In this week’s Damaged Goods, Craig Hubert discusses New Hollywood, Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue and Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter. Hellman’s mind-bending new film, Road to Nowhere, is out this Friday.
“Golden age” is a term regularly batted around when discussing American cinema of the 1970’s, a controversial label if there ever was one. A lot of people have a lot of opinions about how this whole thing started, or even what it was exactly. Some say it was a detour, a wrong turn in the right direction away from the inevitable money machine. Some claim it was an anti-establishment, fiercely political, angry, and revolutionary movement. The term New Hollywood is often used as shorthand for a small group of filmmakers who produced distinctive work in the period: Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, and Spielberg being the biggest names. Some authoritative accounts say it all started with Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Others feel the whole thing shot off with Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). When it burned out, who knows, though it’s fairly certain that Dennis Hopper (or Michael Cimino) probably had something to do with it. This narrative favors crazy stories with scrambled beginnings and big blowouts, battles over budgets and egos, over the much more complex reality. And unfortunately, quite a few good (and some great) films have been overlooked because they don’t quite fit into the storyline of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls. Fortunately, many of these films have been rediscovered and are now being recognized as more than footnotes.
Dennis Hopper, who had a big ego and an even bigger propensity for blowouts, almost killed the New Hollywood, or so the story goes. But that might have been his plan. He was practically banished from Hollywood after The Last Movie (1971)—a not-so-bad follow-up to Easy Rider—was slaughtered in the popular press. Hopper floated through the remainder of the decade in a cloud of drugs and bad publicity, a caricature of a cartoon. When he got the chance to direct another film, nine years after the last, it would be second-hand and through the back door.
Out of the Blue (1980) was made almost by accident. Hopper, cast in the role of Don Barnes, was asked to take over the film after the director, Leonard Yakir, was fired from the project. How much of the original script was ultimately used is unknown, but it’s easy to believe that little, if any at all, made it to the screen. Hopper’s pitch black vision is utterly at odds with the freewheeling hippie persona he’d been saddled with, the polar opposite of the utopian optimism of his more famous peers. Set in Canada, the film revolves around Cebe Barnes, a dead-end kid with a serious chip on her shoulder and a head full of nightmares. When her father, portrayed by a manic Hopper, returns from jail, he sets in motion the disintegration of the family, which literally ends with a bang. In the role of Cebe, Linda Manz is a revelation, and Hopper lets her run wild all over the film. Her pipsqueak body stutters through the frame, knocking down jungle-gym pinheads with postures twice her size. Each movement is affected, evoking the jolting hips and jittering dips of Elvis or Patti Smith in her prime; each quick turn of the head, hard swipe of the hand, or swift kick to the shins is jagged and rough edged. If Cebe is a punk, as she projects in her street sermons, it is on a primal level, before boundaries are formed and ideologies erected. It’s a spark, a rumble, a hazy passion burning a hole in her guts.
A different kind of passion is burning inside Frank Mansfield, the obsessed loner of Cockfighter (1974). The film, directed by Monte Hellman from the novel by Charles Willeford, is sedative and comic where Out of the Blue is twitching and scary. After losing out on the coveted “Cockfighter of the Year” award because of his “big mouth,” Mansfield erects a code of silence, refusing to speak at all, to anyone, until he wins the prize. The film begins with Frank losing almost everything, happily shedding his trailer and the young girl he picked up along the way, and proceeds to glide easily along, peppered with bits of voice-over and plucked guitar (Hellman omits a subplot from the book involving Frank’s suburb guitar playing skills, which I like to imagine now appears on the soundtrack). Warren Oates, in the role of Frank, once again gives an inspired performance, all curt gestures and crooked smiles, shades perched on his nose, snap brim resting gently on his dome. Hellman presents the illegal sport at the center of the film, which could admittedly be gruesome, as if it were a dance or ancient ritual. No matter what you think of the outcome, there is beauty in the movements of the animals, the way they circle each other, jab their necks out, open up their wings, dodge and charge. The camera plays close attention to the world surrounding the fights as well: the preparations, the exchanging of money in the bleachers, the peculiar conditioning techniques used by the trainers. Cockfighter is not out to condemn or attract. It throws you in the middle of its world. Cockfighting isn’t bad or good, it simply is.
Monte Hellman is a curious figure of the New Hollywood, orbiting around the perimeter, embodying its so-called-ethos, but unable, more likely unwilling, to play the political games necessary in studio filmmaking. The few films he made during this period, when they received theatrical distribution, whispered rather than screamed; he didn’t have the grandiose excess of Coppola or the bombast of Scorsese. Hellman didn’t check off genres like some of his peers, but was certainly influenced by cinema of the past — traces of Howard Hawks and Antonioni are noticeable, embedded in the language of the film instead of shaded in after the fact. The minimal Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the only film of the decade that sweats freedom, wasn’t a commercial success, even with pop stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in the lead roles, and Hellman went down a road of bad-luck deals. Cockfighter, produced by the prodigious Roger Corman, whom Hellman worked under a decade earlier, disappeared without a trace after its release and became a cult film, whispered about in hushed tones and available only on lo-fi dubbed VHS bootlegs. Hellman went on to work on a series of b-movies that went so far under the radar, not even the most avid cinephile has seen them, working in near-obscurity, grabbing second-unit gigs and executive producing credits, but not directing a feature film for two decades. Road to Nowhere (2010), his new film, and which by all accounts looks to be a return to form (did he ever leave?), premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and will roll out in theaters this Friday. His is the kind of career that doesn’t fit neatly in to the accepted narrative. Perhaps his return to the fold will help correct that.
Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue is screening at Anthology Film Archives through June 9.
Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere opens in limited release at Cinema Village East in New York on Friday, June 10.
Craig Hubert is a writer based in New York City.