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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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution