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Monday, September 28, 2015

THE AMERICAN DREAMER -- Blu-ray/DVD Review by Porfle

Fat-cat studio executives in 1969 didn't understand EASY RIDER's overwhelming success, and I'm not altogether sure its director and star Dennis Hopper did, either.  At the time, he probably thought he was just making an above-average drive-in flick with colorful pretentions of relevance.
But they figured he must know something they didn't, so they handed him a much bigger budget and let him run wild with it.  Which he did by taking all his friends to Peru, having a blast on the studio's tab (including, according to legend, enough cocaine to choke a snow plow), and coming up with a resounding box office bomb called THE LAST MOVIE. 

It was during this period of self-indulgence, unbridled creativity, and uncertainty over what direction to follow as a person and a filmmaker that Dennis Hopper undertook yet another film with a troubled protagonist...Dennis Hopper.  The result was a mock documentary called THE AMERICAN DREAMER (1971).

When you make a documentary about yourself, or collaborate as Dennis Hopper did with photojournalist Lawrence Schiller and filmmaker L.M. Kit Carson, it becomes more of a visual journal, a calculated self-portrait which Hopper paints in broad, flamboyant, and sometimes tellingly unguarded strokes.

Is it self-indulgent?  Sure, very much so.  Hopper's acting the role of himself as tortured artist, philosopher, caring social ponderer, and sad, contemplative loner who must create in order to survive.  And the camera isn't just catching him in the act of living, but as he directs himself the way he would direct any other star according to a preconceived image. 

(Interestingly, the matter of how a documentary camera alters or inhibits its subjects does come up, during which Dennis gets so worked up about it that he sounds just like his character in APOCALYPSE NOW.)

I think he fancies himself partly as a kind of rebel hero, a voice of his generation.  Maybe even a role model for dropouts.    

But he's also sort of a phony because he still overindulges in "broads" and self-medication (of various sorts) like any other decadent Hollywood star, holding court with several gullible girls during a naked "encounter" session. 

And he doesn't seem to mind showing us this side of himself any more than he minds showing Schiller and Carson his bare backside when they appear to ambush him in the bath during the film's opening minutes, or stripping off while strolling down the street in a residential neighborhood.

Hopper is credited as a writer on the film, and I'd be surprised if he didn't at least have a hand in the editing.  This is apparent in things such as the cockeyed symbolism of him shooting off guns on his ranch in New Mexico (funny that in those days a counterculture hero could also be what is now referred to as a "gun nut"), intercut with flashes of a large crucifix that stands nearby, or the many other EASY RIDER-like moments in which various images are combined to create little visual whirlpools and eddies of vague profundity. 

This goes hand-in-hand with Hopper's many verbal ramblings, almost invariably enhanced by weed and alcohol.  He often sounds not unlike his EASY RIDER counterpart Billy who waxed pseudo-philosophical around the campfire ("I'm a mystical, spiritual person").

Here, he roams the desert or kicks back at home surrounded by friends and hangers-on, grooving on stoner revelations like how he's really a lesbian in spirit, quoting Charles Manson's "I'm just a reflection of you" nonsense, expounding on human evolution, or fantasizing about different varieties of group sex.  (The odd moments of actual sincerity stand out like little diamonds in the rough.)

If this is truly an accurate portrait of 1970-era Dennis Hopper, then all of these rather shallow musings are a valid part of it.  It's simply fun, if you're a fan, to spend time with him at this point in his life and listen to him talk, even when a lot of it is B.S. ("I don't believe in reading").

It's also interesting to see the nervous, uncomfortable Dennis emerge while dealing with a studio suit, compulsively stroking his shaggy beard while being prodded about his progress on putting THE LAST MOVIE together or at least coming across with some promo materials, to which his artistic side responds with thinly-veiled begrudgement. 

We know how healthy his ego is, at least as far as film is concerned, when he starts comparing himself to Orson Welles and drawing parallels between EASY RIDER/THE LAST MOVIE and CITIZEN KANE/THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS even as he struggles to piece together a viewable cut of his work in progress.

Knowing how the unfinished project was doomed to critical and financial failure as well as eventual obscurity adds a certain poignance to the young filmmaker's dreams of being an American film auteur.  Perhaps it's here more than ever that he embodies the film's title.

The 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD set from Etiquette Pictures is in full screen with mono sound. The film has been restored as well as can be considering its rough-hewn 16mm origins.  Subtitles are in English.  Extras include two nicely-produced featurettes, "Fighting Against the Wind: Making 'The American Dreamer'" and "'A Long Way Home': Preserving the American Dreamer", along with a gallery of photos by Schiller.  Also included is a booklet and essay by film historian and Temple of Schlock blogger Chris Poggiali.  The keepcase features a reversible cover.

"I hate to reveal things about myself" Hopper ironically asserts at one point, to which an off-camera voice asks, "Why are you making this movie, then?"  I can't make out his laughing response, but it might as well be "Ego."  THE AMERICAN DREAMER, above all, is an amusing, compelling, enlightening study of Dennis Hopper's healthy young ego, and I don't mean that disparagingly.  If it were me in those circumstances--wunderkind filmmaker makes good, lets it go to his head--I'd probably be exactly the same way.

Buy it at
Stills used are not taken from Blu-ray/DVD


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