Color, 1971, 81m.
Directed by Lawrence Schiller & L.M. Kit Carson
Starring Dennis Hopper Etiquette Pictures (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC)
The fallout at major studios after the release of the 1969 counterculture blockbuster Easy Rider has now become legendary, and it's both logical and baffling that one of the big players, Universal, would want to offer a carte blanche project to that film's director and co-star, Dennis Hopper, who had been toiled as a character at TV actor in Hollywood for years. Handed a one million dollar budget, he mounted a production called The Last Movie, a very uncommercial but fascinating look at a film production in Peru that goes awry in more ways than one. The process of making Easy Rider involved whittling down endless hours of seemingly random footage, and this project would turn out to be the same case magnified tenfold as Hopper took over a year to deliver a finished cut, which was begrudgingly shown in a handful of theaters when Hopper stuck to his right of final cut.
The period in between the completion of shooting The Last Movie and its eventual completed editing forms the basis of The American Dreamer, a semi-staged "documentary" in which Hopper adopts personality traits of his two most recent screen roles while adding glimmers of himself. His notorious substance abuse is reflected here in a project so loaded with cigarette smoke, booze, peyote, and sweat that you can practically feel it seeping into your pores as you're watching, and the seemingly structure-free snapshot of the man at work and play (with lots of surreal monologues that would come to define Hopper's acting style for the next decade) now feels far more fascinating and historical than when it was first shown as a non-commercial release on college campuses.
Both this film and The Last Movie have been maddeningly difficult to see on home video, with the latter only earning a brief VHS release and The American Dreamer remaining unavailable on any legal home video format until the 2015 dual-format Blu-ray and DVD release from Etiquette Pictures, their second release. It's something of a miracle to see this out at last since it's only been viewable before in a handful of repertory screenings for the past few decades, and it's best to keep its history in mind when watching the 2K restoration that provides the source here. The film was shot in 16mm, with prints in that same format sent out for the non-commercial screenings in 1971. Unfortunately the negative no longer survives, and so a restoration was undertaken to restore the original color and as much clarity as possible to the four prints that still remain. The results here have a gritty but satisfying cinematic look, with lots of grain and deep blacks; in short, it looks exactly like an early '70s indie doc, and that's just fine. The DTS-HD MA mono English audio sounds fine as well, doing a good of handling the humorous, folksy soundtrack (which was even issued as a soundtrack LP).
The release also comes with some worthwhile extras, which those unfamiliar with the whole New Hollywood wave might find useful to watch before the main feature. The 30-minute "Fighting Against the Wind" is structured around Schiller's narrative of making the film, from his lack of experience as a filmmaker at the time through his experience with Hopper (whom he describes here as an actor playing a character) including discussion of the "staged" elements to be incorporated into the film, such as the bath orgy (at Hopper's insistence). Also on hand are producer Paul Lewis, executive producer Michael Gruskoff, and actress Julie Adams (Creature from the Black Lagoon), all of whom paint a complex portrait of a production (or two productions, basically) that were more thought out and professional than is often assumed. The 7-minute "A Long Way Home" again highlights Schiller discussing the process of the film's "release" (as a college campus screening title, which led to some legal issues), its later appending to screenings of The Last Movie per Hopper's wishes, and the loss of the negative without his knowledge in a fire. Also on hand are staff of the Walker Art Center, who discuss how the four surviving prints were all scanned and assembled here to create the best, most complete version possible. Finally a 3-minute slideshow spotlights photos from Schiller's collection taken during the shoot, and an extensive, incredibly well-researched essay by Chris Poggiali about this film and the college campus 16mm film circuit is contained in the insert booklet.