The Runts Of The New Hollywood

Last week the opportunity to attend a rare 35mm screening of Dennis Hopper’s infamous The Last Movie came up. Having, like many, only ever seen the film on VHS and bootleg DVD it was an opportunity jumped at.

While the film is largely derided by the majority, and considering in some quarters to be one of the great failures of our time, I would actually disagree. Ultimately I read The Last Movie to be one of the great dissections of the movies themselves, sitting neatly alongside the likes of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.

The Last Movie is a film about the grandeur and spectacle of the cinema (a staggered opening sequence is concerned with the excess of the movies, literally in the dialogue, while all the while the scene itself revels in the excesses of Hollywood – thousands of extras etc), while the closest thing that the film has to a plot, a strand revolving around a small church that’s congregation has been distracted by a production in town and the churches subsequent attempts to claw back an audience is a clear analogy for the post-1960’s Hollywood film industry. It’s a film that revels in the physical and metaphysical construction of the movies. Overtly staged sets are filled with shoot outs that blur the lines between perceived and projected reality by the time the final reel rolls, while Hopper’s Kansas accidentally rides out in front of studio lights, the light source of the silver screen melding with the natural sun of the South American desert. Cinema provides cultural reference points too, with John Huston’s Treasure Of The Sierra Madre providing one of the protagonists with a life plan, while Sam Fuller and Peter Fonda are amongst the familiar faces that make fleeting cameo appearances.

One of the pitfalls of watching a film outside of its intended context (the cinema/a professionally restored and encoded DVD transfer) is that it falters in the two most important areas – the audio and the visual. Until this screening of The Last Movie I was unaware of just how great the films soundtrack was. Granted, it was produced in the wake of the 1960’s where American popular music reached a heady height, so I’m not quite sure why this surprises me so much. Kansas makes Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee his own private anthem (a section of which can be seen on YouTube HERE – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqBchoBv-TY ). Ballad sweeps through a party, only to be drown out by seedy piano bashing strip music as he wanders the house. Bobby McGee acts almost like a very moving redemption song for Kansas. A pair of musical cues take from American songwriter John Buck Wilkin’s album ‘In Search Of Food, Clothing, Shelter and Sex’ also make an appearance, with one in particular (‘My God & I’) used to great effect to score a party sequence, with the track cut up and interrupted as the camera ducks in and out of rooms.

The quirky sensibility of the film is distilled in to one key area, in which the “primitive” man of the South American village that becomes enraptured by the cinema flagrantly refers to the cinema he claims to be producing as the product of “movement and light”. That the characters in question are “capturing” their filmic intentions via a wicker-built mimicry of a camera is almost beside the point, given that they understand the fundamentals of the medium so well (“movement and light”). Theres an overt sense of the old facing off against the new in the landscape of Hopper’s film. A pan from a sculptor chipping away at a statue moves to a modern Hollywood van, which in turn gives way to a funeral procession, marking the procession of time and the contrariness of the old and the new with apt precision. The chipping of the statue recalls the sprockets of a projector, as does the sound of road works and church-bells at times, again tying in to the appealing notion of “what is cinema?” if not the recorded image, but the presentation of the world around us.

The manner in which The Last Movie was not revisited but ignored in the wake of Hopper’s death speaks volumes about the studio still regard the film to this day. In an age of 10th, 15th and 32nd anniversary celebrations for even the lowliest of films, that Universal saw fit to keep this one buried and not exploit its riches ties in nicely with the independent spirit which ran parallel with Hopper the iconoclast.

In a nice little coincidence, this past weekend marked the birthday of Orson Welles, so with that in mind I took in a screening of another somewhat “forgotten” work of the New Hollywood, Henry Jaglom’s 1971 film, A Safe Place, (in which Welles makes an appearance). Jaglom also appeared in The Last Movie, so its place here in this article is doubly apt and only mildly tenuous. The film was Jaglom’s directorial debut, with his relationship with Welles outside of the film considered to be one of the latter’s great friendships towards the end of his life.

As with The Last Movie music makes a formidable appearance here in A Safe Place, in the shape of Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’, which underscores the opening credits of the film. I’ve long thought of ‘La Mer’ as an inherently cinematic piece of music, with the way in which the song steadily builds momentum in that unique way that only French chamber pop seemingly could (see – ‘Je changerais d’avis’) complimenting the notions of cinema ideally. A layering in the audio is a signifier for the greater experimental tone that overrides, with cross fades across time (and literally in to a great Welles performance, utilising the actors latter day talents as a magician to effect) complimenting the general aura of the piece. Jaglom throws a bunch of ideas at the screen in the hope that they’ll pan out eventually (and to varying degrees of success). This experimental structure ought not come as a surprise, given that A Safe Place is clearly a work produced in the wake of, and for audiences familiar with the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni and the rest of the European waves that had infiltrated the cinémathèques of American by that point.

A Safe Place makes for an interesting counterpoint to the overriding deconstruction of the movies brought to the table by The Last Movie, in that the characters on screen literally reject the cinema in return for their own imaginations. And while the two might be at odds in terms of what it is they’re actually saying about the cinema, they are bonded together as examples of films from this period that have been very much overlooked. While both films have severe problems in places (although it has to be said, none of them outlined in this article), The Last Movie and A Safe Place remain notable-curios of the highest order. 

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