The Mad Man Myth

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Dennis Hopper, "Double Standard," 1961

When they were newlyweds living in Switzerland, my grandparents met Terry Southern, the beatnik bad boy who would eventually co-write Easy Rider. My grandmother worked with Southern’s wife, Carol, at the United Nations nursery school in Geneva. Carol charmed her. “What a sport she was,” my grandmother remembers, “and a super gorgeous woman who would do anything to keep her husband.” Southern, on the other hand, struck my grandmother as “shy, moody, and insecure,” albeit talented. The one time my grandparents went to the Southerns’ home—they’d been invited for all-American apple pie—Southern sat brooding in a corner rocking chair. He abandoned his silence only to comment on his wife’s baking: “Well, Carol, this pie sure isn’t up to snuff.”

Not long afterward, the Southerns left Geneva for Spain. “How can I possibly write when day after day I look out the window and see gray?” Southern purportedly asked his wife. In Geneva, the mountains often block the sunshine.

In the decade that followed, Southern divorced Carol and settled in Los Angeles. There he met actor and artist Dennis Hopper, whom he profiled for Vogue in 1965. Hopper, like Southern, saw a keen connection between the way he lived and the art he made. “Bred despite the wild sterility of Dodge City, [Hopper] is now morassed in a creativeness that is almost as hopelessly complete as that which spread and drowned the great Cocteau,” Southern wrote, connecting Hopper’s success not only the century’s premiere polymath but also to Hopper’s ability to transcend mid-western roots. Both the writer and the actor-artist seemed to be searching for the same thing: big, mad, momentous experiences that would make them feel intensely alive. That kind of experience would undoubtedly awaken creative genius.

At the time Southern met him, Hopper, his Nikon practically glued to his face, was religiously photographing both the burgeoning art scene and political upheaval. He found a thrill in being close to the action. Southern found a thrill in worrying about Hopper’s thrills:

‘Hopper, take care!’ I charged him when last we met, on the eve of his madcap jaunt to photograph the Selma march. He threw a quick masculine look for support to Brooke Beauty [Hopper’s wife, Brooke Hayward]—who responded only by shyly lowering her great doe eyes, sensual lips pursed into the sort of Mona Lisa smile which seemed to say: ‘Don’t you know you are both mad as hatters?’

In 1968, the mad hatters, who had by then both separated from their supportively gorgeous wives, joined forces with Peter Fonda to make Easy Rider, a film in which everyone more or less plays himself (and the film is full of him-selves). Hopper once said of Easy Rider, “Nobody had ever seen themselves portrayed in a movie before.” He meant that no film to date had portrayed the ‘60s as an acid-drenched blur that felt real.

Even if it was scripted, Easy Rider blurred fiction and non-fiction so effortlessly that it could, at times, pass for cinéma-vérité. The film’s acid trip scene, set in a New Orleans cemetery, remains one of the most poignant pieces of video art I’ve seen. It’s crisp then blurred, honest and then flamboyant. On the merit of that scene alone, Easy Rider belongs not alongside Blow Up, Breathless, or Zabriskie Point, but alongside Bruce Conner’s and Bruce Nauman’s gritty experiments.

The scene begins when Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) venture into the cemetery, accompanied by two prostitutes, Karen and Mary. They drop acid –“what’d you do with it?” asks Karen; “just shut up and take it,” says Billy–and then descend into a kaleidoscopic group confessional. The Lord’s prayer echoes in the background. Karen says she wants to be pretty. Mary strips. Billy laughs a lot. Fonda as Wyatt climbs up into the lap of a classical goddess and caresses her, mourning the suicidal death of his actual mother, Frances Seymour: “You’re such a cruel mother and I hate you so much.” Hopper rolls around on the grass and forces Karen to roll with him. “I can feel the inside, but I can’t feel the outside, okay?” says Karen.

Denni s Hopper in "Easy Rider," film still.

Dennis Hopper passed on May 29th, and a much-talked-about exhibition featuring his oeuvre will soon open at MoCA L.A. The show will likely include a range of “in-the-moment” creations, images and objects Hopper made because they reflected the creative morass he had worked so hard to live in–and reflected what everyone else was doing at the time. It doesn’t bother me that his style is hackneyed. His ability to be a chameleon exposes him as a fan: he had a Cartier-Bresson phase, a Robert Longo phase, a Keith Haring phase. But his art did remain bogged down by the myth of the artist as someone who always catapults head-first into experience. It’s not living hard that makes art good.

In his anti-fiction manifesto, Reality Hunger, David Shields quotes an unnamed source:

The body gets used to a drug and needs a stronger and stronger dose just to experience the thrill. An illusion of reality—the idea that something really happened—is providing us with that thrill right now.

All throughout his career, Hopper seemed to be looking for that drug. And the best part about the scene from Easy Rider is that it cuts through in-the-moment madness and exposes the drug as a drug.