Captain America and Billy are like John Wayne (or Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott) and Gabby (or Soapy) in a stoned universe of atavism amid real cowboys, not quite Huck Finn though a strain of Twain figures in their demise.
The satire includes an ACLU lawyer explaining their freedom, and the whole thing is launched by a coke deal in Mexico.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans, “retirement in Florida”, that’s the itinerary.
Hopper begins with a neutral look at a neutralized Downtown Los Angeles from the viewpoint of policemen on patrol. There is no dwelling on this, it’s only background to the credits.
In contrast to the alleyways of Downtown, where heaps of rubbish fester for ages behind gloomy decaying shops and failing businesses, the back alleys of South and East L.A. are quite sunny in a way. Two policemen (Robert Duvall, Sean Penn) interrupt a little bit of daylight dealing. The rookie lights out on foot after the dealer, but the wise old cop plays it cool. He grinds the stash into the dirt, and lets the young fellow go.
The wise old cop has made his peace with the streets, and means to keep it. He speaks the lingo of the secret handshake with a gang leader, keeping his baton at the twirl.
So he is a sage with much to teach a rookie. Sad to say, a gang war erupts and catches him in the middle. One thing he leaves behind, though, is a rookie who doesn’t go chasing down kids in the hot sun. Why, is perhaps demonstrated in a car chase that demolishes part of Simon Rodia’s Towers, seemingly (an elaborate gag to make the point).
Colors might have been anything, from a city study to a commercial development to a Wambaugh project, but Hopper takes a surprising interest in it somewhere beyond all this, in an abstract view of gang hostilities as symbolic in themselves of something particularly meaningless and destructive.
It can’t come as any surprise that this was altogether too simple and direct an understanding to make any sort of sense to the herd of critics. Hopper even films conversations in the police car en route by an excruciating method of crosscutting, with his camera mounted on each side window in turn like a drive-in tray. Later, just in case even the most dejectedly hapless critic could somehow have missed it, he films yet another conversation with similar painstaking repetition. It’s a small detail indicative of the whole.
It may be that the astoundingly poor treatment of Backtrack, which was cut, retitled and given only a European release without the director’s blessing, was somehow precipitated by art politics. At the time, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger held an unaccountable eminence as priestesses of the Word writ large on photomontages or the sides of buildings like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, or scrolling before the eyes in an LED display. The latter was Holzer’s specialty, a more modest critique of the noxious or nugatory utterances in shop windows and waiting rooms, etc. Holzer lends her work to the artist portrayed by Jodie Foster in Backtrack, and the scandal thus produced may well have seemed sacrilegious to some. But as Debussy says, “you have to know when to spit in the censers.”
The artist witnesses a gangland murder at an oil refinery, and takes it on the lam. The hit man sent to whack her (Dennis Hopper) is something of an artist himself, like Charles Bronson in The Mechanic. He does a complete workup on his prey, even buys one of her works at an art gallery. She flees to Taos, and he traces her by various means, including most humorously a divination that ad slogans he encounters are actually being written by her in her new line of work. This is very charming, and wonderfully well-filmed. The cinematography’s clear color gusto is perfect. The acting, especially by Dean Stockwell as a middle management mobster, is superb. On location, Hopper unobtrusively records the church in Taos painted by Georgia O’Keeffe as background to a phone booth call (it’s one of those places that look exaggerated in paintings that are actually quite realistic, like Chinese mountains and Dali’s Port Lligat). There’s simply no way to explain the bad treatment this masterpiece received, except by purely external forces.
The hit man is gently mystified by the artist, and intrigued, too, somehow. Finally, he can’t fulfill the contract, and this is how the Danish website Philm.dk describes his plight (translation by InterTran): “However when ultimate Milo notices that bird, can be he no whang her to death; he enamored themselves that is to say to her. It is his first enamored, so by him is it a gash strong feeling.”
The two now must fend off the mob and make a getaway. This is done with suitable extravagance and humor. In the end, they’re floating down a river like something out of Mark Twain.
This film reportedly was not released in the U.S., but there is no doubt that Hopper is one of the finest directors going. It would appear, to look at it another way, that the nuances of Backtrack, even when clarified in the director’s cut, generally escaped notice and caused a reaction. This happens with such repugnant frequency nowadays as to be hardly worth a mention.
It really couldn’t be any more limpid, forthright and downright amusing. An isolation of ęsthetes vs. Philistines, in order to force the combination, alchemically. Result, a work of art.
The Hot Spot
A long joke like Johnny Carson shaggy-dogging Ralph Williams, in which a used-car salesman goes to hell.
This involves, as critics have noted, the elements of a film noir masterpiece in Hopper’s style, and something like An American Tragedy.
Chasers is a service comedy about a sort of peacetime Navy where the CO has a corner office like the prow of a ship, etc. It’s made of images, mostly. A shore patrol van skidding up a Fiberglas volcano, a ship breaking the waves under a bridge. Two SP’s (Tom Berenger, William McNamara) have to transport a prisoner. One of them’s a tough guy, what’s known as a salt, and the other is a Navy scrounge, young with a future all carved out for himself. There’s a film right there with the two of them, but Chasers introduces a blonde, the prisoner. She’s young and pretty and wily as a cat. These two find all their resourcefulness strained to its limit.
So it’s The Last Detail and Girls at Sea, in a way. That way is brilliantly filmed on location in the Carolinas amongst the finely-variegated roadside glories that an Englishman finds so confusing, shallow and parvenu. That’s what the American dream is made of, and Chasers is all about what the American Navy and the American Woman are made of.
It now becomes necessary to deal once again with the critical response, which (even in the New York Times) amounted to a sputter of the lips in so many words. That is hard to account for, The Admiral Was a Lady is a bonny film, and Cinderella Liberty and so many others that Hopper has found a fresh-faced answer to. He really is an artist, and consciously so in this, which is even better and more assured than Backtrack.
Acting in film is really a director’s art. If you want to act, go on the stage or get yourself a good film director. Erika Eleniak is the great joy here she ought to be. Berenger and McNamara are allowed to play their parts out to dimensions suiting them, and then there is the supporting cast, which even the critics noticed.
There’s no accounting for taste, but focus groups do their utmost. Someone might have acknowledged all the brilliance of this cinematography. It’s a very rare thing to find any understanding at all of color photography, Harry Callahan has it, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hasn’t. Chasers is a glory and an amusement to watch, after you’ve sat up in bed reading the idiots in your newspaper, who call themselves film critics.