Dennis Hopper was a lot of things. Wildly notorious for his dangerous antics and erratic behavior, he was also unfathomably talented and brilliant—not only as an actor but as an artist in the purest sense. As one of the most important counter cultural icons of the last century, he helped usher in new wave of American cinema that would change the scope of film forever. “Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda had created an anthem for a generation,” Peter Biskind once said, “but they had also imagined its apocalyptic destruction, which many of the decade’s directors did their best to emulate.” And whether he was stealing the screen, creating havoc behind the camera, or inspiring a world of independent filmmakers just to break all the rules and go for it, it’s his manic energy and passion and the stunning results they produced, that he will always be remembered for. And as today is his birthday, here is a look back on some of the incredible filmmaker, artist, and actor’s best moments. Enjoy.
Sunday may be a "wan, stuff shadow of a robust Saturday" or a day of "forced leisure for folks who have no aptitude for leisure," according to Tom Robbins, but Mondays will always take the cake for the most dismal day of the week. And as we all crawl into the work week, let’s at least take comfort in knowing once the end of the day rolls around, there are plenty of fantastic things to do this week in New York to satisfy any interest. From staring wistfully at a collection of melancholic and beautiful photographs by Dennis Hopper to bathing in the sounds of Jim Jarmusch to showing off your Twin Peaks knowledge, this week is packed with pleasures to take part in before Friday even rolls around. Peruse our list and ease into your week a little bit easier with the promise of fun.
What first attracted me to John Lurie as an artist was a passionate sense of nonchalance. A contradiction, yes, but as a wildly talented man who focused on his varying artistic endeavors, he seemed to exude a sense of ease and agility, weaving his way between mediums while creating something idiosyncratic and bizarrely unique. Since the early 1970s, the prolific man of talents has become a cultural icon, transcending movements and finding new ways to reinvent himself as an artist. Starting out as the frontman for illustrious jazz band The Lounge Lizards, Lurie played a mean sax before pursuing acting, starring in some of Jim Jarmusch’s best films—Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, among others. But it was the 1990s television show he conceived and directed which really catapulted him into a cult obsession: the strange, wonderful, and hilarious Fishing With John.
The concept of the show was simple: each episode, Lurie would take one of his pals to a certain locale around the world and fish. Just real men doing real things. Those pals also just happened to be Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Willem Dafoe, Dennis Hopper, and Matt Dillon. From Maine, Jamacia, and Thailand, Lurie would travel with his guest of honor and set out to brave the elements, search new territory, and, of course, catch some fish. The result was a fantastic exploration of finding the comedy in the mundane—the pleasure of watching two men sit on a boat in the heat or freezing to death on a frozen lake heightened to the surreal, with a narrated voiceover that could double you over. Tom Waits gets cranky, Jim Jarmusch is bored, Willem Dafoe dies, Dennis Hopper is…well, Dennis Hopper, and naturally a bit of disaster ensues.
Fishing With John is currently streaming on Netflix, but has also been released by the Criterion Collection, and tonight, Lurie is headed to Nitehawk Cinema for the second time. After a screening and Q&A back in November, he will be returning to show three episodes of the Fishing With John, in addition to his 1979 film Men in Orbit and two of his short films .
Personally, I had seen the series a while ago and loved it. But recently, my friend and I spent a Friday night sitting in my bed watching all six episodes, rediscovering just how enjoyable it truly is, and coming to the conclusion that I’d have to get the chance to talk with Lurie myself. Thankfully, he agreed to carry on an email interview with me to talk more about his early jazz days, the late-night inception of Fishing With John, and his more recent work as a highly acclaimed painter.
