Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Off the Rails: Dennis Hopper in Henry Jaglom’s Tracks (1977)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 10, 2010

You know, I’ve always thought Dennis Hopper should have played Adolf Hitler at some point in his career. Can’t you just see him with that little mustache, dyed black hair, dressed up in the full uniform, barking orders at people in his bunker? No? Well, maybe it’s just me. At the very least, he would be all over the Internet now instead of Bruno Ganz.

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Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of Hopper’s films since his death, revisiting some old favorites as well as checking out some obscure films of his I’ve never seen. I tend to do this a lot when an actor or director I really like passes on, kind of like my own personal retrospective or tribute. I’ve discovered that Colors doesn’t quite hold up as well as I thought, while The Hot Spot is still hugely underrated and Red Rock West is still as awesome as it was in 1993. The other night I discovered an obscure film which features good old Dennis at the center, a film which I’d been wanting to see for a few years now but never got around to it. The film is Tracks, released in 1977 but apparently shot a couple of years before that. It’s not what I would call a masterpiece, but if you’re a fan of Hopper’s, odd 70’s cinema or films about the Vietnam War, you might find it an interesting curiosity.

Billed as “one of the first films to deal with the Vietnam War”, Tracks centers around Sgt. Jack Falen (get it?), a young soldier (although DH would’ve been around 40 at the time by my math), who’s escorting the body of his war buddy on a train home to California. That’s about as much traditional plot as you’re going to get here. The movie mostly deals with Falen’s gradual mental breakdown as he travels with a group of genuine oddballs, pursues a young girl and listens to old WWII-era big-band music (some of which is hysterically racist). Also there’s gratuitous Dean Stockwell, as Joe Bob Briggs would say.

If you know the films of writer-director Henry Jaglom at all, then you pretty much know what to expect here: very talky, full of improvisational dialogue, more than a bit self-indulgent. I’ve never been a huge fan of Jaglom’s, to be honest. He tends to be a bit precious and twee for my taste. But Tracks has something his other films don’t: Dennis Hopper, who gives a mesmerizing performance as the disturbed Falen. Whether he’s interacting with some genuinely strange passengers (some of whom are played by members of Jaglom’s regular acting troupe), awkwardly trying to seduce college student Stephanie, or running around naked in bizarre dream sequences (which I didn’t really need to see), Hopper is just fascinating to watch. What makes the performance so interesting is partially because Falen initially seems like a relatively normal guy, and only gradually reveals his psychological issues in the midst of the rest of the chaos on the train. Tracks doesn’t spell out the connections between his psychosis and his war service until the very end, unlike later Vietnam movies which would perpetuate the stereotype of the whacked-out ‘Nam vet; rather than being overtly political or anti-war, Jaglom seems mostly interested in painting a vivid picture of a cracked psyche. By the end, it becomes difficult to tell what’s “real” and what’s merely Falen’s hallucinations, and that’s the point, of course.

On the other hand, Tracks is also wildly inconsistent at times, which is one of the drawbacks of relying so much on improvisation. Characters seem to contradict themselves on a scene-by-scene basis, particularly Stephanie, who can’t seem to decide whether she loves Falen or is terrified of him. The limited setting may also turn some viewers off; about 95% of it takes place on the train, though Jaglom and Hopper do their damndest to keep things interesting, if not always logical. Personally, I happen to love train movies, so the lack of varied settings didn’t bother me a bit. Others may find it a bit claustrophobic. As always, your mileage may vary.

Above all, Tracks is more of a curiosity than a must-see; as a film, it just barely holds together, but as a snapshot of a particular time and place, it’s pretty interesting stuff and worth seeing on that level. Most of all, it’s a tribute to the strange, wonderful talent of Dennis Hopper, who could make even the most threadbare character come alive. Available on DVD (rented through Netflix).

By the way, I’m planning to write about more obscure films in the future, so if you’re inclined, drop me a line and let me know if you find this stuff interesting or not. I just want to mix things up a bit and write about movies that interest me, so I hope readers will stick with it and enjoy the ride. As always, thanks for reading!

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