“American Dreamer is not a documentary. It’s an actor playing a role in a film that you think is a documentary.”
OK, I’m going to kick this one off talking about the liner notes. And yes, this may give you an idea of what to generally expect from this Etiquette Pictures unearthing and restoration.
Unlike Some Call it Loving’s rambling, psychobabble-afflicted booklet (which spoke long and hard, ultimately saying nothing whatsoever), The American Dreamer comes with an informative historical essay speaking to the college film circuit of the 1970’s and the film’s place within that short lived alternative screening arena.
This brings a personal anecdote to mind. I recall joining my father as a child in heading down to a local college on Saturday nights (which was both from experience and as noted in the essay, the established “film night”) to pick my mother up from class (it was actually a sociological/historical exploration of the recently-aired Roots miniseries, which said course experience came with some interesting asides of its own). But this was something we both looked forward to, as we’d head down a bit early to catch free screenings of Star Trek on the campus big screen.
Yep, it was that era – the tail end of that short lived series’ reevaluation as a meaningful and relevant cult icon. For those who weren’t around back then, the series was actually something of a televised curiosity if not flop in its original run – it was the liberally minded 70’s college circuit that resurrected the series from effective obscurity and led to its later prominence, reputation and fandom.
Regardless, it was a far different experience than most of my peers (not to mention later generations) would have with the series, and firmly established, from a tender age, my own appreciation of both series and thematic relevance thereof. Memories of that period remain fond ones, solely based around my own brief experience of the collegiate film circuit (however bastardized – this was neither “college film” or paid entry).
In any case, the booklet examines the historical particulars of the era and the cooperation and establishment of (and eventual difficulties with) an industrial/studio based partnership with colleges nationwide, which ran concurrent to the more public oriented arthouse circuit and (apparently) was privy to some exclusive airings. Godard’s rambling Stones documentary One Plus One (reworked into the more generally released Sympathy for the Devil) is prominently referenced herein, as is a more directly relevant discussion of The American Dreamer itself, and its short, troubled release history relating
* the very short version is, lawsuits and injunctions over off-campus (if student-restricted) screenings of the film resulted in a very short run and long-belated airing on the arthouse circuit a few decades on(!)
Hopper was something of a hot commodity at the time, having just come off direction, authorship of and performance in Easy Rider after a decade long run in television as a bit player (and appearances in a handful of quirky films spanning the likes of Queen of Blood and The Trip through more “mainstream” ventures Hang “Em High and Cool Hand Luke). Riding high on his fame from the ultimate ‘meaningful’ road film alongside fellow, if more prominently anti-establishment figures Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, Hopper set out to craft his troubled and final production of the decade, The Last Movie.
A metatextual exploration of the differences between cinema and reality (and the blurring of lines thereof), that film bears its own difficult tale, with the offhand involvement of trippy self-styled “alchemist” and occultist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky playing a major role in the film’s current rather disjointed structure. It’s a tale unto itself, and yet the subject of this very review – as The American Dreamer is, at least ostensibly, a documentary on the filming of that very same troubled production.
L.M. Kit Carson was a newly minted screenwriter and eventual actor, and partner Lawrence Shiller was a similarly debuting director and producer at the time they co-authored this documentary (effectively their first production, and like Hopper, their last for several years thereafter.
Schiller would bounce back fastest, returning to direction by the middle of the decade, while Carson never directed another film, returning to screenwriting only at the very end of the seventies and acting by the mid eighties(!) Even Hopper dropped out of writing and directing for a full decade, falling back on acting for a succession of unremarkable films throughout the seventies before making an appearance in Apocalypse Now and full auteurship at the very cusp of the Reagan era.
Clearly The Last Movie, and The American Dreamer with it, would prove to be “the last movie” for everyone involved throughout the seventies.
Seeing its first home video release after an abortive campus theatrical and much delayed arthouse run a good twenty years on(!), The American Dreamer comes in a reasonably strong focus yet simultaneously surprisingly grainy print restoration from Vinegar Syndrome.
Given familiarity with other productions of the era, particularly those falling outside the Hollywood mainstream, it’s actually a pretty good job, with a powerful, crisp soundtrack on the audio end and comparatively bold, distinct color with strong blacks and decent contrast. It’s hardly the sort of thing fans have come to expect from Vinegar Syndrome’s later 70’s-era restorations, but for a document of the hippie era sourced from 16mm handheld documentarians, it’s really quite striking.
Sadly, after all of that anecdotal information and buildup, there’s really not a hell of a lot to say about the film itself, except as a faux-reportage of what could arguably be considered “Hopper’s Folly”, both in terms of the flawed and quite troubled Last Movie and his “daily life” at Taos as presented herein. That “life” (however scripted and artificial it may actually be) comes complete with a commune-style orgy, hippie politics, a whole lot of dope smoking and a heaping helping of self-delusionary psychobabble. In other words, in its own right, The American Dreamer is a reasonably accurate record of the era and its many foibles.
The sole true extra*, a half hour “making of” featurette speaks with Schiller and surviving members of the project and confuses the matter further by relating, amidst some anecdotes on the production itself, how the apparent behind the scenes documentary is actually a forerunner to today’s “reality TV” plague, being a written and staged version of “the truth” rather than a proper fly on the wall record of a troubled production – one which led to a long road back to stardom for its subject.
* there’s also a quick chat about the restoration of the film, if that’s your thing, but that sort of thing is hardly what I’d consider a proper extra.
I grew up on this sort of thing, with everything from Woodstock, Head and Alice’s Restaurant to Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar providing ostensibly “meaningful” yet ultimately somewhat bereft of depth if not gravitas statements in the light of day and with the passage of time.
Like the period as a whole, there was a lot of promise in all that idealism, and for a little while, the kids even changed the world to some extent. But like a rubber band stretched to its limits, the zeitgeist snapped back, and culture, or lack thereof, has subsequently erased most if not all of what these hopeful but flawed children of Aquarius intended to offer.
In fact, it all seems sort of silly in retrospect, with time and distance removing much of the cheesecloth and vaseline to show the harsh lines and blemishes that always lay half-obscured beneath.
Those looking for a trip back to headier times should find a pleasant scent of nostalgia herein. But is any of this really still applicable to the post-digital age?
Sadly, probably not.