Can you tell me a little about the beginning of your career in the late ’70s and the beginnings of The Lounge Lizards? New York was obviously a very different place then; did that breed a certain kind of creative energy for you? You’ve always had a very idiosyncratic sound but how was the music scene for jazz at that time? That is kind of a book of a first question. I came to New York as a saxophone player and was interested in the jazz scene. But the jazz scene was pretty thin. The musicians I admired could barely get gigs and were struggling to make ends meet. I was shocked actually because they were heroes of mine and I thought of them as stars. But what was happening around that time and was very alive; it was a scene that bubbled out of the punk movement. Everything was wild and irreverent. I had come from London when things like the Sex Pistols were happening but found it kind of silly—not the Sex Pistols, but the attitude, the nihilism and the spitting. Everyone was doing things they didn’t know how to do. And through Eric Mitchell, I started making Super 8 movies. I almost had to hide the fact that I made sure to practice the saxophone every day because that was sneered at. And I most certainly did not think of anything in terms of a career at that time.
And how did you meet Jim Jarmusch and begin working together—as an actor and musician. I met Jim on Eric Mitchell’s movie Red Italy. He was the bar tender and I danced around like a freak. He was a film student which made us all go, ick. Being a film student to that crowd was like being an accountant, not cool at all. And if my accountant reads this, I don’t mean you PJ. Although PJ did once show me the music on his playlist and I said, See, there are no accountants with taste. He didn’t smile. But the first thing I did with Jim was play the saxophone on the street in Permanent Vacation. I gave him some music for that.
Jumping forward a decade, where did the idea for Fishing With John come from? What did you want the show to be exactly? Did you know who you wanted to bring along as guests on the episodes? The idea came from coming home late one night, or I guess morning really, and the only thing on any channel was a fishing show. And I thought, I want to do this. I had always had this thing since I was a kid where I would watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlon Perkins and he would always be telling you what the animals were thinking, and I just always wanted to do my own show where I would tell you what the animals were thinking. So I was talking about it, more like a joke, a threat—I am going to make a fishing show. And then it sort of fell into place.
Were there certain places you knew you wanted to travel or were they specific to each guest? It wasn’t so thought out who I would go with or where. Tom and Jim seemed obvious. Long Island was the first one, the pilot, and was the closest, cheapest thing to do. Dennis wanted to go to Thailand. Willem decided on the ice fishing in Maine, I thought he was nuts.
Ice fishing with Willem definitely seemed the most dangerous but that one is so good. Were you nervous about going into it? No, that wasn’t really dangerous. It wasn’t even unpleasant actually; that cold is so intense that it is kind of exciting. There is a thing that’s in the show where I get water in my glove and my hand is numb in seconds. I was actually in a bit of trouble then, but that was kind of it. There was a thing with the camera mounts on the snowmobiles, where the mount broke and the camera went flying into the air, then one of us ran over it. The sound is still going, but there’s no picture and you can hear the guy who installed the mounts screaming over the black screen, "Am I fucked now! I am so fucked now!"
And what Dennis, did you know him before going to Thailand? I met Dennis in Tokyo. We were doing this thing for Commes Des Garcon. We hit it off immediately. But I didn’t think he would actually do it. It was kind of amazed that he did.
So going into each epsiode, did you have an idea of how it would go or was it pretty much on the fly? It was mostly on the fly. And a lot was decided in the editing room.
How did you find Rob Webb to do the voice-over? How scripted was his narration? It’s pretty perfect. Of course it is scripted. I worked hard writing that, you think he just made it up on the spot? Damn.
No, no I didn’t think he made it up on the spot at all. Maybe I was thinking more along the lines of how you went about writing that narration because it really does make the show so entertaining. Did you anticipate the show gaining the cult following that’s gathered over the last decade? I don’t know what I anticipated. I didn’t really think about it.
Did you run into any major sort of disasters or problems while shooting? It was kind of all disasters really.
Was it difficult transitioning into the art world as someone who was known for your music and film work? Music was by far the most important thing to me, and then because I got so sick I couldn’t play anymore. I couldn’t even listen to music any more. Wasn’t really a career transition. I was stuck in my home for years and I made them, I don’t know why.
