'Hopper/Welles': Film Review | Venice 2020

Dennis Hopper in 'Hopper/Welles'
Venice Film Festival

Dennis Hopper in 'Hopper/Welles'

An exceptionally rewarding dip into the Welles well.

A conversation between Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper, filmed in 1970 for 'The Other Side of the Wind,' has been digitally restored and shaped into a stand-alone feature that's premiering in Venice.

The scene is nighttime, a rented house in Beverly Hills, the only sources of light a few hurricane lamps and a fireplace blaze. An offscreen interviewer sets the conversation in motion, apologizing for kicking things off with "a real heavy question." The unseen speaker is Orson Welles, his voice booming with authority, and as he spars with Dennis Hopper over the next two-plus hours, there are no light questions, no easy lobs. What unfolds is a match of artistic intellects, thrilling to behold not just for its dynamic array of topics — religion, the Oedipal complex, revolution and, above all, what it means to be a filmmaker — but also for its public unveiling after half a century gathering cobwebs in Welles' celluloid archives.

Returning to the Welles well after helping to oversee the 2018 restoration and completion of The Other Side of the Wind, producer Filip Jan Rymsza and editor (or cutter, as Welles would insist on calling him) Bob Murawski have shaped the digitally restored 16mm material into the riveting Hopper/Welles. The result, in all its grainy, black-and-white glory, is a meta night of the iconoclasts that will be manna to film buffs and rewarding viewing for anyone who appreciates high-octane conversation that's searching, precise and refreshingly devoid of contemporary buzzwords.

Summoned to Welles' house from his home in the New Mexico mountains, Hopper digs into the pasta dinner prepared by the esteemed director (he liked it) and slips right into the cine-setup: They engage in an improvised conversation for a party sequence in a feature that has begun percolating in Welles’ writer-director thoughts. Welles would continue shooting material for that party for another five years. The inchoate project eventually gained a title, but The Other Side of the Wind wouldn't be completed in his lifetime. Until now, the footage of Hopper's evening chez Welles could be glimpsed only fleetingly in the The Other Side, and at a bit more length in They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, the excellent 2018 documentary recounting The Other Side's troubled history. According to Beatrice Welles, her father had plans for the Hopper footage beyond his fiction project: He intended to make a documentary about the Easy Rider director.

On the occasion of their November 1970 meeting, neither Welles nor Hopper knew what a long and winding road lay ahead for each of them. They were, respectively, 55 and 34, and conducted their sit-down from different but related positions on the career spectrum: one the legendary creator of 1941's Citizen Kane — "the directorial debut against which all others are measured," as Hopper/Welles' succinct introductory title cards put it — the other a New Hollywood hot commodity in the tailwinds of Easy Rider's success. Back on SoCal terra firma after many years of self-imposed exile in Europe, Welles believed he was primed for a comeback, and was eager for box office success. Hopper was headed for a fall and his own exile from the biz.

Regardless of what you think of their subsequent work, neither wunderkind would ever again come close to achieving the cultural impact of his first film. And each was now working on a movie about moviemaking. Blessed and cursed with complete creative control over his sophomore effort, The Last Movie, Hopper was struggling, in his Taos compound, to edit the surfeit of footage for Universal. He speaks of editing as a kind of emotional torture; Welles counters that it's the heart of filmmaking: "I don't have any affection for a single foot of film."

Also present for the nonconformists' living-room encounter are actors Janice Pennington and Glenn Jacobson, mostly silent and in the shadows. PAs with clapper boards move in and out of the frame, announcing takes. Hopper is the main attraction, studied attentively through the lens of Welles' faithful DP, Gary Graver: he's movie-star radiant, even in the thick beard he keeps rubbing as he considers Welles' questions and rejoinders. His intelligence is piercing, but gentler than that of Welles, and his off-the-grid profile is a far cry from the man-about-town art collector he'd become. With a good-natured smile and a delighted laugh, he holds his own: a disciple keeping his cool, but clearly exhilarated to be engaging with a hero.

Welles pushes Hopper, his logic unerringly incisive whether they're defining personal filmmaking, discussing violence or analyzing the difference between magic and miracles. Sometimes Welles is speaking as Jake Hannaford, the fictional filmmaker at the center of his nascent film (John Huston would play the imperious character in The Other Side of the Wind) and sometimes as himself — but his interrogation and pronouncements often fall somewhere between the two.

Hopper, too, is straddling a fine line, playing a version of himself but also revealing himself and his vulnerabilities. The chance to act in his own films, he says, is "such a relief, not to have somebody screaming at you." Maybe eager to disprove Welles' contention that he'd make a good movie Jesus, or maybe feeling the gin-and-tonics, Hopper holds little back when expressing his feelings about the Fonda family, including his view of Jane Fonda as a political dilettante. On the lighter side, only one of his jokes doesn't land, a weak stab at the idea of "pretty ladies" being his true interest as a filmmaker. The awkward moment takes on a different resonance when you know that Hopper's eight-day marriage to Michelle Phillips ended just days before the Beverly Hills shoot.

Across the generational divide ("Who's he?" Welles asks when Hopper quotes Bob Dylan), they don't always agree, but together they grapple with heady matters, two freethinking artists who see past the shiny surfaces of a cruel and fickle industry but are still, to varying degrees, dependent on it.

Sometimes it seems that Welles, who by 1970 has certainly had a rougher and financially more precarious career trajectory than has Hopper, might be addressing a version of his younger self. "The director ought to be a magician and a poet rather than a god," he declares, and though he does so from his godlike place outside the frame, Hopper/Welles is the stuff of poets.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Royal Road Entertainment, Grindhouse Releasing, Fixafilm
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Orson Welles, Janice Pennington, Glenn Jacobson
Director: Orson Welles
Producer: Filip Jan Rymsza
Executive producers: Jon Anderson, Jonathan Gardner
Director of photography: Gary Graver
Editor: Bob Murawski
Sales: CAA

131 minutes