1960s, Auteurs, Drama, Experimental

Easy Rider (1969)

.

Director: Dennis Hopper
Screenwriters: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern

By Roderick Heath

A few years ago, I went to a revival screening of Easy Rider in a town that’s something of a magnet for alt-culture people. I sat encamped literally and figuratively between two other generations, with some aging former hippies a row behind me, reminiscing with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment, and a troupe of young people – late teens, early twenties – settled a few rows down, who had clearly not seen the film before and were there to bone up in their bohemian catechisms. The film’s infamous climax still had its effect: several members of the young troupe were left blubbering and clinging to each-other. Not bad for a movie often written off with that dread phrase, “time capsule.” What’s most fascinating about Easy Rider is that it continues to evolve: every time I’ve watched it it’s felt like a different movie. With my most recent viewing it felt not just still vital but disquieting, even shocking, in how relevant it felt. In its cumulatively devastating wrestle not just with general and pervasive worries of the modern world, but with specifically American symptoms of that worry, particularly gun violence. And a more elusive, existential dagnosis, a background hum of anxiety that’s only grown louder in the last few years. The loss of the pioneer spirit, so long celebrated in the culture, now like a narcotic addiction deadly to kick, the sense of the USA as a place on the move breaking down and squelching through the mud of Vietnam. Call it Hopper’s How The West Was Lost.

Easy Rider owed much of its genesis to beloved low-budget impresario Roger Corman, who had, as the exploitation film market evolved in the 1960s and the youth audience’s tastes grew more rowdier along with the ‘60s zeitgeist, set out to please them with films about various precincts of the culture like the biker movie The Wild Angels (1966) and the LSD experimentation flick The Trip (1967). Both of those films starred Peter Fonda, son of Hollywood legend Henry and brother of fellow rising star Jane. The Trip also sported a small supporting performance from Dennis Hopper, and was written by Corman’s star discovery and acting protégé Jack Nicholson. American International Pictures, the low-rent but high-energy exploitation film studio Corman had helped make into a force, also made “hippiesploitation” films like Richard Rush’s Psych-Out (1967). Those films were interesting and popular with the kinds of young folk rushing to the countercultural scene, but also held in not-so-faintly sarcastic amusement by many of them, as movies that strained to encompass an experience based around rejecting establishment entertainment factories run by old people trying to get their heads around the scene and treading fine censorship lines.  

Easy Rider proved a key moment in the changeover to a new generation of filmmakers now often called the New Hollywood, following Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) but excelling both in reaping credibility as a work of generational, artisanal authenticity. Hopper and Fonda were, despite their flirtations with mainstream stardom, leading figures in Hollywood’s rising bohemian scene and drug culture. Few expected much better of the notoriously combative and wilful Hopper, who had already torpedoed his Hollywood acting career once and was still on a comeback trail, but Fonda was seen as foiling a promising career in becoming “a bit of a dropout.” Somewhere out on the fringe of Hollywood legend Hopper and Fonda decided, after their experiences on those Corman films, to make a movie that would nail down a more immediate and personal piece of expression contending the ructions gripping America at large and the various new and old concepts of society it contained. Hopper, with his experience in photography and general livewire energy, would direct, and for a script Fonda approached Terry Southern, then a very popular and famous writer for his erotically-tinged and satirical novels and co-writing Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) with Stanley Kubrick. The film also presented a translation-cum-riposte to On The Road, Jack Kerouac’s novel which had popularised the “Beat” movement as the first post-war manifestation of a new bohemian culture, but where Kerouac and the other Beats had been charged with electric positivity Hopper confronted a national mood rapidly turning sour and balkanized. 

After failing to get Corman and AIP to back them, nervous as they were about Hopper directing a movie, Fonda obtained a roughly $400,000 budget from Columbia Pictures, but also paid for elements of the production out of his own pocket. That Fonda sought out Southern indicated the larger aim of the project, which was to create a kind of contemporary take on classic texts about wandering seekers like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Voltaire’s Candide, the latter of which Southern had already burlesqued as his novel Candy. The film’s shoot was messy and contentious, starting with writing credits: Hopper later claimed he had to write most of the movie when Fonda and Southern were taking too long, Southern said the two actors suddenly wanted credit when it was clear the movie would be a hit, and Fonda’s contributions to making the film were overshadowed by Hopper, whose difficult behaviour on set was often trying, setting the scene for his brilliant meltdown with The Last Movie (1971). Rip Torn, hired to play the supporting role of George Hanson in part thanks to his friend Southern, got into a fracas with Hopper that would prove the subject of litigation decades later, and in more immediate consequence Torn was sacked. Nicholson was swiftly hired to take over and brought onto the shoot several weeks in. The initial intent of picking up crewmembers along the route of the shoot saw Hopper constantly struggling to keep control of the set, and after Hopper got into a fistfight with a camera operator he and Fonda finally hired a professional crew. By the end of production all of the customised bikes Fonda and Hopper had rode in the film had been stolen.

Despite all that, Easy Rider proved an instant cause celebre upon release, capturing the Camera d’Or at Cannes and becoming a runaway hit with levels of profitability starkly contrasting the weak returns for many a big-budget bomb a faltering and sclerotic Hollywood was putting out at the same time, and set the big studios to eagerly producing imitations. Of course, that didn’t last, any longer than the hippie-era dream did. For all the film’s repute as a specific epochal touchstone, it would only require a few revisions and a shift of hipster lingo to seem a product of today’s independent film scene. Part of that’s because Hopper and Fonda wisely didn’t make a movie about hippies. Certainly both of their characters in the film, carefully contrived to be iconic, are harassed and repelled for their long hair and nonconformist ethos, but they are finally as alienated from the actual emissaries of the counterculture they encounter as they are from the thuggish hicks who dog the last legs of their journey. Whilst the communes and love-ins might have fallen by the wayside, the world is still full of people like the protagonists of Easy Rider

Easy Rider only drops hints about who Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt, aka Captain America (Fonda) are and what they do: Billy declares to some cops who jail them, “We’re headliners, baby – we’ve played every fair in this part of the country!”, suggesting they’re musicians or possibly professional motorcycle stunt riders: it was made clear in Hopper’s early, much longer edit the latter is the case. In the film’s opening moments, however, they’re more exactly portrayed as entrepreneurial drug dealers, buying a wad of cocaine from a Mexican dealer named Jesus (Antonio Mendoza) in a junkyard. The two men merrily sample the goods and take it to Los Angeles, where they sell it on to a bigwig in a Rolls Royce near the airport, played, in a touch of alarming humour, by the record producer and future murderer Phil Spector, glimpsed snorting up white powder and giving the nod to his chauffeur to pay the men with a satchel full of cash: origin myth for the official fuel of the New Hollywood scene. The two sellers this time demur from sharing in the coke with their client, who pays up before sliding on leather gloves, whilst airplanes roar overhead, rendering the exchange a peculiar mime act. Hopper semi-ironically cues up the band Steppenwolf’s song “The Pusher” on the soundtrack, with its cool, clicking opening guitar lick and lyrics damning “the pusher man,” straddling the line between outlaw cool and seediness, espousal and disavowal. The two pals drive into the California desert in their battered, anonymous pick-up truck and, in the privacy of a garage where they keep their two, flashy, customised Harley-Davidson motorcycles, they prepare for their imminent journey.

Hopper’s evident influences quickly nod to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos as he lovingly surveys the choppers, gleaming chrome forms clashing with jaunty painted colours decorating the gas tanks. Wyatt carefully bundles up the cash in a tube he then secrets in his gas tank, which has the American flag painted on it. An ingenious detail that expresses the street-smarts of the heroes in protecting their hard-won fortune, whilst also doubling as a sly symbol, cash the literal fuel of escape and the septic heart of the American dream. Hopper continues to eye the choppers out in the sun, machines of personal deliverance ironically constructed through a zenith of industrial art, a perfect fusion of form and function, ambition and truth. The two men also seem to cast off their other identity, the one that did the drug deal, as Wyatt dresses up in his “Captain America” livery, knight for a new age, with Billy his hairy, buckskin-clad, more primitive companion. The nested points of pop culture reference nod to both the beloved comic book hero Captain America whilst also signalling it’s only the latest incarnation of the classic American hero, as Wyatt and Billy recall the gunslinger heroes of the Wild West and a million Westerns, heading out to backtrack through the westward colonising sprawl and catch up how things are going. As a final gesture of repudiation, Wyatt, after checking his wristwatch after being asked the time by Billy, slips the watch off, gives it one last glare, and drops it by the roadside. Beginning a motif that pervades the film, Hopper splinters time in this moment with cinema tricks – quick edits and a small but disorientating outward zoom. The two men roar off, engines fading as they burrow into the landscape.

The opening credits finally roll, with another Steppenwolf song blaring, this time, with more totemic impact: “Born To Be Wild” accompanies the two riders as they own the road and incarnate a generational fantasy, a unit of sound and vision easily quotable in other movies and TV commercials over the next few decades. The high of pure open road freedom lasts exactly as long as the credits, at the end of which the riders try to get a room at a remote hotel for the night but find the owner ignores them, turning on the No Vacancy sign. The two men camp out, and the nominal goal of their expedition emerges: the two men are heading for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, hoping to indulge hedonistic splendours. Billy’s signature nervous energy contrasts Wyatt’s removed and meditative aspect, which he describes “just gettin’ my thing together,” whilst Billy jokes about “fightin’ cowboys and Indians on every side,” tipping a hat immediately to the underlying thesis informing the character names and also allowing the characters some hip distance from the association. Next morning Wyatt pads around the patch of desolation where they camped, with abandoned houses and shacks and scattered debris, signs of one outpost of the spread of America that didn’t quite take. Such signs fascinated Wyatt, as if a crucial part of getting his thing together is making himself muse on such scenes and feeling out the ghosts of the land. One shot wistfully scans a pioneer shack with a modern electricity tower in the background with a sense of the dizzying progress from one to the other. 

This kind of scene quickly became a bit of an Americana cliché in indie films (in Antonioni’s late-to-the-party Zabriskie Point, 1970, for instance, and also still often evoked, for instance in Aaron Morehead and Justin Benson’s films). Still it retains a special, spectral quality here, in large part thanks to Hopper’s odd, stuttering editing, linking scenes with a signature effect that’s neither dissolve not straight cut but instead flashes between shots into staccato fragments, setting the sense of cinematic time in flux and forcing the viewer to share the disorientated viewpoint of the characters. A major aspect of Easy Rider’s impact in its time and now, very apparent in this interlude, was Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography. Kovacs, born in Hungary, had become friends with fellow cinematography great Vilmos Zsigmond. The two former film students had filmed secret footage of the doomed Hungarian revolt against Soviet hegemony in 1956. They hiked out of the country but couldn’t find any interest in their smuggled footage for years, and after some time working manual labour jobs both eventually started getting work on low-budget films. Both men worked on infamous poverty row auteur Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Incredibly Strange Zombies Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1966), and the surprisingly good look of that film led to Kovacs getting hired by the likes of Richard Rush on Psych-Out and Peter Bogdanovich for his Targets (1968). On those two films he mooted the visual lexicon that became a pillar of the New Hollywood look, at once gritty and grainy but also lustrous, charged with both artistry and immediacy. 

Kovacs might well have felt specially plugged into what Easy Rider set out to do as it mirrored his own experience to a certain extent, as an exile drawn to worship the American landscape in images. Long passages of Easy Rider simply and wisely allow Kovacs’ images to speak for themselves. At times they drink in the mountains and plains and roads with the expansive awe and grace of David Lean but constantly alternated with patches of quasi-abstraction as if recreating modernist paintings photographically, and vigorous use of zoom lensing that mimics documentary filmmaking language and using lens flare effects to help create a sun-washed atmosphere. When the bikers camp out in John Ford’s favourite amphitheatre of Monument Valley, Kovacs’ camera swings around in a long, dreamy arc, surveying the bluffs and mesas burned to grainy masses against a simmering twilight. Most of the film was shot with purely natural light, intensifying the rugged poetry. The geometrical struts of steel bridges, the high crags and snow caps of mountain ranges, surveys of pueblos and factories, shipping terminals and tumbledown shacks – the landscape in Easy Rider is given rare contemplation as a more than just pictorial interest but a domain of wonderment.

