Home Video Hovel: The American Dreamer, by David Bax
Counterintuitive as it may be to say so, anyone considering themselves a big fan of the late actor/director Dennis Hopper should be warned against picking up the recent Blu-ray release of L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller’s The American Dreamer, a 1971 documentary about Hopper made during post-production of The Last Movie. It’s not just that the film is superficial; it’s that it shows Hopper himself, at least at this time, to be superficial. In fact, he’s the worst kind of shallow person here, actually, the kind whose thin façade is that of someone deep. He spends plenty of time musing out loud but it’s all performative, for the benefit of the people and especially the women with whom he surrounds himself. Under any scrutiny, though, he can’t come up with thoughts on his own Easy Rider that you couldn’t infer from reading the movie’s Wikipedia page.
If The American Dreamer were some hard-edged, Alex Gibney-style hatchet job, then it would at least have a better reason to exist, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be any more enjoyable. But Carson and Schiller seek to lionize their subject. Perhaps the decades have put the time period in context and given us the distance to pick out certain ideas and stances as the emptyheaded trends that they were. Yet I have to imagine there were plenty of people in 1971 who would have detected Hopper’s bullshit. Carson and Schiller just weren’t those guys.
There are some redeeming elements to the film, though. There’s nothing like older documentaries to show us how the world used to look and, as a longtime Los Angeles resident, the opening section’s shots of the city in the early 1970s were a treat for me. Similarly enjoyable is the selection of country music on the soundtrack, including a couple of songs written and performed expressly for the film by Gene Clark of the Byrds. Finally, if you are a fan of The Last Movie, chunks of this documentary function as an interesting making-of.
Those bits of enjoyment are sparse, though. Mostly, Hopper opines obnoxiously, comparing himself to Orson Welles, discussing Charles Manson as if he’s some philosopher and insisting that his interest in the pleasure of his sexual partners makes him a lesbian. The movie’s climax, in which the filmmakers arrange for Hopper to spend an evening in a cabin with a dozen young women, vacillates between risible and just plain gross. Were Hopper alive today, assuming he’d gathered some sense and wisdom over the years, he’d probably be embarrassed by The American Dreamer.
The transfer on the disc appears to be a respectable job from neglected elements. Things look good when they can but most of the picture is full of dirt.
Special features include featurettes about the making and the preservation of the film and an essay by Chris Poggiali.