Dennis Hopper meets Orson Welles: That sounds like an oil-and-water match-up of legendary filmmakers. Welles, for all his renegade gusto, was a defrocked classicist — maybe (or maybe not) the greatest film director who ever lived, and one who became the ultimate high-toned Hollywood dropout. Whereas Hopper, the scraggly counterculture bad boy, launched his career as a director with “Easy Rider,” at which point he had already, in essence, dropped out. (He made dropping out seem the aesthetic cutting edge of the New Hollywood.) Yet for one long, boozy rambling evening in November 1970, these two men who barely knew each other sat around the dingy brick-walled den of a rented home in Beverly Hills, lit by hurricane lamps and a flickering fire, shooting the breeze and sizing each other up as cross-generational kindred spirits.
“Hopper/Welles” is a fascinating curiosity. It’s two hours and 11 minutes long, and the entire thing consists of a verité conversation shot from three or four camera angles in grainy black-and-white, with Welles, just off camera (he is never once seen), using his booming voice of God to interrogate Hopper, who sits there in his beard and cowboy hat, leaning forward into a table that holds plates of half-eaten pasta and bottles of booze, lighting up one Marlboro after the next as he sips gin-and-tonics out of a long tall glass and spouts off about filmmaking, acting, the wages of celebrity, his unhappy childhood, and the elusive politics of the counterculture. Welles, that master magician, questions, taunts, goads, praises, and insults him, doing all he can to get a reaction out of Hopper, since what we’re seeing was, in fact, intended to be part of “The Other Side of the Wind,” Welles’ reality-as-fiction mosiac of a dying Hollywood.
That movie, which was still forming in Welles’ head, was conceived as a dialectic between the Old Hollywood and the New, and who better to represent the new than Dennis Hopper, who, just like Welles when he made “Citizen Kane,” had battered down the hallowed gates and walked through them in triumph? When this conversation was shot, Hopper was holed up in Taos, New Mexico, editing “The Last Movie,” his self-destructive psychedelic anthro-messianic Western. A movie that would seal the demise of his career as a filmmaker as surely as “The Magnificent Ambersons,” after “Kane,” spelled the beginning of the end for Welles.
“The Last Movie,” to me, is one of the most excruciating train wrecks in Hollywood history, yet as you watch “Hopper/Welles,” Hopper doesn’t seem like the violently dissolute poet-anarchist who made it. He does tell one story about getting so angry at a crew member who told Hopper he was making a bad movie that Hopper admits to having smashed the guy’s head through a coffee table. That’s a shocker; it’s not the sort of thing you think differently about because it happened “in the ’70s.” But Hopper’s description of “The Last Movie” is seductive — it’s a pitch that outdoes the film — and he seems here, more than he ever did afterwards, like a true player, sophisticated and relaxed, weirdly circumspect in his take on the state of the world, though with that easy grin that makes it look like he’s getting away with something. At 34, he’s the new insider; Welles, at 55, is the old outsider. So who’s playing whom?
In “Hopper/Welles,” Welles occasionally slips into the persona of Jake Hannaford, the imperious director portrayed by John Huston in “The Other Side of the Wind,” but mostly he presents a version of himself. In essence, we’re eavesdropping on a private dinner-party bull session in which two men who are masters at playing the role of themselves try to outdo one another. Their talk starts off as a meditation on popularity and audiences: Do you pander to them? Crave them? Ignore them? See them as a necessary evil? The people you’re serving? Are you making the film for them or for you? Welles, it’s apparent, would answer all those questions in an arrogant, screw-the-audience way. A Hollywood hack would answer them in just the opposite way. Hopper falls right in between: He won’t pander, but he’s fully in touch with the idea that an audience is what makes a work of art come alive. In “Hopper/Welles,” Hopper still has the idealism of youth, whereas Welles’ playful cynicism about everything — whether a film has ever changed the world, whether a director can ever really like an actor — becomes a little toxic. You hear his misanthropy, his debauched jadedness.
“Hopper/Welles” was dug out of the vaults and digitally restored from 16mm by some of the same people, notably editor Bob Murawski, who put “The Other Side of the Wind” together. Bits of the footage were used in that film, but given its gnarly small focus, “Hopper/Welles” is surprisingly entertaining to sit through. Its pleasure, at times, is nearly voyeuristic: a close-up look at Welles and Hopper saying the kinds of things that usually get left on the cutting-room floor of interviews.
Hopper talks about being hated by the Fondas, about what it’s like to read a terrible lurid fabrication about himself in the tabloid Confidential, about films that spoke to him like “Viridiana,” “The Damned,” and “La Notte” (though he admits to falling asleep at “L’Avventura” every time he tried to see it), about how he wishes it was possible to watch TV news all day long, and about what it was like to hear a redneck audience cheer the double murder at the end of “Easy Rider” and a UCLA audience greet the same scene with shouts of “Kill the pigs!” (Hopper thinks both reactions are equally wrong). He also delivers a version of the theory he jabbered on about at the end of “Apocalypse Now” — that “you either love somebody or you hate ’em,” and how he doesn’t believe in fractions, man. (It sounds calmer here, but just as crazy.)
Welles, with “Citizen Kane,” created the very idea of independent Hollywood cinema (it took a long time for that notion to take root, but still). Hopper, with his shaggy-hippie-outlaw approach to filmmaking, turned independence into the new mainstream. Welles was a bon-vivant continental aesthete, Hopper a countercultural Western party boy. But both, in different ways, wrote the new rules of Hollywood.
What we see in “Hopper/Welles” is what a precarious and maybe illusory thing the power of a film director really is. They get to play God, all right — until they don’t. In the last part of the conversation, Welles keeps pushing Hopper to reveal his political opinions, which Hopper won’t, which Welles says is a cop-out. How, he asks, can there be revolution if the agent of change won’t speak his mind? But Welles is just toying with him, and Hopper, who says that he thinks revolution in a military-industrial state is probably impossible, sounds more clued-in than Welles is. In “Hopper/Welles,” we see Hopper still sitting on top of the heap of Hollywood; after “The Last Movie,” he would just about fall off a cliff. But each of these two really did make a film that changed the world. (Not the political world. The world of the imagination.) That was their connection. And their revolution.