Two Series Highlight the Competing American Visions of Sam Shepard and Dennis Hopper

Drifters, romantics, and madmen.


It’s probably pure coincidence that BAM is presenting a week of Sam Shepard films right as the Metrograph screens five days of Dennis Hopper–directed titles. The mini-Hopper retro has been prompted by the release of Along for the Ride, a documentary about the troubled actor-filmmaker’s career, as seen through the eyes of his longtime assistant and friend, Satya de la Manitou. The Shepard movies are presumably screening because of the actor-writer’s recent passing. And yet, there’s serendipity here, too: No two actors of their generation better expressed the modern iteration of the lonesome cowboy — that dying myth of the all-American wanderer. Their careers regularly threatened to intersect, but the two almost never worked together. (When they did, on 2002’s prison pen-pal drama Leo, Shepard said Hopper was “like a crazy brother.”) Maybe that’s understandable, too: They were, in some way, opposites — separate sides of the same coin.

Hopper was born in 1936, Shepard in 1943, but they’re both associated with the Boomer era. Even so, both also hearkened back to an earlier time. Hopper acted in tons of Westerns earlier in his career (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Sons of Katie Elder), while Shepard appeared in them in his later years. (He made for a sorrowful aging Butch Cassidy in Blackthorn, and an intimidating Frank James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.) “He was — even more as time went on — the living, breathing image of a cowboy: tall, preposterously thin, ruggedly handsome, and maximally taciturn unless words were absolutely necessary,” wrote Michael Feingold in the Village Voice at the time of Shepard’s death. Back in 2010, after Hopper’s death, J. Hoberman wrote: “As an actor-director-lone horseman of the apocalypse, Dennis Hopper’s career suggests some druggy Dylan ballad with Marcel Duchamp and James Dean riding their motorcycles up boot hill to steal the carnations off John Wayne’s grave.”

The frontier — not just as a physical space, but a spiritual idea — informs both men’s work, albeit in sharply different ways. The wilderness was one of the great mythopoetic facts of American culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the memory of that informs much of twentieth-century culture. But even in our collective unconscious, the wilderness itself was not a monolith. It veered between extremes of pastoral fantasy and unspeakable horror; out there, beyond the confines of civilization, a man could make his fortune, or meet his maker, or worse. In cinematic terms: You lit out for the territory, and either you found yourself and became Sam Shepard, or you lost your fucking mind and became Dennis Hopper.

Hopper’s momentous Easy Rider (1969), about two coke-running bikers making their way across the highways of the country, is suffused with Western symbolism and the liberating fantasy of the open road; the two lead characters are named Billy and Wyatt, after Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. (However, they go from West to East — the journey not of the cowboy, but of the enlightenment-seeking mystic.) Despite being made in early ’68, Easy Rider is already conflicted about the legacy of its era; Wyatt’s famously cryptic line near the end — “We blew it” — feels like a prophecy of things to come for the Sixties generation that so embraced the film. Hopper also complicates the symbolism by having our heroes killed off by cowboy hat–wearing good old boys — suggesting that the idea of freedom the West once represented has been corrupted into reactionary violence.

Directed by Nick Ebeling, Along for the Ride is a valuable record of the chaotic ups and downs of Hopper’s career, which had already survived its share of setbacks before de la Manitou hooked up with him in 1968, during the shooting of Easy Rider. Much of the documentary follows the production of The Last Movie, the out-of-control neo-Western that Easy Rider’s success had bought him the clout to make. Decamping to the remote village of Chinchero in Peru, 14,000 feet up in the Andes, with a crew, some of his closest pals, and (apparently) a mountain of drugs, Hopper had improvised much of The Last Movie, turning the story — about a self-destructive stunt coordinator’s alienation and ambivalence about his job, his affairs, and his life — into a wild reverie on, among other things, alternate planes of existence.

Ebeling utilizes both previously unseen stills and behind-the-scenes home movies of that eventful shoot, as well as footage from L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller’s American Dreamer, a documentary about Hopper’s efforts to edit the film at his ranch in Taos, New Mexico, amid a miasma of unchecked, drug-fueled hedonism. Ebeling and de la Manitou interview executives and other figures involved with the project, and it’s fascinating to see them, years later, reflect soberly and sensitively on a period which once seemed to exist only as legend.

