Dennis Hopper’s BACKTRACK


BACKTRACK (Director’s Cut)
Dir. Dennis Hopper, 1990-92
102 mins. US.


1990 AD: FOLLOWING the colossal success of his supporting roles in Hoosiers (1986, Anspaugh) and Blue Velvet (1987, Lynch)  and a well-regarded directing turn (Colors, 1988), Dennis Hopper was finally back on top of the world again. A fallen countercultural icon who had ridden with Terry Southern, tripped with Jack Nicholson, and kicked it with Hitler in a classic Twilight Zone episode, he had fallen from grace in a long list of D-roles, the epochal anti-Western (and Spectacle favorite) The Last Movie in 1971 and the tortured production of Out Of The Blue nearly a decade later.

Finally back in the saddle with some sexual cachet and critical acclaim, Hopper cast a potpourri of old friends and deep-fried favorites including (but by no means limited to) Dean Stockwell, Joe Pesci, Fred Ward  and John Turturro in his latest project, Backtrack. Hopper locked himself in the lead role of Milo—a sax-obsessed mob hitman with a loosely calibrated sensitive side. After up-and-coming conceptual artist Anne Benton (Jodie Foster) witnesses one of Milo’s whack-jobs in Seattle, the powers that be (including Vincent Price as the Don of Milo’s “family”) send him to find her in Arizona to snuff her out. However as the VHS box says, once they’ve met it’s hard to un-meet, and Milo admits he doesn’t know whether to trust Anne, to love her, or… to kill her.

What ensues is equal parts renagade-on-the-lam drama, 90s acid western action and meet-cute RomCom. Along with two filmmaking buddy Alex Cox, Hopper squeezed and tugged his feelings about postmodern art, industrialization, colonialism, jazz, soft rock, middle age, and the American road trip into a lurid balm for the soul—a kind of mashup of Lynch, Wenders, Antonioni and Scorsese with baffling, impenetrable results. Modeled closely on Jenny Holzer, Foster’s character is shown making and premiering work that was created by Holzer specifically for Backtrack – for example, installations of scrolling neon text doling out prophecies such as “EVEN YOUR FAMILY CAN BETRAY YOU.”

The resultant 3-hour film was too hot for Vestron, so it was ripped from Hopper’s hands, butchered and released as Catchfire; in protest, Hopper changed his directorial credit to the old DGA standby for disgraced edits, Alan Smithee. Only in ’92 did he get the chance to release his dialectical final cut—blasted out onto late-nite cable in a brief flare, but overall neglected like the honky-tonk swamp pop of yesteryear.

Until nw. Spectacle’s long-running, always well-advised love affair with Hopper’s work reaches further backwards than ever with this rare screening of the lost and forgotten director’s cut, available (and thus, screening) exclusively on VHS.