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#FirstWorldProblems: The Motion Picture – Joanna Hogg’s film ‘Exhibition’

23 Oct

Every so often a film comes along that seems intentionally designed to test the limits of its audience. In action movies, for instance, one can’t help but ask if Michael Bay is taking the piss with each successive Transformers sequel, wondering just how little plot and character development he can get away with, providing he fills the screen with explosions, giant robots and the pert bosoms of actresses half his age. Pretty much the same could be said of the art-house crowd and Joanna Hogg’s latest, if you replace explosions with shots of bespoke Swedish furniture, giant robots with vague dialogues about conceptual art, and Megan Fox with Slits guitarist Viv Albertine.

Exhibition follows two artists, H (played by real-life conceptual artist Liam Gillick) and D (Albertine), as they go through the process of selling their spacious London home. The film is made up of scenes from their everyday life, including dinner with friends from across the road and meetings with an estate agent, played by Tom Hiddleston. H works in an upstairs room (though at what, exactly, we never find out), while D spends a lot of time faffing about on a stool. And that’s about it.

Pictured: D (Viv Albertine) faffs about on a stool.

Pictured: D (Viv Albertine) faffs about on a stool.

To call the film plotless would be to invite comparison with a fragmented, dreamlike work such as Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Exhibition isn’t plotless. In offering us two fairly commonplace characters (at least in the middle class, affluent and mono-ethnic corner of London in which it’s set), and in presenting these moments from their life in chronological order, it reaches for a plot, without having the nerve to tell a story.

With its focus on the glacial, modern interior design of H and D’s lavish pad, Exhibition’s bum-numbing 101 minutes feel not so much like a movie as a particularly uneventful episode of Grand Designs. In its asking us to sympathise with D’s agony over having to move out of this dream home, the feeling isn’t so much one of a Brideshead or Il Gattopardo-style elegy, prompting our sympathy with the well-to-do in a time of crisis, but rather a big screen adaptation of the “First World Problems” hashtag and meme.

The real world, in which police sirens wail and bad things are happening elsewhere, is alluded to in the film’s admittedly excellent sound design, which does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to D’s character development. Albertine herself drifts through the role ghost-like, more or less a blank canvas, and apart from one – and only one – scene of confrontation (someone horribly working class parks in front of their garage) Gillick’s H is barely a character at all. Are their vague conversations about art meant to provoke thought or inspire contempt? I really couldn’t tell. If it’s the former, then culturally we’re doomed. If it’s the latter, then this is satire without teeth.

Ultimately, Exhibition is about very little of any consequence. Any interesting ideas (is D a little agoraphobic? When she searches every cupboard, is she checking for burglars or just looking at each one for the last time?) are abandoned almost as soon as they are introduced. This isn’t just a slow film, it’s a film in which nothing happens, and Hogg makes the mistake of thinking that these are one and the same, that an absence of character development, plot or suspense are the hallmarks of intellectual or artistic rigour. They are not.

"Shall we go into any detail about what it is either of us actually does for a living?" "Let's not."

“Shall we go into any detail about what it is either of us actually does for a living?”
“Let’s not.”

Adding to the frustration of having lost over an hour and a half watching this film – waiting for something, anything to happen – is the almost universal praise it received from the British press. Five star reviews in the Guardian and Times. Four stars from the Telegraph and Empire. Interestingly, once you stray outside the UK’s Londoncentric and incestuous cultural scene, the reviews cool off considerably, nowhere more so than in this bang-on assessment from the Village Voice. 

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with films that explore, or attempt to explore the middle and upper classes in an age of bleak austerity; characters from all backgrounds are worthy of attention. What grates with Exhibition is its navel-gazing. This is Kensington property porn masquerading as art, and at a time when so many are struggling to put food on their own tables, let alone keep roofs over their heads, that just feels appallingly crass.

5 Observations About Netflix UK

20 Oct

I’ve been signed up to Netflix UK for a little over a year. On the whole, I’d say it’s pretty good value for money. I have eclectic tastes, so there’s always something I’ll want to watch, and its abundance of sitcoms and US shows gives me something to do on my lunch breaks. After a while, however, you do start to notice some funny little quirks the site has. Such as…

1) It’s not as good as Netflix US

Don’t ask me how (it wasn’t entirely legit) but I recently had the opportunity to compare UK and US Netflix, and OH MY WORD. While Netflix UK has plenty of TV series and some good (if not particularly recent) films, US Netflix is like a different site altogether. “They have this?” you’ll say. “Already? And this?” We were able to watch films I had seen in the cinema only a month or so earlier. And there are so many movies. And it has a “Classic Movies” section, because it has so many movies that a whole section’s worth of them count as “classic”.

