In one scene in Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson’s meta-documentary “The American Dreamer” (1971), Dennis Hopper is at the Steenbeck machine, editing a moment in “The Last Movie” (1971). His character is surrounded by mock camera equipment made out of sticks, wielded by people who believe they are making a film, except the violence is real.
Who needs drugs when you’ve got this kind of solipsistic hall of mirrors?
For Hopper, that scene epitomizes an ongoing bad trip. After the epochal success of “Easy Rider” (1969) he had been treated by Hollywood as the second coming of Orson Welles. He was determined to prove that he was a real artist, but “The Last Movie” — a kind of “Three Amigos” without the comedy — was frustrating him. To top it off, his marriage to singer Michelle Phillips (of the Mamas and Papas) had crashed after eight days.
Enter Schiller and Carson, who wanted to make a documentary about an actor who grapples with the distinction between performance and identity (they originally had Paul Newman as a subject). Hopper allowed them to join him at his Taos, N.M., homestead where he was editing. In order to penetrate the thespian mask to expose the real Hopper, the two documentarians and their subject paradoxically decided to stage almost everything that happens, feigning a vérité style and then chopping it all up into a fractured Godardian anti-movie. Little is spontaneous, but much is revealed.
Though Hopper performs a version of himself, it nonetheless exposes his fragility, narcissism, and innocence, his ambition to be an artist banging up against his lack of any vision. Shots of him editing, drinking, shooting guns, and engaging in sophomoric conversations with assorted visitors, staff, and hangers-on fade into solemn soliloquies in the desert. Bearded, solemn, and resembling the recently in the news Charles Manson, he intones tidbits like, “It’s very difficult at times, if you believe in evolution, not to believe in revolution.”
Perhaps to puncture the ennui, someone asks Hopper what his fantasy is. Going to Hot Springs with three girls, he offers. Only three, he’s asked? “Ten!” he says. “Twenty!”
So a van arrives full of girls and they drape themselves around Hopper and his furniture. They play a guitar, smoke dope, take off their clothes, give massages, and listen to their host talk ragtime.
Cue the orgy! Or maybe not. You know the ’60s are over when Dennis Hopper responds to a bunch of nubile, in some cases unclad women by leading them in sensitivity exercises. Though Hopper does stroll naked through the streets of Los Alamos — a statement of some sort about the first A-Bomb test — the trip to Hot Springs is canceled.
“The American Dreamer” screens in a digitally restored version on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..