Film maybe wasn't as big a part of the countercultural baby boomers' identity as music or drugs or “free love” but damn if it wasn't important. The counterculture strain of many films in the sixties is evident, from The Graduate's honest exploration of twenty-something uncertainty (soundtracked, of course, by generational heroes Simon and Garfunkel) to Bonnie and Clyde's idealization of the titular characters' rebelliousness. The increasingly irrelevant Hays Production Code was abandoned for good in 1968, opening the floodgates to all kinds of juicy stuff. Filmmakers of the 1960s held up psychedelic mirrors to their generation and broke barrier after barrier. Authority was challenged. Editing was nonlinear. Drugs were blatantly taken. Sex (of all shapes, sizes, and colors) was proudly had.
If one film summed up the spirit of the sixties, it was Dennis Hopper’s low budget Easy Rider. While popularly remembered today for little more than Steppenwolf and motorcycles, Easy Rider told the tale of two hapless, idealistic longhairs named Billy and Wyatt (Hopper and Peter Fonda, respectively), and their drug-fueled cross-country search for “America.” Its rock and roll soundtrack, edgy editing (including a memorable acid trip sequence), and young new point of view struck a real chord with American audiences and critics, who made it into a massive box office hit and, ultimately, a cultural touchstone. Film’s second golden age, the French New Wave-influenced “New Hollywood,” was in full effect. Suddenly, Hopper was the next big thing. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Old Hollywood quickly noticed the new shift in popular taste and, as they are wont to do, tried to co-opt it by throwing some money around (for a recent example, see the incessant barrage of “quirky indie” studio films that have been shoved down our throats since Garden State.) They let it ride on Hopper, making what they thought was a smart investment in his next project, a challenging and ambitious meta-Western about the nature of cinema’s relationship with reality called The Last Movie, of which he was granted complete artistic control. Hopper took his million dollars and went to Peru, where he shot forty plus (!) hours of footage. He spent the next year and a half in his Taos, New Mexico home poring over, compiling, and tweaking the film. In 1971, it was released after curiously taking first prize at the Venice Film Festival. Not only did it turn out that The Last Movie was not exactly Easy Rider II, it was a complete failure. Audiences and critics alike -- confounded by the film’s intentionally amateurish editing and nonlinear story -- were indifferent about it at best and repulsed by it at worst. Hopper, who had transformed himself into an icon with Easy Rider just two short years before, was exiled from Hollywood. Studios shelved for years any film whose credits bore his name. Another one bites the dust.
The Last Movie may have been a failure as a film, but it is hard to come up with a more eerily appropriate symbol of the end of the idealistic sixties. Here, ego, drugs, and best intentions were taken to the limit and yielded a disaster. In the process, an icon was chewed up and spit out by the very machine that made him. Of course, Hopper would (thankfully) recover. He stayed relatively underground for the remainder of the seventies, but eventually found acclaim and steady work as a maniacal character actor in a wide variety of impressive films including Blue Velvet, Hoosiers, and Speed. With 1988’s Colors, Hopper even got another successful turn in the director’s chair. Other Hollywood pariahs have not been so lucky.
The story of Hopper’s legendary flop is a reminder of the dangers and consequences of hype, expectation, and groupthink. Every great director has made at least one bad film; many have made plenty of them. Who separates the Scorceses from the Shyamalans? We do -- and it’s a big responsibility. We build ‘em up, tear ‘em down, and build ‘em up again, damn near arbitrarily. Even universally loved stuff like The Big Lebowski performed poorly initially. Revisionist history is inevitable. We must pay attention.
As my generation, cynicism and roulette-like attention span and all, stakes its own claim on the cultural and critical landscape, it's a safe bet that we’ll gut a good chunk of the baby boomers' cultural canon. There are already some casualties -- Strawberry Alarm Clock comes to mind, for example. Even Roger Ebert has started to do this work for us: his updated review of The Graduate (a film he lauded in his younger days) refers to the protagonist Benjamin as “that insufferable creep.#” The point not being, of course, that the boomers were or are right or wrong, but that the passing of time changes the way we interact with art on a fundamental level. There is no right or wrong. Is Easy Rider unimpeachable or dated and deluded? Is The Last Movie an unheralded lost classic or a messy, indulgent waste of our and Dennis Hopper’s time? We know what the cultural dogma says, but we owe it to ourselves to re-evaluate every once in awhile.