Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Dennis Hopper: Ragged Glory

Sad to read of the apparently terminal illness of Dennis Hopper: the Man from Dodge City, one of the most edgy and compelling figures in post-war American cinema, both as a quite inimitable actor/artiste and an occasional, thwarted director. (The recent picture to my left of Hopper and Jack Nicholson is (c) Harrison/Getty.)
I do believe I first caught sight of Hopper as the cannily cast philosophical-drunk father to Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon in Rumblefish (1983.) But it might have been in Out of the Blue (1980), which he also directed – a simply, shatteringly brilliant picture about punk rock, nihilism and dysfunctional family life. This early 1980s moment was the point where Hopper finally got sober and career-minded after decades of terrifying bad craziness – the lost years of Taos, New Mexico, the elopements, the heavy dope, the blowing oneself out of a chair with dynamite. As a veteran of that era once began a story to me (and, really, one need say no more) – ‘Dennis Hopper came by the house, raving mad...’
By 1985 Hopper was, in the words of a Hollywood friend of mine, ‘not the same gunslinger’, his tortuous sobriety so tightly maintained as to give offence to Charles Bukowski when the two met to discuss Hopper’s directing Bukowski’s script Barfly. Then came Blue Velvet (1986), in which Hopper acted out a beautifully stylised, vicariously thrilling version of his former lunacy as refracted through the dark glass of David Lynch. Career-wise, Hop was back: ahead lay Speed, Waterworld and what have you. But we shall not forget Rebel Without a Cause, The Last Movie, The American Friend, Tracks, Apocalypse Now, River’s Edge et al.
I’ve had the privilege of talking to Hopper on a couple of occasions, first in 2002 for the sake of my book about his friend Sean Penn. and then in New York in 2006 (when he was accompanied by his wife Victoria Duffy) – that discussion in respect of an autobiography he was minded to write, subsequently acquired for the US by Little, Brown and for the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The provisional title was Out Takes. I wonder now if we can still hope to see this book, at least in part if not in whole?
The tome Hopper was contemplating was not some chronological plod through the annals but, rather, a memoir galvanised by especially charged moments and meaningful scenes from his life – some of them already the stuff of notoriety/legend, others previously personal. It was all set to be a classic American Life & Times: Hopper and I talked about Dylan’s Chronicles, and his admiration for the deftness of Dylan’s prose in conjuring time and place as well as his own creative process. I suppose we must now see if the fates are kind, and what Hopper has in mind to leave behind as testament.
One memory that I personally will always treasure: Hopper, on learning that I was published by Faber and Faber, leaned close to me, eyes shining as they do in his greatest movie moments, or – once in a while – in post-rehab interviews where he fondly recalled the demonic power of Amanita muscaria. But what Hopper wished to share with me in
New York that day was how deeply he admired the work of Faber’s founding father, T.S. Eliot. ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws’ – Hopper recited precisely, with low-burning fervour – ‘scuttling across the floors of silent seas...’ Now there’s an audio-book I’d buy in a second. Long may you rave on and on, Senor Dennis.

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