Full Disclosure: Over the course of a short life loving movies, no film has become so intertwined with my own identity as Kid Blue. It’s become my nickname, my handle, a character I’ve played, the logo on this here website. Thanks to endless hours of eBay’ing and the gifts of friends, I’ve acquired what is probably the largest collection of memorabilia in existence for it. Me and the movie haunt each other, proudly.
Growing up in New York, we had a handful of video stores that were Mecca for cinephiles. The Kim’s stores were the back-alleys for movie lovers. They’d be raided for their sale of bootlegs, the only places where you could find copies of copies of obscure films. For years, masterpieces like Bertolucci’s The Conformist were only available dubbed, panned and scanned, and yet somehow Kim’s would have a warped VHS of a properly letter-boxed version with correct subtitles. Sometimes it was the opposite. You’d hear about Sam Fuller’s White Dog, a controversial film that never got a proper U.S. release. In the days before Internet shopping, it was Kim’s who’d have a copy, albeit with Spanish subtitles. If Kim’s didn’t have what you were looking for in any of its five locations, there was probably a good reason. It probably didn’t exist. Like sex and drugs and movies, by the time I was a teenager, my penchants had segued from wholesome to insatiably freaky. Thank goodness for Kim’s.
I was lucky enough to have a handful of older friends who’d hip me to the Good Stuff, the Straight Dope, the films that still are my favorites today. When I was 17, my buddy, filmmaker Paul Sado, firmly ensconced in the malaise of his 20s, started explaining to me, staunchly New York Hardcore, that hippies weren’t all bad. I had no idea that the Counter Culture movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s was dangerous, subversive and nasty and galvanized kids who’d grown up in homogeny and complacency. They were terrified of dying in a shitty war. Nobody in charge seemed to understand the changes happening to their kids. They followed through on a threat to make stuff different than how it was made before, just like every good generation of artists. In and around my own coming of age, the beginning of ubiquitous Internet and straddling both the turn of the century and living in the impending shadow of 9/11, these movies spoke to me. They felt like home when nothing was comfortable because nothing is when you’re a shitty kid. That’s why you do drugs and and crimes and fuck. Or make movies.
Any fool who disputes the importance of Easy Rider is a fool. It’s naive to consider any single work to be the flashpoint for a movement, but Easy Rider is as good as any to represent the cinematic poster child of Counter Culture. The American New Wave, or New Hollywood, brings up a few other seminal pieces, like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate or Cool Hand Luke as even earlier examples of the movement. Trying to pinpoint where scores of people met in a cultural phenomena that spanned an entire industry is why there are scholars on that shit. By the time I was 17, I’d already wasted years of my life debating the exact birth of Punk Rock, so I was fine acknowledging Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut as “a” beginning if not “the” beginning. In the late ‘60s, Hopper was a character actor on the periphery of Hollywood. He made a living, but never achieved the success of his pals, like James Dean or Jane Fonda. He was 33 in ’69, perfect age for a rebirth, a resurrection.
It’s no secret that Hopper was frustrated by show business, a little resentful of everyone else’s success and aware that his gonzo, druggie, megalomania might be to blame. I wonder if he was surprised to know it was the latter qualities that would, ironically, set him apart and help him become an icon. Learning all this about Hopper made me hang a hat on the guy. To most of us, he’s the crazy uncle from dozens of weird movies, the unhinged baddie, a That Guy so entirely that we can imitate him. When I discovered that what I knew was only the evolution of a true madman, an uncompromising filmmaker who actually invented a bunch of the stuff he was spouting, he became a favorite. I began to connect his work of the '70s to the work I knew, filling in the blanks.
Hopper’s star burned bright enough to go supernova pretty quick. He wasn’t so much a star as a comet, hot and passing through. After speaking for a generation and sensibly letting it all go to his head, getting his comeuppance on the industry that had barely let him survive for almost two decades, Hopper went native. Easy Rider was followed up by a brilliant debacle, The Last Movie, which barely got finished and when it did, was derided as practically unintelligible. He had gone to Peru to make a movie about a movie that ends with a soliloquy by him in a bamboo tiger cage ostensibly about James Dean’s death and his own mortality. His studio, Universal, didn’t know what to do with him or the movie.
In The American Dreamer, a documentary about The Last Movie, we see Hopper battle with Hollywood as if Easy Rider hadn’t made the impact it did. We see him squander an entire industry’s goodwill in the name of freedom, egomania and a passion for the eccentric. Like Burden of Dreams, the seminal documentary about the debacle of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, the story of what happened to the movie and its filmmaker is actually more interesting than the film itself. By 1971, Hopper was seen as a rogue, having given credence to a new voice for a whole generation and losing his in the process. He retreated back to acting, to a landscape of filmmaking that he had helped make more hospitable to crazies like himself. As a “name”, he had options, and the studios were making bohemian films to satisfy his constituency, even if they wouldn’t make his own.