In the first of the film’s on-the-road vignettes, Billy and Wyatt stop at a ranch in Arizona. They ask the rancher (Warren Finnerty) and his hand, as they’re busy shoeing a horse, if they can repair a flat on Wyatt’s chopper. The rancher generously lets them use a shed and their tools, and extends his hospitality to inviting them to lunch. The two guests eat with the rancher’s wife (Tita Colorado) and their small army of children, whose presence the farmer attributes to his Catholic wife, and Billy upon request bashfully takes off his hat as the family say grace. This interlude presents Billy and Wyatt ironically with something very close to what they’re seeking virtually, or at least something worth finding, as soon as they set out, in a touch plainly inspired by Candide, in which the wandering heroes stumbled upon El Dorado early in their travails and found the demi-paradise where the locals had contempt for the plentiful riches around them, but the heroes were themselves doomed to move on through the world. Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1971) would offer a similar vignette when its seeker-exile hero stumbles into a William Blake-esque vision of an English rural idyll. The kind of perfection is undeniable but also perhaps useless to men like Billy and Wyatt. The rancher’s so out of touch he doesn’t know the acronym L.A., and once it’s explained notes, “What I was a young man I headed out for California…but…well, you know how it is.” Wyatt nonetheless congratulates the farmer, recognising the worth of what he has: “It’s not every man who can live off the land, you know? You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.” 

This is immediately contrasted with a commune full of dropouts urgently trying to reverse-engineer themselves into the same breed of propagating and effectual being. The bikers encounter a hitchhiker, credited as the Stranger on the Road (Luke Askew), who proves to be a member of this commune, and thanks them by extending their own limited hospitality. The Stranger, one of the unofficial leaders of the commune, seems a very interior and spiky personality on the road, speaking in gnomic stoner riddles and chiding the bikers for their obliviousness when they camp for the night in a ruined pueblo near Monument Valley (“You’re right on top of them – the people this place belongs to are buried right under you…You could be a trifle polite.”). The Stranger nonetheless pays for their petrol, filling Wyatt’s gas tank much to Billy’s fretfulness, and once they arrive at the commune the Stranger shows them the brace of lanky, famished young would-be dropouts, all city kids, seeding the earth by hand, a shambolic but necessary step in trying to get the commune self-sufficient. 

The commune was based on the New Buffalo commune outside Taos, New Mexico (the filmmakers couldn’t get permission to shoot there, and instead recreated it in Malibu), and the bikers and their charge are glimpsed riding past the famous pueblo structure in Taos on the way there. The commune itself is an ultimate expression of the 1960s counterculture moment but of course also an idea with deep roots in American life, like the Transcendentalist communities of the 1800s, as well as the less self-conscious project of untold numbers of colonial settlers. The scenes in the commune are the most dated in Easy Rider but also encompass such a time and place with anthropological zest, blending yearning sympathy and more than a little scepticism. Hopper notes the incidental sexism ingrained in the set-up as the women work in the kitchen whilst the young men try to work the fields, but also the louche, non-possessive approach to sexuality. Hopper populates the place with a cross-section of scenesters, from men dressed as swamis to a band of improv theatre actors (referring to themselves as “Gorilla Theatre”) in guises like Victorian stage villain and carnival row Cleopatra, and a skinny, blissed-out hippie Jesus named Jack (Robert Walker Jr) who leads them in a group prayer and improvises sinuous, incantatory, yogic dance moves that would be recreated by Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979). Wyatt explores the commune building, one part old Celtic roundhouse, one part nativity barn, with plastic-sheeted skylight for Wyatt to resume his sun worship.

Billy becomes increasingly jittery in such surrounds, particularly when the Stranger wards him off from a confab of the communards by implying he might be a narc, and soon Billy wants to split. Wyatt, more at ease, reminds him that they’ve been eating some of the commune’s limited resources, and feels this obliges them to do a favour for comely communards Lisa (Luana Anders) and Sarah (Sabrina Scharf). These two liberated lasses dig the two hot strangers and draw them out not for a chore but for an interlude of lyrical play, skinny dipping with them in the flooded cellar of a riverside building in a scene that comes closest out of the any in the film to offering familiar, what’s-marked-on-the-tin celebration of life on the road. Hopper however makes clever use of The Byrds “Wasn’t Born To Follow” in these scenes, with its alternations between lightly skipping guitar picking and lyrical paeans to romping in nature, and passages dipping into heavily produced, spacy-sounding throbbing, as if the bad trip is trying to break out, so even at the film’s most relaxed and lyrical there’s a sense of strangeness persisting: Wyatt has to be coaxed into full engaging with the play, and even then begins sinking back into his musing state. Hopper including Anders in the film was a nice homage to them working together on Curtis Harrington’s 1961 film Night Tide, a movie that broke Hopper’s film acting exile. The commune inhabitants and their guests gather in a circle to offer a prayer of success for the crop they’ve planted, led by Jack the hirsute freak-saint. Hopper has the camera pivot around their silent and expectant faces as he did with the rancher’s children, finding much the same mixture of naiveté, frustration, and inward-drifting boding, until Jack begins speaking, with his benediction concluding, “Thank you for a place to make a stand.”

The disparity between Wyatt’s contemplative persona, appraising what he sees with a generous and optimistic eye, and Billy’s fidgety, nervous, livewire energy and fixation on fulfilling his appetites, reflect distilled and purposefully exaggerated versions of Fonda and Hopper themselves. Billy’s childlike streak is brought out as he plays with the commune kids. Wyatt praises the farmer, decides of the commune dweller they encounter that “They’ll make it,” and delivers the film’s final, famous epitaph with the measured meaning of a man who finds for all his efforts just cannot escape from his own company. Fonda’s inhabitation of the film anticipates where his own directorial efforts would drift on The Hired Hand (1971) and Idaho Transfer (1973), more overtly concerned with the permeable and insubstantial nature of character and fracturing of time, whilst Hopper would also more ostentatiously fragment linearity on The Last Movie but would also sustain his sardonic edge of social commentary and zeitgeist reflection in that film and his follow-ups Out Of The Blue (1980) and Colors (1988). The sense of preordained failure upon Wyatt and Billy’s excursion is underlined when, near the end of the film, Wyatt has a flash vision of the fate before them. As if seeking out some chance to go deeper and so come back out further, Billy accepts from the Stranger a tab of LSD which the Stranger recommends he wait for the ideal time and place to take. 

The two bikers move on, but quickly find themselves thrown in a small town police lock-up after they accidentally ride into the midst of a parade and get in on the act. They find aid in an unlikely place, that is, sharing their cell: George Hanson, a sometime ACLU lawyer and semi-pro drunkard, awakens from one sleeping off one of benders, setting off Billy’s aggression with his bumbling, but easing his way through shows of wry, drawling charisma and conciliation with both his fellow prisoners and the duty cop who brings him a cup of coffee and an aspirin. George warns them about the hair-clipping tendency of the local cops: “They’re tryin’a make everybody look like Yul Brynner.” When Billy asks if he can get them out of the clink, George answers, “I imagine that I can if you haven’t killed anybody – ‘least nobody white.” True to his word, George succeeds, handling their release with practised bonhomie. Taking his first morning swig of the hair of the dog with a toast to “Old D.H. Lawrence!, George performs a ritual like a cold engine turning over with the first shock of liquor in his tongue, punctuated by a random phrase (“Indians!”… “Firefly!”), an act a little reminiscent of “Nick Va-Va-Voom” in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) but apparently inspired by a mechanic working on the film bikes. When told where the bikers are heading, George muses on how he’s often started off for Mardi Gras but never got further than the state line, and brandishes a card given to him by the Governor of Louisiana, advertising a brothel in New Orleans called Madame Tinkertoy’s House of Blue Lights: “Now this is supposed to be the finest whorehouse in the South. These ain’t no pork chops, these are US prime.” 

Nicholson’s performance as Hanson immediately paved the way for him becoming a mainstream star, playing a vivid character role that’s also a perfect springboard to show star quality, as a complimentary but also antithetical personality to the two leads. George like them is a substance abuser, moreover a heavy, self-destructive one, but his drug of choice is legal and socially acceptable, and it fuels his sociable and charming streak: George seems like the kind of guy who’s a hell of a lot of fun to be around at least until his liver packs it in. George contains aspects of Wyatt’s thoughtfulness and Billy’s rowdiness and gifted with articulateness all his own, musing on the meaning of the constantly encountered hostility the bikers encounter constantly. It’s easy to assume George is something of a self-portrait from Southern injected into the movie, as a perma-sozzled Texan wag both attracted to but also fatefully alien to the counterculture, translating the more allusive intent of Hopper and Fonda into something the viewer can readily digest. It’s George who spells out the uneasy nature of modern freedom in America, the two bikers embodying it and noting it’s easy to be jealous when “You’re bought and sold on the marketplace.” When George admits he wishes he was going with the bikers, Wyatt asks if he has a helmet, to which George slyly replies he does: cut to the bikers roaring down the highway, now with George riding with Wyatt, wearing his old high school football helmet. The three men have a blast as George enjoys his first motorcycle ride, his childlike gestures inspiring Billy to perform tricks on his bike, and waving to the people they pass.

George is also the star of the film’s one real lengthy dialogue scene and moment of comic bravura. As they camp out for the night, Wyatt offers him a joint, which George has also never done before, assuming at first it’s a normal cigarette. George is uncertain at first, reciting the much-mocked square line that it leads to harder stuff, and when he does take his first few puffs doubts it’s doing anything to him. Nonetheless, after Billy reports seeing an object in the sky like a satellite grazing the atmosphere, George declares it’s probably a UFO, explaining that’s seen them before, and launches into an explanation of how Venusians have been infiltrating human society for years, aiming to help it evolve into a state like theirs, devoid of “antiquated systems.” “How’s your joint, George?” Wyatt asks when he’s finally done. The basic gag of the neophyte dope smoker falling under its influence without realising is good, but more interesting and substantial is the way the scene extends the driving notion that the psyche of the average, ordinary person is a deeply weird place filled with startling assumptions and only needs a little pharmaceutical coaxing to reveal. George’s rant presages the oncoming New Age crazes of the 1970s and on, retreating from open confrontation with the modern world’s hard borders into fantasias of alternate realities and a search for new incarnations of old spiritual urges, of which UFOs would be a singular example. And yet also offers a bizarre yet on-point brand of social satire as George notes that human beings with their social hierarchies and “leaders upon whom we rely for the release of this information” would be completely inimical to the Venusians because “each man is a leader.” In this regard Easy Rider becomes a kind of science fiction film.

Hopper’s initial edit of Easy Rider was very long, and at the request of executive Burt Schneider Henry Jaglom, a young filmmaker and future cult director in his own right, was brought in to reedit the film, much to Hopper’s initial aggravation, and he later commented that others, including Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, also made editing contributions. To Jaglom’s credit, he seems to have understood the movie Hopper wanted to make, excising elements more like other films of the type, including an early scene of Wyatt and Billy outrunning cops when bringing their drug haul over the border from Mexico, and instead lingering on the journey, creating an exemplar of a mode of picaresque storytelling soon dubbed the road movie. Whilst hardly the first road movie made (Francis Ford Coppola had, for instance, released his The Rain People a year earlier), Easy Rider nonetheless created a craze for the subgenre over the next few years, with such movies like the also Fonda-starring Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), and Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), as well as gentler variants like Paper Moon (1974), and Monte Hellman’s even more reticent and allusive take Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Meanwhile it wielded immediate sway over filmmakers like Rafelson himself and Terrence Malick, and even David Lynch likely took some inspiration from the trip scene for the churning dreamworld industrialism of Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980). Easy Rider’s impact on the independent American film scene can barely be overstated, either, still reverberating in the films of Kelly Reichardt, David Lowery, Chloe Zhao, Debra Granik, Jeremy Saulnier, and Nia DaCosta.

