Dennis Hopper and The New Hollywood

Published:  January 18, 2010
Dennis Hopper and The New Hollywood

Around the time that American cinemagoers were getting their Vietnam war-era fill of films like Sweet Charity, Hello Dolly and Planet of the Apes, a film called Easy Rider hit the silver screen. Directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Hopper himself, the film gave existing Hollywood conventions and styles an absolute spanking. Tapping into both the counter-culture movement and the popular music scene, the film shocked the be-Jesus out of the Establishment and firmly entrenched Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson in the annuls of cinematic history and the hearts of beatniks the world over. Till that point, overt drug use and anti-heroes were elements rarely found on celluloid. So too were Hopper’s rather unconventional editing techniques, (Midnight Cowboy, released a few months earlier by John Schlesinger, would be known for this as well).


This era of Hollywood cinema, which became known as ‘New Hollywood’, would last until George Lucas and Steven Spielberg mounted their respective blitzkriegs on audiences with Star Wars and Jaws – heralding the arrival of the blockbuster film. But while those two men were still in their late teens/early 20s, Hopper and co. were trouncing around New Orleans, Louisiana, hepped up on acid and pot, and armed with a 35mm camera. And although it’s regarded as his most iconic role to date (apart from Speed), Easy Rider was merely the public unveiling of the talent that was Dennis Hopper. His other forays into photography and sculpture were now given room to breathe as critics and studio executives warmed to his work.


And it’s this very work that is the focus of Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood – an exhibition now running at ACMI until 25 April 2010. A collection of both Hopper’s work and those of the artists and filmmakers of the time who influenced his work and other directors, the exhibition encompasses a broad spectrum of film, photography, sculpture and painting.


Creating art and cinema across a variety of cultural periods, Hopper’s influences count among some of the biggest events and movements of the late 20th century – from the Kennedy assassination and the conflict in Vietnam, to pop art and Neo-expressionism. Appropriately, the exhibition features iconic work from artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha and Robert Rauschenberg, teamed with pieces from Hopper’s own collection from lesser known – but just as influential to him – artists, like Dean Stockwell (who starred alongside Hopper in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). While it’s by no means an exhaustive collection of art, it is a veritable slice of time from one of history’s most interesting artistic and culture junctures. Think of it like taking a walk through the man’s living room – it’s nice to visit and chat, but you’re not going to leave with a brain overloaded with artistic ideology.


By the 1960s, Hopper was already a keen photographer and painter. Known for melding cinematic references with surrealism and abstract impressionism, the pieces present in this exhibition show Hopper as a man every bit as passionate and focussed as the photojournalist he plays in Apocalypse Now. This passion was further ignited when the actor/artist moved to Los Angeles, a city that skirts both fame and infamy. His photorealism works from this period, a selection of which are on display at ACMI, capture a ‘street’ side of the city: the people, the graffiti and the gangs (his critically acclaimed film about street gangs, Colors, was conceived during this period). Ironically, this artwork has now been embraced for billboard advertising (Fractured Girl, 1988) since then.


The rest of the exhibition comprises a collection of work that symbolises the changing face of a new America. From a nation reeling after defeat in Vietnam and the assassination of its President, we get a jumbo-sized bomb release panel. And from inside the world of political and cultural change, there are a variety of photographs of iconic figures – Paul Newman, Martin Luther King Jr, James Brown et al – all seen through Hopper’s eye.


For cinema lovers and fans of post-postmodern art movements and pop culture, Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood is a must-see, and every bit inspiring as his performances are engaging. And by the way, one of the exhibited art pieces is valued at $5 million. See if you can guess which one.

Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood is showing at ACMI until Sunday 25 April 2010.

2 Responses

  1. True Romance – Dennis Hopper talking about the Sicilians and the Moors. One of the my favourite cinema scenes of all time.

  2. I thought he was fantastic in WaterWorld!

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