Other than an obscure 1972 French film that he’s credited in and nobody can seem to track down, Hopper’s first foray back to Hollywood after his disastrous second directorial experience was Kid Blue. It’s a rare comedic Western, tongue firmly planted in its cheek, about the absurdity of a world its hero used to fit into passing him by. Nothing could have been more profoundly apropos for Hopper at the time. The film co-starred lions of the era, from Monte Hellman and Sam Peckinpah’s favorite son, Warren Oates, to a drugged-out Peter Boyle, to Ben Johnson, a heavy who transitioned seamlessly from orthodox Westerns and Noirs to the New Hollywood scene. The premise is simple, an outlaw, Kid Blue, feels he’s getting too old for his title, and decides to try and go straight in a boom town at the dawn of the industrial revolution. He tries to fit in, work in a factory, make friends, and every step is turned away or around.
The film poetically mirrors Hopper’s own trajectory that within the guffaws and pratfalls, there’s a distinct tragedy, a sadness to our bygone cowboy. It perfectly illustrates the absurdity of a changing world, which the Western is so apt to do. In one scene, Hopper’s character asks his new friend (an overly chummy Warren Oates who likes The Kid a lot more than he likes his own wife) what the factory in town does. “They make ashtrays”, says Oates. “What’s an ashtray?”, asks Hopper. “It’s a little clay pot you knock the ashes from your cigar or cigarette into.”, explains Oates. Hopper, confused, doesn’t know how to react, “I just knock my ashes on the ground.” Hopper’s Kid Blue is out of place, passed by, obsolete. He’s got the gumption, the can-do attitude, but the world has moved on without him, and it’s silly. That tone, maintained by director James Frawley, who would go on to make the original Muppet Movie and subsequently scores of television shows, separates it from the nihilism of its peers, such as Peckinpah’s work.
When I was 17 and devouring as much of Kim’s stock as I could get my hands on, I’d blindly dig through piles of VHS tapes for hours in search of a title. One day, recounting my ne’er-do-well teenage days and feigning the kind of haggardness I now actually see on the horizon as a 30-something Film Professional, Paul cocked his head at me over a Budweiser and said, “You got to see Kid Blue. That’s you. That’s your story.” They didn’t have it at the St. Marks’ location, so I hoofed it down to the Avenue A store. It was next to a soda fountain that’s still there today. Best egg cream in New York. Kim’s employees were famously unhelpful, especially to anyone who reeked of film school or, in my case, preciousness. People would joke that there was a mandate to be surly to customers. I remember asking for myriad titles with the answer, “I don’t know, go look for it.” or “It’s over there” and they’d point to nothing. When I spent an hour searching for Kid Blue at the second location, I sheepishly walked up to the cashier and asked about it. He looked up, wide-eyed, warm, the kind of reaction that was so out of place he might’ve been having a stroke. He immediately said, “Bleecker Street’s got a pan-and-scan copy.”
Over on Bleecker, I found it, with a handwritten title on masking tape. I watched it, then again, then dubbed the dub to a VHS because anybody who didn’t have two VCRs in 1999 was an amateur. Over the next few years, as the Internet got more robust and I moved out to Los Angeles, I tried to find a better copy of the film, ordering bootlegs on homemade DVDs from foreign countries. I wanted to see it in its anamorphic glory, with proper sound and no tracking issues. Eventually, I saw a purpled print at the New Beverly here in Los Angeles, which they’d play every couple years, often at my request. In the last decade, it’s been screened in a few repertory houses around the country, and the low-quality 4:3 version is available digitally. There’s some illicit versions of the widescreen online that have poor interlacing and frame-rate issues. I’m no longer the only one crying shame on Fox for not releasing a proper, high-definition version. There’s probably three or four of us now.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve taken on too much Kid Blue, used it as a totem for too long. I’d always loved Westerns as a kid, and when I discovered the French and American New Waves, it so perfectly fit with where I’d come from and where I was. Similarly, it’s been there for me as a story, a mirror for my own outlawing as I keep trying to rehabilitate one thing or another, only to stumble and fall over turn after turn. Or is that just my own myth, the legend I want to create to fit into my own narrative? Much like Hopper’s work and his career, it isn’t quite going as planned, just as it didn’t for The Kid himself. It never does; otherwise, we’d hate the movie. Still, I sit in my apartment, in the shadow of no fewer than three posters for the film, sandwiched between my own movies, prideful that I’ve taken it on as a pet, a mask, a cause. Whether it’s online or at home or in a movie I was in, the title is inextricably and permanently attached to me. The Kid never went straight, and this one probably won’t either. So we might as well stand next to each other somewhere between Dimebox, Texas in 1901 and Hollywood in 2016.