The Middle Word in Life

What we think about when we think about Dennis Hopper (1936–2010)
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted April 6, 2010
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This video essay is being reposted on May 17, 2013, in celebration of Dennis Hopper's 77th birthday.

Dennis Hopper, the subject of this video appreciation by Matt Zoller Seitz (first posted on April 6), died on May 29, 2010, at age 74.

"Dennis Hopper: The Middle Word in Life" is an attempt to capture the essence of what we think about when we think about Dennis Hopper. This video essay isn't trying to be a comprehensive biography because the prospect of capturing Hopper in a relatively short running time is too daunting to consider. The piece offers glimpses of Hopper the method actor, Hopper the monologue master and word-jazz babbler, Hopper the scenery-gnawing villain, Hopper the substance abuser and ex-substance abuser, and Hopper the filmmaker (a facet that often gets overlooked because, while Hopper appeared in nearly 60 films and hundreds of hours of TV, he directed just seven motion pictures). Other notable aspects of Hopper—the twentysomething enfant terrible briefly blacklisted in Hollywood for arguing with directors; Hopper the photographer and art collector; Hopper the rock 'n' roll gadfly; Hopper the Civil Rights-era Democrat who became a Reagan Republican and then switched back late in life; and on and on—aren't represented here. That's a job for biographers. The focus here is on Hopper's life force: his personality, his philosophy; his thrilling, often contradictory, sometimes abrasive or ugly sense of what acting and filmmaking and art and life should be.

While editing the piece, I briefly toyed with the idea of narrating it, either via spoken voice-over or onscreen text. But after many hours of listening to Hopper talk—in such diverse forums as the the great nonfiction character portrait The American Dreamer, the IFC series Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Bloomberg TV's marvelous, now-defunct Night Talk With Mike Schneider, and of course, in dozens of hours of TV shows and motion pictures, from The Twilight Zone and The Sons of Katie Elder through Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, Hoosiers, and Carried Away—it became increasingly clear that he needed to tell his own story, to the extent that such a thing was possible. When I think about Hopper, I hear his voice in my head: the nasal Kansas vowels; the cowboy twang; and last but not least, the semicolons where periods would normally go, contributing to a sense that his thoughts, like works of art, are never finished, only abandoned, that he never really stops talking, that there's always one more observation or pronouncement or dirty joke waiting just around the bend.

The end result is a video and audio collage that jumps among significant aspects of Hopper's life and career. If the final stretch seems to have an elegiac tone, it's because the circumstances made it unavoidable. Contrary to what we'd all come to believe, Dennis Hopper is not immortal. Let's appreciate him now.


 

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KEYWORDS

video essay  |  Dennis Hopper  |  Obituary  |  New Hollywood  |  Retrospective

THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door