2) But that doesn’t mean it’s rubbish

Peter Finch in Network

Peter Finch in Network

One complaint I hear all the time (not least of all from my partner) is that there’s never anything to watch on Netflix UK. To which I say, tish, piddle and nonsense. Taking a cursory glance at the “browse” homepage, I can see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Breaking Bad, Pixar’s Brave, Annie Hall, The Fisher King, Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Secret in Their Eyes, The Shawshank Redemption, 9 to 5, Skyfall, Black Mirror, Pulp Fiction, the documentary McCullin, Network, and Downfall, all of which are excellent.

3) Hooligan movies are a cottage industry

Jesus… There are a lot of “hooligan” films out there. Whole sections of Netflix UK are awash with close-ups of snarling men with shaved heads superimposed over a red cross, invariably with titles like Rise of the Essex Lads III: Retribution. Still… I suppose it gives Craig Fairbrass something to do.

4) So that’s what Val Kilmer’s doing these days

As well as having ballooned, like some deep sea fish threatened by a predator, to about three times his normal size, Val Kilmer has been largely absent from the big screen for some time. The last mainstream movie release I can remember him appearing in was Werner Herzog’s not-quite-as-terrible-as-it-should-have-been Bad Lieutenant sequel/spin-off/remake/whatever, Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans. Other than that, well… I’ll let Netflix UK do the talking:

The most recent film on there I’d recommend (Wonderland) was made in 2003. Twixt is the latest offering from the truly tragic Francis Ford Coppola (I’ve watched 5 minutes of it, and it’s terrible), while The Traveler (2010 – 20% on Rotten Tomatoes) looks as if it was shot on a mobile phone. In 2002.

Great actors make occasionally shitty films, and sometimes their careers dry up. We all know that. But if any actor’s career demonstrates that there’s no harm in being easy to work with, it’s Kilmer’s.

5) You should never, EVER watch InAPPropriate Comedy

Following in the less-than-hallowed footsteps of Movie 43InAPPropriate Comedy is made up of comedy sketches, was written and directed by someone called Vince Offer and stars Adrien Brody, Rob Schneider, Michelle Rodriguez and (but of course) Lindsay Lohan. Quite how Offer managed to convince them (well… all of them except Lohan) to appear in this is beyond me. To give you a taste of just how terrible this film is, Brody plays Flirty Harry, who’s a bit like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, except the joke… get this… is that he’s gay and he flirts with people. And his catchphrase… brace yourselves… hold on to your sides… is, “Go ahead… Make me gay.”

Because Dirty Harry says “Make my day”, see? And “day” rhymes with “gay”.

"Go ahead, punk. Laugh at my career choices."

“Go ahead, punk. Laugh at my career choices.”

Having endured about 10 minutes of this shit before wanting to punch a hole through my laptop, board a flight to LAX, get in a cab, go to Adrien Brody’s house and kick him in the bollocks, then get back in the cab, go back to LAX and fly home, I can only assume that Vince Offer is a billionaire or a crime lord. Either Academy Award® winner Adrien Brody was paid a lot of money to appear in this film, or Offer kidnapped a close member of his family and wouldn’t let them go till Brody rocked up on set. Seeing as this is the actor who once dumped a girlfriend to get into character for The Pianist, I’ll assume it’s the former.

But despite my glowing recommendation, do not watch this film. Not even “ironically”. You can’t watch a terrible comedy “ironically”. If you want to laugh at a bad movie, check out Oliver “Downfall” Hirschbiegel’s Diana, which is also on Netflix UK, and which is fucking hilarious.

‘Ivan the Terrible’ (1944)

29 Sep

I love discovering new things, or – if not discovering – then finally getting around to watching, reading or listening to things I should have read, watched or listened to a long time ago. I’ve known about Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part biopic of Ivan the Terrible since (rather lazily) doing an A-Level in Film Studies, and had read about it in books about the Stalin era, including a biography of the film’s composer, Prokofiev, but still hadn’t seen it until last week.

Thankfully, the film’s production company, Mosfilm, have made much of their extensive back catalogue (which, incidentally, includes some of the greatest films ever made) available on YouTube, and in as high a def as you can ask for from a free online streaming service, including both parts of Ivan the Terrible.

