‘Dennis Hopper et le Nouvel Hollywood’

Cinémathèque Française, Paris; Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne
15 October 2008 – 19th January 2009; 11 November 2009 – 7 February 2010

With exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the MAK (Museum for Applied Art) in Vienna and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Dennis Hopper’s acting, artistic and directorial work has received a critical makeover in recent years. Adding to this list, in 2008 Paris’s Cinémathèque Française hosted a dense exhibition and screening program which focused on Hopper’s multi-faceted life and career titled, ‘Dennis Hopper et le Nouvel Hollywood’.

Due to the recognisability of his name and the extent to which his extra-curricular activities are unknown, Hopper’s work lends itself particularly well to the format of a retrospective. As an actor he is famous for playing immoral yet oddly sympathetic characters; as an artist and director his work is historically loaded yet obscure enough to warrant another look. Then there is the intimidating biographical blurb which ties it all together: ‘one time friend of James Dean, early collector of Andy Warhol, pioneer of American independent cinema, outcaste director who fueled a prodigious drug habit in New Mexico, great actor who returns to mainstream acclaim in Blue Velvet (1986) and Hoosiers (1986) …’.

In the exhibition component of the Frank Gehry designed cinémathèque, Hopper’s eclectic artwork, works from his collection and excerpts of his performances in films and commercials were displayed alongside each other in an astutely researched exhibition. His practice was represented through a variety of themes and formats: from photographic portraits, billboard style paintings, figurative sculptures, to performance art and more. In the ground floor cinemas, the screening program comprised some fifty films in which he has appeared, seven of which he directed. When considered together, the retrospective consisted of a disparate range of tropes, with numerous media, characters and contexts playing off each other to create a fragmented representation of a man obsessed with the creative process.

Via a short video work at the entrance to the exhibition one was immediately made aware of Hopper’s relationship to some of the major cultural and political moments in post-1950s American history. ‘I Remember’ (2008) was created especially for this context and featured Hopper’s recitation of historical events in chronological order—as if to undermine his reputation as a drug addled victim of 1960s hedonism. ‘I remember the hydrogen bombs in Nevada […] I remember Martin Luther King’s speech at Washington square […], I remember the 1992 riots in Los Angeles […]’. The video ends with, ‘I remember Barack Obama running for President of the United States of America’. Whilst at the time I thought it may have been a heavy-handed way to begin, the video complimented the exhibition’s eclecticism by creating the sense that the collection was alive and unfinished. It also cleverly appropriated the hype surrounding Obama’s presidential win (he was elected just two weeks after the opening) into Hopper’s own oft mythologized biography.

In a staged discussion at the cinémathèque, Hopper spoke of how observing James Dean on the set of Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Giant (1956) helped to ignite a concern for a more realistic approach to acting. This search for realism appears to have manifested itself in all of his creative outlets since. After being blackballed by director Henry Hathaway for being difficult, he began five years of training at the renowned Lee Strasberg classes in New York where he worked on sense memory and other techniques associated with the method acting school. Whilst in New York he became immersed within the contemporary art scene, associating with the ‘back to reality’ movement of pop art and others who were redefining the importance of Marcel Duchamp and the readymade (a collaborative work with Duchamp features in the exhibition). Hopper’s photography from this period captures the tumultuous political climate of America and, through his association with Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, the milieu surrounding artists such as Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

For the curators, Hopper’s directorial debut, Easy Rider (1969), brought a counter-cultural realism to the screen which audiences embraced and which symbolically ended the reign of melodrama in Hollywood. He followed this success almost immediately with The Last Movie (1971), a film about the making of a film which he edited for a year (utilising the skills of legendary director Alejandro Jodorowsky), which won best picture at the Venice Film Festival, was refused distribution in the United States and after which he was not given the opportunity to direct another film for ten years. With these two films at the turn of the 1970s, Hopper helped pave the way for directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman to bring anti-establishment cinema to mainstream audiences.

Features of the screening program included Hopper’s underrated post-1980s films on the big screen. I still do not understand why Out of the Blue (1980) is not more widely embraced as a great movie—fantastically shot, acted, co-written and edited by Hopper in a period when his alcoholism was at its peak. Backtrack (1990), also directed by Hopper, was another highlight. This is an outstandingly ludicrous film about a mobster (Hopper) who is given the job of tracking and killing a character closely based on the American text artist Jenny Holzer (Jodie Foster). Upon encountering each other they fall into a Stockholm Syndrome scenario and, at the closing credits, flee America on a boat to New Zealand. Seeing that film for the first time and then walking outside to Hopper’s huge public sculpture Untitled (Representation of Man from La Salsa) (2000) is enough to make anyone feel as though they are on drugs.

In presenting Hopper as a dandified figure in art and film, the curators managed to grasp the way he has consistently tried to avoid following the rules of a given genre. Although his art practice demonstrates a naivety at times, like Warhol it is a naivety that can be both deceptive and refreshing. The retrospective’s rhizomatic sensibility and celebrity orientation seemed particularly suited to a culture in which the use of pop-archival sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia is ubiquitous. In its detailed blending of Hopper’s life and career, ‘Dennis Hopper et le Nouvel Hollywood’ brought a surprisingly personal perspective to some of the key shifts in 20th century American culture.

notes: 

The version of this exhibition to be exhibited at the Australia Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne, will include a section on the Making of Mad Dog Morgan, an ACMI curated film program and a series of forums and workshops which will involve Dennis Hopper in the first round.