What are you drawn to as a painter or what inspires you? I have no idea what inspires me to paint, or even why I do it at all. I think I would probably do them even if I knew no one would ever see them—meaning, if not even another human were to ever see them. There is something that compels me to do it. And I feel cleaner when I do it.
I imagine painting is a lot like creating music in that it’s about intuition and requires a spontaneity but also the structure and skill there to back that up. Do those two interests—music and painting— play off each other? I never imagined that painting would be as real as the music was. But it is now. The best music I wrote and the best music I played, it was almost like John wasn’t there at all. The best paintings are like that now.
Something I love about a lot of your paintings is how alive they feel, in that, between the colors and the figures and the amalgamation of all the elements, you’re getting a lot of feeling from somewhere that feels very psychological. When you’re creating, is it sort of a subconscious effort? I often invent techniques as I go. I usually have a few paintings going at once. Sometimes if I haven’t worked on one in a while and start working on it again—let’s say I was doing the side of a building by using oil pastels and graphite, but now I don’t remember exactly how I was doing it—I go, how the fuck did I do that? I think I remember, and then start but it doesn’t look right at all.
You have some pretty great titles to your paintings—I especially love ones like "the skeleton in my closet has moved back to the garden" and "there is a caveman in my apartment examining the fur. i wish he would leave." How do you go about naming a piece? Man, I am baffled by questions like that.
I don’t know about you, but I fully intend on spending my weekend curled up with a box of Junior Mints in a darkened theatre. It’s been a long week thus far and with the myriad premieres and screenings going on over the new few days, you really have no excuse to not get yourself into a cinema. From Antonio Campos and Shane Carruth’s stunning sophomore efforts to Terrence Malick’s latest poem of emotions, to the wonder of Dennis Hopper and the debut of Darren Aronofsky, there’s a certainly a diverse mix of films to see. So to get you ready, I’ve compiled the best of what’s playing around the city this weekend—take a look and go buy yourself some candy and/or popcorn. Enjoy.
“This movie is as good as Citizen Kane…no, it’s better than Citizen Kane, it’s got more heart,” said John Cassavetes to Martin Scorsese after watching Who’s That Knocking at My Door for the first time. Scorsese nearly passed out. He worshipped Cassavetes, and from then on Cassavetes looked at him like son. And although both Cassavetes and Scorsese both put out some of the best films of the 1970s, they were from two entirely different schools of filmmaking. The Scorseses of the world inherited what the Cassavetes generation had paved the way for. But Cassavetes was just insular in his world, extremely consumed by his own concerns. It was moreso the Hopper-Beatty-Nicholson generation that filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, stumbled down from. These young filmmakers were now able to operate on the notion that there could be a conversation between them and the audience. “They were the benefactors, the prodigy of New Hollywood battles fought and won for artistic integrity and youth recognition by everyone from Arthur Penn to Stanley Kubrick and Peter Fonda,” said Peter Biskind in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that provides perhaps the best written account of this era in Hollywood.
And although he’s one of Hollywood greatest living legends and cinematic minds today, about 40 years ago Scorsese was just a chubby young filmmaker, fresh out of school and clawing at the bit to get his voice heard and his work seen. Sandy Weintraub, who Scorsese collaborated with artistically as well as romantically, said, “Marty was tempestuous, volatile, and passionate about his life…he breathed, ate, and shat movies. I would tell him about my dreams and he would tell me about the movie he had seen on TV the day before.” Coming from a strictly Catholic Italian-American family in New York, Scorsese had grown up a child plagued with physical ailments. His asthma forced him to stay inside while other young kids played outside, thus helping him develop his lifelong obsession with cinema and the escape into other worlds through the screen.