Telling the story of Russia’s most tyrannical Tsar, and made under the watchful, oppressive gaze of its most ruthless dictator, Eisenstein’s film followed on from his earlier biopic of another major character from Russian history, Alexander Nevsky. That film was made after a brief period of state-enforced inactivity; Eisenstein – much like Shostakovich, Akhmatova and countless others – having gotten himself into a spot of bother with the authorities. His last major films before Nevsky had been produced during the silent era, and watching both Nevsky and Ivan (which were made in late 1930s and ’40s), you realise that Eisenstein still wasn’t quite comfortable working in sound. Happy to let Prokofiev’s incredible music do all the talking, he’s far more interested in mise-en-scene (see? that A-Level didn’t go entirely to waste) and in the physicality of his performers; their movements and facial expressions, than in dialogue.

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While many American and European filmmakers were moving towards a grittier, more naturalistic feel (Ivan was made only 4 years before Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves and 10 years before Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront), Eisenstein’s films are still heavily stylised, nowhere more so than in the performances. Taking the title roles in both Nevsky and Ivan, Nikolai Chersakov never knowingly underplays a scene; his acting verges on a strange kind of ballet. As Ivan he tilts his head dramatically, sticking out his beard – which grows longer as the films progress through Ivan’s life – so that it comes to resemble the beak of some malevolent raven.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast are similarly expressionistic, whether it’s Mikhail Nazvanov’s Kurbsky squinting covetously at Tsarina Anastasia or Ivan’s wicked aunt Efrosinia (Serafima Birman) skulking in the shadows as she plots her next Machiavellian move.

As you might expect from the man who gave us Battleship Potemkin’s “Odessa Steps” sequence, the film is ravishing to look at – every single shot is good enough to frame and hang on your wall – but this isn’t at the expense of character or emotion. While the first film moves through Ivan’s early career at a fair old gallop, Part 2 allows the characters some room to breathe, and an extended flashback to Ivan’s childhood serves much the same purpose as the Robert DeNiro sequences in Godfather Part II, helping us to understand the exact circumstances that could forge a tyrant in the first place.

It was Part 2 of the film that once again got Eisenstein in hot water with the Powers That Be. While the first half, which details Ivan’s military conquests (and even tries turning the absolute monarch into a collectivist hero), the second part doesn’t shy away from showing his descent into megalomania. All this was a little near the knuckle for Stalin, and the parallels between Ivan’s terribleness and Stalin’s Terror are further accentuated by the film’s only colour sequence, which is bathed in a hellish red glow from beginning to end.

Having incurred the wrath of Stalin and his censors, the second film – which was completed in 1944 – wouldn’t be released until 1958, by which time both Eisenstein and Stalin were dead.When Part 2’s release was cancelled, plans for a third, concluding episode were shelved, but while the film remains essentially unfinished the diabolical climax to the two-volume version still provides a satisfying enough ending.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re not particularly au fait with Russian history. If you love films, and want to see filmmaking at its most stylish and its most engrossing, I’d recommend you check out Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

‘All Is Lost’

22 Aug

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It’s often hard to believe there was ever a time when movies had virtually no dialogue (you know… apart from title cards saying “Oh no! That dastardly cad has tied my beloved to the train tracks!”). If people praise a film’s script nowadays, very rarely do they mean the deft way the plot is strung together or the richness of the characterisation, but rather the cleverness, the wittiness or the realism of its dialogue. When a film is short on dialogue, it’s the first thing critics will point out, whether it’s novelty pseudo-silent movie The Artist or the bleak and speechless opening scenes of There Will Be Blood.

So tricky is it to develop characters without dialogue, that when protagonists are separated from other people, they are often given either a voice-over (The Life of Pi) or a tendency to talk to animals or inanimate objects (The Life of Pi, Castaway) to compensate, but apart from the briefest opening narration, writer-director J.C. Chandor gives Robert Redford no such props in All Is Lost.

Here Redford plays an unnamed character (listed in the credits simply as ‘Our Man’) whose yacht runs into trouble in the Indian Ocean. The film then follows him as he patches up damage to its hull, and attempts to make his way towards the nearest shipping lanes, with varying degrees of success. And that’s pretty much it. As the title suggests, things don’t exactly go to plan. Indeed, that bit of narration at the beginning suggests things will go very badly, and it would spoil the film completely to tell you how it ends, or anything that happens along the way, because this is a film in which every second, every little moment, counts.

