Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise

On Dennis Hopper’s disavowed art-crime failure Backtrack, a film combining the work of Jenny Holzer, Jodie Foster as a glam-rock Patty Hearst, and Bob Dylan in a hardhat.

John Waters once called Joseph Losey’s Boom! “the greatest failed art film ever made.” I won’t dispute the superlative; this is, after all, a movie featuring Richard Burton in a samurai outfit, Noel Coward as “the Witch of Capri,” and Liz Taylor reciting simmered-mimosa Tennessee Williams dialogue such as “he was wildly beautiful, and beautifully wild.” Backtrack is a less-mythic disaster, the wreckage of a mercurial creator smashing into capitalist imperatives, so terminally modern that the director tried to erase his own authorship—the greatest failed video installation, maybe. It leapt out at me from a Wikipedia vortex one day: A Dennis Hopper crime thriller where the jazz-loving hit man Milo, also Dennis Hopper, decides to kidnap his target instead of killing her? And this conceptual artist/murder witness is played by Jodie Foster? And the wall-mounted aphorisms (“MURDER HAS ITS SEXUAL SIDE”) he studies to track her down were all created by Jenny Holzer, beloved actual conceptual artist? Did I mention the helicopter chase? The filmmakers meant to revisit Out of the Past and, to their chagrin, succeeded.

Hopper shot Backtrack during an apparent resurgence. After overcoming his abyssal dependency on booze and drugs, he got an Oscar nomination for playing the saintly drunk in Hoosiers, though Blue Velvet’s terrifying one was the role that guaranteed steady villain work. Producers tentatively started trusting him with money again: 1988’s Colors, one of the first movies to anticipate gangsta rap, was a moderate financial success. Filming Backtrack that same year, he returned to the habit of casting whichever friends might be passing through. Long-time collaborator Julie Adams plays a gallery owner; John Turturro a gawky, giggly henchman with impractical red loafers; and Neil Young is in there somewhere, giving his best ex-mafioso. Bob Dylan briefly cameos as a chainsaw-wielding sculptor based on Laddie Dill. “Our forms aren’t exactly simpatico,” he says of Foster’s Anne Benton.

The initial cut Hopper presented to Vestron Pictures was two hours long. In 1991, he told the British music magazine Vox what happened next: “They had taken an hour out of my movie, and they’d taken a half-hour of stuff I’d taken out of the movie and put it in. Then they took all my music out and threw it away … They put in great violin love themes beside Jodie and me—this is a hit man and an artist, and it’s certainly not a violin romance.” The furious director demanded an Alan Smithee credit: “This is not a film by Dennis Hopper. This is not directed by Dennis Hopper. This is directed by some idiots at Vestron.” By then the distributor was already going bankrupt, and desperately hoped the movie might earn enough to pay for other moribund releases. Backtrack wouldn’t be dumped into theatres until 1990, sans Neil Young, under the title Catchfire.

That might account for the sheer disjointed strangeness of the thing. Entire scenes you’d expect to build up tension instead dissipate into longueurs. Characters slide in and out of the narrative. Even the 116-minute director’s cut, which restores some of the exposition and transitions Vestron gouged away, never maintains the same tone for longer than five minutes. After bristling at her captor’s disdain for unworldly modern ahhhtists (he prefers Charlie Parker and Hieronymus Bosch), Anne decides that she actually loves this soulful lunkhead, and they should team up to kill dozens of pursuing mobsters. (“Do you know what a hit man does?” Milo asks her. “Yeah. It means you hit people.”) Hopper had to be aware that the twist was both lurid and ludicrous. At one point, Anne tells Milo about her cravings for Hostess Sno Balls, and he sneaks away to buy his inamorata some coconut marshmallow cakes. That’s my kind of New Hollywood decadence: Jodie Foster and Dennis Hopper making out next to a pinkish mountain of Hostess snacks. Heterosexuality as camp. John Waters would love it.