“The period from ’71 to ’76 was the best period because we were just starting out,” Scorcese said. “We couldn’t wait for our friends’ next pictures, Brian [De Palma]’s next picture, Francis [Ford Coppola]’s next picture, to see what they were doing. Dinners in Chinese restaurants midday in L.A. with Spielberg and Lucas.” And Nicholas Beach was where he and Sandy would make the trip up the Pacific Coast Highway each weekend: a secluded spot filled with their group of filmmaking pals “where the only rules were the ones we made.” As is told in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, one day Peter Boyle came to stay at the beach and brought a vile of coke—suddenly, “Eve bit into the apple.” It was new to most everyone, not knowing exactly how to do it. But it stuck. Actress Margot Kidder recalled, “Out of the drugs came a lot of swampy ideas but also a lot of creative thinking and most important, breaking down of personal barriers and that ridiculousness of pride of holding oneself and having a phony social persona. If that hadn’t been the case, none of us would have developed our talents. But Spielberg didn’t take drugs, Brian didn’t, Marty didn’t until later when he got into trouble with coke. The directors who ended up successful were very protective of their own brains.”
Scorsese had enough problems. He was filled with a mix of Catholic guilt and anxieties created by his own strenuous mind. Flying was a disaster—he had to grip a crucifix until his knuckles turned white during take off, he was afraid the number eleven (he wouldn’t go anywhere near it or anything that added up to it), and he was also absolutely convinced that he was going to die by age 40. It wasn’t a self-destructive notion, rather just an innate knowledge that he was going to live hard and die young whether it be from his always-uneasy health or a plane crash. So it seems for someone so burdened by neurosis, he would find a companion in a like-minded individual who was also “culturally and emotionally sandbagged by the ’50s”—that person being Paul Schrader, just one of the boys at the beach. But it wasn’t so easy.
Schrader was a very messed up human—”deranged” many would say. He was extremely intelligent but cynical and depressive. He was raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist household with parents that would whip him with electrical chords and poke him in the hand with needles, telling him, “This is what hell will feel like.” Martin Scorsese once said that his entire life was “religion and film, nothing else,” and it seems as though Schrader too shared that sentiment. He did not see a movie until he was seventeen, and when he did he began to hallucinate, believing he had committed some great sin and was going to burn in Hell forever. His strict Calvinist upbringing left a paralyzing imprint on his work; film for him will always be dirt—cinema, sex, and sin forever linked in Schrader’s eyes. But he did not shy away from these subjects; he embraced them manically, using them as a way to expose his darkest desires that had always been forbidden. He put his sins on paper as a way to relieve himself of them, as if he will be freed once they are out of his head and onto the page. He exploits the dark side of sex and its industry in his films (his male characters frequently visit pornographic theaters and brothels), but he does so in a way that’s stripped of any ounce of sensuality or desire. The Calvinists believe that if you do these things right in your life, death will be your salvation and you’ll go to Heaven. Schrader, however, had committed enough sin to burn in Hell. These feelings of guilt and fear left him socially and psychologically disturbed, feeling removed from the world around him, like a lonely figure traveling through life.
One day, over a game of chess, Schrader told Brian De Palma that he had written a script called Taxi Driver. De Palma sent it to producer Michael Phillips who loved it but knew finding a director to take on something so bizarre would be a challenge. Scorsese wanted it—bad. But when Schrader saw a cut of Scorcese’s Boxcar Bertha, he just rolled his eyes. He discussed the script with Pauline Kael who “didn’t know if De Niro could carry a film.” At that time, Robert De Niro was a fairly unknown actor who came from a middle-class bohemian upbringing—a stark contrast to that of Schrader and Scorsese, the latter fascinated by the idea of this “paradise” to be raised in a creative environment. De Niro’s rebellion came from “getting into the heavy street thing.” But he was a serious actor and rarely ever spoke, which seems like a far cry to the De Niro we know today. Casting director Nessa Hyams once said, “You couldn’t get De Niro arrested.” He rarely attended parties or hung out; when he did go to a party, he would often be found falling asleep on the couch.
