A few weekend discoveries

The Last Movie, directed by and starring Dennis Hopper (1971): My weekend started early with a day off on Friday, so I went with my friend Stephanie to Anthology Film Archives to see this classic of early-Seventies American cinema that I’d never had the chance to see. They had a new print playing for a limited run, so I feel lucky we caught it.

The esteemed J. Hoberman has a fine review in the Voice. His piece and other things I’d read had led me to expect a much more radical movie. Indeed, the sound goes out of synch, “Scene Missing” cards turn up a couple of times, and there’s a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie for graduate film theory students to play with.

But the breaks from the coherent fictional world of the main story are actually quite few. Dennis Hopper is Kansas, a movie stunt man who stays behind after filming a Western in Peru. As he tries to hold on to his dreams of bliss with a local girl, Maria, the other villagers take over the abandoned movie set, staging increasingly elaborate rituals of “filming” a movie using wooden cameras and production equipment but real violence.

There’s a strong lyricism to the film that contrasts with an equally pervasive cynicism. Hoberman calls the lyrical elements and the folk-rock soundtrack “hilarious,” but that’s not how they came across to our audience. Rather, the contrast between stunning beauty (the silhouette of children playing hopscotch on a hill) and bitterly dark humor makes both elements more intense. In the final minutes of the film, Hopper gets shot over and over again, each time falling in slow motion and then getting up for another take. Not a capsule of the entire movie, certainly, but an important thematic point: Can we escape the dreams we make for ourselves upon the big screen, and can we escape our roles in the dreams of others?

Saint Jack, directed by Peter Bogdanovich (1979): The very next night after seeing The Last Movie, I went back to the Anthology to see this little-known gem by the guy who made The Last Picture Show, one of my favorite movies of all time, but who is probably better known as the guy who plays Dr. Melfi’s shrink in The Sopranos.

Based on a Paul Theroux novel, Saint Jack follows the meanderings of an honorable pimp. Ben Gazzara plays an expatriate American in Asia during the Vietnam war. (Most of the action takes place in Singapore, with deliciously gritty on-location visuals.) Jack is good with people, good at getting them what they want; he ends up running a couple of brothels in the course of the film, including one for the U.S. Army.

Two counterpoint characters come in and out of the story. William Leigh is an English expat accountant played wonderfully by Denholm Elliott, who reprised a much less sophisticated version of the role in the third Indiana Jones movie. Leigh is perpetually naive and uncomfortable around others, eventually dying of a heart attack brought on by having to deal with some old-boy Englishmen who tease him mercilessly.

His funeral in Singapore is attended by Jack, his ex-hooker girlfriend, and these same Englishmen–singing Blake’s Jerusalem. Jack ends up mailing Leigh’s ashes back to his wife in a simple brown box that’s dumped into the postal bin with everything else; neither Jack nor we can escape wondering about Jack’s future in the strange land he’s chosen. Will anyone show up for his cremation, and will anyone want his ashes?

Eddie Schuman, played by Bogdanovich, is Jack’s opposite number in a different way. Powerful and connected, Schuman gets Jack the gig running the brothel for soldiers. You’d think it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But Schuman turns out to lack scruples. When he involves Jack in a scheme to blackmail a Senator, Jack goes along, taking incriminating photos and collecting the payment that will buy him a life back in the States. In the end, though, Jack chooses not to have any more part of Schuman’s schemes. He chooses dignity and respect, showing a hard-won self-possession completely independent of his external circumstances.

Melody Mountain by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra (Rune Grammofon, 2006): Looking for a birthday present on Saturday, I heard an otherworldly version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” playing over the sound system at Other Music. Turns out it’s from this album, which I hadn’t heard of but should have.

Susanna and the Magical Orchestra is Susanna WallumrĂžd on vocals and Morten Qvenild on a whole bunch of other stuff — whatever he plays, it ends up sounding spooky. Melody Mountain is the duo’s second album. Their first, List of Lights and Buoys, included a cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene that got a fair amount of critical attention. (I’m dying to find it.) The present album is all covers, and it’s one of the best covers albums I’ve heard.

The songs are all slow, sparse, and melancholy. This isn’t hard to do with Joy Division or even with Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.” But it’s fun to hear Susanna work their magic with AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” and KISS’s “Crazy, Crazy Nights,” which actually turn out to be two of the best recordings on the album. The opening song, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and the Joy Division cover are probably the most dysphoric. Overall, the album creates a palpable mood — a strong drug for late-night comedowns.

A brief concluding thought: I notice that both the movies were made more than a quarter-century ago, and the music is new but mostly covers of songs of the same vintage. Is it just me? Is the best stuff around these days just old stuff? Or are we at a point where we can lay it all out for equal appreciation, the KISS and the Joy Division and the most up-to-date Norwegians?

6 responses to “A few weekend discoveries”

  1. bryan says:

    dave — i have the first susanna CD. yes, the version of jolene is fantastic. i’d never really listened to the verses in the dolly original (or in the white stripes version).

    i love everything i have from rune grammofon. i think i found them via dusted or hatch — or both. what a great label.

    i can’t wait to hear the new covers album.

  2. ssw says:

    Lyrical indeed Dave. I was awestruck watching Kris Kristofferson singing “Me and Bobby McGee” up on a rock in the middle of nowhere, telling Kansas (Hopper) to get his ass back onto the set. Did you know Leonard Cohen did the score?

  3. Dave says:

    I didn’t know that about Leonard Cohen. Cool.

    What did you think? Was the soundtrack a joke, like Hoberman says? I would say it was ironic and sincere, both. But that’s my reaction to a lot of things.

  4. ssw says:

    I’m actually not sure if it was Kris or Leonard. I do know that Phil Spector pulled his funding and yet, Phil must have been fairly intimate with all of them regardless because he was IN Easy Rider. Strange times. I responded to the music beyond most other emotional techniques in the film (ie., the mother’s milk, the tears at the party, the whore girlfriend being beat up). The music was hopeful, sentimental, earnest–it was certainly painting a picture. For me, it was like the upside down monkeys saying “Hang in There” from the 70s–we had muted sunsets, puppies..there was an earnest hopefulness in the midst of a cynical worldview. Hey wanna watch Easy Rider next? It’s also like watching a bygone era, but in the United States. Sad and wondrous, all wrapped into one.

  5. Dave says:

    See, Easy Rider is one I don’t know if I could watch again. Its unironic post-hippie sentimentality is just a little too much for me right now — and one reason I think The Last Movie wasn’t entirely ironic or satirical. That said, I have enjoyed Easy Rider immensely in the past and may be able to do so again at some point.

  6. ssw says:

    I can’t even remember the movie that well–it’s probably been 10-12 years since I saw it. What stayed with me though was mostly visual–the way that Easy Rider captured this time period within the US that seems to be just gone. My interest in it was more along the lines of appreciating those gorgeous landscapes. see you tonight!