The first of the film’s two wrenching pivots of tragedy is set up when the trio roll into a small Southern town and go into a diner. There they find themselves objects of fervent fascination from some girls, but also of aggressive and contemptuous appraisal by some men, including the local sheriff. To get the desired effect out of the regional men he had hired for the scene, Hopper told them these longhair blow-ins were paedophiles and murderers. The palpable sense of exposure and imminent violence in the scene and indeed the film’s last third helped birth another subgenre over the next few years, particularly with the release of Deliverance (1972), as murderous and depraved rednecks would become a favourite movie monster. Hopper, Fonda, and Southern were channelling the very real rough treatment often turned on hippies in such locales but also reflected the uneasy spectacle and earned infamy of the previous decade a more of racial strife. The irony of it all, as George muses, is that it reflects, in a country so devoted to the idea of freedom, how the actual exercise of it deeply offends and frustrates some. Also inferred here is Hopper’s mediation on the uneasy relationship between the actual America and its mythologies, particularly the cinematic kind, a theme he would become more explicit in expressing in The Last Movie

One sharp irony for Hopper was that his other acting role of 1969 was in Hathaway’s True Grit (1969), a film that gained John Wayne an Oscar at last and neatly summarised that American mythos in its most classical form, the Western film. In an America weaned on tales of expansion and progress, of enterprise and self-reliance, of gun-wielding heroes bringing order to the wilderness, to encounter any kind of stymie in terms of class, milieu, and education is to be cheated, a loss which cannot be expressed without questioning the holy national mythos, and so must be turned on anyone trying to move on. Easy Rider diagnoses a great American ill, the pain of the loss of the pioneer spirit and its attendant ideals and illusions. Without heroic roles to play, however distantly, when immersed in such a mythos, people starve spiritually; guns meant to take out varmints instead are itchily trained on anything that offends, that gives testimony to one’s actual impotence. The further east they travel, the more Billy and Wyatt contend with the losers of history, the places left behind in the great westward sprawl and the great northern victory, experiencing devolution. “This used to be a helluva good country,” George avows sadly, although of course such nostalgia for the old weird America comes laced with ironies: not so much if you were Black or Native American, but then they were part of the same ecstatic flux too. Billy and Wyatt try to skip the problem through their own variety of alternative capitalism, and their original sin is not so much purveying illegal narcotics than of imagining that in some way could excuse them from dealing with the world. 

It’s in engaging with this theme that Easy Rider becomes something near-unique, leading to its disturbing final scenes that see the thesis crystallised in increasingly dark fashion. Camping out for the last time in their journey to New Orleans, George says his piece about the problems of freedom. After the men fall asleep and their fire burns down, a number of men, likely many of the same ones from the diner, sneak up on the camp and begin beating the sleeping men with bats and branches. Billy manages to wrestle out his knife and slash out whilst screaming wildly, sending the attackers scurrying away, but he finds Wyatt dazed and bloodied and George dead, killed seemingly whilst still dead asleep, saved the pain of waking to the cruellest disillusion. Once Wyatt recovers they bundle George up in his blanket and search through his belongings, which prove scant. In the most blunt and bravura of his jump-cuts, Hopper leaps Billy and Wyatt eating in a swank New Orleans restaurant the next day, still wearing the bruises of their beating: as they eat, Billy talks Wyatt into going to Madame Tinkertoy’s as George wanted. The surreal segue from the scene of death to the place of fine dining elides just what the two bikers did about George’s death: did they report it to the cops, and take the chance of having it pinned on them, or did they leave him by the road? 

Madame Tinkertoy’s, when Billy and Wyatt arrive there, proves to be a plush but tacky space replete with kitschy religious décor, fake baroque trimmings, and other trappings of an Old World inheritance, including paintings of obscure personages of another age. Many of the “US prime” stable of prostitutes are aging women with too much makeup on, others are plainly bored and zoned out, whilst others ply desperate attempts to be with-it, like one of the hookers shimmying on a table-top. Billy tries to live up to his kid-in-a-candy-store fantasies as he gets boozy and clingy with some of the women. Wyatt turns evermore inward and melancholy, surveying the fake religious trappings and painted philosophical missives on the walls and musing on Voltaire’s maxim, “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” Billy and Wyatt are stashed in an antechamber to await their selected partners for the night. The Madam (Lea Marmer) ushers in Karen (Karen Black) and Mary (Toni Basil), two attractive young women who nonetheless suggest doppelgangers of Lisa and Sarah, those women’s free-and-easy vivacity exchanged for blowsy working sexiness. “Do you mind if I take the tall one?” Billy asks his pal. Wyatt, at a loss for what to do, eventually suggests they all head outside to experience Mardi Gras. They wander amidst the contrived spectacle and controlled weirdness of the holiday, the foursome desperately trying to alchemise their random association into some semblance of fun and connection and orgiastic flux.

At last they take refuge in the Basin Street Cemetery with its famous above-ground sepulchres, and there Wyatt has an inspiration, breaking out the acid tab the Stranger gave him and sharing between the four of them with the advice, “Just shut up and take it.” But the acid proves bad, and the foursome are stricken with an array of violently alternating states amidst the graves. The graveyard trip is one of my favourite scenes in cinema, as the rhythmic thump of a steam drill operating nearby is transformed into a doom-laden toll and pumping heartbeat of a monster whilst the bad trip is illustrated in a free-fall extravaganza of fisheye and zoom lensing, flash cuts and handheld shots, images ghostly and washed-out alternating with patches of damaged, colour-blotched film. Wyatt and Mary jam themselves between sepulchres, Mary stripping off and sprawling in the rain like a sylph whilst Wyatt arranges himself into a blank pop-art placard, the American flag on his jacket turned as a frightened placard; Karen moans about having a child and Billy excitedly caresses her thighs and bangs her over a tombstone. The technique in this scene owes much to experimental filmmakers, but achieves its own fresh, fascinating power in a new context, communicating the depth of a squall of interior feeling in a system of images that manage to avoid the by-then-already familiar clichés of on-screen trippiness and enter in a state remote, surreal, recessive, punctuated by flashes of intense and inchoate emotion, from Karen wailing to Wyatt clinging to a statue and experiencing a powerful wave of sorrow mingled with anger for his mother – emotions which came from Fonda himself in musing on his own late mother.

Watching this scene now reminds me that perhaps I’ve met more young women these days than young men on voyages like Wyatt and Billy – young men today find it far too easy to slip back into the amniotic illusions of gaming, for instance. Again, Hopper leaves the scene pointedly unresolved in any traditional sense, the maelstrom of emotion and disorientation suddenly left behind like the city, as Wyatt and Billy return to the road, this time more with the look of men fleeing than moving towards something. A great part of Easy Rider’s impact then and now, although I think has sometimes overstated, comes from the mostly pitch-perfect use of pop music on the soundtrack, including the Steppenwolf and Byrds songs mentioned and also pointed use of Jimi Hendrix’s troubled individualist anthem “If 6 Was 9,” The Band’s elegy to pay-it-forward fellowship “The Weight,” and the Electric Prunes’ eerie “Kyrie Elieson” used as an ironically eerie and spiritual counterpoint to the shots in the restaurant just after George’s death. Finally, as Wyatt and Billy flee up along the levees of the Mississippi, Hopper uses Roger McGuinn’s cover of Bob Dylan’s troubled surreal epic “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” with its famous line “He not busy being born is busy dying” imbuing a final hint of new existential quest for the bikers.

During their next campout, whilst Billy tries to maintain his enthusiastic outlook, Wyatt finally verbalises what he’s been thinking for some time as he comments, with great succinctness, “We blew it.” That line has often been taken to be the essential summation of the entire 1960s project. At least in the terms of Billy and Wyatt’s journey, it suggests Wyatt’s final conclusion that they didn’t just chase the wrong dream but leapt off from a bad beginning and then failed to understand everything of value they found on the way. The film’s infamous ending is then almost a mere coup-de-grace, as the two bikers ride along a road by a levee, passed by two rednecks in a pick-up who, like the diner customers, take delight in harassing Billy: one levels a pump action shotgun at him to nominally frighten him, but when Billy ignores him the redneck shoots him, swatting him off his bike and leaving him sprawled and bloody on the verge. Wyatt stops and checks him out: whilst Billy grunts out fragmented words, Wyatt dashes back to bike to get help. 

Only to meet the men in the pickup again, turned about to leave no witnesses: the blast of the gun and a near-subliminal flash of red gives way to Wyatt’s bike, front wheel spinning away wildly, flying across the curb-side ditch and crashlanding. The image of the wrecked and burning motorcycle, surveyed in a helicopter shot rushing away into the sky, conflates multiple frames of symbolic resonance, the crashing, riderless bike an image of some dream desperately trying to keep soaring, a bitter lampoon of a failed space shot in the year of the moon landing, and a conflation of the assassinations that had befallen American political life in the previous year with the epic carnage of Vietnam, all crystallising in internalised blowback, sparking madness on the home front. Hopper was likely inspired in part by the imagery of roadway carnage in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967), but the sense of connection with a parable for the war is exacerbated by the way Hopper concludes the film with a visual quote from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) in the long, final helicopter shot that rises high above the madness to survey the wrecked bikes and sprawled bodies and the languorous course of the Mississippi, the flowing river evoked in the theme song written by Dylan and McGuinn that plays over the end credits. The end of Easy Rider retains such force in this disparity of jagged tragedy and elegiac yearning, the grand promise of the world still open to those brave enough to seek it even as the failed seekers lie dead on the green grass.

Standard
1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Political, Thriller

Zabriskie Point (1970)

.

ZabriskiePoint01

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenwriters: Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe, Sam Shepard

By Roderick Heath

History often moves in cycles of irony, and sometimes this rewards movies. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point was dealt harsh dismissal by both critics and audiences at the time of its release, and spent intervening decades regarded largely as an oddity and by-product occasionally revisited by omnivorous wannabe filmmakers, aging hippies, and scattered auteurists, only to slowly gather a fresh reputation amongst some as one of Antonioni’s major achievements. These past few years have made Zabriskie Point feel immediate again, for its evocative description of disconsolate anger and disgust with aspects of modern life, with institutional power and the fragmenting of shared reality. Antonioni had been vaulted to international filmmaking stardom thanks to his string of cool, allusive tales documenting people squirming within their environment and sometimes committing perplexing acts of destruction on self or others, or simply vanishing from their own lives, in a style commonly dubbed ‘alienation cinema.’ Antonioni initially charted this terrain in relatively modest works like I Vinti (1952) and Il Grido (1957). L’Avventura (1960) met an initially divisive response but quickly became the definition of art movie chic along with its follow-ups in a loose trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962). Red Desert (1964) saw Antonioni reaching the heights of his artistry but also dividing viewers once again in achieving a register of expression near-subliminal in suggesting cognitive stress and injury through systematised exterior signs.

ZabriskiePoint02

The surprise box office success of Antonioni’s first English-language film, Blowup (1966), opened up great new vistas for him as Hollywood came knocking, although some critics would accuse him of exporting his cinematic style more as a brand than an artist, looking for venues to make the same works over and over. That wasn’t true: Red Desert had broken new ground and Blowup was a very different film in story and method to Antonioni’s previous four films, even whilst maintaining a distinct aesthetic. But Antonioni faced a genuine problem with his art, one that would soon see his once-titanic cinematic will freeze up. After Zabriskie Point he would only direct another three films in the next fifteen years, before a stroke he suffered in 1985 left him severely crippled, although he did manage one final work, Beyond the Clouds, in 1995 in collaboration with Wim Wenders. Part of the reason behind Antonioni’s wane might simply have been the problem of money: Antonioni’s films were hard to make without the muscle of intelligent and interested producers behind them, and these became scant as his moment in fashion ended. It might also have been a product of his own evolving artistry, which eventually reached a point of psychological and spiritual negation with The Passenger (1975), one he could not move beyond without betraying some vital part of himself.