Hopper and his producer Steven Reuther both died of cancer in 2010, but I spoke to Backtrack’s screenwriter Ann Louise Bardach the other day. The initial script was the work of a woman named Rachel Kronstadt Mann, who has no other credits or discernible internet presence. Hopper wanted nothing to do with it aside from the basic storyline. “He directed me to make a really tight, taut thriller,” Bardach laughed, “and in the end what he shot was a … vaudevillian caper.” She had started off as a crime reporter, writing for papers such as the Village Voice and the Soho Weekly News; she covered the Sid Vicious murder case. Bardach knew the punk world, which in New York circa 1979 was indivisible from the art world. Reporting is once more her focus now—the Columbia Journalism Review called her “the go-to journalist on all things Cuban and Miami”—since she had decided, after the Backtrack experience, never to bother with Hollywood again. “Working with Dennis,” Bardach told me, “was completely insane.”

He kept seeking to improvise. They went scouting for locations around Hopper’s adored New Mexico, and if they passed Georgia O’Keeffe’s old place, he’d say oh, Georgia O’Keeffe, you should put her in the script. Hopper also inserted Jenny Holzer’s work, which he loved. Ironically, in 1988, Holzer was not yet so famous that galleries regularly exhibited her work, like they do the LED installations in Backtrack—it appeared mainly as public interventions, printed on lithographs or worn by a graffiti artist. (Milo uncovers Anne’s new identity after she starts recycling her work for marketing slogans.) “He had a beautiful eye,” Bardach said. “Dennis was not a narrative artist, he was a visual artist.” When Hopper’s acting career cratered for the first time in the late 1950s, he took up photography instead. Hopper credited Vincent Price with introducing him to art collecting, and gave the elder actor one of his very last roles, playing Backtrack’s mafia chieftain. Not even deigning to attempt the accent, Price presides over each brief scene with the manner of a greyed flamingo. It’s like casting James Gandolfini in Brideshead Revisited.

Hopper always wanted Bardach to work at his house in Venice, Los Angeles—he tried to bring everyone over to the house. This was a challenging situation for a screenwriter, especially when the director stands over your shoulder barking No, don’t write that word, write this word! “I felt that he was kind of hanging by his fingernails,” Bardach told me. “It was what they call white-knuckle sobriety. Hanging, just hanging. And suffering. It was hard … He wasn’t doing therapy or doing what you need to do if you’re a pedal-to-the-metal drug addict. He wasn’t doing the other part of it, he was just not drinking.” By this time Bardach had gone teetotal herself, and noticed gallon jugs of Jack Daniel’s still sitting untouched on the ledge above them, like ominous objets d’art. “There were many a day when Dennis was so wound-up and so anxious that I would just say, ‘Dennis, for god’s sake, have a drink! Have a goddamn drink! We’re not going to survive this if you don’t have a drink!’”

They’d actually met for the first time decades earlier, when she was only 19 or 20. Hopper probably didn’t remember it. Bardach’s love interest, “Mr. Wrong,” had been renting part of a Bel-Air estate that once belonged to Zsa Zsa Gabor: “It was a big mansion, and I remember it had fake volcanic rock. There was a tunnel, where you could escape from the IRS, evidently.” Hopper was living in another part of the house, if “living” is the right word. “I just remember Dennis running around at the middle of the night, wild-eyed, saying [assumes addled voice]: ‘Oh, you gotta see this thing, you gotta see this movie.’ He was just completely souped up on … what looked like meth, whatever … And that’s how I met Dennis Hopper. He never seemed to sleep, and he was editing, as it turned out, Easy Rider.”

