Dennis Hopper: The Man Who Went Looking For America…

51SEjIdusZLOn the 29th of May 2010, American actor, filmmaker, photographer, and artist Dennis Lee Hopper died in Venice, California. Known in Hollywood for his insolent behaviour, Hopper made his debut on film in two roles with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). After Dean’s death, and major falling out with the director Henry Hathaway on the film From Hell to Texas (1958), Hopper had difficulties finding work for the next seven years. The spell was broken by John Wayne, a friend of Hopper’s mother-in-law, actress Margaret Sullavan. Wayne hired Hopper for a role in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), thus saving his unstable career. Soon after that Hopper directed and starred in Easy Rider (1969), for which he won an award at the Cannes Film Festival, and was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay as co-writer. 

Easy Rider, with its use of documentary-style camera work, unprofessional actors, and unscripted dialogue, became eventually the cinematic symbol of the 1960s’ counterculture. “Thematically and stylistically, the film exemplified the assertive countercultural conception of space of the day, rejecting inhuman modernization and rationalistic capitalism, focusing on the countryside and the wilderness, taking a phenomenological pleasure in the sheer fact of motion itself, and mapping a new human society, by means of a rejuvenated pastoral form and iconography. The strongest feature of this mapping was the film’s transcontinental, linear narrative running from west to east across the United States and splitting the country into two distinct geographical regions, each with its own moral and political signification. As the two hippie protagonists, Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper), travelled from Southern California through Arizona and New Mexico to Texas in the first half of the film, the difficulties posed 41dcgKeRjXLby hippie society’s idealist disengagement were suggested in the film’s portrait of a struggling hippie commune. The overwhelming beauty of the landscape and the opportunity for self-fulfilment the commune stood for, supported an extended vision of utopian pastoral escape that was at once invigorating and defiant. This vision was eventually overturned by the altogether more sinister beauty and dystopian connotations of the Deep South, specifically Louisiana, where Wyatt and Billy met violent deaths at the hands of bigoted rednecks. Their deaths appeared as a powerful condemnation of the moral corruption of “straight” America and an affirmation of the righteousness of countercultural escape.” (Mark Shiel, Banal and Magnificent Space in “Electra Glide in Blue” (1973), or an Allegory of the Nixon Era, Cinema Journal, Vol. 46, No. 2, Winter, 2007)

As dated as it seems nowadays, in its time Easy Rider was regarded highly innovative and original. Therefore, the discussion that followed afterwards considered the film mostly in terms of a cultural phenomenon. What has escaped public attention, according to Normand Berlin, is the film’s genre. He claims that Easy Rider contains most of the traditional elements of tragedy. Its leading message might refer to condemnation of a hateful, strict, tradition-bound society, but its genre manifests what has been traditionally considered as tragic. The first element suggesting that Easy Rider is a tragedy is its incorporation of a certain myth. “Easy Rider is related to a distinctly American myth, most powerfully and clearly presented in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn… [T]he statement refers not only to style but to Mark Twain’s evocation in its purest form of the American myth connected with a journey of escape, of going away from the restrictions of society, from the evil and brutality in the world, only to meet it and be wounded by it.” (Normand Berlin, The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy). The archetypical example for this journey can be found in Homer, with the difference that Odysseus is on a constant journey to his home, whilst Huck Finn is on a journey away from home. And the same could be said about Wyatt and Billy in Easy Rider. “In both Mark Twain’s novel and Easy Rider we have rides that usually lead to violence, but sometimes to peaceful interludes. … Husk Finn and Captain America and Billy the Kid are young, masculine, alone; they belong to the open air. … Feeling trapped, they have to keep moving. … Mark Twain, however, allows Huck – a wiser, wounded, more experienced Huck – to come back at the end of the novel to the everyday, empty, comic world of Tom Sawyer. Hopper, Fonda, and Southern kill their easy riders. This important difference points the film toward tragedy.” (Berlin).

 51B21E77MDLThe tragedy of the film followed Hopper into real life. Despite the movie’s undeniable success, he paid for it with his own broken marriage. In an interview from 1969, Hopper said: “I have spent the last two years of my life on Easy Rider, working on the script, directing it, editing it for eight or nine months after it was shot. Because of that film, my marriage broke up. My wife didn’t think I could bring it off. I made it at a time when I felt America was burning. It’s a picture that shows the violence underneath everything. It shows how we talk freedom and democracy but refuse to recognize that we are a herd animal, and that we can’t bear anyone different from ourselves to come around. It might be a different way of dress, it might be long hair, it might be different ideas; whatever it is, the herd says, destroy outsiders. I think if we recognize that, we can try and fight against it and develop tolerance.” (Dennis Hopper: Interviews). Hopper’s sacrifice to bring this message across seems even bigger when we learn that he did not even like bikes. In fact he could not stand “the goddamn things” (Peter Biskind, Easy Riders Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood). 

Film Credit: elf holbrook

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