AFI Fest 2020: Hopper/Welles, by Scott Nye
Hopper/Welles is the perfect film, the one the modern era has been crying out for, and if such a thing is possible at all, it is one of the year’s few truly necessary films. It is not necessary because it will educate you – though it might – or because it recontextualizes or challenges contemporary history – although it does – or because it stands in opposition to a powerful social narrative – which it absolutely can. The film is first and foremost a perfect piece of pure cinema.
Hopper/Welles can be watched in any format, in any resolution, for any length of time, at any point in its progression. You can buy a ticket to an afternoon show (I mean, not literally right now, but theoretically, someday) and watch it completely alone, absorbed in the effect these words and images have in a big empty theater. You could see it at its premiere, in a packed room eager for its success, and find new pleasures in the parts other people in the audience respond to that you might not otherwise. You can watch it on your phone on the way to work in bits and pieces, you could pull up a clip on YouTube of any random portion, you could put it on your TV while you work or your computer while you make dinner and wander in and out of the room and catch what you can. You can watch it completely drunk, alone or surrounded by fellow drunkards, yelling at the screen. Hell, you could put it on repeat for the 48 hours it’s available via the streaming AFI Fest and go about your life and drop in whenever you have a few minutes. It exists simply to be watched, but whatever you give to it, it will give back tenfold to you.
So what is it? It is resolutely not some fawning reflection on some legendary night when these two titans of the industry at wildly different points in their careers went head to head that rolls out Peter Bogdanovich or whoever to say, “You know, you have to think about where Orson was at at this point.” Outside of some very brief explanatory text at the start establishing who each is, there is absolutely no context provided – Orson Welles made Citizen Kane in 1941, Dennis Hopper had just released Easy Rider to massive success and was currently in production on his follow-up when he flew out to Los Angeles to spend an evening with Welles on camera for some film that might have ended up in The Other Side of the Wind. Welles will occasionally dip into playing the main character of that film, Jake Hannaford. And that’s it. That’s the movie. Assembled by Bob Murawski (who also put together the final cut of Other Side), with the direction credited to Welles, it’s a touch over two hours of Hopper and Welles talking about whatever comes to (mostly Welles’) mind.
Welles interviews – damn near interrogates – Hopper about his views on filmmaking, politics, sex, violence, and family. Hopper barely asks any questions at all. Hopper is in nearly every frame of it; Welles isn’t seen once. Gary Graver’s camera, as anyone who saw Other Side will damn well know, keeps this far from being dull, bobbing and weaving and whipping around the same way their minds seem to. Welles gets the upper hand because he’s more rhetorically gifted and has clearer ideas about life; Hopper gets the upper hand because he constantly flummoxes Welles with his loose and often contradictory beliefs. Their minds reflect what’s in their films, and the era in which they came. Welles could not get away with, nor would he have really desired to, not explaining Rosebud in Kane or indeed clarifying the psychological truth of any of his protagonists. He’s a classical dramatist at heart. Hopper’s characters might not have a psychology at all, who’s to say.
Neither man comes away superior because it would be virtually impossible when their foundations for understanding the world are so far apart, though certainly not as far as this evening is from today, fifty years later. Whatever the lightning-fast minds can conjur, they are men of their time, with all those limitations. Both are obsessed with sex; Hopper raises it more often, but Welles does himself in right away by noting (when discussing whether old men or young men are better suited to filming orgies, naturally), “there’s a certain enthusiasm that comes with impotence.” There isn’t a second that goes by that doesn’t force the contemporary viewer to question not only what each man is saying, but the very value of spending a two-hour-and-eleven-minute film listening to them say it. No woke essay on the limits and inbred thinking behind the Western White Male Canon can make as damning a case for it as simply watching two titans of it speculate on just why a young woman wouldn’t undress for Hopper on command, or whether a director is a magician or a god.
Which is not to say their discussion does not yield some fascinating points, just that – like any great conversation, or any great piece of art for that matter – those moments are more electrifying for what they cause the curious audience to consider than for what they directly depict. Those turning to the film for some firm insight into a vibrant, tumultuous era in Hollywood history via two men who helped define the polar ends of it will certainly find it here, but not in any didactic way. Like all great films, it lies in behavior, in the camera according certain values to its performers, in the strange ballet between the two that creates an ephemeral space beyond drama and dialogue and towards something more abstract and less clearly delineated. Listen to what they say, but more importantly how they say it. Watch Hopper’s eyes drift to the young women (some crew, some performers – including Janice Pennington, soon to begin a 29-year career as a model on The Price is Right) who float through the edges of the picture, how he poses – intellectually and physically – for them. Listen too to how forcefully, often desperately, Welles needs to be right, or needs to put Hopper in his place, and how easily Hopper frustrates that simply by not caring whether Welles is right or not, yet now intellectually shallow Hopper too can see as a result, and wonder if Welles isn’t taking some strange pleasure in setting himself up as this omnipotent unseen force, or whatever he might have been thinking with this entire set-up, if anything at all. “God didn’t put the sheep there,” he declares regarding a theoretical field, “but He takes the credit. Just like a director.”
Hopper/Welles seems at times borne by accident and circumstance, and yet still dazzles with its technique – aside from Graver’s camerawork, as discussed, Murawski’s editing is a nimble triumph, fleet and carefree yet absolutely precise in retaining some semblance of continuity across a rotating series of cameras and some very rough clapboards. It’s an enthralling experience, one that can be appreciated from several angles, often at once. Thankfully, the camera, editing, and the men provide just that.