Monday, July 12, 2010


Before Dennis Hopper's appearance in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now, Chef, the patrol boat crew member played by Frederick Forrest, receives a letter from the US with a newspaper clipping about Charles Manson. It's a great example of movie foreshadowing because when the crew finally arrive at Colonel Kurtz's Cambodian compound, Hopper's character of The Photojournalist, in a barbed symbolic sense, embodies some of the qualities of Manson, both in appearance and in rambling discourse. As the film's sole representative of the hippie movement back home that opposes the war, The Photojournalist evokes some of the walking libertarian/fascist contradiction of the acid guru mass murderer from Ohio (the home state of Captain Willard, the film's assassin protagonist played by Martin Sheen). However much he rails in disgust over the US administration's blatant lies in justifying its pursuit of the war (as seen in one of the deleted scenes available in the limited three disc special edition DVD), there's no doubting how much Hopper's character admires the "poet-warrior" renegade Kurtz's single-minded and ruthless approach to achieving the same end ("He can be terrible. He can be mean. And he can be right... There's only love and hate. You either love someone or you hate them").

Then Marlon Brando's Kurtz throws a book at him in a moment of pique and he scuttles off in a childish huff as though removing himself from a party scene turned bummer trip ("And with a whimper, I'm splittin', Jack"). Hopper's appearance as court jester brings an apposite absurdism to the film's journey towards the psychopathic godlike figure of Kurtz as national Id run riot.

The laser beam glare of Hopper's pale blue eyes often seemed to be oscillating between poles of feverish fanaticism and a capricious moral vacuity, nowhere more so than in the role of The Photojournalist. Peter Fonda apparently described Hopper as a "little fascist freak" during the making of Easy Rider. In both his fictional and real-life personas, Hopper represents all the nervous energy, the social/cultural dissatisfaction and the quest for freedom and self-determination that fuelled the sixties counterculture, but also all the contradictory, self-destructive elements that doomed the hippie movement's half-formed utopian desires to failure. It's good intentions had great outcomes like ending a needless and wastefully destructive war, as well as advancing the causes of various civil rights agendas; it's libidinal outpouring spiralled into a druggy, occult twilight and the sociopathic nightmares of the Manson Family and Altamont. It wasn't Hopper's role as actor/character creator to resolve these contradictions, but to embody them. Likewise, Coppola's role in making the film, contrary to popular opinion, was not to create an anti-war statement, rather a meditation on power as a universal condition; a cinematic embodiment of a dialectical conflict between freedom and power within a collective unconscious, precipitating the American war's prosecution and producing the seeds for the eventual withdrawal.

It is typical of Hopper's bravery that he often chose characters that were not immediately appealing or outright unappealing and made them his own; he made them, if not always sympathetic, then definitely compelling and believable. His style was a refinement and sublimation of Method technique that was comparable to Brando at his best and certainly represented an advancement on his personal hero James Dean. The character of Billy in Easy Rider is probably one of the least likeable in that film, but Hopper's performance is never less than engaging. Whereas Captain America (Peter Fonda) clings to a kind of cannabis-clouded idealism, Billy has no real objectives following the pair's drug deal other than the pursuit of a shallow hedonism: you sense that of the two characters, Hopper's has that mindset closest to the delusional short termism of the true criminal. The actor further penetrated and also poignantly humanised the criminal psyche for his performance in the titular role in Philippe Mora's Mad Dog Morgan (1976), one of the great films from Australia's cinematic revival of the 1970s. On recent viewing, this period movie about the famous Irish outlaw and Australian folk legend is still an impressive achievement, juxtaposing stark depictions of human brutality with extraordinary visual lyricism - an aesthetic unrivalled in Australian cinema until the arrival of John Hillcoat's The Proposition (2005) and Jonathan auf der Heide's Van Diemen's Land (2009).

You wonder how much of his own personal demons Hopper exorcised through the character of Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. Did directors choose him for these kinds of roles because of his reputation as hell raiser and drug-fuelled trainwreck and therefore the best man for the part? Did Hopper seek them out because he saw aspects of himself reflected in screenplays that represented not only paying gigs but opportunities for psychic purgation? Then again, it would be disrespectful to the departed to indulge too much in psychological speculation - certainly, the calm, measured, likable persona in later interviews suggested someone who had found some degree of peace with himself and the outside world.

In addition to his acting talent, there's no doubting the scale of Hopper's contribution as filmmaker to American culture. Easy Rider, of course, was the film that helped kickstart the New Hollywood, America's great cinematic renaissance whose apotheosis was Apocalypse Now, the film that, appropriately enough, marked his return from the wilderness. Then there's The Last Movie, the 1971 epic, still sadly unavailable on DVD, whose commercial failure precipitated his banishment to that wilderness, but whose reputation continues to be elevated over the years into a cult sphere inhabitated only by the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Samuel Fuller.

Hopper died aged 74 on Saturday, May 29, 2010 - by any standard, a unique talent who will be sorely missed.