Hopper/Welles review – fascinating, exasperating home movie of a drunken evening | Venice film festival 2020

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In November 1970, Dennis Hopper flew from Taos in New Mexico to dine with Orson Welles in LA. Hopper was in the midst of producing The Last Movie; Welles was busily prepping The Other Side of the Wind. Both these productions would later famously combust, but on that evening in late fall, their creators were feeling optimistic, all-powerful. Welles flattered Hopper and said that he should one day play Jesus. They broke bread together in what now looks very much like a film-makers’ last supper.

Hopper/Welles is the periodically fascinating, generally exasperating record of that meeting, an unearthed black-and-white home movie in which the two men get drunk and speak their minds on everything from Buñuel to Visconti, John Wayne to the Fondas. The order of the title’s star billing is intentional and unavoidable, since Welles keeps a hand-held camera trained on Hopper throughout and is content to play the role of off-screen interrogator. Flushed from the success of Easy Rider, Hopper had briefly found himself hailed as the saviour of American cinema. This film catches the one moment in his life, perhaps, where he could dare to regard Welles as the junior partner.

Playing out of competition at this year’s Venice film festival, the restored footage is an intriguing relic – an offcut, raw copy. There’s something pleasingly voyeuristic about the experience of being allowed behind the velvet rope to watch these blusterers hold forth, although I expect their charms may be limited to die-hard devotees. Others will find it too much of a good thing. Give these two enough velvet rope and they’ll hang themselves with it.

Eyes darting, giggling nervously, Hopper angles to turn the conversation to sex. He explains that he only became a director because he “wanted to get some more pretty ladies” but admits that basically all he’s ever wanted is to sleep with his mum. Forced off this topic, he tells a jaw-dropping story about Elvis Presley, making his first film at the age of 21 and believing that everything in the movies was true, that all the punches were real; that all the guns fired bullets. Elvis said that he could handle the fight scenes just fine, but he was concerned because the script also called for him to hit a woman and he’d never actually done that before in his life.

Welles, in a still from The Other Side of the Wind
Welles on the set of The Other Side of the Wind. Photograph: Gary Graver/77th Venice International Film Festival

As for Welles, he’s opaque. The great man dislikes Antonioni, scorns leftwing activists and claims to have never heard of Bob Dylan. But is this Welles’s own ignorance, or is it an affectation, a pose? Hopper would eventually take a cameo in The Other Side of the Wind and the dinner is at least in part a dress rehearsal, with Welles dipping in and out of character as the film’s main protagonist, a director named Jake Hannaford. “You’re a hard man to talk to, Jake,” Hopper giggles at one point.

One gets the distinct sense that the feeling is mutual. This loquacious, long-winded affair works best as a snapshot of two men in time: the callow young gun who’s just struck gold and the legendary old campaigner who remembers all too well how that felt. Welles (or perhaps Hannaford) is interested in Hopper and suspicious of him, too. He grills the man for hours and appears to find him wanting. And the longer it lasts, the more Hopper starts to squirm. He’s unprepared, inconsistent. He’s like a smart-aleck student sitting a university exam.

“I’d love the chance to change the world, any way that I could,” he splutters. “Whether it’s movies or whatever.”

“How can you say that?” Welles snaps back. “Now that’s a nice smarmy statement meaning nothing. It’s charming and it’s lovable but it makes no sense at all.”

And so on they go, as the clock ticks towards midnight. Welles frustrated by Hopper; Hopper tormented by Welles. Wherever these two men are today, one hopes for their sakes that they are not there together.

Source: The Guardian
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