By Sherrie Li
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In the early 1960s, briefly reduced to playing bit TV parts on Bonanza and Petticoat Junction, Hopper was forced to reinvent himself, mostly as a photographer. His portraits of fellow actors are marvels.
One study of a corner gas station, framed by a car's windshield, dashboard and rearview mirror (Double Standard, 1962) has no people in it at all but needs none: The personality is behind the camera.
This quiet period of training his interior vision proved essential to Hopper's formation as a film director. Easy Rider may have revolutionized the film business, but its virtues as art are of a piece with the strength in Hopper's photography, his relentless appetite for this moment, whatever that moment is. This is why Easy Rider so captivated people of all ages in 1969; perhaps this is also why the film now dates so badly, at least in certain parts. He was not only being true to the inchoate dreams and nightmares of the culture but to its bullshit as well. He clearly recognized this because the film culminates in a cryptic, mischievous line of dialogue: "We blew it."
Hopper supplied his co-star Peter Fonda with that line; it was an intuitive prompt, and generally speaking it is his loyalty to things that are irrational yet true which gives all the films he directed their abiding afterlives. The Last Movie, crazy-quilt jigsaw puzzle that it is, is all the same, uncannily true to the spirituality of the Peruvian natives among whom its hero is marooned. Out of the Blue (1980) took on abused children well ahead of the cultural curve, just as Colors (1986) was the first mainstream American film to wrestle in depth with L.A.'s gang subculture. For all that it was jinxed in postproduction, and still suffers from canned mood music even in the director's cut Hopper restored for DVD, Backtrack succeeds against steep odds in its funny and feverish fantasizing by creating a very tangible empathy for the two radically opposed strangers at its epicenter, and the unexpected love they share for art, and beauty. In my own favorite of Hopper's work as a director, The Hot Spot (1990), intuition is practically the protagonist. The charming drifter who blows into town finds himself at the mercy of any number of hidden agendas, just as we do in watching, and all of us must attempt in tandem to sort them all out before the local Venus flytraps close over his fool head.
It is difficult to communicate in today's terms what a comet-sized blast Easy Rider created in the film industry. Made for $300,000, it grossed $60 million on its first release: That's 180 times its budget — vastly more than Star Wars, E.T. or Titanic earned in proportion to their costs. The entire business model of moviemaking transformed overnight, making Easy Rider one of scant movies this side of Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer to redirect the industry in a single blow. To this day, even as films compete with games, the Internet and pay-TV, wildcatters making their low-budget and no-budget magnum opuses are working a marketplace Hopper cracked open.
That Jack Nicholson became a star because of Easy Rider is no accident of his own charisma, either. He'd been in other movies without making anywhere near this kind of splash. The character he plays is many men rolled into one: a wised-up son of wealth; a drunken lawyer; a motley fool in a football helmet; a stoned sage of the spaceways, apprehending a holy order in UFOs. Terry Southern wrote the dialogue, but it was Hopper's direction that allowed these clashing manifestations of one man to shine, to become unforgettable.
At its depths, behind the camera or in front of it, Hopper's legacy as a filmmaker is defined by a multitude of excellent performances, each alive with the iconic honesty Dean had pressed him to seek in himself. His particular genius as an artist was that he made himself at home within his own contradictions — and was perpetually eager to invite the rest of the world to join him there, laughing at the darkness.
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