For all that, The Last Movie is an incredible film, shot through with a crazy dream logic that takes Hopper’s rapturous vistas (shot by Laszlo Kovacs) and immersive scenes and reshuffles them into a highly symbolic, stream-of-consciousness freak-out. The Hollywood crew that comes to Chinchero to shoot a Western essentially poisons the world. Hopper’s character Kansas is haunted by a death that occurred on set (which evokes the death of James Dean, whose loss traumatized Hopper). After the crew leaves, the townspeople re-enact the shoot, but whereas the filmmakers had real cameras and fake violence, this time it’s the cameras that are fake and the violence that’s real. The Last Movie is built around such dualities, as if myth and reality have been thrown out of alignment and a great, parallel evil has been unleashed upon the world. Early on, we see an image of a fake stunt church being set up next to a real church, and the moment feels less like a bit of movie-set practicality and more like a rip in the space-time continuum.

For all the structural wildness and stylistic experimentation of The Last Movie, there’s something almost conservative about it. (Easy Rider had that as well; Hopper often said he thought of it as a morality tale, and that he’d never intended to lionize his drug-running heroes.) That is perhaps the film’s greatest fracture: It’s about a man — and made by a man — who wants to return to his true self, but whose life keeps spinning out of control; it has a deep, sad yearning at its core, made even more visceral by its elliptical, time-hopping narrative.

Sam Shepard, on the other hand, seemed to be an entirely different kind of wanderer. Around the time Hopper was filming The Last Movie, Shepard, already an acclaimed playwright, contributed to the screenplay of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, the director’s attempt to capture the revolutionary fervor of Sixties youth culture while also capturing the alienating textures of American life. Shepard doesn’t appear in the movie, and often maintained that his contributions were minor, but Zabriskie does contain several of his favorite themes: the open road, and the drifters in search of their selves who eventually return home for a reckoning. The film also has what might be the most beautifully explosive ending of all time: a stately mountain home blows up from a variety of different angles, with the camera getting closer and closer until we see the slow-motion explosion of all sorts of material goods, from food to clothing to electronics to books. Antonioni abstracts the image, until the destruction starts to feel almost like a rebirth. We’re watching not just the death of a civilization, but also perhaps the beginnings of one.

Like The Last Movie, Zabriskie Point was a critical and financial calamity that with each passing day feels more like a masterpiece. Shepard would find greater success in films as a performer, where his laconic aura and searching, sensitive eyes would make him an unusually soulful presence. Perhaps ironically, in his greatest role, as the unnamed Farmer in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Shepard is not a wanderer at all; instead, he’s a guy who has lived on his family’s Texas farm his whole life, and who now presides over the seasonal harvests and waves of migrant workers as if he were a fixed, eternal force. (Even his house, rising out of the empty fields, feels like a fact of nature.) But maybe that’s one of the reasons why The Farmer seems so charismatic, despite the fact that he’s being betrayed by Brooke Adams and Richard Gere, the ostensible star-crossed lovers of the story: His tender, lovesick demeanor stands in sharp contrast to his otherwise centered presence. He even takes the news that he’s dying of a terminal disease with an odd serenity. That same quality would serve Shepard well in his Oscar-nominated role a few years later as the pioneering pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, where he plays the kind of stoic badass who looks like he could reinvent American manhood all on his own.

After The Last Movie nearly ended his career, Hopper had to wait another decade until he directed again. The result was another masterpiece, and another flop: 1980’s punk-rock coming-of-age drama Out of the Blue, starring Linda Manz, the actress who had played the young narrator of Days of Heaven. Manz’s tough, brittle Cebe lives with her harried mom (Sharon Farrell), while her alcoholic truck-driver father (Hopper) does time for drunkenly plowing his rig into a school bus full of children. The film follows Cebe’s obsession with punk, but it also makes a direct connection between her barely-contained rage, her restless desire to break free of her surroundings, and her father’s own self-destructiveness, which becomes further apparent when he returns from prison. As Cebe makes stabs at creativity, trying to find her place in the world, her father indulges his appetite for destruction: He never seems happier than when, in the midst of a dispute with his boss at the junkyard where he works, he takes a tractor to the office trailer and levels it. The father can’t be pinned down, and he can’t sit still; he longs to get a rig again and go back to driving and drifting. He’s also, as it so happens, a monster, and the film waits until the very end to reveal that he had molested Cebe — right as she finally gets her brutal revenge in the explosive finale. Annihilation and creation are inextricably intertwined, but unlike with the sublime conflagrations of Zabriskie Point, there is absolutely no hope or redemption in Out of the Blue. (No other film, save for maybe Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, comes closer to the punk ethos.)