After the release of Mean Streets, Scorsese and De Niro both got the green light, and Taxi Driver came into action. The film is a hard-edged look at the New York City streets told through the lens of an art film. The neon-lit buildings sparkle and melt onto the screen in contrast to the filth and scum that penetrate the sidewalks and, thusly, the collective psyche of the film. Biskind describes the film best as:
following the nocturnal wanderings of a cabbie, Travis Bickle—a violent, Vietnam vet—through Times Square as he encounters a variety of human offal and rountinely cleans the blood and come off his backseat. He gets a crush on a blonde campaign worker, and his attention wanders between her and Iris, a twelve-year-old hooker. The story climaxes in a bloodbath, as he blows away Iris’s pimp and johns in an attempt to redeem her.
Taxi Driver begins with the menacing and anxiety-invoking Bernard Herrmann score that encompasses the rest of the film. Scorceses doesn’t hide anything. The close up of Travis’s eyes blend with the scenery as we realize the city around him is just as much of a character as he is. Biskind goes on to say, “To paraphrase Schrader, if you put Penn and Antonioni in bed together, put a gun to their heads and told them to fuck while Bresson watched through the keyhole, you got Taxi Driver.” Fair enough.
Travis must transform himself from the inside out in order to accomplish what he’s set out to do. He must go down into the underworld where he’s seeking vengeance on and become the scum he sees on the streets. In order to save Iris and help rid the world of the filth polluting the streets, he tries to make himself a machine. He goes from eating terribly to working out everyday and trying to make himself as hard as possible—mentally and physically. He changes his lax attitude and becomes strict with himself as if he is completely possessed by his mission. His life needed a purpose and this was it. When special forces were going into battle, they would shave their hair into a Mohawk; as a veteran, it would make sense that Travis would do the same. This was his battle. Paul Schrader dressed De Niro in his own clothes for the film as Travis. He could have played the role himself.
With Michael Chapman as the DP and Raoul Coutard as cinematographer, the film takes the sort of European aesthetic and sense of isolation with an hint of an Americana façade. Everyone involved in the film was influenced heavily by the work of the French new wave. Chapman said, “Godard was the great freeing influence for all of us. He said, ‘Look, you don’t have to worry about this or that’”—a notion that made its way into Taxi Driver from the Alka Seltzer shot reference to 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her to the moment Travis drives into the car garage and the camera goes elsewhere, saying, ‘Don’t look at this guy, look at the word he lives in.’ When Scorsese was forced to desaturate the colors in the denouement of the film so that it could slide from an X-rating to an R, he thought the joke was on everyone else—the washed-out grit of it all only made it that much more brutal.
In the beginning of the film, Travis speaks of rain washing the scum off the streets; in the end he takes on the role of that rain. The final moments leave us questioning whether or not he kills himself as a means of salvation, or if it is in fact a reality that he is a hero and Iris is returned home safely to her parents. But whatever audiences believed, they loved it, and the film was a surprising commercial success. Bickle look-alikes lined up around the block to see the film the day it opened, feeling a connection to this new and bizarre piece of cinema that reflected not only where things were at but the frightening reality of what we are all capable of. When we watch the film now and look back on these young people involved, those men thriving with talent and exploding with an aggressive passion, one cannot help but wonder what will speak to our generation the way this film did to those of the time. I suppose only time will tell.
You can see Taxi Driver tonight and tomorrow at midnight at IFC Center.
The Cannes Film Festival, now in its 65th year and currently underway (it wraps the 27th), is known for red carpet fashion, parties, unjust Palmes, and outrageous accusations and statements made by auteurs against either the system or other directors. We’ve compiled a timeline of the most outrageous moments in Cannes history.
1954: Breast in Show B-movie actress Simone Silva (who died when she was 29, we learned while reading her sad Wikipedia page) posed topless in photographs for her honorary title “Miss Festival 1954” with Robert Mitchum. To a world unfamiliar with breasts or Robert Mitchum, this was quite a scandale.
1969: Easy Riders Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, and Co. showed up at Cannes and pretty much peed and drank their way through the town. Hopper, who was in the heyday of his hard-living, took home Best First Work, thereby legitimizing both independent cinema and doing lots of drugs.
