There is a book pictures made by Anton Corbijn, that is full of staged portraits of stars, legends of either the movie or music industry. It makes me jealous, it makes me eager to grab a camera. Even if I had the most expensive one, I could not do what he can. To say he grabs the essence of these people is a cliché, but it boils down to this. These pictures are there, you can’t ignore them. Clint Eastwood points right at you, judging you, letting you that we can’t hide from our selves. There are literary legends in this book as well: William S. Burroughs, the writer of the deeply controversial Naked Lunch and accidental murder of his wife, stands next to a target practice figure full of holes. They tried to silence him, they burned many of his books. But the words are still out there. He’s still out there. Even after all the drug-abuse he’s still there. But there’s no pretension in his eyes, you can see the weariness in there, the soul has been tainted. There’s one, one of my favorites, of an old Alan Ginsburg looking out his window. We all come to this point- if we are lucky- we look back, it has been such a journey. There has been so many journeys, no matter how amazing, it will end. There will be silence. The people will forget. There’s one of Frank Sinatra, you see him at the corner of some bar. We know him as The Voice, but here’s just some guy, drinking away his sorrows.
If I had to choose a favorite however, it would have the portrait of Dennis Hopper. The setting is desolate: wearing a suit, he’s sitting in an empty mattress in a white, looking to the side. There is a mystery to this picture. The greatest pictures always have a mystery to them. The key is his facial expression. Perhaps someone was bothering him during the shoot: he looks on edge, impatient, worried. It’s as if at just this moment, someone caught him without his mask. The best portraits manages to pass by the mask. It’s not easy to get there. You have to be really good at your job.
The best pictures forces you to make up a story: this is an middle-aged man waiting for someone. This person he’s waiting can change everything. There is a guilt in his eyes. One man that knows that the past can always come after him. He’s trying to walk the path, but he knows how easy it is for him to slip away.
Now comes the part where you piece together the things you know about this performer. This is someone who basically started the seventies counterculture cinema with Easy Rider. It was my first introduction to the death of the American dream. I was a child watching have recorded it the night before on BBC. I can still remember the shock of the two bikers being blown-away, the film just ending like that. The violence was shocking, it had little point. They just came across the wrong people. They were free and now they were dead. Even if the constitution says you are free, this doesn’t mean that the people will let you.
Later on, reading his interviews, a more conservative minded Dennis Hopper was introduced. A passionate Bush supporter, no more the drug-addled dreamer of the past. He had almost destroyed himself back then, his redemption came with his thoughtful performance in Hoosiers. He would occasionally impress in cinema, but most of the times, the films would be beneath the standards of his talent. Maybe he cared less in the end, as many cinematic legends eventually do.
Most people remember him as the evil madman of Blue Velvet. The most shocking introduction of any character: the colorful expletives, the violation of a beautiful woman. Frank Booth, a man with a psychotic obsession with Heineken. In the script he would huff Helium, but Hopper suggested to David Lynch that the chemicals should be amyl nitrate.
Most telling was that he begged David Lynch for the part: ”You have to let me play Frank, Because I’m Frank!” This was the demon Hopper knew, the demon that needed to be destroyed. The death of Frank Booth, is both the defeat of evil and Hopper’s catharsis. It’s not a glamorous portrait, but it’s a beautiful one. This was a man that needed help, that was on the brink of an early death, but escaped it. I have only looked at the edge for a distance, but even then, it’s hard finding your way back. There would have nothing romantic about my death. I would have faded away but he would have burned out. But when it comes down to it, there’s nothing beautiful about burning out either. The self-destructive artist only deludes himself. The drugs, even if it gives them a momentary lapse of genius, will inevitably hold him back. I’m glad Hopper woke up when he did.
He still died too young (74) but I’m grateful that he was around as long as he was.