ZabriskiePoint03

For Zabriskie Point, MGM gave Antonioni a big budget and free rein to turn his eye on America. Antonioni took his theme from a newspaper story he read about a young man who stole an airplane and was shot by police when he tried to return it. In the months after the incredible success of Easy Rider (1969), a flailing Hollywood desperately wanted to reproduce such a feat with the countercultural youth audience, but contended constantly with that audience’s cynicism over official attempts to replicate their zeitgeist, as well as rapid shifts in general audience mood, which quickly went back to wanting stuff like Airport (1970). Antonioni had tapped hip interest in artistic games with perception and social commentary with Blowup, and his distaste for the plasticity of post-war life in Italy found ready analogues beyond those shores, And yet his sensibility remained crucially at odds with the earthy and idealistic aspect of the counterculture. Antonioni tried to tap a compensating authenticity by casting non-actors in crucial roles. For a male lead he cast Mark Frechette, a fiery young man often in trouble with the law but blessed with movie star looks, when Antonin saw him engaged in an argument on the street.

ZabriskiePoint04

For the female lead he chose Daria Halprin, a former anthropology student and bit-part actress. It proved a rather fateful pairing: Frechette and Halprin became a couple after making the film, and moved into an experimental community. After they broke up Halprin married Dennis Hopper. Desperate for funds to keep the community going, Frechette joined other members in staging a bank robbery with unloaded guns. Frechette was sent to prison and died there, in a peculiar weightlifting accident. This tragic piece of Hollywood folklore now is an aspect of Zabriskie Point’s strange aura, the feeling that it charted some underground river most people didn’t or couldn’t follow. The script passed through several hands, including Antonioni himself and his regular screenwriting collaborator Tonino Guerra, and some young Americans writers, including the up-and-coming actor and playwright Sam Shepard. Working on the film was particularly consequential for Shepard, who would revisit many of its images and ideas in later work, including the script he would write for another fusion of European and American sensibilities, Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984).

ZabriskiePoint05

Zabriskie Point opens with a lengthy sequence depicting student radicals engaged in debate over an upcoming student strike, with some black activists (including Eldridge Cleaver’s wife Kathleen) presiding. One young man, Mark (Frechette), listens to the boiling arguments and conflicting perspectives and leaves after declaring he’s willing to die for the cause but not of boredom, and begins looking for more applied and practical actions to take. When he tries to bail out a friend who’s arrested on a demonstration and nags the cops a little too forcefully, Mark finds himself arrested and roughed up as well: Mark mocks the cops by giving his name as Karl Marx, and the charge officer doesn’t cotton on. After they’re released, Mark and his friend decide to buy guns. Hearing on the radio that the police have vowed to clear out the striking students on campus, Mark drives to witness it, only to see a cop gun down a black protestor when a colleague thinks he has a gun. Mark pulls out his pistol with a clear intention of shooting the cop responsible, only for someone else to beat him to it. Mark flees the campus and, after a brief spell of fraught indecision steals a light airplane and flies inland.

ZabriskiePoint06

Antonioni alternates Mark’s experiences with those of Daria, a woman of the same age but detached from the radical scene, one who works only when she needs money. Daria temps at a real estate company and encounters the middle-aged executive Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), who seems taken with her, and eventually asks that she head out to his house near Phoenix, Arizona, to be his secretary whilst he tries to finalise a major deal, a new estate his company, the SunnyDunes Development Co., has built in the desert. Daria heads out into the desert but before going to Lee’s house wants to visit the hamlet of Ballister, out in the Mojave Desert, because a friend of hers recommended it as a great place to meditate. The friend is trying to build a refuge there for troubled youths from Los Angeles, and Daria encounters a gang of those imported hellions wandering around the sparse Ballister surrounds. Driving on, Daria is repeatedly buzzed by Mark in the stolen plane, dropping a dress he found in the cockpit to her, before coming in for a landing. The two wander around the environs of Zabriskie Point, a lookout spot in Death Valley and the lowest point in the continental United States, where they quickly form a bond and become lovers.

ZabriskiePoint07

Zabriskie Point took four years from conception to release, a fatally long amount of time for a movie trying so crucially to tap an urgent and rapidly evolving socio-political moment. And yet, against all the odds, Antonioni and his screenwriters achieved from today’s perspective the rare task of taking on a such a specific moment and yet locating essential issues that continue to dog modern America and beyond. Listening to the lengthy opening argument of the student radicals is nonetheless today a surprisingly vigorous and revealing experience, as the same issues, divides, and points of contention are still prevalent, particularly in the online world: the only thing that’s missing is the sense of palpable immediacy and communal experience that defined the period, the clamour of voices in dialogue supplanted by the click of a million keyboards. Even Mark’s irritable rejection of the meeting highlights another eternal problem – it’s much easier to talk tough and jockey for moral high ground than actually achieve a political goal. The barbed comments of the black activists, who claim a leadership role because they face systemic oppression that obliges them to be revolutionaries rather than turn to it out of radical chic, lay down an axiom, and one of the white student girls raises the question, “What will it take to make white people revolutionaries?”

ZabriskiePoint08

Zabriskie Point proceeds to try and answer that question in the case of Daria, the more ordinary of the two pivotal characters. Daria is presented as a free spirit type intrigued by hip concepts and lifestyles, but detached from the politically engaged world Mark is all too immersed in. Her appeal to Lee as she breezes past him in the SunnyDunes office building is plain, represents something that’s profoundly absent within the confines of his daily life, and he becomes highly solicitous towards her, perhaps out of desire or simply to have someone so young and energetic around, a force from beyond the boundaries of his known world. As familiar as jabs aimed at corporate culture seem now, Antonioni did his admirable best to try and avoid the more obvious reflexes even whilst delivering it some cruel shiv wounds. Antonioni films Lee in his office, the LA skyline and a flapping American flag framed in glassy, commercial-like brightness behind him, as he tries to get in touch with Daria by phone, a sense of glazed and waning torpor slowly registering as the imperial trappings around him become monumental and immoveable. Meanwhile it’s signalled Mark himself comes from well-to-do circumstances, waving to a woman in a sports car he says is his sister, “a girl from my long-gone past.”

ZabriskiePoint09

Mark’s decision to stop being passive is articulated as he decries that he’s tired of “kids rappin’ about violence and cops doin’ it,” and contemplates meeting the authorities’ violence with his own. Antonioni indulges some sidelong vignettes that score satirical points, as Mark and a friend talk a gun salesman into waiving the usual legal niceties by explaining they live in a rough neighbourhood and “need to protect our women.” A college professor who’s been arrested at the protest with his students and the cop processing him puts his occupation down as clerk because it’s shorter. The plot, such as it is, is motivated by Mark’s readiness to commit violently to his cause only to rediscover joy and affection before becoming the target of the same cold and punitive force he tried to escape and transcend. The question as to whether he dooms himself in taking up arms or in failing to commit properly to the choice lingers on. Antonioni courts the paranoid echoes of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the key sequence of the campus shootings, with Mark’s vengeful intention to shoot beaten by another sniper somewhere in the bushes – a collection of gun-wielding radicals has already been noted lurking nearby. This also revisits the enigmatic assassination of Blowup. At the same time Antonioni’s long-simmering affinity with Hitchcock is nudged again as Mark, gun in hand and innocent in deed if not mind, recalls the schmuck hero of North By Northwest (1959).

ZabriskiePoint10

Antonioni’s protest scenes lack the still-potent immediacy of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) and the film as a whole resists that work’s air of livewire exposure before the tumult of the age, at least in its superficial action, even as the opening scene betrays a great interest in its rhetorical texture. Antonioni regards both the square and countercultures as momentary figments of a much greater and longer drama than they know. Antonioni’s exacting sense of visual context as a means of communication is as much in evidence as it was in Red Desert and Blowup, but in a different key: where the first film pivoted on the heroine’s sense of a poisoned mindscape matched to a poisoned environment and Blowup saw its hero chasing his ideals of truth captured into a dissolving mass of film grain, Zabriskie Point maps out a drama of freedom and entrapment rooted in the way social values and psychic space battle upon the American shore. Environs rendered in pale cream and grey hues and dully prismatic glass are broken up by electric patches of blood red and bright green, elements in the psychic drama of omnipresent conformism disturbed by eruptions of violence and nature worship.

ZabriskiePoint11

Antonioni near-obsessively charts the omnipresence of advertising and garish décor around the city, at once dazzled and mortified. Antonioni contrasts Mark and a comrade and Lee and his fellow executive (G.D. Spradlin) as the two polarised duos drive through the city: Antonioni stops paying attention to them to film modernist structures and advertising billboards in zooms shots that collapse space and image into a diorama of capitalist messaging disguised in pretty colours, as pure in their way as the renaissance sculptures of Italy in conflating function in declaration with form, the stamp of the new doges upon their republic. Painted visages instruct the onlooker in what normality looks like. In a more overtly satirical and surrealist manner, Antonioni has the SunnyDunes executives gather to watch an advertisement for their new development, in which the roles of the people enjoying their idyllic new lifestyle are filled by mannequins, glimpsed in colourful and rigid approximations of the supposed suburban dream, starkly contrasting the later vision of polymorphous flesh emerging from the earth itself.

ZabriskiePoint12

Once Mark takes off in his stolen plane, the film becomes a remake-cum-lampoon of the closing minutes of How The West Was Won (1962), inverting the triumphalist flight in keys of Cinerama and Manifest Destiny to the coast and out to sea, this time turning away from the sprawl of LA’s infrastructure to the vast, rugged inland and contemplating the refuse of the pioneering dream. The glittering rooftops and cyclopean highways, all are viewed on high with a sense of punch-drunk wonderment, the geometries of human design and the primeval patterns of geological upheaval revealed in distant perfection. The visual texture here is the essence of the film, working up a near-hypnotic glaze of attention to the shape of the world and Mark and Daria as entities within it. Daria’s visit to the desolate township of Ballister is a delicately strange and eerie vignette, as she encounters an assortment of old-timers, including the manager of a roadhouse (Paul Fix) who complains about the imported problem cases her friend has imported to the town (“He’s gonna ruin a piece of American history.”), and a couple of incredibly old men at the bar, one of whom introduces himself as the middleweight boxing champion of the world in 1926.

ZabriskiePoint13

The other is an aged cowboy who sits calmly and silently in solitude as Antonioni’s camera gazes at him in profile with painterly pretence, turning him into living iconography, as Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” warbles nostalgically over speakers. Somewhere out in the desert’s deep reaches the old America subsists on its last nerve of memory and muscle, whilst the inheritors flail. Stones through the window glass cause the manager to dash outside and bellow at the marauding tykes. Daria sees them hiding behind a hunk of refuse, their eyes glimpsed through gaps. These the manifest spirits of a discarded quarter of the nation, one plucking on fractured piano innards to make sonorous music, another demanding “a piece of ass.” “Are you sure you’d know what to do with it?” Daria questions, unfazed, before fleeing these fine young cannibals. Travelling on, the lonely old grey car sliding along a ribbon of blacktop below attracts the white-winging plane, and Mark sets down in the midst of a great salt pan to meet the fawn-legged traveller after buzzing her a few times with bratty glee. Here Mark and Daria are, in their way, artists engaged with landscape as much as Antonioni himself, at spree in air and earth, with inevitable symbolic dimensions, Mark with his lofty ideals and exile from society forced to meet Daria down on the ground.

ZabriskiePoint14

One irony of Blowup’s success was that it hit big with an audience it teased and parodied – hipsters, artists, bright college freaks, recreational drug users, and vicariously thrilled normies. The Swinging London vibe Antonioni nailed down so well was painted in bone-dry sarcasm, as he surveyed London’s boles filled by barbarian rock bands and rooms full of stoned posh bohemians with a sense of curiosity grazing disdain, seeming to diagnose it all as a further symptom of, rather than cure for, the anomie and cultural ossification he analysed. In turning to the American wing of the youth movement he was nominally seeking out a genuine resuscitating force, and he even seemed to be trying to avoid the problems Easy Rider and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969) had analysed, the blind spots that would narcotise it. Blowup had proposed the ultimate dissolution of reality in the age of technology whilst Zabriskie Point’s interiorised, neutral tone invokes not the outwards-directed energy of bohemia but the problem of the interior self, one reason why the film’s twinned, key sequences are, crucially, moments of imagined psychic liberation. Whilst avoiding any of the ways of portraying psychedelic experience that became so quickly clichéd in films of the period, Zabriskie Point nonetheless attains a dreamlike sense of space and texture, as if the characters are both inside themselves and watching themselves.

ZabriskiePoint15

And indeed they are, because all young people tend to be doing both. Mark and Daria are deliberately nebulous entities because Antonioni feels that’s a basic description of youth itself, individuals reacting to stimuli and opportunity to accumulate character. The basic narrative pattern also returned to the motif of Il Grido, in following a character who describes a great circle during the course of his wandering, fleeing his life in one place only to arc back to a virtually predestined end. Il Grido, a fascinating if overlong and grimly slouchy work, had mediated Antonioni’s steeping in neorealist concerns and those of his mature artistry. One important difference in Zabriskie Point is that when he chooses to fly the plane back to LA and face consequences it’s an act of hope, returning as jester of the skies with the plane he, Daria, and an old-timer of the desert painted in lysergic colours and jokes. Daria suggests to Mark he simply abandon the plane and ride with her to Phoenix, but he tells her, “I wanna take risks.” A death wish might lurk within Mark’s makeup, but his determination to actually experience existence as a profound phenomenon, not coddled or swerving from all the echoing consequences of being born, represents one of the few positive gestures of consequence any character makes in Antonioni, even if it’s ruthlessly punished.

ZabriskiePoint16

At the heart of Zabriskie Point are the two fantasy episodes, both perhaps projected out of Daria’s mind. The first comes as she and Mark screw in the desert sand under Zabriskie Point, whereupon other lovers, some couples, some in masses of three or more bodies, seem to well out of the ground and start copulating passionately, bodies swathed in dust and sand, wet lips and caked rumps squirming in the parched soil. Authorities purportedly dogged the shooting of this scene, which utilised performers from a radical theatre group, ready to swoop in and arrest everyone for shooting pornography. As it was the orgy was simulated, but it’s still a startling interlude to see in such a prestigious Hollywood film, and one the least neurotic and purely celebratory erotic scenes in mainstream cinema. Passionate bundles of flesh viewed only with a friendly sense of sexuality in many forms, but achieved again with a strong note of surrealism, these dust-born creatures evoking Biblical myth as they fuck en masse. Most vitally for the film’s driving theme, it offers the sense that Mark and Daria aren’t alone even when they seem to be at their most separated from the rest of humanity: their experience connects them to the species as a whole. The sexual high quickly gives way to a brute reminder of actuality as Mark hides from a patrolling cop car whilst Daria goes to chat with the officer, shocked when she realises Mark lurks with his gun ready to shoot the cop. Antonioni delivers one of his visual cues as Mark hides behind portable toilets painted screaming red, blazing synapses of distress in the midst of an ahistorical zone.

ZabriskiePoint17

The chief stymie in appreciating the film stems ironically from Antonioni’s push for legitimacy in casting Frechette and Halprin. That might have seemed a move in the great tradition of neorealism, and as a filmmaker Antonioni never seemed greatly focused on his actors, observing them more as studies in behaviour than in a traditional dramatic manner. But Antonioni had made very deft use of star performers like Monica Vitti, David Hemmings, and even Steve Cochran, and would so again with Jack Nicholson, leaning on actors who could readily suggest and transmit the yearning and existential unease of their characters, using their descriptions of distress and foiled energy to lend specific gravitas to his psychologically inferring shots. By contrast, the two young stars of Zabriskie Point instead seem blandly emblematic, although Halprin handles the late scenes depicting her character’s disconsolate state effectively. The air of turbulence that made Frechette appealing to Antonioni translated on camera to deadpan aloofness, ironically proving more plastic than any number of young ingénues might have seemed. That said, their blankness at least resists any feeling of calculation either, offering themselves simply as people within Antonioni’s world, not extraordinary embodiments of human and Hollywood bravura.

ZabriskiePoint18

Despite its initial failure, Zabriskie Point’s influence has proven deep, particularly for foreign directors shifting their attention Stateside, with images and strategies referenced and recycled in films like Paris, Texas, Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993), Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Café (1988), Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), and Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007). More recent native surveys of the period like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) and the TV series Mad Men have made it a significant point of reference, as well as more contemporary takes on its preoccupations like Fight Club (1999). American New Wave filmmakers internalised aspects of Antonioni’s vision: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and All The President’s Men (1976) all betray the imprint of Antonioni’s textures, his contemplation of fractured personality amidst sensory bombardment and the isolating glaze of modern architecture. More profane genre fare from Vanishing Point (1972) to Thelma and Louise (1991) took Zabriskie Point and mined it for more familiar variations on its ideas. Even the likes of Mad Max (1979), as a tale of renascent barbarianism hinging around grandiose destruction fantasies and desolate spaces, bore the imprint. George Lucas, who had clearly shown himself to be an Antonioni acolyte on THX 1138 (1971), repurposed the theme of youth rebellion and destructive catharsis for Star Wars (1977).

ZabriskiePoint19

Nor was the traffic to sci-fi one way, as at least one critic has noted: Antonioni’s lexicon had much in common with the alien desolation and domestic unease Jack Arnold had often evoked in his 1950s works like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956). Such oddball children point to the way Antonioni managed to dig to the essence of something about the nature of modern society, locked in a state of forward motion and clinging to familiar things, perpetually poised between order and a will to anarchy, constantly provoking people to jarring psychic leaps from peace-seeking to eruptive destruction. Which might well point to the artistic problem Antonioni eventually fell prey to. Antonioni had begun as a filmmaker interested in case studies illustrating social and psychological quandaries, trying to bridge the great chasm between the systems of Marxism and the vagaries of consciousness, and Zabriskie Point had been conceived in the same vein. The protagonists of both Zabriskie Point and The Passenger halt at the edge of the desert but fail to go forward and so are destroyed by the social forces pursuing them, although one is felled in making a hopeful gesture and the other reaches the end of his will. To go into the desert, literal and figurative, would be to enter the realm of the mystic, something Antonioni felt himself too hard-headed to contemplate, even as his films constantly urge towards a sense of the sublime. Or, rather, whether he was or wasn’t, that would demarcate the edge of his own concern, which was the problem of modern western society and the individuals who comprise it.

ZabriskiePoint20

Tellingly, following Zabriskie Point, Antonioni went to China to make a documentary about the nation at it was just starting to step back into the world at large to contemplate possibilities for other methods of social organisation, whilst his last handful of films would be much-mocked for their copious and regressive sexuality, but perhaps that was the only place he could retreat to. Mark’s flight back to LA is met by waiting cops, and when he tries to take off again they start shooting, a bullet hitting Mark and killing him. Daria, still driving eastwards, hears the report of his death on the radio and pulls over in shock. The report suggests another cruel sarcasm, that Mark wasn’t wanted for killing the cop but for stealing the plane as an “attempted hijacking”: Mark was punished not for his attempt at political violence but for an imagined one. Daria reaches Lee’s modernist mansion, perched on the side of a bluff amidst the grand desert surrounds. She wanders around the chic, elegant, yet impersonal forms of Lee’s house, the very bastion of smugness, experiencing each portion of the building as a trap goading her grief, and even Lee’s solicitous greeting rings hollow. Daria finally leaves the house.

ZabriskiePoint21

Cue the famous final scene, one even detractors of the film find brilliant. Daria stares at Lee’s house, imagining the executives and their inane wives inside, and envisions the house exploding, shattered to millions of shards of wood and stonework. The explosion occurs again and again, from different angles and distances, the sheer pleasure of destruction as an act charged holy awe. Antonioni then gets closer to the issue as he films the explosion of various household items in the house. A TV shatters into a shower of misty crystal. A refrigerator disgorges foodstuffs in a mucky shower. Books flap open like flowers blooming in time-lapse or jellyfish squirming through water. Violent spectacle becomes languorous, beautiful, protoplasmic, Dali-like in the depiction of hard commercial material rendered liquidinous and weightless, the act of desolation containing discovery, mesmeric dolour that also bespeaks the clarifying of the senses.

ZabriskiePoint22

The eruption resolves in a huge mushroom cloud of smoke billowing up into the blue sky, clarifying the relationship of Daria’s private revenge fantasy with the overall anxiety in the world, the threat of nuclear war, perpetually poised to erase the settled bourgeois life. Given Antonioni’s cinema had long suggested an intense distaste for modern architecture as the environmental signature of the age of alienation, the fact that he acts out his apocalyptic fantasia on it makes for a fitting, rather bratty coda, a moment of seeming potent rejection of a material world that is actually onanistic fantasy. Antonioni doesn’t offer any shot of the house still intact and boding after the fantasy is done, refusing intrinsically to castrate Daria’s newly potent and angry willpower. Instead Antonioni has her ride off into the sunset to the elegiac strains of Roy Orbison. Like the often misinterpreted ending of Blowup, which actually depicts the birth of a true artist, the ending here sees Daria heading back into the world armed, if not necessarily for destruction, but certainly with great power. A revolutionary of the mind born.

Standard
1970s, Experimental, Western

The Last Movie (1971)

