Gilbey on Film: Dennis Hopper’s best work

The late star made a great contribution to the canon of cinema about Los Angeles.

Dennis Hopper's best work? For me, it's a toss-up between an obvious but devastating choice (Blue Velvet), a loopy curiosity (Out of the Blue, which he also directed), and the sort of mainstream psycho-for-hire part in which Hopper could whoop it up visibly without ever letting you doubt he was damaged goods -- that was Speed, which had as its great central joke the idea of setting a movie on a Los Angeles bus. "LA has public transport?" you could hear the world asking incredulously.

Hopper contributed to the subgenre of the LA movie, notably by starring in Rebel Without a Cause and directing Colors, the 1988 gangland drama about two cops (Sean Penn and Robert Duvall) caught between South Central LA's Bloods and Crips. Not an especially sophisticated film, perhaps, but one with a grimy sense of place and tone.

Hopper tapped in to the purposefulness of gang life so vividly that you almost wish he could have given Penn and Duvall the heave-ho, and gone for the docudrama approach. Good as those actors are, they make everything feel clean and accessible for mainstream audiences. Without them, it has a shot at the thrown-together scuzziness of Mixed Blood, Paul Morrissey's cheapo 1984 thriller about Harlem gangs.

LA movies are much on my mind. A good one opens shortly -- Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller as a neurotic New Yorker gone west. I'll be reviewing the film in next week's NS. Check out Baumbach discussing its evocative soundtrack with the LA Times.

The same newspaper compiled a decent list, in 2008, of the 25 best LA movies of the preceding 25 years. Some of my favourites are on there: Clueless, Jackie Brown (both capture the anaesthetised, blissful serenity of mall life) and a pair of films made over a decade apart which are really companion pieces -- Alex Cox's Repo Man and the Coen brothers' finest film, The Big Lebowski.

Both depend on the scattered topography of LA for their disjointed atmosphere, and feature in essence an innocent hero (Emilio Estevez and Jeff Bridges, respectively) who is (mis)guided by a profane and embittered buddy-mentor (Harry Dean Stanton, John Goodman).

These films also belong to the sub-subgenre of great LA drug movies. (How's that for niche?) Repo Man's rusty, nauseous pallor reflects its characters' coke-and-speed diet; The Big Lebowski takes place in a haze of dope fumes not seen since the reign of Cheech & Chong.

So what makes a good LA movie? We're looking, I think, for a sense of dislocation, the space between people, the hours spent alone. In the print edition of this month's Los Angeles magazine, Bret Easton Ellis remarks on the plain, everyday isolation of LA life. Ellis's relationship with the city as expressed in his fiction has always been ambivalent. Yet, amazingly, some readers of his despairing 1985 debut, Less Than Zero, saw the novel as a hymn to its setting.

"I was very conscious of the reputation of Less Than Zero," he says, "and how it has been taken away from me, basically, and reinvented by fans, and how it seems to be emblematic of some rah-rah 1980s artefact, like John Hughes movies or Ray-Bans. I meet so many people who say, 'Oh, you wrote Less Than Zero? That's the book that made me want to move to LA.'

"And I'm, like, 'Really?' Half its audience misreads it as something glamorous and alluring and seductive."

The clunky 1987 film adaptation of that book is also in the LA Times's Top 25. Well, I suppose you couldn't deny it embodies an era. For a hint of that "essence of LA" which any movie set in the city must strive to capture, try the last sentence in this typically astute opening paragraph from Pauline Kael's 1984 New Yorker review of Repo Man:

Repo Man is set in a scuzzy sci-fi nowhere: it was shot in the LA you see when you're coming in from the airport -- the squarish, pastel-coloured buildings with industrial fences around them, though they don't look as if there could be much inside that needed to be protected. The action in the film takes place on the freeways and off ramps, and in the lots in back of these anonymous storefronts and warehouses that could be anything and turn into something else overnight. It's a world inhabited by dazed sociopaths -- soreheads, deadbeats, and rusted-out punkers. The young English writer-director Alex Cox keeps them all speeding around -- always on the periphery. There's nothing at the center.

I'd also like to point you in the direction of two filmed interviews with John Cassavetes, who was born in New York City and died in Los Angeles. Here are his thoughts on the latter, first from 1965, then from 1978, by which time they had curdled considerably ("This is a stupid town . . . lazy . . . such a little sissy town . . . corporate-owned . . . they won't go out and see something that's wonderful"). Do bear him in mind when you watch Greenberg.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle