Last February, this rarely screened documentary was featured in Block Cinema‘s series “I’m Almost Not Crazy: Outsider Cinema by Hollywood Insiders.” It was presented as the second half of a double-bill with the film that gave the series its title: a fly-on-the-wall look at John Cassavetes’s directing methods on the set of 1984’s Love Streams. The cool control of Cassavetes’s refined auteurism stood in amusing contrast to Dennis Hopper, the subject of The American Dreamer. L.M. Kit Carson (screenwriter of Paris, Texas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and Lawrence Schiller (writing collaborator of O.J. Simpson and Norman Mailer) captured raw, cinema verite-style footage of Dennis Hopper deep in the editing stages of The Last Movie, that notoriously indulgent mess of a follow-up to Easy Rider that put the kibosh on his directing career until Out of the Blue. The results serve as an almost constantly hilarious portrait of a perpetually stoned individual whose apparently marketable artistic voice has granted him far too much money and time to devote to casual sex, rambling about pseudo-philosophical nonsense, and other activities that seem awfully counterproductive to delivering a satisfactory final product to Universal Pictures (which the box office bomb of The Last Movie certainly was not.)
It should surprise no one that The American Dreamer is unavailable in any home-viewing format. But such is the difficulty of making actual famous people the subjects of intimate, hardly flattering “direct cinema” portrayals. The surviving members of the Beatles are naturally going to want as few people as possible to see them getting snippy with one another and crapping out cacophonous evidence of artistic bankruptcy (i.e. most of the music) in Let It Be, just as the Rolling Stones are not about to show any pride in their decidedly unglamorous “tour antics” (shooting up, falling asleep, hauling around an entourage of nogoodniks, etc.) captured by Robert Frank for Cocksucker Blues. At least they’re out there, though, and thanks to the internet, waiting for screenings to take place in your city isn’t the lone option. A YouTube stream is far from ideal, but I’m not about to take the ability to revisit a film like The American Dreamer for granted. Its value is comparable to that of Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a documentary that shows Werner Herzog living out the worldview embodied by Fitzcarraldo as he was struggling to realize his cinematic vision for it. But while Burden of Dreams is arguably a more concise and approachable manifestation of the ideas that fueled Fitzcarraldo than that film itself managed to be, The American Dreamer is, by most standards, as “barely watchable” as The Last Movie, if not more. If the latter film’s mainstream-defying, Jodorowsky-inspired disregard for conventional editing and narrative wasn’t repulsive enough, then you’ll love watching rough-hewn footage of Dennis Hopper wandering around a suburban street naked, participating in a bathtub orgy, hanging out in the desert spewing profundities such as, “It’s very difficult at times, uh, if you believe in evolution, not to believe in revolution,” and shamelessly equating his current artistic endeavors with Orson Welles following up Citizen Kane. There’s even an early version of his famous “You either love someone or you hate them” spiel from Apocalypse Now, further proving that Hopper’s photojournalist character in that film is really just Hopper (in case that wasn’t already clear enough.) The American Dreamer doesn’t exactly show him in the most “professional” light, but professionalism has little to do with the most apt descriptors for Hopper at his best, Hopper as presented in this film, or the film itself: obsessed with the truth, countering hippy idealism, semi-coherent, naked, and uncompromising.