Choose your fighter: Orson Welles, recently back in LA after a decade of European exile, and embarking on a project so meta he will emulate the film’s director-protagonist and die at 70 never having finished it; or Dennis Hopper, mere days after the end of an 8-day marriage, struggling to edit the metafiction that will kill his directorial career for nearly a decade? The documentary, “Hopper/Welles,” cutely credited to Welles as director, but put together by “The Other Side of the Wind” producer Filip Jan Rymsza, is a recording of a conversation between two (in)famous Hollywood game-changers at oddly analogous moments in their careers, despite their twenty-year age gap. We expect nothing less than conversational pyrotechnics from two such outsize personalities, and there are many confrontational moments. But what emerges more strongly is a sense of mutual admiration – sometimes even envy – and a fascinating snapshot of a period in time when movies could really matter, as experienced by two men whose movies were among those that mattered most. If “Hopper/Welles” is on some level Hopper versus Welles, whoever loses, we win. 

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The major drawback of the documentary as a film, however, is also part of its singularity. Given that Welles intended this lamplit chat for use in “The Other Side of the Wind,” he never appears onscreen; instead, the camera is trained, with exhausting singlemindedness, on Hopper. The inclusion of gofers milling in the background and clapperboard edit markers, all caught in lighting cameraman Gary Graver‘s romantic, grainy, flickery black and white, not to mention the watchability of Hopper’s own inherently telegenic face, bearded and cowboy-hatted, can only go so far to keep the 130-minute film visually dynamic. But even if you regard it as primarily an audio experience with a visual component, “Hopper/Welles” is rewarding, though one suspects Welles himself would be halfway to horrified by the unchanging, relentless rawness of the image. 

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One factor that complicates the movie’s “narrative” is that it’s perpetually difficult to discern whether Welles is speaking in the persona of Jake Hannaford – the protagonist of his film who would later be played by John Huston – and when he is “purely” Welles. To a lesser extent, the same goes for Hopper, who was aware of the conversation’s intended use in a fiction film, and so presumably has somewhat modulated his responses. However, there is a nimble, reactive honesty to their interactions which suggests that, for a lot of the time, they are being themselves – which in these two cases especially seems to mean being a whole legion of contradictory personas. It makes “Hopper/Welles” also an engrossing study of the nature of conversation, the way even in an artificial environment it can take on an organic life of its own and grow wild around the edges.

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It is November 1970, 29 years since the release of “Citizen Kane” and 16 months since that of “Easy Rider.” Welles’ disembodied voice – lighter and more informal than the sonorous, musical, mocking baritone we’re used to (any excuse to plug Farran Smith Nehme’s excellent Criterion essay on Welles’ vocal stylings) – guides the conversation from offscreen. Lofty discussions about filmmaking philosophy, aging, and image sit alongside dumb jokes and what can only be described as “locker room talk”: Welles, riffing off Hopper’s complaint that he has to talk to women in order to sleep with them – “Why can’t I just see [her] naked?” he wonders – imagines shooting some “3D beaver,” at which both men snigger.

We learn of their similarities in taste. Both like “La Notte” but Hopper admits to falling asleep each of the seven times he’s tried to watch “L’Avventura.” Neither man seems to notice when Hopper incorrectly ascribes the entire plot of De Sica‘s “Umberto D.” to Fellini‘s “I Vitelloni.” And more instructively, we hear about their differences: Hopper loves to be on set; Welles loves to edit. (One fun little flourish is Welles insisting that the term “editor” makes film “cutters” too damn big for their boots, and when “Hopper/Welles” draws to a close, Oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski does indeed settle for the credit “Cutter” despite being, one imagines, fairly central to this production, given the 5-hours of raw material he had to wrestle down in the absence of its long-dead “director”.)

Hopper is in general more circumspect than you might expect, given his subsequent wildman reputation, which is in its infancy here, before reports of his drug use, spousal abuse, and increasingly erratic, violent behavior were widespread. So while he’s frank about falling out with the Fondas and his love of his newly purchased gun, and goes off on an amusingly incoherent tangent about being either all love or all hate, but never some “fraction” (“Apocalypse Now” fans might recognize elements of this speech that he later repurposed), Hopper refuses to be drawn out on his politics, sometimes to Welles’ audible frustration. Welles even offers up justifications for his own most notorious political stance in an effort to goad Hopper into a quid-pro-quo: He admits to supporting the Franco Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, though he insists he’s not fascist – incidentally, the same term Peter Fonda later used to describe Hopper (“little fascist freak”) during the shooting of “Easy Rider.” 

But Hopper doesn’t rise to Welles’ bait, and while sometimes the firelight glitter of his eyes betrays an almost starstruck respect for and humility before Welles, you have to admire that caution. It also makes Welles come off, at times, as aggressively contrarian to the point of annoying. When Hopper stumbles a little trying to find his thought about filmmaking being difficult, Welles/Hannaford interjects, almost childishly “Don’t you think it’s actually easy?” Elsewhere it can feel like Welles is rather toying with Hopper, feinting and parrying, sometimes ducking low in a show of obsequience only to jab upward and catch Hopper on the conversational chin. It’s the set-up, of course, the playing field is not level. But it makes you somehow like Hopper more, for his knowing the game is rigged but still being, on some level, grateful that he’s been asked to play.

It also makes you wish Welles were kinder and had used his genius IQ to look into the younger man’s immediate future and warn him of the dangers of getting tripped up by the edit of your difficult and expansive second film, as Welles did on “The Magnificent Ambersons” and Hopper was in the process of doing on “The Last Movie.” But then often the problem with brilliant men is that they do not see generosity as within the remit of genius: the great-man theory of film auteur history, of which “Hopper/Welles” must now be a key artifact, is not exactly a tale of compassion, mutual support, and friendly advice freely offered, gratefully followed. Such an alternate idea of greatness would have written a very different Hollywood history to the one that “Hopper/Welles” sketches with such specificity, revealing truth that is not only stranger than the fiction we might wish to make of it, but metafiction more meta than either one of its legends would ever make. [B]

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