Plenty of films are touched with madness: "Vertigo," "Showgirls," anything by Werner Herzog. Some are totally bonkers: "Pink Flamingos," "Lady in the Water," anything by Vincent Gallo. Then there's the elite pantheon of the brilliantly deranged, the truly inspired crazies: "Mr. Arkadin," perhaps, and "Pootie Tang."
And beyond them all, in a category all its own, stoned into oblivion and howling at the moon, there is the bad vibe apocalypse of Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie." Rarely screened since it was yanked from theaters in 1971, this notorious head-scratcher returns in a fresh print for a week-long run at Anthology Film Archives. It looks great, though exactly what you're looking at (avant-garde Western? postmodern allegory? Hollywood hissy fit? LSD overdose?) is decidedly murky.
Riding high on the fumes of his directorial debut, "Easy Rider," Mr. Hopper was set up by Universal Pictures with $850,000 and total creative control to make whatever kind of movie he wished. Hoping for another counter-culture smash, what they got instead was a meta-monstrosity, cinema demolished beyond all recognition, 108 of the strangest movie minutes ever bankrolled by a major studio.
With cash in hand and a brain under the influence, Mr. Hopper headed to a remote village in Peru, at that time the cocaine capital of the world according to Peter Biskind, who remembers in "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" how "every coke-head in L.A. wanted to work on the picture in order to smuggle drugs back up north."
Mr. Hopper stars as Kansas, a stuntman with a Christ complex on the set of a Western being directed by Samuel Fuller. When the lead actor is accidentally killed, the production heads home but Kansas stays behind in order to woo a local woman, flirt with a gold mining scheme, and serve as the dark star for an orbiting constellation of space cases (Peter Fonda, Kris Kristofferson, Russ Tamblyn).
While the Kansas/Hopper figure — there being no real distinction by this point — staggers about nursing an inscrutable stupor, the natives take over the abandoned movie project using cameras and lights fashioned out of wood. The movie concludes with a tour de force montage of total malfunction: jump cuts and slo-mo, fake deaths and phony resurrections, druggy banter and random folk music, melancholy non-sequiturs and meta-movie larks. More than one title card appears to announce, "scene missing."
Culled from 40 hours of footage, this mutant movie freak-out, the demented offspring of Jean-Luc Godard and Sam Peckinpah, was born to be weird. Mr. Hopper holed up in New Mexico for 16 months of editing, during which time he is reported to have hosted a gigantic orgy and screened an early version of his film for Alejandro Jodorowsky, who declared it too conventional.
Mr. Hopper retrenched and pulverized the material into a final, more radical cut. Universal was flabbergasted, the Venice Film Festival was impressed (it won a top prize), and on September 30, 1971, so many New Yorkers attended its opening day that a box office record was set at the RKO 59th Street Twin Theater.
The critics were appalled. Vincent Canby, in the New YorkTimes, declared it the work of a man "gifted with all of the insights of a weekend mystic who drives to and from his retreat in a Jaguar," and "every bit as indulgent, cruel, and thoughtless as the dream factory films it makes such ponderous fun of." Mr. Hopper had claimed inspiration from the Abstract Expressionists; Pauline Kael saw an artist who "slashed his own canvases." Manny Farber never weighed in, though his specification, three years prior, of "long stretches of aggressive, complicated nothingness" in the films of Mr. Godard (an obvious influence on Mr. Hopper) would have applied nicely.
Everyone's taken a deep breath since then, though we don't inhale as much as we used to. A more recent critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, has formulated the best diagnosis of the film's paradoxical appeal, observing how "the curious thing about this freewheeling allegory is that it is simultaneously about many things (the fakery of moviemaking, mutual exploitation, ugly Americans in the third world, Hopper as Jesus) and nothing at all."
"The Last Movie" used to be the obnoxious follow-up to "Easy Rider." Now it plays like the definitive annihilation of 1960s idealism as foretold by "Weekend" and "Gimmie Shelter." Three decades of postmodernism have gone far to normalize its style without taming its wild, druggy, vertiginous charge.