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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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.