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Without dialogue – save one or two muttered curse words and a single, abortive attempt at an S.O.S. – Redford’s performance is all about microscopic moments, changes of expression. It certainly helps that, while undeniably craggy (he is 78, after all) Redford is still in great physical condition for his age, and the fact that his opening voice-over (a letter to loved ones) is so apologetic, and he is sailing alone on the far side of the world, invites the viewer to craft their own back story for his character. Retired businessman, I guessed, with adult offspring (I pictured a small army of daughters) and at least two divorces under his belt. But despite his relative athleticism, there’s still a frailty there that will have you on the edge of your seat with both worry and suspense.

If the character were played by an actor half his age, that concern just wouldn’t be there, or the film would have to rely on cheap tactics (e.g. a full-blown shark attack, or pirates) in order to place the character in peril. Here, peril is provided by nothing more schlocky than a boat that is sinking, surrounded by thousands of miles of open water in every direction.

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Chandor’s previous feature, Margin Call, was one of my favourite films of 2012, and demonstrated his ability with both an intelligent script (packed full of dialogue) and an ensemble cast. Here, he’s gone in totally the other direction (perhaps a conscious decision), and shows incredible skill at handling both small, intimate moments and the big set pieces. The storm sequences really are the stuff of chewed fingernails and frayed nerves, and some of the underwater photography is just ravishing. The score – by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ Alex Ebert – is also worthy of much praise, adding a transcendental edge to Redford’s aquatic mishaps; though I could have done without the end credits’ song, in which Ebert more or less sings the credits as they roll (far too reminiscent of Whose Line is it, Anyway?)

At a time when so many films are either sequels, remakes or adaptations, and almost exclusively about – and aimed at – young adults, a film as exciting, as dramatic as this, with a protagonist well into his autumn years, is something to be cherished. 

All Is Lost is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

Enraged Eric – ‘The Rover’

19 Aug

Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce in The Rover

I think we’ve now reached a point where we can put together a sliding scale of just how horrible the apocalypse and its aftermath will be, based entirely on post-apocalyptic movies. The final scene in 2012, for example, gives the impression that while there may be a whole lot of earthquake-related PTSD to deal with, everyone is quite enjoying the round-the-world cruise aboard their giant, tsunami-proof arks, so we could score that a 1 out of 10 for bleak hopelessness. 

Right at the other end of that scale you have something like the nuclear holocaust docudrama Threads, in which life in Britain is plunged back into the Dark Ages or the big screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which survival means not only foraging for food but making sure you don’t get eaten by redneck cannibals.

Though most high street branches of Tesco were still open for business.

…Even though most high street branches of Tesco remain open for business.

Perhaps three quarters of the way along that scale comes David Michôd’s The Rover. Starring Guy Pierce and Robert Pattinson, and set in a dust bowl Australian outback, “10 years after the collapse”, the setting and subject matter were always bound to attract comparison with the Mad Max movies (a fourth installment of which is out next year), but in truth The Rover makes the Mad Max films look like Cannonball Run. 

Pierce plays Eric who, while refreshing himself at a tin shack passing itself off as a roadside tavern, has his car stolen by a criminal gang, headed by Henry (Monsters and Killing Them Softly’s Scoot McNairy). The gang are on the run from a botched robbery, having left Henry’s younger brother, Reynolds (Pattinson) behind, but when Eric and Reynolds meet, Eric forces the latter to help him find his car.

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What follows is a kind of road-movie-cum-western, as the pair travel from one ramshackle settlement to the next. Quite what caused the “collapse” is never really explained – it’s assumed to have been economic, with Australia’s mining industry just about the only infrastructure still up and running – but its aftermath is felt everywhere, from a glacially calm grandmother attempting to pimp out her grandson to a doctor keeping her dogs in cages, so they won’t be taken away and eaten by thieves. This might not be a world ravaged by environmental disaster or nuclear war, but virtually all sense of civilisation is gone. Violence is sudden, casual and almost inevitable in a world where law and order are provided by ragtag gangs of soldiers, rather than police.

The real revelation here is Pattinson, who I’d previously seen only in a handful of films, none of which were a particularly good showcase for his skills. Some reviewers have singled out his twitchy mannerisms and speech patterns for criticism, reading the character as a simpleton (one even mentioned Robert Downey Jr.’s “full retard” speech from Tropic Thunder), but I can only assume they weren’t paying attention to the film. Did they perhaps miss the moment when Eric overhears Reynolds speaking fluent Cantonese? Were they in the loo when Reynolds takes out a small army unit and rescues Eric, having dug under a fence to break into their compound? The character certainly seems more of a savant than a simpleton; and while Eric may be the film’s protagonist, Reynolds is certainly its heart.

