Color, 1971, 108 mins. 35 secs.
Directed by Dennis Hopper
Starring Dennis Hopper, Stella Garcia, Don Gordon, Tomas Milian, Daniel Ades, Julie Adams, Samuel Fuller, Sylvia Miles, Dean Stockwell, Peter Fonda, Henry Jaglom, Michelle Phillips, Russ Tamblyn
Arbelos (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC)
Hot off the success of 1969's Easy Rider, actor-turned-director Dennis Hopper had completely rattled the Hollywood studio system and was given carte blanche to do any project of his choice courtesy of Universal Pictures, who was doling out $1 million budgets to young filmmakers at the time (also resulting in The Hired Hand and Two-Lane Blacktop). The end result, The Last Movie, found Hopper heading to Chinchero, Peru, where he mounted a free-form production inspired by his own experiences as an actor in The Sons of Katie Elder during which the Mexican populace mimicked the filmmaking process. The year-long process of editing the film drew the ire of the studio and, despite a prize-winning reception at the Venice Film Festival, led to the title being essentially shelved upon its completion. Hopper's career suffered a major, decade-long blow in the process, and the experience of shooting and editing the film would turn into a documentary, The American Dreamer, that would become much easier to see for decades.
A straightforward synopsis of this film isn't too helpful, but the events revolve around a Hollywood stunt man, Kansas (Hopper), working on a traditional western movie being shot in Peru. Detached from society and more than doleful about going back, he decides to stay for a while and ends up rubbing shoulders with a number of other expatriate Americans -- as well as the local population, who have decided to embark on enacting their own "film" (with sticks arranged into a "camera") in an imitation of the visitors, albeit with Kansas now playing a very different role. An ongoing search for gold, a romance with a prostitute, and hazy abstract conversations also figure in the free-associative snapshot of the contrast between film and reality.
Wildly fragmented and improvised, this film was a longtime passion project of Hopper's and underwent several passes in the editing room. An obvious influence was Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose El Topo had become a massive midnight movie trailblazer the prior year; in fact, Jodorowsky paid a visit and, depending on who's telling the story, either made his own unused cut of the film with Hopper's blessing or told Hopper to toss out his first linear cut in favor of something more avant garde. The final product definitely isn't easy going for the casual viewer, but as a snapshot of the world of American cinema in a period of deep turmoil, it's deeply affecting with the devastating events at the end of the '60s hanging heavily over the proceedings. The cast assembled here is a staggering one with a slew of directors, Hopper's acting friends, and assorted international stars all gathered in one place, though only Tomas Milian, Don Gordon, and Julie Adams get to make any significant impression given the collage editorial approach. That said, it's almost worth the price of admission for the brief role for Samuel Fuller, whose cigar-chomping gusto seems tailor made for this film. You could even say Hopper anticipated the similar tactics of Terrence Malick, bringing in far more big names than necessary and later sculpting most of them away in the editing room. It's no surprise that Universal barely allowed the film to grace U.S. movie screens (including a shorter cut entitled Chinchero, Hopper's original title), but the film has acquired a powerful mystique over the years thanks to the growing appreciation for Hopper's work and the sheer unavailability of the film itself for public viewing apart from a very murky '80s VHS release from United American Video.
Against the odds, The Last Movie came back into circulation from Arbelos in 2018 courtesy of a theatrical run and separate Blu-ray and DVD editions, the same miracle year that also saw the completion and release of Orson Welles' thematically simpatico The Other Side of the Wind (which started shooting in 1970). The new 4K scan of the original camera negative makes for a very rich and rewarding viewing experience, with the many dark scenes in particular faring very well with frequent earth tones punctuated with bright bursts of gold and orange. It's a really immaculate presentation from start to finish, and the DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English subtitles) is also in fine shape, especially concerning the eclectic soundtrack including contributions by Kris Kristofferson.
Extras include a 2007 video intro by Hopper (1m14s) citing the influence of Godard (his famous quote about every movie having a beginning, a middle, and an end, not necessarily in that order), the 1971 theatrical trailer, the 2018 reissue trailer, a weirdly jaunty 1971 product reel (1m1s), a restoration demo (2m59s), and Hopper's 1971 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show (6m36s) chatting about coming back from Peru with 40 hours of film to pare down. More substantially, the very enjoyable "Scene Missing" (47m17s) by Alex Cox takes an enthusiastic look at the film's creation and reception via interviews with producer Paul Lewis, screenwriter Stewart Stern, Milian, Henry Jaglom, set builder Philip Thomas, hilariously candid "former henchwoman" Tod Davies, and others. They mostly chat about the making of the film, with Stern's anecdote about a snorkel and Hopper's pot smoking being the highlight along with a great dissection of what may be the film's greatest shot and Milian's tearful recollection of a turning point in the portrayal of his character. Hopper himself gets profiled in Paul Joyce's "Some Kind of Genius" (29m14s), an interview about his creative process from the two performances that defined his acting (courtesy of Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando) through his early days opposite James Dean to his watershed collaboration with Peter Fonda and even a glance at his switch to political conservatism. Finally, "Postcard from Peru" (31m9s) features the reverse perspectives of the Peruvian locals who were around for the production (including the mayor at the time), chatting about the construction of western sets in the area and the influx of artists and technicians as well as their perceptions of Milian's priest character (especially his kissing). An extensive insert booklet features new liner notes by Jessica Hundley and reminiscences by Adams, film programmer Mike Plante, and L.M. Kit Carson.
Reviewed on October 31, 2018.