I learned of Dennis Hopper‘s death like many, as a blurb on-line from some unremarkable source that will surely fade, as much as today’s throw-away culture, in a cobweb slivered drawer marked ‘discard’. They say good things when you die; lying to your face when you’re alive, and over the long haul a life well lived might just be the best we have to offer those we leave behind.
Dennis Lee Hopper was born this month in Dodge City, Kansas, May 17th, 1936 and lived his life as he had been born, in a place known as a wild, violent frontier town of the Old West. His early interest in art and acting would prove informative as much as a starting place for things to come – Hopper himself is noted as having a difficult time as a young man who resisted authority, rebuked casual social norms, and hung on to friendships that were formed between people without titles or pretense. I’ve read dozens of stories about Dennis Hopper before he died, reviews of his films and personal accomplishments, roles as activist alongside artist, photographer, painter, sculptor, and Republican. I’ve enjoyed his films for many years, as much before film school as during and after.
What lives in me about Dennis Hopper is the man beneath the surface, the man who lived away from the lights and camera, who enjoyed and suffered like we all do without benefit of recording or eye-witness testimony to appear in failed biographies of otherwise unmentionable strangers. He lived an artful life, not solely a man who was an artist but a man who lived where art married the views he took in of places like Venice, California and New York. His earliest pursuits ultimately lead him to the tutelage of Lee Strasberg and after, like other students, he would never be the same. Dennis Hopper lived as we must all live, one day at a time. He resisted the weight of praise for those steps, choosing instead to turn away from poor direction or a film he felt was artificial – sometimes this benefited him, other times not so much.
What I think will remain in the time and space left by the passing of Dennis Hopper, after the media frenzy moves on to the next celebrity tragedy, is an appreciation for all the things he accomplished and those he still dreamed about in his 74th year. What you accomplish isn’t about what is written about you when you die, it isn’t the list of your successes or the people who shared a moment in history with you – it’s about the fire that burns in your belly to be more and do more with the time you are granted, the way you handle your failures with poise, and if you’re lucky the hardest lessons learned about yourself once the dust has settled and no one else is looking.
I will miss Dennis Hopper even though we never met. I will look fondly on that which remains, his legacy in print and photograph, in the movies he embraced and those that were hardly more than a pay check. If I close my eyes and ears he is near, his wit and honesty, the glint that kept his eyes from going dark all those years ago when he floundered in the mire of art unrealized, until a light shone on him and only now begins to wane.
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