R.I.P. Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

“Somewhere in my strange career, someone has liked something.” – Dennis Hopper

Sadly, iconic actor/director Dennis Hopper lost his battle with prostate cancer Saturday morning. Every obituary will understandably point to his breakthrough milestone EASY RIDER (1969), but I’m sure most people who would read this blog know he had a ginormous crazy career spanning almost 6 decades.

Impressively IMDb lists over 200 film and television appearances in nearly every genre. In 1986 alone he appeared in HOOSIERS, BLUE VELVET, RIVER’S EDGE, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, and from the looks of it that was a typical year for the man as he worked constantly until his illness got the best of him – 6 movies in 2008, 26 episodes of Crash 2008-09, and a couple of upcoming projects (THE LAST FILM FESTIVAL, ALPHA AND OMEGA) set for later this year.

A career so vast is difficult to cherry pick from, especially since he had so many bit parts in major movies – his roles in friend James Dean’s movies REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) for example – and also because a few films he directed are unavailable on DVD these days – THE LAST MOVIE (1971) and OUT OF THE BLUE (1980). That said these are my picks for:

10 Essential (And Available) Dennis Hopper Performances

1. EASY RIDER (Dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969)

When I said every obit would highlight this as Hopper’s most acclaimed achievement I wasn‘t saying I wouldn’t also. It’s inescapable as a classic counterculture event of a movie that helped kick off the “New Hollywood” movement of the late ’60s/early ’70s. It also solidified the long-haired mustached hippie wiseacre persona that Hopper would return to a number of times throughout his acting career.

Concerning a couple of drug dealers (Hopper and Peter Fonda) who make a huge score and set out on their motorcycles to go, in the words of the film’s tagline, “looking for America”, EASY RIDER is very dated with clumsy artistic cuts, redneck stereotypes, and a cringe-inducing psychedelic trip sequence, but Hopper’s glee while riding through Monument Valley out over the sunset on his chopper is infectious. In those moments, which were innovative in their use of rock song scoring, the film’s theme of freedom lets its freak flag fly the highest.

2. BLUE VELVET (Dir. David Lynch, 1986)

Frank Booth, a Nitrous Oxide inhaling sexual deviant, was considered a comeback role for Hopper who had gone through more than one wilderness period in the years since EASY RIDER and the failure of its follow-up THE LAST MOVIE. Booth was scary and a bit funny at the same time; the manner in which he menaces nice boy Kyle MacLachlan being a twisted yet beautiful example: “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!” The part won Hopper a few Critics’ Association awards and in 2008 was voted #54 in Premiere Magazine’s list of “The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time”.

(Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) Credited as “Photojournalist” and only given a small amount of screen-time in the final reel, Hopper is one of the most memorable elements of Coppola’s seminal sprawling Vietnam epic. His cryptic speeches like this one still resonate 30 years later:

“This is dialectics. It’s very simple dialectics. One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out in space without, like, you know, with fractions – what are you gonna land on, one quarter, three eighths – what are you gonna do when you go from here to Venus or something? That’s dialectic physics, okay? Dialectic logic is there’s only love or hate, you either love somebody or you hate them.”

Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz then angrily hurls a book at Hopper in a moment that doesn’t feel scripted.

4. HOOSIERS (Dir. David Anspaugh, 1986) As I mentioned earlier, 1986 was a banner year for Hopper. His roles in BLUE VELVET, RIVER’S EDGE, and this Oscar nominated turn as the basketball supporting town drunk had him unstoppably on the comeback trail. It’s a folksy formulaic sports film about underdogs triumphing against all odds, but Hopper’s gutsy edge is no small part of the film’s abundant charms.

5. TRUE ROMANCE (Dir. Tony Scott, 1993)

Another small but juicy part as the ex cop father of Christian Slater who has a scene stealing showdown with mobster Christopher Walken. You can watch the scene, scripted by Quentin Tarantino, in all its almost 10 minute glory entitled “Sicilians” here on YouTube.