Shepard may have been an award-winning, transformative playwright (ten Obies!), but only one picture that he wrote came close to matching his theatrical achievements. Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) follows the journey of a haunted man named Travis (the late Harry Dean Stanton), who has been roaming the desert in the wake of a mysterious family trauma. Slowly reacquainting himself with the world, Travis attempts to piece his life back together and reconcile with the son and wife he left behind. The film ends on a bleak note, but not a nihilistic one: Travis disappears again, but he does manage to reunite mother and son, and to make amends for the horrors he inflicted on his family. That’s a far cry from the unhinged desolation of Out of the Blue, where the wayward father’s cruelty pretty much extinguishes everything.

Hopper would go on to direct several other movies, all of which are of interest (and one of which, his 1988 Los Angeles gang saga Colors, would become a huge mainstream hit). But in the 1980s and ’90s, he was known more for his supporting roles in films like Blue Velvet, River’s Edge, and Speed, as he patented a particular kind of pathetic, often drug-addled weirdo that played into his own image as a generational casualty. One could argue that the process had started with his appearance in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, where he played the zonked-out, motor-mouth American photojournalist who had attached himself to Marlon Brando’s hermit-king Colonel Kurtz. In that and so many subsequent films, Hopper was the very image of the nutty Sixties refugee, cast adrift — the great lost man of the wilderness.

Around this time, Shepard’s persona was solidifying as well, as the handsome, slightly weathered paragon of masculinity — a man also out of his time, but in a good way. In 1988, the same year that Hopper was returning as a filmmaker to the good graces of the industry with Colors, Shepard directed his first movie, Far North, an ambling, well-acted comedy-drama about several generations of Minnesota women left to their own devices when the family patriarch (played by Charles Durning) winds up in the hospital. Though deeply reviled at the time, it’s charming and atmospheric, filled with lively conversations and moments of fleet-footed symbolism — an interesting balance of the naturalistic and experimental impulses that played out through Shepard’s playwriting career. Jessica Lange, Shepard’s partner at the time, plays the professional city woman who has returned to her childhood home, and has trouble re-adjusting to the rhythms of farm life. The film, refreshingly, has no male romantic lead — though you do get the sense that if it had one, he’d look and act a lot like Sam Shepard.

The series at both BAM and Metrograph are welcome, but they’re also short, limited to just a few titles, which seems a bit unfair for two men whose work cut across so many mediums and periods. To pay tribute to Shepard’s theater work and his long association with the underground, BAM has included a double-feature of Robert Frank’s Me and My Brother (co-written by Shepard with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky), an experimental look at Orlovsky and his schizophrenic brother, and Shirley Clarke’s Tongues, documenting Shepard’s productions of “Savage/Love” and “Tongues” with his collaborator Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, as Along for the Ride makes clear, Hopper was an accomplished photographer as well as a noted art collector, constantly in tune with the times around him. An exhibit dedicated to his work in 2008 at the Cinematheque Francaise took over an entire floor of the building, incorporating footage from his films and TV shows along with pieces from his art collection, each placed in the context of the political events of the time — from the Kennedy assassinations to Obama’s run for the Presidency that year. That is perhaps the paradox at the heart of both of these artists – they might have come to represent two competing, bygone visions of American manhood, but they also never lost their connection to the now, and never stopped experimenting.

‘True West: Sam Shepard on Film’
Through November 9

‘Directed by Dennis Hopper’
Through November 8

Along for the Ride
Directed by Nick Ebeling
The Orchard
Opens November 3, Metrograph