After Easy Rider earned $60 million, Hollywood executives realized that the counterculture was a marketable demographic. During that fleeting delirium, Hopper could make an American counterpart of Godard’s Maoist films and trick Universal Pictures into offering a million dollars for it. His imperialism parable The Last Movie stars himself as the stuntman Kansas, who stays behind after shooting a Western in Peru to discover that the film has filtered through the local religion; using wooden facsimiles of camera equipment, the villagers force him to act out a series of bloody Christ metaphors. Hopper tried splicing the surreal footage into a passably conventional drama, but some goading from his friend Alejandro Jodorowsky convinced him to abandon all linearity, with “SCENE MISSING” cards interrupting the narrative itself. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum later wrote: “The curious thing about this freewheeling allegory is that it is simultaneously about many things (the fakery of moviemaking, mutual exploitation, ugly Americans in the third world, Hopper as Jesus) and nothing at all.”

The exasperated Universal head Lew Wasserman tried to take The Last Movie out of Hopper’s hands, but his contract guaranteed final cut. It was pulled from theatres after two weeks despite winning the Critics Prize at the 1971 Venice Film Festival. Hopper would spend the next decade-plus working in Europe or on small independent projects, considered unemployable by Hollywood, and not just because of his formal inclinations. According to his friend and Roy Orbison tribute act Dean Stockwell, who plays a mob lawyer in Backtrack, the whole crew of The Last Movie was chewing on coca leaves throughout production. There’s an obscure documentary called American Dreamer about the attempts to edit it: In between firing machine guns at cacti, Hopper explains his self-image as a lesbian and rambles without end. Observing two dachshunds fucking, he says: “Those dogs have more sense than we do, and they don’t know anything about art.” Much of this was contrived for the documentary, though Hopper’s glum detachment from his own quasi-commune feels unstaged: How can you lose yourself in a happening while striving to direct it?

By the time Hopper played Apocalypse Now’s deranged photojournalist, it was unclear where performance ended or began—he could summon up mania, but not the mania specified in the screenplay. Even before discovering drugs, Hopper was firstly and most deeply an alcoholic, doing three grams of coke a day just to keep himself blackout drunk. He could be, as one ex-wife put it, a sweetheart. He was also capable of treating collaborators, lovers, or unfortunate bystanders with abusive paranoia. Hopper once pulled a knife on a gangster, demanding to know who had taken out some imaginary contract on his life. In 1983 he traveled to Mexico for the low-budget movie Jungle Warriors, his intended role being chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Hopper perversely enjoyed retelling what happened next: As a psychotic break took hold, he stripped off all his clothes and fled into the jungle. Emerging the next morning, he attacked local police, pleading to be shot: “I want to die naked.”

Jail and then rehab followed. He had tried to crawl onto the wing of his return flight home and woken up wearing a straitjacket. After a series of lower-profile gigs, newly sober, Hopper famously begged David Lynch for the part of Blue Velvet’s howling, weeping, gas-huffing, menacing villain: “I have to play Frank Booth, because I am Frank Booth!” Not that he ever cut someone’s ear off or terrorized an entire town, but he had passed through a similar world of casual, harrowing violence. “Working on [Backtrack],” Bardach told me, “you really could see—Dennis’s lexicon, his emotional lexicon, there was always an enemy. Like, the daily adversary. That’s a rough way to live, you know?”

Just before Backtrack began filming in 1988, the Writers Guild of America called what became the longest strike in its history. Bardach would be picketing rather polishing the script on set: “I really think I was spared by God from the shoot.” So Hopper secretly hired his buddy Alex Cox, the director of Repo Man—not something that might endear you to a crew full of union members. He also made him play the ghost of D. H. Lawrence. Cox gleefully described himself as Hopper’s henchman: “Dennis knew what he wanted: it was our job to see that he got it … Dennis the actor specialized in chaotic, drug-crazed, out-of-control roles, but as a director he was always disciplined, always in control.” The producer Steven Reuther, however, assured Bardach that he already had a backup plan if Backtrack slid into total disarray. “Dennis kind of ran movie sets by a lot of yelling.” Still acclimatizing to sobriety, the restlessly tense director was no longer speaking to various crew members by the end of the shoot.

