(En)fin de cinema
Andrew Tracy on The Last Movie

The key to myth isn’t seeing through it but being heard above it. The lies fed to us every day can be easily punctured by basic intelligence or a few clicks on the internet. Perception requires only that one exercise the will to perceive, and it’s a tool as available to the doctrinaire, the ignorant, and the gullible as it is to the skeptical and concerned. But the power of myth is that it ably removes individual initiative from the equation. What seems (and is) crude, flimsy, and base on the plane of the individual becomes omnipresent and impenetrable when lowered to that of the mass. The strategy of the mythmakers is to effectively set the limits of reality and dictate the shape of its representation—to ask us, in the immortal words of Richard Pryor (via Chico Marx), “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” It’s mirthlessly ironic, the language of authenticity in which these lies are couched. Often the advocates of official myth condescendingly urge dissenting voices to be “realistic,” to be “pragmatic,” to be “sensible,” as if the patina of reason which they adopt isn’t meant to conceal an utter derangement of the senses, chiefly the common and the moral.

The regime of myth under which we live is a constant state of violence done upon our psyches and consciousness, forcing us to play on its level, on its own loaded terms. The late Paul Goodman stated the case plainly:

War talkers are pretty close to fools or else not a little crazy; their postures and remarks are not proper to normal grown men. This can be simply demonstrated, relying on logic, statistics, and history. . . for we are dealing with a deeply neurotic and even schizophrenic phenomenon, and the reality of ordinary reasoning, and ordinary dismissal of stupidity, must be strongly affirmed.

The problem is that ordinary reasoning so often seems helpless in the face of power. And this vulnerability can polarize dissent into the same dehumanizing realms as its adversary, the blind alley of violence answering violence. Thus we have such delusions as the romanticizing of the Vietcong, the applauding of suicide bombers, and the championing of militant chaos once espoused by the Weathermen finding renewal in some (thankfully marginal) factions of the anti-corporate movement.

As in life, so in art. The struggle for a political cinema has run through a maze of dead ends from Eisenstein to Pontecorvo to Godard and beyond, the passionate lapsing into sentimentalism, the radical into the dogmatic and inflexible, myth exerting its deadening hand to transform the charged and specific into vagaries. And in no cinema have the pitfalls of myth proven as difficult to navigate as that which gave so many of those myths enduring life. The rise of the “New Hollywood” in the sixties and seventies may have countered the conservatism of the studio system, but it also unveiled the conservatism inherent in any such “progressive” cultural outpouring. The rush of liberation hewed inexorably back towards the power base and its venal fictions. It’s not hard to see in the then-shocking and graphic carnage of Bonnie and Clyde—which only becomes shocking and graphic when it touches the protagonists—the cultural narcissism which makes violence relevant only when it happens to Us; in The Godfather the tragic burden of Men of Power, cursed with the “responsibility” of ordering the deaths of others; or in Easy Rider the counterculture worshipping at the sacrificial altar of Youth while disregarding the necessity of political action. Cultural and historic impact notwithstanding, the majority of these films execute, on a higher order, Goodman’s blanket complaint about popular culture, “a continual petty draining off of the tensions nearest the surface.” The apocalyptically-tinged violence which these films make such memorable use of, bursting through the wall of narrative with Artaudian force, nevertheless beat a retreat back to the shell. They close the circle on the films, leave the audience shaken but not moved; a brief psychic jarring which lapses back into restiveness.

Movie-made violence—its limits and implications—is the explicit subject of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider follow-up The Last Movie (1971), which chronicles the departure of a movie company from a small Peruvian town, leaving behind a stuntman, Kansas (Hopper), and the fascinated locals, who fashion their own cameras, lights and booms out of bamboo and start making their own “film”—but with real blood and real violence in place of movie fakery, and a sacrificial victim in the hapless Kansas. As a moderately clever reality-and-fiction puzzle with a sheen of anti-imperialism, the scenario has a certain pulp Pirandellan charge, but Hopper refuses to let his fictional mechanism play itself out. Rupturing the frame with time-shifts, mad montages and Brechtian distancing devices (“Scene Missing” cards occasionally obtrude into the action), Hopper coughed out one of the most notorious wild turkeys of auteur cinema, a critical and financial disaster that effectively ended his directing career for a decade.

Watching The Last Movie today, it’s tempting to reflexively praise the film as a maligned masterpiece. “The least that can be said for [it] is that no other studio-released film of the period is quite so formally audacious” says Jonathan Rosenbaum, and the charged political overtones of Third World exploitation, cultural imperialism, and the corrupting influence of American mythology are provocative and, clearly, still relevant. In substance, however, Hopper’s political content is mainly cosmetic—easy jabs at materialism via Kansas’ Peruvian girlfriend (“You know what I want you should buy me? A General Electric refrigerator”), the slumming exploits of a rich, vulgar American businessman (Roy Engel) and his lustful wife (Julie Adams), and the cockeyed gold-mining scheme of Kansas’ friend Neville (Don Gordon)—and inferential. As with so many American films that purport to be political, The Last Movie coasts on the suggestion of the political rather than shaping a concerted critique.

However, while the programmatic content of The Last Movie stays safely within the bounds of permissible dissent, its chaotic form, the wild flurry of sounds and images, reveals—after repeated viewings—a truly striking focus and discipline. It’s hard to know how the film was originally envisioned—legend has it that Hopper tore apart a coherent narrative version after an upbraiding by Alejandro Jodorowsky—but it’s possible that Hopper, boozed, bedraggled, and bedrugged as he was, began to perceive while shooting and editing his welter of footage the paradox into which he had fallen. After all, his broadside against the American legacy of greed and violence had the backing of a major American corporation, was being made by a group of hedonistic, absurdly overprivileged tourists in the Third World, and turned on the hackneyed and narcissistic symbolism of Hopper’s stuntman as Christ figure, the American naïf dying for the world’s sins. Myth again, and forever. The apocalyptic promise of Hopper’s title shuffled back into the cycle of consumption, ritual violence made routine.