1985: A French Witticism! It wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last time that an international director gets a faceful of pie. But when New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was pied in the face by a Belgian journalist, he simply licked his pie off his cigar and said, "C’est ce qui arrive quand le cinema muet rencontre le cinema a textes," which translates to, "This is what happens when silent movies meet talking pictures."
1989: Do the Wrong Thing When Spike Lee didn’t win the Palmes d’Or for Do the Right Thing (which went to Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape), he blamed jury president Wim Wenders. Mr. Lee left the festival saying that at home he had a Louisville Slugger with Wenders’s name on it.
1991: Europoops Lars von Trier brought his film Europa to Cannes, which won the Jury Prize. Upon the realization that he did not win the Palme d’Or (which went to the Coen Brothers for Barton Fink) and actually shared the Jury Prize (with Maroun Bagdadi for Out of Life), he stormed out of the festival brandishing his middle finger and publicly called jury president Roman Polanski a midget.
2009: The Triumph of the Balls A herd of naked cyclists, led by Belgian director Felix van Groeningen, descended upon Cannes to promote La Merditude Des Choses (The Shittiness of Things). It didn’t win.
There’s been no end of Dennis Hopper tributes since his death last weekend, most of which have inevitably focused, despite his many decades of screen work, on his “signature” roles as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and Billy in Easy Rider. This is all well and good, but I’m inclined to remember Hopper best as a director—and not just of the world’s most famous biker movie. Sure, there are fairly brilliant, sui generis, artful things going on in Colors, Easy Rider, and The Last Movie, but for my part, I think the teenage punk-rock nightmare that is Out of the Blue is Hopper’s low-rent masterpiece.
The story of a ne’er-do-well latchkey kid negotiating puberty in the late 70’s, the film has a kind of raw, gutter-life quality that shows up in American cinema once every never. Linda Manz plays Cindy, a teenager slavishly devoted to Saint Elvis Presley. Her dad (Hopper) is in jail, her mom (Sharon Ferrel) is a junkie, and her ambitions, shy of being a punk-rock star, are non-existent. She wanders around, gets high, plays guitar, and hitch-hikes just to pass time. It’s an amble of a movie, really, but there are some long takes that would do Mizoguchi proud. Hopper’s direction is by turns studied and slack and the fact that he was this fucking close to punk culture is nothing short of amazing. Just as time capsule, it’s priceless.
Two weeks ago, on March 26th, Dennis Hopper received a long overdue star on the Hollywood walk of fame. Prior to the event, there had been some speculation as to whether the 73-year-old actor’s ongoing battle with prostate cancer (to say nothing of his pending divorce) would keep him from the ceremony, but Hopper—looking frail but spirited—showed up for what may very well be his last public appearance. Like many, I was oft-inclined to think Hopper indestructible, and after nearly six decades of screen work, it still feels as if we’re to lose him far too soon. Nothing confirms this feeling more than Matt Zoller Seitz’ video tribute to the original easy rider, “The Middle Word in Life.” Culling moments big and small from the whole of Hopper’s magnificent career, it’s both a touching and wondrous thing to behold. Video after the jump.
The only thing missing from this piece is Hooper’s short turn in the bizarro The Story of Mankind. Like all short men in Hollywood, Hopper too got a chance to play Napoleon.
Many people remember 2006 Oscar-winner Crash as a painfully obvious polemic on race relations in the US — the filmic equivalent of getting bludgeoned by a politically correct sledgehammer. Annie Proulx remembers it as a bane on her gay cowboy baby. In a bid to capture major cable mojo (like AMC, Showtime, and FX, for example), Starz has spun off the flick to create an original series for its Friday night line-up. Sure, such a plum time slot positions the show for imminent (if expensive) failure, as do unfavorable reviews like this and this. But unless he’s counterbalanced by the roguish charm of Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Hopper — the show’s biggest star — may be better off shepherding the barely-there pastures of the alleged Friday night audience. Witness his gratuitous monologues and the rest of the first two episodes here.