These are not, to paraphrase the title of another postEasy Rider film, five or six easy pieces. Psyched by the heady success of Hopper and Fonda's cynical/lyrical road movie, young American filmmakers tried -- ambitiously and inventively, as well as naïvely and pretentiously -- to chip away at the already crumbling foundations of commercial cinema. That mainstream filmmaking proved more resilient than anyone would have guessed and the emergence of the multimillion-dollar blockbuster industry would, by the end of the '70s, make this kind of experimentation obsolete makes this small batch of films even more interesting in retrospect.
The series starts, fittingly, with The Last Movie, Hopper's directorial follow-up to Easy Rider and a commercial/critical failure of almost legendary proportions. Hopper reported that after constantly being told that audiences were crying for completely new forms of cinema, he tried to give them what they wanted. Starting with a story about a Peruvian village transformed by the presence of an American film crew, Hopper disemboweled the script, threw narrative rules into the wind and edited the whole thing with the delicacy of a threshing machine. The result was either an incomprehensible, paranoid mess or a bold reconsideration of every aspect of cinematic language -- you make the call.
If Hopper's film plays like a nervous breakdown, the remaining films in this series hang onto safer narrative ground while gazing deeply inward at the bruised psyches of a handful of distinctively American losers, misfits and innocent bystanders. Consider, for example, Jack Nicholson's understated performance as a tightly strung radio commentator caught under the heel of his hustler brother (Bruce Dern) in The King of Marvin Gardens, or Warren Oates' extraordinary presence as a down-and-out animal "trainer" living under a self-imposed vow of silence in Monte Hellman's Cockfighter.
The odd man out in this group is Bill Gunn's Ganja & Hess, often mislabeled a black-exploitation film but actually one of the most unusual and profound explorations of the vampire myth in film history. Butchered by a hostile distributor and rarely seen in Gunn's lifetime, it's a perfect example of what the series celebrates: that rare moment (sometime between the creation of the MPAA ratings and the rise of the Spielberg-Lucas behemoth) when generic roots and artistic nerve joined to create a uniquely American cinema whose intricately tangled roots sprang up equally from the corners of Hollywood, the drive-in, the art-house and the Underground.