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April 8, 2016

Movie Review: The American Dreamer (1971)

Directed by Lawrence Schiller, L. M. Kit Carson

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Just before the disastrous premiere of Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie (1971), compatriots Lawrence Schiller and L. M. Kit Carson hung out at Dennis Hopper's hippie compound in Taos, New Mexico to document what the countercultural phenomenon – ever since his breakthrough feature Easy Rider (1969) that was then – Dennis Hopper. Those expecting a spokesman for a new generation were probably soundly disappointed. Like his contemporary William S. Burroughs, Hopper was an unabashed fan of the Second Amendment (“I think that, in our lifetime, a man without a gun is a fool.”). Even worse, his view on the fairer sex was strictly in line with Hugh Hefner's, if not belonging to the 18th Century's. Women were strictly a commodity to Hopper at that time and were intended to be exploited. A crisis arises after dicking around, sitting around talking about approaches to life and art, the filmmakers become acutely aware that the project at hand has no commercial potential and Hopper remedies this by recruiting some hippie bimbos from a nearby airport and fills the camera's lens with POOOOOO – SAAAAAAY. It all falls apart – as was Hopper's career following the debacle that was The Last Movie.

The American Dreamer only makes sense when set against the trajectory of Hopper's progression as a screen star. Cutting his teeth on low-budget exploitation movies with roles in Night Tide (1963) and Queen of Blood (1967), both directed by his friend Curtis Harrington, Hopper made it big with Easy Rider (1969), a rambling free-form road picture about two hippie bikers' cross-country trek across America. Easy Rider was a smash hit for near bankrupt Paramount Pictures, inspiring other filmmakers to cash in on this “hippie thing.” Giving one of the masterminds of this Cinematic Youthquake unlimited reign, Hopper would sort-of direct and sort-of complete The Last Movie, about an American film crew's negative influence on a Peruvian tribe. Starring Julie Adams from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1956), Adams pops up in the film to assure the viewers that Hopper's heart was in the right place.

Everyone knows what happens next – the hippies largely dissipated following the end of the Vietnam War and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon and Hopper was rendered largely obsolete. Just as John Travolta was relegated to the Disco era after Saturday Night Fever (1977), Hopper become something of a sour joke associated with a largely irrelevant part of American history. Hopper's career would enjoy a Renaissance with his chilling performance as the manifestation of small-town evil Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) and would be nominated for best Supporting Actor for Hoosiers the same year. Alas, as is the case with many film stars, Hopper would take substandard roles in bad films in order to pay the rent such as Super Mario Bros. (2003) in order to pay the rent prior to his death from cancer in May of 2010.

The American Dreamer does have historical value – and is rarely dull – but only as a connecting piece of larger part of an artist's life and times.  The all-region Blu-Ray and DVD from Etiquette Pictures has extras aplenty. A 30-minute documentary on the making of the film, “Fighting Against the Wind,” gathers the surviving crew members for some hazy recollections. It is here that co-director Schiller further obfuscates the waters by insisting that The American Dreamer is not about Dennis Hopper, but about an actor playing the Dennis Hopper character. Whatever!

There is also a seven-minute featurette “A Long Way Home,” and an extensive photo gallery. The real treat to this package – especially to those of us into the “Xerox Ferox” subculture, is a booklet written by Chris Poggiali of “Temple of Schlock” fame about the forgotten history of college campus film distribution. Until the advent of home video and DVD, rare college campus screenings of avant-garde films were the only way for many Americans to watch offbeat film fare. Beginning in the late Sixties and petering out in the Eighties, the essay and plentiful photos quotes generously from “Shock Cinema's” Steve Puchalski, a mover and shaker in alternative film distribution. The American Dreamer was a film intended for college campuses, it appears, but again relied on that POOOOOO – SAAAAAAY to draw audiences. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing is just the icing on the cake for this relic. 

An afterthought: One scene in The American Dreamer crystallizes what the film, at heart, is really all about: Hooper, in a pique of hippie rebellion removes all his clothes walking down a sunny suburban street before making a getaway in a car. All hail the Emperor ....

1 comment:

  1. Fitting review! Waited decades to finally see this thing (I think of Last Movie as a fascinating fuck up) then...couldn't get thru half the stoned babble on display here. Still love Hoppy tho, shame...