6. CARRIED AWAY (Dir. Bruno Barreto, 1996) It’s a LOLITA-ish tale of forbidden love in which timeworn clichés litter the landscape, but Hopper’s layered performance as a bored small town schoolteacher who has an extended fling with one of his students (Amy Locane) is one of his finest. His measured thoughtful presence comes through in scene after scene facing off with Locane, Amy Irving, Hal Holbrook, and Gary Busey. Maybe not an overlooked gem, but Hopper’s solid work makes it well worth watching. Be warned though, it may contain more Hopper than you want to see – mind you, I’m talking full frontal nudity.

7. RIVER’S EDGE (Dir. Tim Hunter, 1986)

Another from 1986, this harrowing teen drama had Hopper as Feck, a drug-dealing one-legged hermit who, like many of his characters, hijacks the movie from its stars every time he appears. For Hopper though, it wasn’t hard with lines like: “I killed a girl, it was no accident. Put a gun to the back of her head and blew her brains right out the front. I was in love.”

8. FLASHBACK (Dir. Franco Amurri, 1990) Some may scoff at Hopper’s self mocking role in a fairly lightweight comedy being given a spot on this list, but I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for his work here since I saw the film in the theaters 20 years ago. As a once famous aging hippie radical who turns the tables on a Federal Agent played by Keifer Sutherland, Hopper seems to be having a lot of fun with the familiar material that heavily references EASY RIDER.

The pair would square off a decade later on the popular TV series 24 with Sutherland playing a very different kind of FBI agent and Hopper as a Ukrainian mastermind behind the deadly scenes of season 1. Flashing back to FLASHBACK – Hopper tells Sutherland that: “The 90’s are going to make the ’60s look like the ’50s.” Of course, that didn’t turn out to be the case, but as an idealistic art student at a theater in Atlanta back in 1990 I remember believing, or at least wishing, it would be. Watch the trailer here.

9. The Twilight Zone“He’s Alive”
(Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1963)
In an hour long episode of the classic sci fi/fantasy anthology that isn’t rerun as much as the half hour ones, Hopper plays a street corner neo Nazi who starts to get winning advice from a mysterious stranger in the shadows. We can guess a long time before the reveal (one of the main minuses of the hour long format) that this stranger is Hitler, but it still displays that the young Hopper had talent to burn. And burn it up he did. Here’s a 10 minute edit of the episode somebody made and put up on YouTube.

10. SPEED (Dir. Jan de Bont, 1994) I figured this list wouldn’t be complete without one of Hopper’s late period makeover roles as a mainstream action movie villain. As the evil extortionist that rigs a bus to explode if it drops below 50 MPH, Hopper’s scenery chewing is a thing of unhinged bug-eyed beauty. He played very similar bad guy roles in SUPER MARIO BROS. and WATERWORLD, but SPEED wins out simply because a lot more people have seen it.

Hardly a definitive list, but a solid one that I stand by. Even with his large filmography that will take a lifetime to catch up with, Hopper will be sorely missed.

R.I.P. Dennis Hopper.

More later…

Ongoing Adventures In Altman Appraisal

Seeing all of the films that iconic director Robert Altman made in his half century career can be quite a task these days.

Several titles have never been released on DVD (including BREWSTER McCLOUD, HealH, and COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN) and one of his first features, COUNTDOWN, is only available as part of Warner Archives Collection’s “Burn On Demand” series so you can’t get it from Netflix.

Recently, inspired by reading the excellent “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography” by Mitchell Zuckoff, I’ve been catching up with the handful of movies of Altman’s movies that I haven’t yet seen. These 3 films are easily available but still fairly obscure – here are my thoughts:


The opening titles of this – one of the very first bio-docs ever – declare that this is “a different kind of motion picture.” They go on to explain: “The presence of the leading character in this film has been made possible by the use of existing motion picture material, tape recordings of his voice, and by means of a new technique – dynamic exploration of the still photograph.”

If that sounds pretentious well you haven’t heard anything yet. Orson Welles-ish sounding narrator Martin Gabel reads from a script over the hundreds of photos and footage such overwrought lines as:

“He looked at the ocean, and was envious of its power.”

“He kept a revolver – which made him feel safe… but they found it and took it away.” (No more explanation is given to this)

“He tried to believe it when they said they liked him.”

