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“A man only leaves his work,” Dennis Hopper half-complains to the documentarians following him around in The American Dreamer. “It doesn’t matter how much of this is done on him.” Of course he’s right, though of course many documents such as this — intimate ride-alongs with artists as they create new work and grapple with celebrity — are treasured by those who admire the work in question. This particular doc, by Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson, is less a portrait to treasure than an artifact of its time, one catching Hopper at the peak of his career but doing little to see beyond his affectations. Rescued from oblivion by Etiquette Pictures and affiliated arts organizations, the 1971 film should attract a small crowd as it tours the country but suffers in comparison to similar contemporary films by Les Blank, whose 1974 A Poem is a Naked Person recently got the same back-from-the-dead theatrical treatment.
Schiller and Carson find Hopper at the one moment when he could (and does) plausibly compare himself to Orson Welles: After the shocking success of Easy Rider, while he is editing The Last Movie, a hugely ambitious film that is destined to become a widely reviled flop. The film “is going to be accepted,” the director promises when its prospects are called into question, though he then immediately couches that prediction in talk of The Magnificent Ambersons.
This understandable bit of self-delusion aside, the doc’s first half offers an often appealing look at an artist who describes his “very, very unhappy” and lonely childhood in aching terms and speaks evocatively, if sometimes pretentiously, about his counterculture ideals. But as we settle into the Taos house where Hopper holds druggy bull-sessions, the filmmakers are too indulgent of his hedonistic posturing. They seem to be the ones responsible for trucking in a dozen or more women in for a contrived, prolonged slumber party that brings out the worst in Hopper; at some points in his touchy-feely chats with his new ladyfriends, he looks like a man learning how to start a cult. (Hopper had, after all, just visited Charles Manson in jail.)
The director grows increasingly impatient with the inexperienced documentarians, complaining that they’re distorting the scenes they hope to capture and wishing they’d pay more attention to his still-photography career. (In retrospect, that’s a great suggestion.) Instead they focus on scenes of him enjoying a bathtub menage a trois and shooting guns out in the New Mexico desert.
Production company: Corda Productions
Directors-Screenwriters: Lawrence Schiller, L.M. Kit Carson
Producer: Lawrence Schiller
Executive producer: Jason G. Brent
Directors of photography: Lawrence Schiller, Chuck Levey
Editors: Warner Leighton, Lawrence Schiller
No rating, 81 minutes
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