.
TheLastMovie01
.
Director: Dennis Hopper

By Roderick Heath

Before 1969, Dennis Hopper was one of many talented, young Method actors to drift west from the Actor’s Studio to Hollywood, if a flagrantly offbeat and arresting example of the breed. His blue eyes seemed to radiate an almost spiritual, romantic dissociation, as well as a potentially manic ferocity—Viking berserker and Celtic saint in one volatile package. At first he often played introverted characters, reciting dialogue with a halting, almost doleful style that could make each word sound like it was being pulled out of his mouth with pliers, or scraggly losers and reprobates, cannon fodder for he-men in many a western. Later he became famous for his jittery, showy rants and depictions of livewire souls. His pal James Dean had brought him into film work, and Hopper’s reputation for on-set insubordination almost ruined his career before it got going; after Dean’s death he was all but blackballed by the industry.
.
TheLastMovie02
.
Indie filmmaker and long-time bohemian Curtis Harrington gave Hopper a lead role in the wonderful horror film Night Tide (1961), and his friend John Wayne eventually revived his acting career by insisting Henry Hathaway hire him for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Whilst keeping one foot planted in mainstream labours, Hopper was a driving force in the annexation of Hollywood’s hinterlands by the new bohemia. After he starred alongside friend Peter Fonda in a film written by another pal, Jack Nicholson, the psychedelic paean The Trip (1967) directed by Roger Corman, Hopper and Fonda developed their take on the zeitgeist. Fonda produced and Hopper directed the singularly successful film of and about the era, Easy Rider (1969). Low budget, rough and ready, a combination of Voltaire parable and satire with an essayistic exploration of alternative Americana, Easy Rider channelled diverse aspects of the European and American film styles to make a counterculture document with some credibility.
.
TheLastMovie03
.
Easy Rider was a colossal success, making Hopper a cause célèbre and Hollywood’s official hippie. But Hopper all but invited being set up as public sacrifice and cautionary example. He feuded with Fonda over royalties, slipped in and out of a marriage to The Mamas & The Papas singer Michelle Phillips in two weeks, and let his indulgence in drugs go off the deep end. He was given $1 million by Universal to make his next film at a time when studios were throwing money at films about counterculture youth hoping some of it would stick. Hopper, however, couldn’t have been less interested in returning to that subject, and moved onto new, equally provocative territory. The result was an infamous debacle that once again sent Hopper into exile, branded an addict, nuisance, and professional madcap. He managed to turn this persona to his own ends when, against all predictions, he rehabilitated his career again in the 1980s. Hopper’s directorial legacy is scant, but, except for a largely dismissed final comedy Chasers (1994), it is also one of the strongest and most unique in American cinema.
.
TheLastMovie04
.
Hopper had been kicking around the idea for The Last Movie since his experiences making a western at a foreign location in the mid ’60s, and he developed a script with Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern. At first, he shot and edited togather a rudely expressive but essentially linear film. Legend has it that his pal the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky then mocked his straitlaced structure, and encouraged him to attack the film like an Abstract Expressionist slashing at his own canvas. That anecdote sounds a touch arch, however, as The Last Movie was clearly intended from the start to expand on the form- and mind-bending elements of Easy Rider, while essentially telling fans of that film to fuck off.
.
TheLastMovie05
.
Such a radical take was an inspired, if doomed, enterprise. The Last Movie is a weird, loping, visceral work, an ill-starred fate already written into its texture. The Last Movie feels deeply personal for Hopper, as it depicts the movie world in a manner so alienated and troubled, so concerned with the effects of cinema fantasy on real life, it was transmuted into a monument to the desecration of cinematic form. The opening immediately immerses the viewer in a mystic ceremony studded with strange portents with a context that will only be revealed via looping cinematic time. The conclusion seems carefully contrived to appear like funding ran out before the filmmakers quite finished making their film. And yet The Last Movie’s conceits feel far less jarring than they might have at the time, certainly not nearly so much after the likes of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s and Christopher Nolan’s taxing experiments in film structuring, although Hopper’s work is deliberately more ragged than such later films, as it maintains an associative rather than merely rearranged visual logic. The Last Movie is a portrait of shambling wash-ups, existential angst, and the protean zones of culture, filled with some of Hopper’s most accomplished images and highly self-critical themes. Hopper works again with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose special visual tones on Easy Rider became the signature of the Hollywood New Wave, to fashion an artefact that alternates lyricism, immediacy, disorientation, and estrangement. Hopper doesn’t give himself an easy part to play either, embodying a troubled, even swinish character—a stuntman and fallen cowboy named Kansas.
.
TheLastMovie06
.
Kansas is, at the outset, working on a western partly about Billy the Kid, being filmed in Peru by Samuel Fuller. Fuller appears as himself in the film’s most sublime and resonant in-joke, as Fuller had been shown the door by Hollywood by this time in much the same way Hopper had been and was about to be again. The film Fuller’s making seems to be a mixture of the kind of shambolic post-western Robert Altman was making in Canada at the same time, (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971), with glimpses of mockingly awful vaudeville routines featuring gartered dancing girls, and Sam Peckinpah’s savagery, as a giant, comically brutal shoot-out sequence sees the two sides in a clannish range war exterminate each other, even gunning down the handsome deputy sheriff (Fonda) and his sweetheart. Early in the film, one of the stunt sequences of Fuller’s western is depicted, with another stuntman pulling off an impressively gruelling fall from a rooftop and through some scaffolding. Later, this scene is revealed as important in more than incidental fashion, as the stuntman who performed it died. Kansas stumbles through the early scenes dissociated, traumatised, and emotionally volatile. His troubled, scrambled inner world will dictate the outer reality depicted.
.
TheLastMovie07
.
The spectacle of real death on the movie set gives impetus to a strange fantasia. At the very outset Kansas is glimpsed as a bloodied and shameful penitent amidst a crowd at a local religious festival, whilst an imperious, would-be Peruvian director wearing a U.S. Cavalry hat searches for a beauty to star in his “film.” This director-cum-warlord will claim and take over the abandoned sets of the Hollywood shoot, making these into a place of religious fervour for the locals. The district priest (Tomas Milian) has to perform his masses in the set’s fake church to reach his congregation. Hopper then loops the film back to a few weeks earlier, when the Hollywood crew was still working. Kansas hovers around the shoot, still dazed by death and irritating Fuller. The film crew successfully wraps up their production after depicting the death of Billy the Kid, which Fuller announces he wants done different and better than any previous version. At the wrap party, Kansas wanders through a tangled crowd of performers and revellers and finds amongst them various tableaux vivants unfolding before his eyes. Narrative alienation blends fascinatingly with the sense that Hopper is documenting his own dissociation from his apparent place as Hollywood’s king of hipsters, as he reduces the apparatus of stardom to cameo fodder: Kovacs’ gliding camera, surveying a world of cool film folk, with a lot of Hopper’s own friends and fellows dotting the crowd, engage in drop-of-a-hat sing-alongs, mini-happenings, and strange rituals.
.
TheLastMovie08
.
A man is transformed into a woman by a group of masked faux-shamans in a glimpsed moment that seems to come right out of some Carlos Castenada-esque fever dream, and indeed, the influence of Latin American magic realism and spiritual writing traditions pervades The Last Movie as narratives of false life and false death segue hazily into abnormal rituals of real life and real death. Kansas retreats into the shadows and weeps, but tries to fend off solicitous interest from a friend. Hopper suggests an approach close to that of Easy Rider in early scenes where songs play like commentary on the soundtrack, but Hopper quickly fragments and then disposes of this refrain. He casts Kris Kristofferson and others as musically inclined crewmen on the film who play Greek chorus, and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” scores footage of Hopper in character as Kansas roving on horseback like the Marlboro Man, the ideal, self-reliant frontiersman, only to have Kansas accidentally crash Fuller’s set in the middle of filming, stirring a torrent of abuse from the director.
.
TheLastMovie09
.
Kansas is soon called on to participate in stunts himself, glimpses of which are interpolated throughout the film. The stunts require him to take the place of the dead man in jarring and difficult movements, like being jerked off a horse by a tether or swinging in on a guy rope, causing alarm and concern in one local extra working on the film, recognisable as the man later directing the fake movie. Once the film shoot concludes and the company disbands to return home, Kansas decides to stay behind and live in the mountain town with his local girlfriend Maria (Stella Garcia) in a house he starts building above the town. Their union is deeply carnal, and when they have sex in a waterfall pool, it proves embarrassingly close to a popular path along which the priest escorts children.
.
TheLastMovie10
.
Islets of quintessential hippie romanticism early in the film see the pair framed against beautiful mountain vistas in flowered fields and other such pastoral refrains. But Kansas and Maria are far from being dippy young lovers, as Maria is happy to have hooked up with a rich gringo, and Kansas regards her as useful appliance. Emerging from his depression high on the spirit and beauty of his new home, but detached from the poverty around it, Kansas thinks big, dreaming up schemes to create a ski resort on snow-clad peaks. Kansas’ only local pal, Neville Robey (Don Gordon), claims to have a lead on a potential gold mine, and wants to dig up an investor to help him extract it. Kansas becomes his partner as the film productions he was expecting to exploit in the now-established location don’t come. One afternoon in a café where they play chequers, Neville gets Kansas to help him flirt with a pair of women who enter, Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams) and her daughter (Donna Baccala), the family of prominent American businessman Harry Anderson (Roy Engel). Kansas has the wherewithal to charm Mrs. Anderson, and manages to get them invited to dinner with the family, where Neville can lobby Mr. Anderson to fund their mine.
.
TheLastMovie11
.
Here The Last Movie shifts into territory reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ studies in behaviour amongst the emotionally thwarted and morally bankrupt, as Hopper’s collective of exiled Americans get drunk, tell filthy jokes, flirt, and go out in search of a racy good time that will shock their stagnant nerves and fetid blood back into action. Neville drunkenly burbles sexy shockers like suggesting mother and daughter make out, whilst both Anderson and Maria carefully ignore Kansas’ increasingly overt moves on Mrs. Anderson and her all-too-eager appreciation of them. Hopper notes with a cold alacrity the mutuality of Anderson and Maria’s blind eyes, the former acquiescing for the sake of keeping his attractive wife happy and the latter for the sake of not rocking her fiscal boat as multiple forms of prostitution collide. The booze-sodden evening moves on to a local brothel, which Neville reckons is the town’s best entertainment venue, and they listen to a soaring-voiced folk warbler (Poupée Bocar) before retiring for more obscene delights as Kansas pays a couple of hookers to put on a sex act as floor show. Mrs. Anderson plainly wants to join the couple on the floor whilst lolling in autoerotic delight, framed between two pin-ups of a muscle man and a starved African child–the film’s bitterest, most direct portrait of first-world anomie in perfect symbiosis with exploitation. Kansas has to fend off the attentions of Maria’s former boyfriend/pimp who threatens him with a gun. Maria leaps up to intervene and rushes the man away, but Kansas is still drunkenly infuriated and he beats the hell out of her when she returns.
.
TheLastMovie12
.
The sobered, chagrined Kansas tries to make it up to Maria, who demands a fur coat like Mrs. Anderson’s. Kansas goes to the Andersons to buy one, and Mrs Anderson, who confesses to her own sadomasochistic fantasies stirred by Kansas’ guilty confessions and the night’s pornography, agrees to give him her daughter’s. But she extracts her own price from Kansas, insisting he submit to her sadistic fantasies of abuse and control, making him kneel and receive slaps in the face. This movement of the film is so odd, mordant, and perversely fascinating that I would sing the whole’s praises even if the rest of it had been mere footage of Hopper pissing against a wall—which is just about what Hollywood and a lot of critics thought he did.
.
TheLastMovie13
.
Colonialism is certainly a part-hidden target of the film as it regards the gravitational effect of American cultural apparatchiks and their infrastructure distorting the minds and lives of anyone with whom they come in contact. Money matters to Hopper’s characters, for, as in Easy Rider, a quixotic attempt to make money to buy “freedom” comes to the fore, swapping the previous film’s original sin drug deal for Kansas and Neville’s attempt to ascertain if the gold mine can really pay off for them. They head into the wilderness to check out the mine, in a story segue that explicitly references to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): in fact, in a scene close to the end of the film, which seems to be a non sequitur flashback to this journey, Kansas and Neville are depicted arguing comically about details from Sierra Madre, which might be Neville’s only actual source of knowledge about gold mining.
.
TheLastMovie14
.
Earlier in the film, the priest alerted Kansas to a novel and disturbing phenomenon that seems to have gripped his parishioners, and led him to the fake film village to see them “shooting” their own version of the film with equipment made of out of wicker, complete with fistfights that result in real blood and bruises. Kansas tries to show them how it’s done in the trade, but the director complains that “isn’t real!” Exactly what the fake shoot is supposed to be Hopper leaves ambiguous, but he makes clear he feels guilty for his participation in the hypnotic, reality-bending force of the movies and correlates them with other forms of imperial power. Kansas requests absolution from the Priest for playing his part in this. This activity seems initially a simplistic piece of monkey-see-monkey-do on the behalf of the locals, but soon comes to look rather more like a determined, ritualistic subsuming of the power of the invaders, a Promethean project of stealing the movie gods’ fire and also a religious festival. The finale invokes two different forms of such ritualised theatre, as film production and passion play meet in perfect mirroring.
.
TheLastMovie15
.
Satires on the movie industry are plentiful, but very few are as brutally logical, original, and funny as The Last Movie. The Cavalry-hatted director combines the archetype of the filmmaker as authoritarian visionary with the canard of the Mexican bandit as well as the military overlord. He handles his “cast” and “crew” with great collaborative zest, but when someone doesn’t stick with the programme he takes action. Kansas tries to flee from their clutches, busting out of the prison he’s locked in because he realises that it is of course not a real prison. The director, however, pulls out a very real pistol and starts shooting at him as he rides away, clipping Kansas in the shoulder. The injured cowboy, dizzy from blood loss and hysterical, tries to find Maria in the brothel, where he starts a fight with bouncers and gets himself thrown out. He limps through empty, debris-filled buildings in perhaps the film’s most surreal-feeling sequence, filled with jump cuts and oblique framings that fragment perception, as the structures become dreamlike traps where past, present, and future become liquid and Kansas’ cognisance splinters, glimpsed in agony in mirrors in the midst of stone-walled, half-finished, or half-demolished structures, stumbling amidst piled and ruined coffins and religious paraphernalia. He recovers, ministered to by the priest and the director and found by Maria, who nonetheless falls under the influence of the director and announces she’s off to participate in a beauty pageant designed to pick a star for the film. Kansas stumbles back into the midst of the “film” as he searches for Maria and is swept up in the culmination of the strange rite, with the priest now playing along with his flock in uniting the worship of movies and Christianity. Kansas is imprisoned again, and Maria tetchily mocks Kansas’ appeals for help, believing the director won’t go so far as to actually kill him.
.
TheLastMovie16
.
During his first exile, Hopper fostered a serious interest in photography and found traction in the field. Whilst the formal beauty and experimental élan of Kovacs’ photography is readily apparent, and many scenes play out in a coherent enough manner, Hopper’s photographic experience had given him a highly tactile, expressive sense of film as a tool to be used or abused. The Last Movie plays out in a high state of flux that occasionally stabilises, reality and film deliberately fragmented and confused. Hopper offers some obvious pokes at familiar structuring, like having his “A film by Dennis Hopper” title card appear 10 minutes into the film, and then the actual film title another 10 minutes later, and “scene missing” cards inserted in a manner that anticipates the fascination of recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Andrew Bujalski with the film as an artefact. The Last Movie, as its title might well threaten, is a constant, boiling mass of cinematic style and antistyle, as Kovacs works in wild lensing effects and a jagged lexicon of film language. Godard’s Week-End (1967) seems to have been a specific influence, borrowing not just its name from that film’s baleful final title card, but much of Godard’s deliberately anarchic aesthetic. But whereas Godard emphasised theatricality and falseness in his mise-en-scene to mock the idea of verisimilitude, The Last Movie is more attentive to the immediate reality of its setting, capturing the weird atmosphere of its Peruvian setting with an often documentary immediacy: nature and place, if nothing else, still wield a transformative power over human dreams in Hopper’s vision.
.
TheLastMovie17
.
Classically graceful tracking shots alternate with analytical, extended, meandering zoom shots, or handheld documentary-style shots with fish-eye lensing that create a mood of happenstance, overheated authenticity. One motif of the film lies in repeated, startlingly wide, long-angle panorama shots that seem to be trying to rupture the limitations of the frame and that often include someone sprawled dead or injured (or playing dead or injured) in the foreground. There seems to be an almost religious meaning behind this recurring shot of earth, sky, and fallen being in one vast arc of communion. Certainly there is such meaning in the recurring vision of a man stretched out either dead or being transformed, from the drag queen at the wrap party to the shots that conjoin Kansas and the soon-to-be-dead stuntman as both go through the rope stunt and finish up flat on their backs, and a later shot where an injured Kansas lies prone and agonised, time and space breaking up into barely liminal flashes. Christ-like postures are one of the signal clichés of male movie actors seeking to become the auteurs of their movies, whether directing or not, and Hopper certainly indulges that posture here, as Kansas fears he’s going to be the human sacrifice to set the seal on the movie-ritual. But the strangely beautiful refrain that represents the ultimate break-up of narrative in The Last Movie, showing Kansas running and falling as if shot but then getting up again. The resurrection that is so crucial to the Christ mythos is readily coherent in film where (nearly) every death is fake and resurrection immediate, and Kansas’ ritualised reengagement with the death that ended the “real” film restores the order.
.
TheLastMovie18
.
Or does it? Hopper makes fun of the parable and his apparent irony, or rather reduces it to absurdist statement, offering up repeated takes of his “death,” each filmed in languorous slow motion. Hopper then lets the film trail off in shots as elusive as the early ones, noting bored-looking extras waiting for the star to enter the frame, and Hopper, Milian, and the “director” stumbling through abortive takes or halting, improvised comedy. A return to Kansas and Neville on their gold hunt calls back to the gently spacy humour of Easy Rider’s famous grass-and-firelight scene, before Hopper closes on one of his repeated shots, of a tree on fire in the midst of the film set with an unidentified man hanging in the branches. The Last Movie is a supremely uneasy work, one that transmits both its filmmaker’s lack of faith in his art, but also his dynamic involvement with it. The Last Movie was dismissed and buried for a long time, and yet what’s striking is how much influence, or at least anticipation, it had. Francis Coppola revealed his affinity by borrowing the seamy nightlife venture for The Godfather Part II (1974) and then casting Hopper in the thematically, crucially similar Apocalypse Now (1979), whilst elements of the later cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Alex Cox, and some Latin American filmmakers are predicted with fascinating alacrity. Hopper himself finally returned from directorial exile via the work some regard as his best, the troubled-youth flick Out of the Blue (1980), which posited former easy rider as child-abusing drunk and progeny as apocalyptic punkette.