Auteur and star didn’t part on good terms either: At one point Jodie Foster got so frustrated that she herself yelled “Cut!” in the middle of a take, provoking an aggrieved lecture much like those the young Hopper received. Though she called the director a “major pain” to work with several years ago, her reaction back in 1988 was phrased more ambiguously: “[The premise] seems simple enough, but I didn’t realize the extent he could make something strange that wasn’t.” Considering the central Stockholm syndrome twist in Backtrack (“I hate you, but now we’re in love, let’s get married,” Bardach laughed), maybe it’s not surprising that Foster passed on the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, which originally involved her Clarice Starling running off with Hannibal Lecter.

”When we worked on the film,” Bardach told me, “[Hopper] had clearly had several close encounters with the Grim Reaper.” Backtrack contains its share of macho mythopoetics, such as Milo randomly wandering through a Pueblo aboriginal ceremony, but the doomed romanticism of Easy Rider is absent. That same scene closes with a burning effigy, shadows lost in fluorescence. When Milo asks Anne to put on some lingerie, she mocks the dazed hit man: “Why don’t I tie you up, huh? That’d be exciting.” Their creepy relationship turns even weirder as her return of this obsessive love bewilders him. During the ridiculous showdown at a chemical refinery, wearing a silvery hazmat suit like some glam-rock Patty Hearst, Anne seems the more committed assassin.

In The American Friend, Hopper brilliantly chose to play Patricia Highsmith’s criminal Ripley as a melancholic—no less murderous, but desolate and sad, too. “I was trying to figure out,” Bardach said, “where did these rages come from? I had been around a lot of alcoholics, junkies, drug addicts, but never…” The closest she ever came was when Hopper began talking about his childhood one night. His father was in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA, and the family pretended that Dad had been killed in action as part of an elaborate cover story. Hopper never forgot the deception, and his parents seemed to resent him for knowing. There were boundaries violated, and not just emotional ones—he remembered his mother throwing raw eggs at his face. Even if an explanation ultimately escaped her, Bardach remained fond: “The thing about Dennis Hopper was, he might have been crazy, but he was talented, really talented. And a lot of the other [Hollywood people], no talent and all crazy.”

And there are things in Backtrack to be fond of. I’m thinking of Milo blowing his saxophone, then getting mad at his saxophone, then unsuccessfully hurling his saxophone against a plexiglass window. His line reading for “I own a large chain of laundromats” is somehow the best joke in the film. (Hopper never got enough recognition for this; he’s the only Super Mario Bros. cast member being funny on purpose, and his last memorable role, in George Romero’s Land of the Dead, replaced the usual typecast villainy with comic aloofness.) The beautiful, nightmarish industrial landscapes repaint Antonioni’s Red Desert in L.A. neon. Jodie Foster may have hated making Backtrack (though, unlike Joe Pesci, she left her name on it), but the husky voice and determined set of her jaw suggest Clarice Starling enduring a biennale. Near the end, for no greater reason than anything else in this movie, she actually wanders through the desert cradling a lamb—as if Hopper’s cut had been butchered so wildly as to gash time itself.

The musician John Darnielle, who grew up with an abusive stepfather, spoke on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast about his experience of addiction: “A lot of drug abuse that arises from having been abused, and from being in environments that deprive you, is about wanting to feel power. [It’s] wanting to say, “Well, I can control something… I can control the rate of my own destruction.” In the 1970s, Jenny Holzer made a series of “inflammatory essays,” stark yet elusive, one of which said: RUIN YOUR FUCKING SELF BEFORE THEY DO. I can’t pretend to know what Hopper saw in her art, but quite a few Holzer phrases do sound like something said to, by, or about a Dennis Hopper character. You get amazing sensations from guns. Abuse of power comes as no surprise. Slipping into madness is good for the sake of comparison. Protect me from what I want.


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