If you’re looking for something to do this weekend, Silicon Valley Cinema Club has assembled the most significant film event in Silicon Valley in at least a decade: a screening of the most highly sought-after lost film in Hollywood history, packaged with a documentary about said lost film and a panel discussion about both the lost film and the documentary, with participants that include the director of the documentary, a film critic and a filmmaker discussing the increasing influence of the lost film.
Got it straight?
This is a drop-everything event. Cinema Club’s Dark Money screening and panel discussion sold out and racked up a waitlist of over 100. So if you want to skip this idiosyncratic history lesson and get tickets now, scroll to the bottom of the page.
I’m here to reassess Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, but I’ll need a little room to set the stage. Meanwhile, if you need a primer, the past week has seen the Village Voice and IndieWIRE doting on this film’s long-delayed revival.
My lens is a bit different from theirs. Metro film critic Richard von Busack and I have been trading barbs for more than a week now, provoking each other to double down on our respective views of the film’s meaning(s) and legacy. I can’t wait to read what he publishes on it tomorrow.
Before I suggest that 2018 is a good time to celebrate Dennis Hopper, another straight white man who was celebrated plenty in his own time, I should probably start with a little Ted Talk on the finer shadings of wokeness.
(“Dude, that’s a slippery hill to die on.”)
Let’s start with Big Woke, which is kind of like Big Pharma.
Cue backlash and backlash to the backlash, and think pieces about how hard it is to talk about anything at all nowadays. As Tina Fey said in her chat with David Letterman,“The level of outrage is so high. It feels like talking to anyone, anywhere in 2018 is just landmine hopscotch.”
But maybe there’s micro-wokeness, too. A microbrewery for cultural sensitivity. Artisanal, hand-crafted sensitivity. There are fewer think pieces in this realm, fewer sweeping condemnations and fewer apocalyptic pronouncements.
Here’s a great example of micro-wokeness: What if your demand for collective silence during a moviegoing experience is a reflex of white privilege? (And my experience tells me that it most definitely is.)
Micro-wokeness doesn’t insist on itself. It doesn’t rely on the arsenal of sustained outrage. Micro-wokeness has a probing, food-for-thought attitude that tends not to careen into grating self-righteousness. With its subdued tones, micro-wokeness gives you room to call yourself a privileged racist twat. If you’re woke-prone, you gladly accept that challenge.
It’s worth noting that white artists and content creators have expressed anxiety over their positions of privilege in decades during which they were not particularly compelled to self-examine. Criminy, try the 1989 horror flick Society some time—it’s Get Out-adjacent in delightfully nauseating ways.
I realize that what I’m talking about doesn’t suit the current zeitgeist or the woke brand, but I’m establishing a framework to put handles on The Last Movie, handles that were in fact removed by some distinguished reviews upon the film’s initial release in 1971.
So let’s zoom out. Way out. Forty-five years ago.
We were post-Civil Rights, hippies were anarchically everywhere, Vietnam dominating the news. We were in the midst of a cultural revolution so it makes sense that our thoughts would be turned inward, toward ourselves.
Given unprecedented freedom to do anything he wanted after the success of Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper went 14,000 feet up the Andes to make a movie that marginally involved impecunious Peruvians. And their “arc” in the film remains the most disturbing aspect for me, as well as the most rewarding. During my lone viewing years ago, this aspect of the film acted as the county seat for its various murky themes.
Let me distill it to a crude tagline: What if American movies are messing up the rest of the world? And screwing it over?
The film contains a camera-stealing-your-soul-meets-teaching-a-man-to-fish motif capped with a very literal cinema-as-worship/movies-as-church moment that is absolutely horrifying and turned me to intellectual jelly. I was probably in that sustained welling-up-of-tears state that some film nerds save for curling up with pre-2010 Terrence Malick films.
But dalliances with “the natives” must have been the most heinous intellectual crime or political betrayal represented by The Last Movie—that it dared to broach any concerns about the Third World that did not easily function as a metaphor for Vietnam. (In a way, the film functions as a metaphor for our various interventions in Iraq and environs, but I’ll let that be someone else’s lens.)
Thus, in my estimation The Last Movie was ahead of its time. It chose to be woke in ways that did not directly involve Civil Rights or Vietnam. And there was no cultural conversation at the time to provide a landing strip for that kind of wokeness.
Now don’t get me wrong: this film’s unhappy mishegoss is not primarily “about” a marginalized community of people. Nor does it take pains to give them a voice. They are heavily modified objects of contemplation. But let’s be fair, these rustic Peruvians are given a more agency and theme-delivering spunk than Herzog gave the brown folks in Fitzcarraldo. Through Hopper’s camera (and a camera they make for themselves—you have to see it to believe it), they implore us to consider the ramifications of our cultural hegemony and psychic colonialism.
Esteemed film critic Pauline Kael seemed alarmed to think that Hollywood’s expensive pretending could be implicated in any violence or wrongdoing in the world (Movies? she asked in incredulous italics). And this is another slippery hill to die on, but sure, it’s possible that someone learned how to do something violent—or was inspired to do it—by watching a movie. In fact there are loosely biographical movies about that very thing (we showed one of them at Cinema Club earlier this year).
So what do you do if you discover that your industry, your life’s work, is spreading a kind of toxin throughout the world? More specifically, what if a white American man in 1970 wanted to take a mass media platform and say, look, the very platform I’m using is corrupt and injurious to people of color?
I guess you make The Last Movie.
And that’s woke, bitches.
The Last Movie is a misunderstood film that is misunderstood in wildly different ways by each person who’s been able to see it in the past 45 years, and the lack of opportunity to revisit it has meant that its misunderstoodities only became more entrenched over the years. That alone is a special distinction. And now that it’s emerging from the shadows to make itself available for scrutiny, I’m more than a bit disappointed.
I’ll miss talking to other film nerds about it as if we were describing a goddamn chupacabra. Here ends our bizarre sociological experiment, our decades-long game of telephone. There’s a part of me that wants to own my distorted memory more than a magnificently restored print on Blu-ray. And yet I’m unspeakably proud to be involved in bringing this film to San Jose after 45-year wait, putting these meticulously restored images on the big screen. For at least a portion of the audience—and they have reached out to me to express this—our event will be an intense emotional experience, a passing-through-the-pearly-gates moment.
Oh how we’ve waited.
Along for the Ride, the documentary we’re screening along with The Last Movie on Saturday, follows Hopper’s longtime aide-de-camp Satya de la Manitou as he reveals minutiae about the artistic process behind The Last Movie and interviews Hopper’s creative team and industry insiders about the actor-director’s waning years. The hour-long panel after the documentary screening will feature Along for the Ride director Nick Ebeling, film critic Fernando Croce and Cinema Club emcees Alejandro Adams and Sara Vizcarrondo in a discussion of The Last Movie and Dennis Hopper’s legacy. It all begins at 5pm Saturday at 3 Below Theaters. Click here for ticket sales and pricing.
Alejandro Adams is a Silicon Valley-based filmmaker who has earned accolades in Variety, Village Voice and the New York Times. He teaches film at various the Bay Area institutions and curates the Cinema Club screening series. Learn more at alejandroadams.com. Opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].