If there is a key to The Last Movie, it is Hopper’s bold, desperate attempt to defeat the ideological pitfalls ingrained in his project. Unraveling his position as presiding creator, Hopper collapses an array of perspectives into a flux where all are present yet none claims dominance. His method, in both cutting and composition, is to effect a flattening of perspective within the frame, to run his varying realities together simultaneously. If the result can become hopelessly muddled, it also yields some moments of powerful, lucid beauty. The opening half-hour in particular, roughly encompassing the shooting of the film-within-the-film, is one of Hopper’s finest achievements as a filmmaker. Fracturing the conventionally bloody action of a rote western into near-incomprehensible fragments linked only by their senseless sadism, Hopper not only illuminates the vapid nihilism underlying Hollywood narrative but runs the text of that debased fiction concurrent with the process of its own creation. The surreal, Gotterdammerung brutality bleeds into the unfailing pragmatism of the movie crew (complete with Sam Fuller in Union headgear barking through a megaphone) and further, into Hopper’s creation of both planes of reality—in one unifying moment, Hopper’s camera tracks to the left in response to an order from Fuller in order to capture the next scene.

The overall effect is to remove the viewer from any kind of perspectival perch, to erase the illusion of a guiding viewpoint and a stable base of judgment and force the viewer to confront the film as a persistently confounding object. At a screening of The Last Movie in 2003, Hopper urged the audience to “think of it as the use of film as film, as an artist uses paint as paint.” The Last Movie isn’t a meditation on falsity, it’s a phenomenological experience of falsity—a cubist implosion of celluloid lies which draws its matter from the complicity of filmmaker—and film-watcher—in the persistence of those lies. What dooms The Last Movie is not only its difficulty, which naturally opens the door to reductive charges of pretension and ego-tripping, but Hopper’s radically isolating refusal to grant either himself or his audience the moral authority—or, rather, supremacy—to definitively interpret the issues he raises. The countercultural solidarity and western iconography which Easy Rider so cannily played upon is thoroughly absent from The Last Movie. Instead, Hopper quixotically tries to create his own form, a new idiom which expunges the deceptions of the past by immolating them within its own self: “I hope that when this game is over, morality can be born again,” says the worried village priest (Tomas Milian) to Kansas as the joyful villagers run riot with their movie-schooled cruelty.

This desire for transcendence of the corrupted film form, for a rebirth of values in a new cinema, echoes in the work of Hopper’s chief influences of the time, Jodorowsky and Godard, and their responses provide an insight into that of their American disciple. Where Jodorowsky took the path of the brazenly self-involved, cribbing from the sum of Western and Eastern symbolism to construct an ever more grandiose, narcissistic personal mythology, Godard, following the famous fin de cinema title card of Weekend, plunged into his dogmatic Marxist period, which birthed such insufferable (if fitfully interesting) classroom lectures as Wind from the East. Whatever the relative accomplishment of their projects, both of these approaches—the enshrinement of ego and its erasure—are based upon a renunciation. For Jodorowsky and Godard, the rebirth of cinema becomes reliant upon the extra-cinematic, the language of their respective mysticisms determining the structure of their art and dictating the responses of their loyalist audiences. Shucking the tidy modernist confines of his original scenario, Hopper, far more vague and conflicted about his project, instead relies upon his one constant: his art, and his determination to defuse the lies to which he as artist is susceptible. Eschewing Jodorowsky’s messianism and Godard’s didacticism, The Last Movie retains faith in its intrinsically cinematic being—the images and their rhythms, the texture of sound and music (including lovely songs by Kris Kristofferson and John Buck Wilkin), the unstudied naturalness of atmosphere and performance—feverishly re-jiggered to renew the strength of aesthetic comment upon an incriminating reality which so often makes the aesthetic its accomplice. The damning irony of The Last Movie, of course, is that it must destroy itself to hold true to itself. Its symbolic center—the overlapping of real and movie violence in the death of Kansas—must be negated, must reveal its own part in the endless sequence of fakery. And so Hopper, in beautiful slow motion, runs down the village street, falls, dies—gets up, dusts himself off, and does another take.

It’s to Hopper’s credit that this doesn’t feel like tinkering in a meta-cinematic workshop, but as something honest, urgent, needed. It seems a long way from Goodman’s exhortation to ordinary reason while wading through Hopper’s cinematic convolutions, but The Last Movie is relevant precisely because it marks a coming to terms with the origin point of reasoning: the self, and the honest perception of the self. The Last Movie’s political critique is undercut by its formal assault upon itself, its dissecting of the pervasive cultural violence which makes its criticisms superficial and jejune, the maddening difficulty of voicing dissent in an environment which reaves dissent from its derivation in ordinary reason and its expression in works of art. This may seem self-defeating, yet the film never feels pessimistic. In Hopper’s jumbled morass there is a warm light of clarity, an awareness of the cinema’s limits as political weapon and, most importantly, of its strengths. The Last Movie combats myth by relentlessly unveiling its own co-option by myth, its own status as myth-product in the cycle of consumption. And it does so with the unique methods at its disposal: the distinctive properties of cinema, and their emanation from that stubborn aesthetic core latent in every art which resists the encroachments and imprecations of power. The continuation, the persistence of that core becomes the answer to routinization, the crystalline epiphanies of art that retort to the myths of power. The tools of one’s craft as the key to perception, the personal as the conduit to the mass. The last movie, and the next.