Standard
1970s, Comedy, Erotic, Exploitation

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

.

BeyondValleyDolls01

 

Director: Russ Meyer
Screenwriter: Roger Ebert

By Roderick Heath

Roger Ebert’s death last week at the age of 70 brought on a wealth of lionising appreciations and articles, most of which celebrated the obvious and salient fact that he was a dean of mainstream American film criticism. There was another Ebert, however, a side the renowned critic was half-embarrassed by later in life, and one that his one-time partner in critical volleying Gene Siskel often used as a punch-line. Ebert had been a gaudily talented, furtively scurrilous dilettante screenwriter who collaborated with, of all people, Russ Meyer, the closest thing American cinema has ever had to a Rabelais. Ebert wrote three films for Meyer, two under pseudonyms: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! (1976), and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), all frenetic, comedic, deliriously eroticised satires that contemplate the sheer randy zest of the American populace in filmmaking that moves as if demonically possessed. This collaboration between Meyer, who had risen slowly from independent sexploitation productions to signing a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox, and Ebert, a Midwestern film nerd with a literate intelligence blended with hip, ruthless wit that was carefully leavened by his later persona as cuddly advocate, could only have happened in 1970. This, of course, was when Hollywood was desperate to connect with youth audiences who, even then, were the life blood of cinema attendance, but whose tastes were notoriously hard to cater to. Asked to create a follow-up for Mark Robson’s famously awful, enormously successful 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls, adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller, Meyer and Ebert transformed the project into their own freewheeling satire on both the Hollywood scene, which had been infected by the counterculture but still offered excess par excellence, and the Hollywood product itself.

 

BeyondValleyDolls02

 

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls traces essentially the same arc of morality play about talented, pretty youngsters who hit Los Angeles hoping for fame and fortune but find the seedy underbelly of the Dream Factory. Susann’s story had the appeal of both waggling illicit and vicarious thrills under the nose whilst reinforcing prejudices for the receptive. Meyer and Ebert provide thrills illicit and vicarious alright, through the veil of mimicking the forms and platitudes of soap operas, magazine editorials, talk radio shows, and parochial moralists. The cast’s uncertainty as to whether they were in a comedy or not, an uncertainty enforced by their fear of embarrassing Ebert by having to ask, explains and surely contributed to the film’s volatile temperament: the motifs are authentic, the style ridiculous, the vulgarity supreme, and the emotions often strangely real. Indeed, that uncertainty says a lot about how silly much of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter output is. Funny thing is, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has a perversely acute prognosticative streak under its cheeky leer: Ebert’s script riffed on the then still-reverberating shock and notoriety of the Manson murders, and chose as his villain a figure based loosely on Phil Spector, who much later would reveal a genuine homicidal side to his outsized eccentricity. At a time when all-female rock bands were practically unheard of, Meyer, a professional libertine, and Ebert, dipping his toe in that pond, drummed up a film about one that became a sort of incidental founding text: watching Floria Sigismondi’s much undervalued The Runaways (2011) about that breakthrough act feels like art imitating life imitating art. Similarly, Beyond the Valley helped to invent a subgenre making fun of the licentious fantasies the explosion of the pop music scene in the ’60s engendered in the public consciousness, to be followed by films like Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and creating in such a film an ironic touchstone for people who really aspired to success in music.

 

BeyondValleyDolls03

 

Beyond the Valley begins with The Kelly Affair, an all-girl rock band composed of ballsy but cute singer Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), doe-eyed bassist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and sassy black drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), playing for a high school dance. Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) is their manager and Kelly’s boyfriend. Fed up with such paltry scenes, they decide to drive out to L.A. to pursue major success, where Kelly visits her aunt and last remaining family member, Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), a successful fashion designer and sole inheritor of the large family estate, because Kelly’s mother had been disowned as a single mother. Susan, charmed by Kelly, wants to give her a cut of the inheritance, but her scheming, square lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) objects, calling Kelly a fraud. Success proves instantaneous for The Kelly Affair, thanks to their introduction by Susan and Porter to flamboyant music promoter Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar), whose nightly parties, explosions of hip debauchery, are infamous.

 

BeyondValleyDolls04

 

Z-Man is immediately taken with Kelly and, after changing the band’s name to The Carrie Nations in reference to the saloon-smashing suffragette, he turns them into a sensation. But the shadow of success and all its evils now falls upon the band, as the cornucopia of sex, drugs, and money they now have access to puts them at the mercy of vampires of many kinds. Kelly is pulled away from Harris, who regards Z-Man and his world dubiously, and thrust into the arms of muscly Aryan gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett). Harris then gives in to the attentions of greedily sensual porn starlet Ashley St. Ives (Edy William). Petronella falls for a law student moonlighting as a waiter at Z-Man’s parties, Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), but in a distraught mood, sleeps with hot-blooded boxing champ Randy Black (Jim Iglehart). Casey, disaffected with men, heads into a lesbian affair with Susan’s collaborator Roxanne (Erica Gavin).

 

BeyondValleyDolls05

 

What follows is a remorseless burlesque on the tropes and conceits of trashy melodramas, inflected with Meyer and Ebert’s determined indulgence of that trash. Meyer was a contradictory figure: an extremely talented filmmaker with one of the best eyes for shot and cut in American cinema at the time, he was nonetheless extremely happy to celebrate the niche he found for himself as Hollywood’s greatest sex fiend, whilst playing the waggish commentator on the state of the nation’s bedroom life and psyche. Ebert’s film nerd streak comes out in some fairly obvious touches, like naming Porter Hall after the ubiquitous player of craven roles in ’30s films. A weird flourish that kicks the movie off suggests an immediate and forceful attempt to jam the film’s excessive and gaudy aesthetic in the audience’s faces, and also doubles as another film freak joke, as the climactic scenes unspool under the opening credit. Thus, the film plays the noir game of setting up a shift into flashback (and it should be remembered that Beyond the Valley, like most of Meyer’s films, becomes a noir tale, filtered through a distorting prism), but with the added gag of the credits being styled like the closing credits, as if the projectionist has messed up the reels. The utter bizarreness of what’s glimpsed on screen in this opening does eventually make sense later—well, sort of.

