It happened one day in June, 2008. I was at the food court at the Palms. I was covering the CineVegas film festival when a total stranger sat down to talk to me. Of course, it is hard to think of the face belonging to Dennis Hopper as that of a stranger. Dennis Hopper was CineVegas’ chairman. His position was not ceremonial. Year after year, Hopper offered his connections to a baby film festival in a city that lacked much status with cinema auteurs. Hopper actively promoted CineVegas; he attended most events; and, his passion and personality combined with his unique artistic cache allowed the festival to flourish.
What I admired most about CineVegas was that Hopper was proud to embrace a film festival that worked for Vegas. On a given day CineVegas happily mixed a red carpet with Artie Lange followed by one for Helen Mirren. Hopper’s implacable advocacy erased any condescension that might otherwise have come from cinephiles. Instead, CineVegas was celebrated for having an Oceans 13 red carpet alongside world premieres of independent art house films. Vegas is a perfect city as host, but the big name Hollywood stars and the fiercely independent filmmakers of all genres came at first, not for Vegas, but because of Dennis Hopper’s ability to inspire awe in every fractured segment of the movie world.
Hopper was always very accessible at CineVegas. He stood around, in public areas of Palms and made himself available in a way most celebrities choose not to do in Las Vegas. And, he went much further at the festival’s events. He was socially aggressive at CineVegas enough to mingle and pose and make attendees feel like his guests. It was amazing to watch each year as Hopper gracefully spoke to awed young people to fellow actors or to casino owners with equal energy and ardor for all. He clearly loved to talk movies with movie people. Since I am not a movie person, outside of professional responsibilities, I left him alone every year.
So it should not have been a surprise that Dennis Hopper sat down with a total stranger as part of his interest in the pulse of the festival. I think he did that a lot. But I never expected to be one of those strangers. I was reading a book alone when he joined me. It was early, and there were other tables around empty in the food court. But he wanted conversation. He asked about the book I was reading; he wanted to know where I was from and other perfectly normal questions. I asked him about knowing Bob Dylan. We talked for about 20 minutes. It was not an interview but a conversation I had with Dennis Hopper. It was in the spirit of the festival he was creating that Hopper chose strangers for conversations: that is how communities are formed. But to be that stranger was the coolest moment I have ever had in Las Vegas.
Next month CineVegas is on hiatus because of the economy. Of course, I am hopeful the festival will be back next year. Outside this city, Hopper’s achievements are of the gargantuan epic sort that spawn books and retrospectives. But in Vegas, Hopper’s artistic and cultural impact are more personal: a film festival (a decade full of movies, movie stars and cool late night parties) that he helped animate and host.
CineVegas may be a small pat of Hopper’s overall legacy; yet, with CineVegas, Hopper managed an invaluable gift to Las Vegas. (Photo: Sarah Gerke)