The Last Movie (1971)
Written by Dennis Hopper and Stewart Stern
Directed by Dennis Hopper
When I was growing up, Dennis Hopper was King Koopa from Super Mario Bros or the eyepatch-wearing villain from Waterworld. I knew about his role in the 1970s American film scene extremely tangentially and without really realizing it. I think of Eek the Cat’s Apocalypse Now parody (Eekpocalypse Now), where Mittens recreated Hopper’s manic photog. It can’t be glossed over that Dennis Hopper was a Republican at his death, a political view that seemed to clash with the persona audiences came to know. At the time of Easy Rider’s release in 1969, in Hopper’s own words, he was “probably as Left as you could get without being a Communist.” However, by the 1980s, the actor became a Republican and claimed to have strong support for Ronald Reagan and the ensuing Bush regime. In 2008, Hopper openly endorsed Barack Obama’s run for president on the Democratic ticket in yet another seemingly contradictory moment. He would cite the inclusion of Sarah Palin as VP for John McCain as his chief reason for switching. In 2010, Hopper passed away, leaving his body of film work and a lot of confusion over who this man really was.
To understand Hopper, we have to view him as an American reactionary, just a different flavor than your Clint Eastwood types. Hopper is fueled by legitimate anger and frustration around the hippy movement in the United States. The dreams of peace and love were built on white male-centered hedonism. Many organizations were devoted to social justice throughout the 1960s, but they were overshadowed by the drop-out movement. I think there’s some substance to arguments that this specific angle was promoted by the media and the government as a way to extinguish the groups making significant change. The intelligence and policing community in the United States has never been a stranger to psyops. Hopper wasn’t a profound intellectual, and most of his creative moves were purely a reaction to his surroundings, leading to movies with a straightforward thing to say but an inability to coherently tie them to material conditions.
The Last Movie focuses on Kansas (Hopper), a movie stuntman and horse wrangler that has settled in Peru. This happened after he traveled down there to work on a Hollywood western where the facade of a town was built and comes to be populated by the locals after the film crew leaves. During the filming, an actor is killed on the set, and this causes Kansas to leave the profession. He settles down in Peru with a native woman he’s met and tries to make a life for himself. The priest of a nearby town comes to Kansas for help. Unfortunately, the natives have constructed a strange cargo cult around filmmaking. They cannot see the difference between real life and what they saw filmed, so they mimic the production. Wooden cameras and lights are constructed, but live ammo is used in shoot-out scenes. As much as Kansas tries to explain the fiction of the movies he worked on, these people won’t listen; they have gone all-in on this twisted version of reality.
Hopper was struck with the idea of this movie after filming The Sons of Katie Elder in Mexico. He began thinking about what would happen to this fake town they constructed after the film crew left. The fronts were attached to indigenous adobe homes, causing the exterior of the people’s village to have been transformed into something alien in this land. This pre-dated Easy Rider and was something Hopper sought out funding for over many years. Unfortunately, studios weren’t interested because the film was so unconventional with a non-linear structure and subject matter they said was too meta-textual. Ultimately, Easy Rider’s financial success opened more doors for Hopper and allowed him to make The Last Movie.
Kansas is a character living with extreme trauma from his time in the film industry. He stressed his body and the horses in his care to achieve the results his demanding directors wanted. There’s a moment in the film where the camera follows Kansas walking through his house while a party goes on. He’s chatting it up with the guests, working his way through room after room, the film’s soundtrack reflecting the music that fits each group of people. Eventually, Kansas finds himself in the darkness of his yard, the house’s lights weakening this far. Finally, alone, the man breaks down in tears, deep heavy sobs expressing that trauma. Someone calls to him from the house, and he sniffles one last time, clearing his throat and returning to the party. That scene felt like the emotional core of Kansas’s arc, his psychological collapse.
That leads to questions about the validity of what we see transpire. It could easily be interpreted that the chaos that unfolds between Kansas and the Peruvian natives isn’t really happening. These are manifestations in his mind linked to guilt in his role working on the film. This is supported by the style Hopper employs in his editing and cinematography. Moments are fragmented, past and present interweaving. We watch Kansas recreate scenes as if he is in a movie, getting shot and dying multiple times. At one point, we shift outside the film. We watch a director yell cut, and a dead man stands up while crew members talk and laugh. There’s even a moment where the screen goes black and silent, and a title card reads [Scene Missing]. Kansas believes he can come to this place, become a lover to one of the local women, buy a house, and have his hands washed clean of the harm he’s done physically and spiritually to these people.
I can’t pretend to know precisely what happened in Hopper’s mind to send him seemingly pinballing between ideologies. I can only chalk it up to a sort of inborn American incoherent reactionary thinking, the popular non-logic we see so often of people recognizing there is a problem but incapable of articulating the roots of it. I think Hopper was an American patriot because he loved the country. In a 1972 interview, he stated, “I look at America today, and I really wonder how much longer a society like ours can exist. How much longer can we have wars, how much longer can we keep raising our national debt and shaking our missiles before it all falls apart? What’s wrong with the country is that we’ve forgotten how we started, which was to have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people – and that the people then have to approve and support that government.” While I would never consider myself a patriot, I do not love America; I share many of Hopper’s sentiments here, particularly wondering how much longer this chaos can continue. The collapse we are experiencing didn’t start in 2020; it’s been ambient in the culture for decades. How much longer will people endure it?