“Success was nothing more than the concealing leaf which covered the tree of his loneliness, and after every job the tree was bare.”

If you can get past such irritating pretension, and the fact that this was an exploitation film rushed into production after Dean’s tragic death, there is much here to enjoy. Such a wealth of black and white photographs, whether they are dynamically explored or not, is displayed – many of which I’d not seen before. I’m sure there is most likely some coffee table book out there that contains them, but this is a well edited collage worth seeking out. Perhaps one should just turn the sound down and put on some music while watching.

Another notable aspect is that Altman re-created Dean’s fatal car accident for the documentary. Producer George W. George described the incident in Zuckoff’s book as “pure Bob.” He elaborates:

“Well, son of a bitch, he goes and figures it out by lashing a camera onto the end of a long piece of wood and putting it on the bumper of his car. And driving down the road that Jimmy Dean had taken that day! It looked like Bob was going to have a crash, but son of a bitch; he missed crashing by about two feet. He was driving the car!”

By no means an essential piece of Altman’s canon, THE JAMES DEAN STORY is still an interesting curio.

QUINTET (1979) I purchased this film as part of an odd Altman boxset – the other films were M*A*S*H, A WEDDING, and A PERFECT COUPLE which I had all seen before. QUINTET is a real oddity in his filmography: a sci fi tale set in a future ice age. Paul Newman, in his second starring role for Altman (the first was BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS) plays a stoic seal hunter named Essex who finds himself in the middle of the deadly game of the title.

The movie drags quite a bit with sequences that just sit there. If tightened up considerably it could make for a gripping short film, but you really have to be an Altman fanboy to get through it as it is. I had the close captioning on when I watched it and was amused at how many times the word “groans” was used in the descriptions of sound effects i.e. “the water groans”, “the ice groans”, “the wind groans”, etc. At one point I joked: “the audience groans”. I know I did.

O.C. AND STIGGS (1985) Although this is considered Altman’s “least successful film” I was looking forward to watching it mainly because of Nathan Rabin’s “My Year Of Flops Case File #54” entry at the A.V. Club in which he concluded that it was a “secret success”. That’s much more favorable a response than what I experienced. The premise of a 80’s teen comedy with a “slobs versus the snobs” scenario isn’t a good match for Altman even if he claims it was supposed to be a satire of the genre.

Very little satire is actually present in this tale of 2 hipsters (Daniel Jenkins and Neill Barry) who come off as a poor man’s pair of Ferris Buellers. They torment a insurance mogul (Altman regular Paul Dooley) who lives in a garish house with destructive shenanigans, none of which is even remotely amusing. Altman’s patented style can still be identified – overlapping dialogue and slow panning long shots – but no unity to this material can be sensed.

It’s also sad to see cheap shots such as riffs on “The Pink Panther Theme” and the Doors “The End” intro when Dennis Hopper, who appears in his APOCALYPSE NOW get up, enters a scene. Of the supporting cast which includes Jane Curtin, Jon Cryer, Cynthia Nixon, and Ray Walston, only Martin Mull appears to be having a good time, but, even then, he looks like he’s just bidding time until the wrap party after shooting is finished.

The only bonus feature on the DVD is an 8 minute interview entitled “Altman On O.C. And Stiggs” that should’ve been called “Altman Defends O.C. And Stiggs”. Altman: “There was a time when these teenage films were kind of in mode. And I hated them…I just hated them. And I thought here’s a chance to do satire on something I feel strongly about.” The problem is that his strong hatred of the genre shows in every frame of this film more than any notion of satire. Still, as much as I disliked it, it’s not my least favorite Altman film – that would be DR. T AND THE WOMEN (2000).

Okay! That’s enough Altman for now. Just a few more titles to go to finish his canon – and then there’s his television work (episodes of Combat!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, and many others) to consider so look forward to more adventures in Altman appraisal somewhere down the line.

More later…

Meet Me At The Wrecking Ball – A Blog With A Cause

“Is that the worst word of the new culture – ‘blog’?”
– Jerry Seinfeld on The Late Show With David Letterman 10/29/07

Actually, I think it’s one of the best.

