Found and Restored: Search and Destroy Reevaluated

I’ve been watching Dennis Hopper’s more obscure and straight-to-DVD movies now for a number of few years; all in the name of ‘research’ you understand. I’ve seen some real clunkers (Space Truckers, Tycus) but I’ve also discovered some incredible work that has been added to the long list of my favorite films of all time (The American Friend, The Blackout).

When it came to selecting Hopper’s movies, I used to play a game on Amazon in which I would find the cheapest and most obscure DVD and hit the purchase button. Whilst playing this quite financially wasteful game (the DVD’s were cheap, but the postage often wasn’t) I chanced upon a mid-1990s curio entitled Search and Destroy (1995). I knew absolutely nothing of it but was intrigued by the “Presented by Martin Scorsese” tag. A Dennis Hopper film with Scorsese’s involvement? Why was nobody talking about this? Surely it needed a look. Based on a stage play by screenwriter and playwright Howard Korder, it remains the only feature film directed by the American artist, David Salle.

The film stars Griffin Dunne (who had also played the same role in the stage version) as lifelong failure Martin Mirkheim, and Illeana Douglas as Marie, a secretary to the egotistical televangelist and author, Dr Luther Waxling (Dennis Hopper), and a budding screenwriter of schlock horror movies. The film comes peppered with an array of destabilizing cameo appearances; Christopher Walken as the enigmatic businessman, Kim Ulander, Ethan Hawke as Dr. Waxling`s smarmy assistant Roger, John Turturro as the suave two-bit crook, Ron, and Rosanna Arquette as Mirkheim`s long-suffering wife. Scorsese himself even turns up as a tax accountant intent on ruining Mirkheim.

Search and Destroy‘s genre is hard to define, in fact almost impossible. It could be read as a romantic comedy, a road movie, a crime caper, a satire of Hollywood schmoozing, or a gangster film. It is at once hilarious, sad, thrilling, boring, and bewildering. When I implored friends to watch the film they all came back with more or less the same response: it was either the best thing they’d seen in ages, or they scolded me for wasting their time. To this day I can barely decipher my own feelings towards it. Genius or garbage? I’m still on the fence with one foot hanging over on the side of genius.

“A Screwball Tragedy”

And yet this is why I feel it’s important to offer a re-evaluation of Search and Destroy. It’s faded beyond obscurity that not even trusty YouTube has an uploaded version. There are countless copies available on DVD all with various cover art (including some images pulled from the actors’ other movies). That they all come from European distributors indicates that the film was better received on the continent. The by-line calls the film “A Screwball Tragedy” and whilst that does it some justice what does such a definition even mean? The term has cropped up a few times, mostly relating to anti-folk artist Adam Green’s freeform film The Wrong Ferarri (2010), which was shot on Green’s iPhone whilst he toured in Europe with Macaulay Culkin. More recently, actor Oscar Isaac classified Inside Llewyn Davis as “a screwball tragedy,” and this relates well to Search and Destroy. The idea that the protagonist is in continuous and quite hilarious freefall is at once tragic and humorous, with glimmers of redemption offered but rarely accepted. Like Llewyn, Mirkhiem and Marie’s grand schemes fall apart quickly in tragic/comic circumstances.

Continue reading at Empty Mirror…http://www.emptymirrorbooks.com/film/search-destroy-dennis-hopper.html

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