Since today would have been Dennis Hopper’s 84th birthday, I decided to watch the 1971 documentary, The American Dreamer.
Filmed in 1970, between the success of Easy Rider and the release of Hopper’s infamous follow-up to that film, The Last Movie, The American Dreamer is a cinematic portrait of a very specific time in both Dennis Hopper’s life and American film history. Dennis Hopper was 34 years old at the time The American Dreamer was shot and he was at the top of his career. As a result of the success of Easy Rider, he was regularly touted as being the future of American film. He was a self-styled revolutionary who specialized in spacey yet compelling monologues about how American movies were about to enter into a new age. Eager to try to capture the same audience that had made Easy Rider a success, Universal Pictures gave Dennis Hopper a million dollars and allowed him to take the money to South America, where he used it to film The Last Movie, a film that was designed to show who Hopper truly was as a filmmaker. The American Dreamer was filmed while The Last Movie was in post-production and we do see a few scenes of Hopper editing the film.
That said, Hopper doesn’t really seem to be too interested in talking about the specifics of The Last Movie. He does talk a lot about how he’s leading a revolution that’s going to forever alter the American cultural scene but again, Hopper doesn’t really go into too many specifics when it comes to his artistic vision. He’s more into slogans than details. Fortunately, Hopper was a compelling speaker so he holds your attention regardless of how incoherent his frequent monologues are. The American Dreamer may not convince you that Dennis Hopper was a great director but it does prove that he was a good actor. In this film, he’s acting the role of being an outlaw and a visionary.
As vague as he is about his artistic vision, Hopper gets a bit more specific whenever he’s talking about his love of weed, sex, and guns. In between leading encounter groups with all of the women who are living with him in New Mexico, Hopper brags about being such a considerate love that he’s a “male lesbian.” In another scene, Hopper talks to three giggling girl in a bathtub. He explains that free love is a part of the revolution and that he’s helping people get over their hang-ups. It’s impossible not to cringe as Hopper comes across less like a lovable eccentric and more like one of those cult leaders who ends up living in a compound in Nevada and getting into a stand-off with the government.
Hopper’s a bit more likable when he’s filmed rolling a joint. Watching the film, you can tell that he was a man who truly loved getting stoned and he actually lets down his guard a bit and grins once he’s ready to light up. However, Hopper is probably at his most natural and likable when he’s shooting a gun in the desert. Hopper spends a good deal of the film talking about his love for guns. On the one hand, it’s a bit alarming as Hopper doesn’t exactly come across as being the most stable person on the planet. On the other hand, Hopper appears to be having such a good time that it’s hard not to be happy for him. Hopper explains that, when you’re an outlaw and you’ve living in New Mexico, you have to have guns for your own protection and he makes a pretty good argument. One of the frequent misconceptions about Hopper is that he was a hippie. (This despite the fact that Easy Rider more or less ridiculed the hippies.) The American Dreamer, with its emphasis on individual freedom and the right to protect yourself, shows that, even during the height of the Hollywood counterculture, Hopper’s outlook was essentially libertarian. Watching The American Dreamer, it’s easier to understand how Hopper went from directing Easy Rider to becoming one of the few Republicans in Hollywood. Indeed, whenever the bearded and often unwashed Hopper is seen walking through the desert or firing a gun at a cross, he comes across less like the revolutionary visionary that he’s trying to be and more like an old soul in a new world.
With its frequent use of freeze frames and its intentionally ragged editing, The American Dreamer is very much a film of its era. That’s actually the main appeal of The American Dreamer. It captures a very unique and very specific point of time. It captures an artist during the brief period between his biggest success and his greatest failure and while the film may be frustrating on a narrative level, it’s fascinating as a time capsule. The film is probably more poignant when viewed today than it would have been back in 1971 because, today, we know that The Last Movie bombed and that Hopper’s revolution ended as quickly as it began. It was not Dennis Hopper who determined the future of American film but instead Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Hopper struggled, both professionally and personally, through the rest of the 70s and the early 80s before finally kicking drugs and emerging as not just as an in-demand character actor but also something of a pop cultural icon. Watching The American Dreamer, it’s fascinating to compare the older Hopper — the one who gave witty interviews and who joked about his past excesses — with the pretentious and self-serious Hopper of the early 70s.
Still, The American Dreamer shows that Dennis Hopper was always a compelling figure. It’s impossible not to roll your eyes while watching and listening to the youngish Dennis Hopper but, nonetheless, you do continue to watch and listen.