I was keenly following the trajectory of BACKTRACK during my college years, as a fan of Hopper and of then-upstart studio Vestron Pictures, but had never gotten around to actually watching it; I didn't have Showtime when they aired the Director's Cut, and always just had something else more pressing whenever the VHS was handy. When I saw it was released on DVD in 16x9 widescreen, with Hopper's preferred title and director credit on the cover, naturally I eagerly bought it, though again, it sat on my to-watch pile for a long time. Upon finally watching it, I was increasingly taken aback by the very abrupt cutting, where many scenes seemed to be trimmed to the most necessary seconds, very reminiscent of the Fox-sanctioned Kenneth Lonergan-contested theatrical cut of MARGARET. I kept thinking, Egad, imagine how much more horribly incoherent the CATCHFIRE edit must have been. By the time my DVD player stopped at 98 minutes, despite the 102 promised on the cover, Sebastian Cabot as Mr. Pip may as well have been right at the controls of my remote saying, "Look at the cover again - whatever gave you the idea this was a Director's Cut? This is the CATCHFIRE edit!" Bloody Artisan mastered a pre-Smithee print to DVD, and Lionsgate has never done a damned thing to correct it!
Regardless of bad editing and missing storyline, I still have a decent hunch about what Hopper had in mind. As he says himself during the film, "There's something going on here that I really don't understand, but I like it."
Thus, where producers saw a MIDNIGHT RUN-style road movie in the original screenplay by Rachel Kronstadt Mann and Stephen & Lanny Cotler, and Barach, then a crime reporter for many newspapers, saw more of a gritty Patty Hearst-style story of kidnapping and bonding, Hopper likely looked at the plot of a hitman so fascinated with his target, an avant-garde artist, that he instead chooses to abandon the hit and take her on the lam with him, as fertile ground to create an extended metaphor about being valued for one thing yet desiring to try something else. Now that he'd delivered a hit to Orion with COLORS, and Vestron had made a splash with DIRTY DANCING, he was in a good position to make the kind of artistic demands unavailable to him for a long time. And from the unconventional casting of Vincent Price as a mob boss, to unscripted cameos by Bob Dylan and Toni Basil (and, in the apocryphal 180 minute cut first submitted to Vestron, Neil Young), to prominent featuring of art by Jenny Holzer, Charles Arnoldi, and Laddie Dill, he got them fulfilled. On paper, he was making a crime thriller. But if THE LAST MOVIE was his exploration of deconstructing cinema myth on Universal's dime, BACKTRACK was his exploration of leaving safe filmmaking behind on Vestron's nickel. Even the very title BACKTRACK suggests a return to old ways, since within the film itself, while everyone is tracing the movements of major characters, nobody actually goes back to a point of origin.
especially as recounted by Foster, and in light of seeing him engage in similar onscreen May/December tropes with Amy Locane and Marley Shelton and Asia Argento. But remember, we're putting this movie on the couch, not on the pedestal.
Besides all the allusions to the filmmaking process embedded in BACKTRACK, there is a definite sense of allusion to the aforementioned THE LAST MOVIE. When Milo arrives in Taos, New Mexico to finally collect Anne, he comes across a group of Native American Pueblos in ceremony, with a large burning mascot holding people's attention. While more than one reviewer has compared this imagery to THE WICKER MAN, and I myself was reminded of the "Winter Witch" burning from Fellini's AMARCORD, it seems almost no other reviewers recognized a similar sequence from THE LAST MOVIE, when local Peruvians are cavorting with their own wooden-made cameras and other burning ephemera, as local priest Tomas Milian expresses his concerns to Hopper about the cultural confusion his film crew has brought to the region. (Unfortunately, I can't find any stills properly approximating the symmetry, so bear with me)
There's certainly other elements that lend themselves to my central idea as the story goes on, but I think I've given you enough here so that you can apply them on your own, if and when you get around to watching the film yourself. Which raises the question, should you? I would caution that only significant Hopper or Foster completists should attempt to do so, and even then, would be better served tracking down an original VHS of the Director's Cut and zooming it in to your widescreen TV, so it's asking a lot. But if you are indeed that complete and that determined, I think you'll find it, well, an intriguing objet d'art. And, if in time we do finally get a proper DVD release of THE LAST MOVIE, it would make a particularly interesting double feature with it, as you would get to witness Hopper's two most unconventional outings that had conventional origin.