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Pierce’s performance is perhaps not so much of a surprise, having delivered a similarly stoic turn in The Proposition, but his character remains fascinating. It becomes clear, following a shocking act of violence early on, that Eric is an unknowable quantity. If we sympathise with him for the loss of his car – even though his particular attachment to it remains a mystery until the very last scene – that sympathy dissipates pretty quickly, and soon enough it’s clear this is a movie without “goodies”… only “baddies” and “even worsies”.

The film’s major triumph, however, is in its depiction of a society that has come apart at the seams; indeed, one which no longer has the right to think of itself as a society at all. It takes only a cursory glance at recent headlines to realise that the barbarity depicted here isn’t far-fetched, begging the question – is the “collapse” referred to in the opening titles an event we have to look forward to, or something that’s already happened?

Let's face it - it's the latter.

Let’s face it – it’s the latter.

So “So Bad, It’s Good” It’s Bad – ‘Sharknado 2’

2 Aug

Sharknado 2

If, in years to come, the 21st Century is remembered for one thing, it’ll be as the era that witnessed the death of irony and sarcasm. Social media have rendered subtleties in tone obsolete, so that comments intended with tongue firmly in cheek read as utterly sincere, and “parody” accounts and websites such as christwire.org are regularly cited as genuine examples of fundamentalism. (See “Poe’s Law” for further details.)

The late 20th Century’s tsunami of postmodernism left Western culture awash with insincerity, so that almost everything these days is framed with irony. Whereas twenty years ago we might have watched films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space or Mommie Dearest because they set out for greatness but achieved only schlock, we are now making films with the intention that they will be “so bad they’re good”.

Pictured: Academy Award® winner Faye Dunaway

Pictured: Academy Award® winner Faye Dunaway

Which brings us to Sharknado 2. This TV movie, produced by the SyFy channel, is the sequel to 2013’s Sharknado. We know this, because its full title is Sharknado 2: The Second One, in case some of us fail to understand the concept of sequels. The first film centred around the unlikely premise in which Los Angeles is hit by a tornado that manages to suck all the sharks out of neighbouring waters, and then dump them on an army of unsuspecting Angelinos, including a surprisingly lifelike Tara Reid and John “the dad out of Home Alone” Heard.

Typically, for this sort of movie, it features scenes in which those milling about in the background fail to respond in any way whatsoever to the THOUSANDS OF FUCKING SHARKS falling from the sky, and – despite the dense black clouds overhead and the editor dimming everything in post-production – the streets of LA are brightly sunlit throughout. The sharks look like something from one of the earlier Tomb Raider games, the CGI floodwater looks like mercury, and a climactic scene has our hero, Fin Shepherd (Ian Ziering) fight his way through an unconvincing shark’s innards with a chainsaw.

As illustrated here by a 6-year-old using Photoshop. In 1995.

As illustrated here by a 6-year-old using Photoshop. In 1995.

Sharknado, in summary, is not a good movie, but even pointing this out feels redundant, because whereas those responsible for Batman & Robin or The Room or Battlefield Earth thought they were making good films, the makers of Sharknado knew it was rubbish. Even so, what they aim for isn’t self-conscious spoof, in the vein of Airplane! or Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, but a strangely lacklustre compromise between the two: Too aware of its own shortcomings for them to be fun, and not funny enough to inspire belly laughs.

For its part, Sharknado 2 does, at least, aim for the latter, and at times it even comes close. There are some mostly unnecessary “star” cameos from the likes of Andy Dick, Billy Ray Cyrus and Kelly Osbourne, and this time round our “Oh my God… They’re in this?” turns are provided by Judd Hirsch (playing a taxi driver… Taxi… geddit?), A Serious Man’s Richard Kind and Kill Bill star Vivica Fox. Ian Zierling and Tara Reid return as our intrepid, chainsaw-wielding hero and a Ritalin-impaired marionette (at least, I think that’s who Reid plays), and the whole thing ends with a scene in which Zierling surfs a shark through a tornado before landing it on the Empire State Building’s spire. Of course.

Same thing happened when we were there last year. True story.

Same thing happened when we were there last year. True story.

But whereas a movie like Airplane! knowingly sends up the cliches and other weaknesses of disaster movies, Sharknado 2 blunders on, blissfully unaware of its own. New York’s subway system floods, and its tunnels become infested with sharks and – somehow – alligators, yet the streets of Midtown remain surprisingly calm and quiet, with shoppers and commuters visibly going about their business as usual. When three tornadoes (sorry… sharknadoes) converge on Manhattan, an aerial shot shows what appears to be a Sunday morning level of traffic passing through Times Square. That isn’t “ironic cheesiness”, that’s just terrible film-making.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh, and at times I laughed quite heartily at Sharknado 2, but when the credits rolled I was left with that same feeling of hollow dissatisfaction that I had after its predecessor, because in the absence of genuine wit (and that’s the one thing Sharknado 2 is utterly lacking), there has to be someone on the receiving end of those laughs. If you can’t laugh with someone or something, you have to feel that you are laughing at it, and with the Sharknado movies that just feels pointless.

At the risk of taking SyFy’s monster movies way too seriously, it would be easy to dismiss Sharknado and its ilk as just “trash TV”, but I can’t help but feel these movies are part of a wider programme in which our cultural benchmarks are being  lowered intentionally. High production values cost more money, so why not make a virtue out of terrible direction, acting and special effects? Groom people into not only accepting rubbish as the norm, but demanding it, and you can get away with anything.

Too late.

Exhibit B.

 

 

Dennis Hopper’s America

28 Jul

Hopper

Over the last two weekends I’ve been in London, recording interviews with the cast for the next series of The Confessions of Dorian Gray. It’s been great fun, and lovely hanging around in The Moat Studios, but I was very happy to have wrapped up my official duties by 2pm yesterday, so I could shoot off and do a bit of touristing.

With only a couple of hours to kill before my train home, I went to the Royal Academy to check out The Lost Album, an exhibition of photographs by the actor Dennis Hopper. There are more than 400 images in all, taken between 1961 (when his wife bought him a camera) and 1967, shortly before he began work on his directorial debut Easy Rider. Hopper would later portray a mentally frazzled photographer in the film Apocalypse Now, and his reputation throughout the late 1960s and 1970s was as a wild man, but if this exhibition demonstrates anything, it’s that behind the almost cartoonish excess and eccentricity he was constantly engaged with visual arts, both as practitioner and fan.

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman (1963)

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman (1963)

The writer Julie Burchill once commented – in a scathing (what else?) piece on David Bailey – that photography is “luck through a lens”, and while I’d disagree with the overall sentiment, there is often a grain of truth to it. The Lost Album includes pictures of Hollywood stars such as Paul Newman and John Wayne, and artists of the era, including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Liechtenstein and Andy Warhol, and Hopper was certainly lucky to know them all well enough to take such candid pictures, but where Hopper’s photography goes beyond being the work of a keen and lucky amateur is in his ambition and scope.

Regular obsessions crop up: The Coca Cola logo, torn posters, cemetery headstones and dilapidated signage, as well as images of America’s nascent counterculture – its civil rights protesters, Hell’s Angels and proto-hippies – come together to form a kind of narrative. The show starts with celebrities, but soon enough we’re side by side with Martin Luther King Jr., or witnessing the Sunset Boulevard riots of 1966, or watching – second hand, via the curved screen of a television –  the funeral of JFK.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)

Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)

If his civil rights stuff isn’t as accomplished as Bruce Davidson’s and his images of Mexico aren’t as inventive as Graciela Iturbide’s, that’s forgiveable. This is a photographer finding his way, but engaging with his subject all the same. If a lot of the time he’s riffing on his own influences (Coke bottles from Warhol or Rauschenberg, bull fighting from Hemingway etc), at least he’s influenced by the greats. In a way, if Hopper’s work depicts anything, it’s the forging of a new – and possibly unstable – American identity, one that was post-industrial and almost post-ideological. (There’s still something a little startling about seeing swastika badges on Hell’s Angels’ lapels.)

A middle room in the exhibition, and the room through which you leave the show, has the opening sequence from Hopper’s 1969 movie Easy Rider on a loop. It’s more than just a nod to the actor’s more well-known career as an actor and occasional director. Here, in his montage of bikers (played by him and Peter Fonda) riding across the American landscape (accompanied by The Band’s song The Weight) we see many of the same visual themes and preoccupations, only now they’re in blazing colour.

From Easy Rider (1969)

From Easy Rider (1969)

 

Whatever you now think of the movie itself, it was undeniably groundbreaking. Commercially, it demonstrated that unconventional indie flicks could make money, but it also changed how films look, being one of the first movies in which lens flare was treated as a visual effect and not something to be avoided or edited out. Including the sequence here makes an apt ending to a show that gives some insight into Dennis Hopper as more than just the star of Blue Velvet and Speed.