This post is going to be a bit different from my usual array of riveting reviews and looney lists – this time I have a cause. I rarely write about things local, except for mentions of the theatre I work at part time (The Varsity), but it has come to my attention that a historic house not far from where I live in Chapel Hill, NC is in danger of being demolished very soon. How this pertains to Film Babble is that this house was used as a film location almost 40 years ago. The house is the Edward Kidder Graham House (named for a former UNC President who died in 1918) located on Battle Lane at the edge of the UNC campus and the movie it was used in was THREE IN THE ATTIC (Dir. Richard Wilson, 1968).

Haven’t heard of it? That’s okay, I hadn’t either – It isn’t available from Netflix having never had a proper DVD release (I found online that some outfit called Must Have Films is selling DVD copies of it but they don’t look quite legit) and VHS copies are fairly hard to find. After some phoning around I found a shoddy old videocassette copy at a local video store (a building surely to be demolished soon as well) and viewed it anxious to see some Lyndon B. Johnson era shots of my hometown. Through the awful picture full of drop-outs (horizontal white streaks) and the incomprehensible muffled sound I was able to make out the Edward Kidder Graham House as well as many shots of the UNC campus, surrounding neighborhoods and the Alpha Tau Omega House on Franklin Street which was used prominently in a party sequence.

The movie itself is honestly a pretty schlocky 60’s sexploitation picture. Made by American International Films, a company that specialized in low budget fringe films that would appeal to teenagers, it is by today’s AMERICAN PIE standards a fairly lame affair – though one not without its kitschy dated charms. James Dean look-a-like (and somebody who studied Dean’s every move) Christopher Jones finds himself locked in a sorority house attic (The Edward Kidder Graham House stands in for Ford Hall as UNC doubles as the equally ficticious Willard College For Men and Fulton – A Women’s College) after 3 college girls ( Yvette Mimieux, Judy Pace, and Maggie Thrett) find out he’s been triple timing them. As Paxton Quigley, Jones’ voice-over narration promises a look at the “groovy subculture of today’s female” and he says “you’ve heard of the sexual revolution…well, I’m probably one of its first casualties” but this is pretty grandiose talk coming from someone decked out in what looks like the JC Penny Jim Morrison line – fluffy white shirt, love beads and yes, leather pants. No such social sexual commentary or satire is really presented – just dialogue like this between Quigley and girlfriend #1’s (Mimieux) father, played by Richard Derr, who bursts in on them living in sin:

Mr. Clinton: “What kind of a man are you?”

Paxton Quigley: “Well, I think I know…I know where it’s at.”

Mr. Clinton: “What?”

Paxton Quigley: “I know my way around.”

Mr. Clinton: “Are you one of those potheads?”

Yep, that’s about the level of insight in THREE IN THE ATTIC. There was potential as Roger Ebert notes in his 1968 review that it could’ve been a “near GRADUATE” but the film makers motives were just as cheap as its budget. Essentially a series of love montages hanging on a bare narrative thread this movie still has some lure as a curio – fans of college cult films * will delight in its pre-ANIMAL HOUSE sensibility, cinéastes will enjoy the notion of what direction James Dean’s career might’ve gone in (or at least looked like) had he lived through to that turbulent time, but for this blog’s purposes Chapel Hill residents will celebrate THREE IN THE ATTIC as a snapshot of the town in the late 60’s and a portrait of a house worth preserving and restoring.

* It is most certainly a cult movie – Joe Bob’s Ultimate B-Movie Guide gives it 4 stars and says of it – “one of the weirdest flicks of the sixties” (Joe Bob Briggs, 2000).

Postnote #1: There was actually a sequel entitled UP IN THE CELLAR (1970) also known as THREE IN THE CELLAR which also had Judy Pace in it. It was a little of a bigger deal with Larry Hagman and Joan Collins but since it was filmed in New Mexico I didn’t seek it out.

Postnote #2: For more information and pictures of the Edward Kidder Graham House and other historic houses in Chapel Hill please visit :

The Preservation Society of Chapel Hill

Flickr: Photos from chapelhill.preservation

Also this interview with Preservation Society of Chapel Hill Executive Director Ernest Dollar is worth a read:

Independent Weekly: News: Q&A: Ernest Dollar

More later…