Hopper / Welles (2020)

Most casual viewers happening upon Hopper / Welles will be bewildered and likely a little bored. A DIY interview between the two famous actor/directors, with shaky black-and-white camerawork and a distinct lack of structure or focus, at first impressions this is a very odd choice of film. And why is only Dennis Hopper in the frame and do we never see Orson Welles? And why does Hopper regularly refer to Welles as ‘Jake’?

The truth is that this footage was shot in 1970 by Gary Graver for Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, the long-mythologised project that was only eventually funded and released in 2018 by Netflix, and was recovered as part of editor Bob Murawski’s extensive archival research. Just as casual viewers, who might have just seen Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil were puzzled by that boldly experimental and fascinating late masterpiece, similarly most viewers of Hopper/Welles will struggle to warm to this film without some context. This is one for the fans, a fascinating curio ‘directed by Orson Welles’ for viewers who might be fascinated by either man’s personality.

Dennis Hopper in Hopper / Welles

Like many of Welles’s later projects, The Other Side of the Wind was filmed haphazardly over several years, with the director opportunistically shooting short sequences when he could, knowing he would stitch together a coherent final edit when the time came. Deeply distrustful of studio interference, he amassed great quantities of footage in a deliberately disorganised mass of film reel cans; one of the reasons why the complex assembly of that film was so time consuming and expensive. Welles/Hopper was one of these finds.

Shot in a single evening in a darkened living room, we see two hours of Hopper being interviewed – and at times almost interrogated – by Welles in character as Other Side‘s Jake Hannaford. Hannaford, a self-knowing echo of Welles himself, is a fictional, legendary, but fading film director who was both enviously fascinated and distrustful of the younger generation of directors such as Antonioni, Bunuel, Chabrol and Hopper himself, who he suspected of being shallow and superficial.

Hopper was riding on the phenomenal success of Easy Rider as one of Hollywood’s new auteurs and a spokesman for the fashionable counterculture. At the time of shooting was in the middle of production of The Last Movie a bold and chaotically indulgent film that was a box office disaster and has only recently begun to be reappraised (see the excellent Indicator blu ray release). In Hopper/Welles, Hopper seems to foresee the public’s bewildered reaction to The Last Movie and is questioning the meaning behind his own filmmaking.

Dennis Hopper looking pensive in Hopper/Welles

This is not an equal fight. Welles is commanding and articulate, knowingly jumping in and out of character (in a digression on politics, the famously left-leaning Welles declares that most of the public consider him to be almost a fascist). By contrast Hopper is shifty and uncomfortable, particularly when Welles insistently dissects Hopper’s throwaway statements. More than once half-jokingly Hopper riffs on the Hannaford/Welles blur as an attempted escape when Welles manoeuvres him into a dialectic dead end.

Initially evasive and earnest, after a few gins Hopper becomes more of a show-off and far more candid about his doubts and insecurities. Falling back on the cultural references of the fashionable intelligencia, Hopper often betrays himself as the kind of shallow artist that Hannaford and (we imagine) Welles suspects him to be. The entire conversation is unscripted and, as Welles is quoted in Josh Karp’s excellent making-of book, Hopper is incapable of improvising while Welles dances around him – I imagine Hopper is straightforwardly being himself while Welles glides between being in character and being Welles.

In truth, both these auteurs were rebels and mavericks; they have this in common. Hopper looks the part – clad in denim and in a cowboy hat, scraggly beard and twitchy demeanour, chain-smoking Marlboros and swilling gin, an ironic recreation of the all-American frontiersman. Welles is from an earlier generation and so his age and his resonant, mellifluous voice suggest he is more of an establishment figure, but of course appearances can be deceptive. Other Side and F for Fake would be some of his most experimental and audacious films of Welles’s career. With a kaleidoscopic energy and playful interrogation of the fragility of truth and reality, these films address similar concerns as his counterculture counterparts, and often with far more insight.

Although meandering and at times stubbornly repetitive, the conversation touches upon some interesting areas. on notions of American myth-making and how a postmodern deconstruction of these myths can reveal curent truths, on tribal magic compared to studio magic, on Jane Fonda and on Bob Dylan, on Hopper’s atheism towards fractions, on the role of the film maker as a kind of god. Tiny fragments are familiar from their eventual inclusion in Other Side, in the scenes set in Hannaford’s home during a power cut, a conceit presumably to explain the inclusion of this dark, candlelit footage.

The clapperboard emphasises the artificiality of this conversation in Hopper/Welles

The multi-camera edit is punctuated by clapperboard snaps, each heralding a reel change in one of the handheld cameras. Their inclusion must have been a deliberate choice – Welles had enough footage to mask them should he have wanted to – and they emphasise the artificiality of this filmed conversation, just as the two men are at once being themselves and improvising respective roles.

There’s no doubt that Hopper/Welles benefits greatly from being seen in retrospect. If it had been released in 1970, we wouldn’t have yet seen the experimental disarray of The Last Movie let alone the whirlwind magnificence of Other Side. But seen as an adjunct to the former and an artefact of the latter, it’s a fascinating archival capsule.

Dennis Hopper looking haunted in Hopper / Welles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s