 

BeyondValleyDolls06

 

The riotous cornucopia of pansexual and pharmaceutical indulgence that is Z-Man’s abode provides a gladiatorial arena for much of the drama, with Z-Man its deliciously weird master of ceremonies. Kelly’s first entrance to his house is a brilliant display of both Meyer’s visual technique and Ebert’s cheekily loquacious writing, with Z-Man introducing Kelly to each of the vital figures of the upcoming drama with a stream of airily literate descriptions: “Languid Roxanne finds beauty, that delicate pinch of feminine spice with which she often flavours her interludes. Ah, look there, Lance Rocke! Greek god and part-time actor. See how well he performs? The golden hair, the bedroom eyes, the firm young body, all are available for a price!” Z-Man’s ornate word flow and status as unofficial narrator anticipates the more sustained experiment in narration in Ultra-Vixens, and also, weirdly, has a certain rhythm in common with Ebert’s speaking style in his later TV days. Meyer does spectacular work here as he leaps from character to character, interaction to interaction, entwining conversations, many between dancing people, into a rhythmically pulsing visual music, as it is in an earlier montage where his images and the arguments of the band over heading to L.A. turn into a kind of audio-visual beat poetry.

 

BeyondValleyDolls07

 

A certain loopy, sarcastic poetry does indeed inflect Ebert’s script, especially through the fount of verbose entertainment that is Z-Man. His declaration about his own party, “This is my Happening and it freaks me out!”, turns ephemeral hipster slang into Shakespearean epigram, whilst he later admonishes Lance, “I accept your fealty and do nobly return it, and beseech you to get thine ass in gear and gird thine angry loins,” and segues into his immortal cry of lunatic offence, “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Reminiscent of Jay Robinson’s fey Caligula in The Robe (1954) whilst anticipating Joel Grey’s pansexual emcee in Cabaret (1972) but more fundamental to the drama, Z-Man is the singular brilliant creation of Beyond the Valley. The spirit and embodiment of an unfettered, polymorphous age, Z-Man fancies himself as Virgil, the orchestrator of tours through Hades, as well as the seductive Mephistopheles dangling temptation, and finally succumbing to it himself, as his own bizarre secret is exposed in the course of sexual humiliation—he’s a hermaphrodite, or a transvestite, or something (Lance calls him “a really ugly broad”) a twist made up almost at the last minute by Ebert, but anyway he runs about for the rest of the film with dinky little tits out—sending him spiralling into a homicidal delirium.

 

BeyondValleyDolls08

 

If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s that it mimics the structure of what it’s sending up a little too faithfully (a common fault of such send-ups; 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a recent example), laying out the separate travails of the band and the people they know in overdrawn but not always hugely funny terms. Kelly is manipulated by Lance and abused by Porter, whom she seduces although he’s so uptight he won’t even take off his socks before getting into bed, in a sequence that can best be described as slightly amusing. Emerson catches Petronella and Randy in bed and then gets run down by the boxer when he refuses to budge from in front of his car. Like many of the professional women in the melodramas exemplified Douglas Sirk’s camp works, Susan is rescued from the sterility of success when her former boyfriend Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier) comes back into her life. Harris, increasingly addled and made impotent by narcotics, is soon given the boot by Ashley, who contemptuously suggests he might be gay, and in steaming humiliation he assaults the lippy Lance in Z-Man’s house. Badly beaten, he retreats to Casey’s house where they get stoned and sleep together, only for Casey to awaken the next morning without remembering how it went down, and throw Harris out in horror.

 

BeyondValleyDolls09

 

But Beyond the Valley’s wicked streak finally crystallises when the story lines collide in a hospital waiting room after Harris has attempted suicide by throwing himself from the rafters of a TV studio where the band was performing. A stream of shocking revelations, including the fact Casey is pregnant by Harris, who’s feared to be paralysed, is accompanied by a droning organ score of the type endemic to soap opera. A kind of critical mass of absurd tropes is reached, and the only place for the narrative to go is into orgiastic self-destruction, something Z-Man is happy to provide. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls bemused and delighted many critics and viewers upon release and ever since for largely the same reasons: through its unabashed willingness to pander precisely the things it was sending up, its an excessiveness of style and attitude, and its eruptive, declarative embrace of what was supposed to be, in more familiar style, winking or happenstance pleasures for stoned collegians and raincoat-clad weirdoes. In this fashion, the director and screenwriter helped to erect something that others had tried but without the cred or the contempt for boundaries: studied, self-reflexive camp (one that pays tribute to an earlier effort by having Casey and Roxanne dress as Batman and Robin, famously camped up on TV in the 1960s).

 

BeyondValleyDolls10

 

The peculiar achievement of Beyond the Valley lies therefore in its capacity to strike one viewer as very obviously a lampoon and leave another uncertain, even appalled. The director and writer’s sensibilities are beautifully simpatico, particularly at the very end where Ebert serviced Meyer’s “sick sense of humour” by providing a ridiculous run-through of the characters’ fates in a plummy voiceover that points out the moral of each of their stories, underlining the vapid veneer of moralising assumed by much popular entertainment that actually appeals to base instinct. But there’s an undercurrent that keeps one mindful that Meyer really was the trash auteur where Ebert was a talented dilettante: where you can hear Ebert cackling with laughter bent over his typewriter, Meyer’s lower, debauched chuckle is also audible, as he always finds the money shot, throwing random huge-breasted starlets at the screen and going for broke with a startling moment when a woman is shot in the mouth to a rapidly edited but still spectacularly gruesome glimpse of spurting blood.

 

BeyondValleyDolls11

 

Meyer was definitely a director well-schooled in the perverted arts, but he also had a unique, sinuous grasp on the shifting tides of his public, sneaking observations and provocations with strange and disorienting punch into his sex farces. Ebert approached the affair as a mocking pastiche of everything he found silly in popular entertainment and our receptivity to them; for Meyer carnal forces lay deeper, less separable from more proper forms of entertainment, eating away at surface stabilities. A hint of meta self-satire is introduced as Meyer casts his then-wife William as the man-eating porn star (Meyer would close the circle with Ultra-Vixens, turning his own directing into part of the film) who, like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), inverts sexist prerogatives as an aggressively Amazonian libertine who humiliates Harris for his inability to perform. One of Meyer’s most sublime cinematic gags comes when Ashley first seduces Harris, enticing him into the back seat of her luxury car after Harris says he’s never made love in a Rolls-Royce and inspiring her orgasmic reverie, intercut with shots of gleaming hood ornaments: “There’s nothing like a Rolls – not even a Bentley! – Bentley! – Bentley!” Conspicuous consumption indeed, in a scene that beautifully condenses both Meyer’s contemplation of the relationship of sex and money in American society and his own love of the jump cut with sexual technique. The swanky photography by Fred Koenekamp buries the fairly low budget with gloriously overheated hues and worshipful studies of flesh, particularly in a brilliant late montage the depicts Z-Man’s fateful last bacchanal where he, Lance, Casey, and Roxanne take drugs and spiral into ecstatic tactile passion, bathed in sensual hues of green, blue, and red, in a riotous succession of off-kilter angles, geometric figure studies, and jammed-tight close-ups, orgiastic indulgence about to transmute into onanistic rampage.

 

BeyondValleyDolls12

 

Where Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! had diagnosed repression and obsessive, degenerative machismo as secretly crippling atomic-age America and predicting an age of Amazonian superwomen rising out of its ashes, Meyer here, with Ebert’s help, reconnoiters the fallout of the breakdown he predicted. Norms collapsed, generations split, genders melted into a primordial chaos, and alternative and mainstream cultures each sought to exploit the other—late ’60s hip culture crashing headlong into haute capitalist power games. Both men readily admitted they knew little about the counterculture, but that didn’t matter: in fact, it became their secret strength. “Come on, man. I doubt if you’d recognise a hippie,” Kelly jabs at Porter: “I’m a capitalist, baby. I work for my living, not suck off somebody else.” If there’s a “serious’ aspect to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s in its evocation of a very specific moment in popular culture where social and sexual givens were cracking open: Meyer and Ebert give us an upwardly mobile, seriously conceived black couple and an ardent lesbian pairing, amidst the already familiar squares versus cool kids drama that pits Kelly against Hall, an uptight prig who upbraids the young hipsters around Z-Man and attacks Kelly with special viciousness in his efforts to send her packing before Susan endows her with the money he hopes to bilk. But unlike the many attempts to capture the counterculture zeitgeist in films before it, Beyond the Valley has already moved into a vantage of intense irony regarding that schism. It’s clear in retrospect that Ebert and Meyer recognised that youth revolution had already become theatre, and that the Me Decade was about to begin, presaged by Z-Man’s monstrous formlessness.

 

BeyondValleyDolls13

 

The open-minded aspect of the moment was still celebrated and perhaps indeed furthered by this film’s boldness. But it’s quite obvious that the clash between the candy-coloured hippies represented by Kelly and the effete, venal establishment embodied by Porter has already become a cartoonish trope as corny as anything in the soap operas the filmmakers repeatedly reference, fitting in perfectly with the film’s overall R-rated proto-Scooby Doo aesthetic. This is not to say the film is cynical about liberation, but it does have a wryly observant take on some aspects of it: the tendency of modern fashion toward androgynous skinniness is diagnosed in an exchange between Susan and one of her gay designers who keeps complaining about a model’s capacious bust, to which Susan retorts that “you must reconcile yourself to the fact that Cynthia is not a boy.” (If boob-happy Meyer was bound to find anything objectionable in contemporary gender revisions, that was it.) Still, the transposition of a fairly familiar brain-vs.-body romantic choice onto a black woman, who is caught between Randy, who posits himself as a sensitive warrior-poet but is actually a lunatic macho, and the smoother aspirational charm of Emerson, whose path to success is slower and more exacting, captures the “which way now?” question hanging over the post-civil rights era in the African-American community more incisively than many more earnest mainstream takes on the matter. More problematic is the approach to Casey and Roxanne’s affair, which offers up some canards about lesbians—Casey is weepily misanthropic whilst Roxanne is manipulative—but is essentially generous, if only because, in a note that pays off with a gloriously shameless make-out scene that affirms the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure but also critiques it again through excess, Meyer’s affectionately rubbernecking way of saying that liberation is a win/win situation, folks.

 

BeyondValleyDolls14

 

By this time, Meyer has given us “Stranger in Paradise” as a musical cue when Z-Man grabs Lance’s cock. The film’s last phase explodes with visions of disintegrating reality and pansexuality segueing into body-in-pieces Freudian fantasy, complete with distraught Z-Man asserting phallocratic power over Roxanne by jamming a gun in her mouth and blowing her brains out, and hacking off the head of Lance, reducing him to a purer lust object. Thus, Z-man brings to a consummating explosion the breakdown of forms into constituent bloody pieces. He also shoots Casey and stabs to death his household servant Otto (Henry Rowland), who’s actually Nazi bigwig Martin Boorman, a weird recurring trope in Meyer and Ebert’s collaborations: in Ultra-Vixens it’s Hitler himself spending his declining years finding fulfilment in erotic dalliance in the American Midwest. The readiness of the rest of the band and their now settled partners to leap to Casey’s rescue, albeit too late, is itself hilarious, as Harris saves the day by crashing into Z-Man with his wheelchair and thereby regaining his ability to walk.

 

BeyondValleyDolls15

 

The whole show concludes with a triple wedding for Harris and Kelly, Petronella and Emerson, and Susan and Baxter, whilst Porter watches from outside, ruined by his machinations, the final gloating satire on the moral neatness of melodrama but also linking the story back to Shakespearean pastoral, from which this mode of storytelling draws much of its spirit. If Z-Man’s rampage is surprisingly potent, this scene, and the exposition of the narrator giving us the lowdown on the meaning of it all, concludes the film again on a note of giddy, laugh-yourself-sick excess. But it’s hard not to notice that with Casey and Roxanne sacrificed as victims to Moloch’s twisted breeding with Pan embodied in Z-Man and the remaining couples joined in wedded bliss, the party is surely over. All that’s left after dissolution is reconstitution: reenter the squares, stage right.

Standard