By 1980, the counterculture dream and flower child optimism that Dennis Hopper had made his career on had long evaporated. Hopper’s indie film Out of the Blue, released that year to relatively little fanfare, looks back at that evaporation with nothing less than a scathing eye.
When Hopper directed his first film, Easy Rider (1969), he did so under the auspices of BBS Productions, the counterculture-chic production company founded by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who would go on to make several blue-collar, recession-squeezed American classics of the 1970s, including Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). Out of the Blue is a film that deserves to be considered spiritual kin – or a late addition, of sorts – to that particular strain of filmmaking. It shares the same deep-rooted cynicism, the same washed-out colour palettes and down-home spirit, the same working-class exurban sprawl of greasy spoon diners and mechanic shops.
Hopper’s first directorial work for nearly a decade – after the collapse and failure of his self-reflexive passion project The Last Movie (1971) – essentially happened through chance. Initially only set to star, Hopper took on the job of director after the original, Leonard Yakir, became ill only eight days into shooting. Hopper personally financed much of the $1.2 million dollar budget so he could ensure creative control.
From there, Hopper rewrote most of the screenplay, giving the technically Canadian film – it was shot in Vancouver – a rather American feel. Due to a minor technicality wherein the Canadian government failed to approve of it in time, Out of the Blue was actually entered into Cannes Film Festival with an unspecified nationality. And while much of the film is quite clearly shot in downtown Vancouver, that lack of specification feels somehow fitting: this is a film both resolutely of its time and somehow outside of it.
A devastating young Linda Manz plays 15-year-old Cebe, a music-obsessed young girl with a yen for the Sex Pistols and Elvis Presley. Manz had broken out in 1978 with her role as the narrator of sorts in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, but here she is let off the leash with wild abandon. She sulks, preens and bristles like a baby porcupine, head tossed and chin lifted defiantly, mini denim jacket on her back like she arrived with it in the cradle and it’s grown as a second skin.
Cebe’s mother (Sharon Farrell) is a strung-out junkie waitress with little time or interest in her kid; her father Don (Hopper) is a deadbeat, serving a prison term for accidental manslaughter for drunkenly crashing his truck into a school-bus. You might say life could be better for young Cebe.
Naturally, she’s constantly hatching escape plans from her increasingly dysfunctional family and backwater town, putting on an androgynous tough-guy demeanour for which we eventually learn the heartbreaking origin. She clings to her infatuation with Elvis and runs around often repeating the same phrases, a repetition that eventually takes on a certain empty sloganeering, like she’s not sure what it means: “Disco sucks! Kill all hippies.” Primal Scream sampled this dialogue for their song of the same name, just as Hopper’s film itself takes its name from Neil Young’s 1978 track ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’, a song that features prominently throughout.
When Don is released from prison, his presence comes to bear on an increasingly ugly family dynamic. In spite of Cebe seemingly idolising him, he is crackling with unpredictable menace, with the film culminating in an awful and abusive scenario between the father and daughter. It initiates a harrowingly grim finale, even by the fatalistic standards of the New Hollywood films of the previous decade, which makes you wonder if Hopper was looking to European art cinema of the 60s for his influence.
There, in films like Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), a young girl, socially unacceptable, faces a similar string of indignities and suffering. Both young women are surrounded by ‘respectable’ hypocrites who smugly seem to enjoy their degradation; both are sexually abused by authority figures; and both are semi-feral children, on the precipice of oncoming womanhood but subversively and aggressively ‘unfeminine’ in appearance. Both maintain a hardened outer shell to mask their fragility, lashing out against the adult world while withering under the need for its love and protection. Cebe, in her gestures of punk faux-nihilism, becomes all the more tragic for the almost impetuous nature of her posturing.
Much like Billy and Wyatt in Easy Rider, Cebe’s whole existence evidences how clearly “we blew it”, only a generation later; the optimism of the youth movement and music and rebellion fades in the face of an ultimately conservative world, hostile to change. The ‘death of the dreamer’ was a theme Hopper returned to often in his work; in Out of the Blue, he seems to clock his own generation’s failure to enact political or social change, with Cebe as the victim of those social movements gone wrong.
The suggestion that Cebe’s parents are 60s burnouts is very clear. Their idealism means nothing now; they remain constrained by patriarchal values, abuse, dysfunction and addiction. While never wholly subtle, Hopper’s portraits of family life are vivid and unsentimental, with drug-addled, drunken parents who serve as a sad reminder of the pitfalls of their generation.
You can’t fail to notice the irony of Cebe’s slogan “Disco sucks! Kill all hippies!” coming from a filmmaker who pioneered late 60s hippie movies. And even Hopper’s presence suggests the ghost of the past, his tendency toward substance-fuelled psychosis making him a formidable on-screen presence, constantly poised on the brink of explosion. But if the flower children are washed-up and hypocritical, the punks Cebe turns to offer no cogent alternative. When she runs off to the city to hang out with some older punks, it proves to be a predatory and dangerous situation, and their noncommittal attitudes towards helping her in any fashion says plenty.
By the shocking conclusion of the film, Hopper lays bare the consequences of investing in a youth culture that has no real means of social change, as well as the deficiencies of a traditional community that has become totally bankrupt in its values, unable to put a stop to the cruelty Cebe faces. She’s a defenceless victim of her parents’ failure to facilitate change, and her devotion to punk is not enough to fill the void: it’s just escapism.
By 1980, these ‘downbeat’ attitudes had gone out of fashion. In the US, the rise of the new right ensured that traditional family values would be reinforced at every opportunity. Hopper’s film, perched uneasily between two very different decades, suggests that the counterculture had not just failed, but had failed its children, never finding an alternative place in the world for outsiders like Cebe.
When Out of the Blue opened in Cannes in 1980, the film was well-received. But its defeatist tone may have scuppered it at the box office. As one critic pointed out: “All it generates is audience resentment. The Montreal crowd booed over the closing titles.”
But perhaps resentment isn’t entirely a bad thing. Resentment seeps from Out of the Blue’s every crevice – a surly teenage kind but one that feels earned, or justified. It’s the kind that sticks in your craw, that digs its elbow into your ribs. Cebe would probably like that.
Out of the Blue is out in a 2-disc Blu-ray edition from the BFI on 29 November 2021.
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