Dennis Hopper 1936-2010

Back in 1986, when "Blue Velvet" was first screened for the Chicago press, someone, I think it was Dave Kehr of the Tribune, muttered with rueful satisfaction as Dennis Hopper first came on the screen: "Who else?"

Who else, indeed, could have barked out to a cowering Isabella Rossellini, "Where's my fucking bourbon?" and then, gas mask in hand, regressed to horrifyingly hilarious Oedipal infantilism?

There are some things on screen that only Dennis Hopper could accomplish, and now that he is dead at the age of 74, a certain cinematic capability, a capacity for sudden, surreal revelation, is gone.

There are many examples of this effect in his over 200 movie and TV performances, so many of which are  elevated into a kind of freaky transcendence by his mere appearance. And not just in the obvious roles, like the deranged hippie war photographer who greets Martin Sheen's Willard when he finally reaches Kurtz's Kingdom in Francis Coppola's 1979 "Apocalypse Now"  (and who, more than anything else, makes Brando's performance as Kurtz anticlimactic).

As in the case in  Wim Wenders's "American Friend" (1977),  when the amateur hitman played by Bruno Ganz screws up his job, who else but Dennis Hopper will show up in the nick of time to show his new German friend how to use a garotte properly?

And in John Dahl's "Red Rock West" (1993),  in which Hopper upstages another bogus hitman, played by Nicolas Cage, when he shows up as the real assassin -- Lyle from Dallas -- who offers such expert advice as "Don't piss on the seat. Even if they did. It's bad luck."

And in Tim Hunter's "River's Edge" (1986), where he makes the scene as the dope dealer Feck, who shot his girlfriend years before and now has settled into a steady relationship with a blow up doll ("Look, I'm not psycho: I know she's a doll."). A connoisseur of loss, Feck reminisces about the day his leg got torn off in a motorcycle accident: "I remember lying in the road thinking, yep that's my leg laying over there in the gutter by that beer can...I wonder if there's any beer in the can?"

Some times it's the girlfriend who shoots him, as in Alison MacLean's adaptation of Denis Johnson's "Jesus' Son" (1999), in which he plays an addict in rehab who says things like, "Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I'm fine."

With his insight into the anarchic glee at the root of existence, he was kind of like an Americanized version of Klaus Kinski, except unlike Kinski he had a sense of humor about his weirdness. A sense of humor he could not quite carry into the films he directed himself, which, "Easy Rider" notwithstanding, come off as a bit overearnest and turgid.

But in the hands of almost anyone else with a camera, he made some crazy magic. Who else but Dennis Hopper could make even an Ameriprise commercial must-see TV?

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