subject strips naked and jumps back into the shower after he’s been seemingly caught unaware.
A deliberately composed bathtub ménage à trios later on in the film looks like it could have been a deleted scene from Easy Rider. The American Dreamer is a deeply odd but weirdly engaging curio.