Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper, 1980)
Retro Event at the 2020 FNC
“Kill all hippies!”
Alienated outsider teen Cebe (Linda Manz) with a peculiar Elvis-obsession and her waitress mother Kathy (Sharon Farrell), a frustrated wild child stuck in a relationship with the bland small-time diner owner Paul (Eric Allen), celebrate the upcoming release of their previous patriarch, Don (Dennis Hopper), with his five year prison term for having drunkenly rammed a school bus and killing a slew of children inside coming to an end, only to find their (delusional) idealization violently shattered as he jumps right back into his drug-soaked destructive ways, including re-introducing into the house sleazy pal Charlie (Don Gordon) who has his eyes on both Kathy and Cebe, and prodding Kathy back into heroin use.
I’ve been wanting to scribble down some thoughts on Dennis Hopper’s raw and indulgence-reeking, yet ultimately transgressive and astonishing — return to the director’s chair since I first saw it three years ago projected on 35mm as part of programmer Charlotte Selb’s highly enjoyable Punk Cinema program at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, but, alas, couldn’t find the time (with my ratio of films seen per week versus time taken to write down my thoughts for each requiring that I – reluctantly, believe me — skip a few). So when it popped back up again as a selection in this year’s Festival of Nouveau Cinema, given one of those new-fangled 4K restorations everyone seems to be going crazy for these days, I figured it was time to give it another look and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Directing Out of the Blue was an opportunity that fortuitously fell into the lap of legendary drug- and alcohol-fueled Hopper, the oft-violence-prone and scarily unpredictable madman who had been considered persona non grata by the industry for near a decade, and with it, through force of indomitable will (despite of, or perhaps because of, or maybe both, his prodigious substance intakes), he impressively managed to transform a movie that was originally said to have been conceived as something akin to an Afterschool Special family drama into something much more raw, crazed and searching (gotta give it to Hopper, when he got behind the lens in those days, he might have been a maniac but he certainly had vision).
With Cebe’s escape from her hellishly dysfunctional home leading her to be drawn into jaunts into the city (which would be Vancouver, where I made a movie myself about ten years ago, and – my my hey hey — how things have changed there – as in, grown much less cool) to explore the burgeoning Punk scene, with its expressions of nihilistic anger, where Manz’s energetic interactions with the young stage performers, as well as pushing through violent dancing and fighting crowd of punk kids, is captured by Hopper’s camera from a distance, with whatever dialogue there is in these extended scenes of verisimilitude mostly drowned out over the determined chaos.
Like many moments in the film (including mannered performance ones, such as Manz’ odd style delivering shtick-dialogue to her mother jokingly wishing she could ‘send her to the moon’, or Hopper’s drunken Don pouring a bottle of whiskey over himself incoherently mumbling about everyone in the kitchen being an asshole after one of the dads who had his daughter killed in the bus confronts him on the night of his release), the detached method of much of the shooting, along with the Cassavetes-style feel to the directorial approach – that is, the performers seemingly openly reaching, searching for some kind of improvisational ‘truth’ to emerge (with lots of Abel Ferrara-like substance abuse thrown in to get things crazier) – mixed in with Hopper’s own underlying mania (and overriding desire to speak to something ‘larger’), creates an experience that alternates (or sometimes is both at the same time) between unabashedly over-the-top (everything from the hysteria of individual scenes, to the fall-down drunk Don quitting his construction job by deliberately driving his tractor through the entire construction office, to the bus accident that is so sensationally tragic Lloyd Kaufman would have been jumping up and down with joy to include in a Troma film) and then more sensitive, yet still daring (with Hopper choosing incongruous scenes – such as a visit to Don in prison, a bowling alley scene with Cebe and her girlfriends getting hit on by the much older lecherous Charlie – that work to evoke the landscape and color of the characters more than move the story forward) and always emotionally searching.
It’s a film that excitingly transgresses the bounds of traditional formal filmmaking while also sometimes being a bit off, with a kind of fourth-wall breaking experience of being able to see the actors in their messy attempts at ‘truth’, likely trying their best to respond to a woefully impaired director’s difficulty communicating, yet likely pushed into action, frightened by (yet equally believing in) his stubborn determination not to quit.
It’s hard to know, in fact, if the freneticism of the film (and the in-your-face lurid nature, such as the explosive finale, and the descent by the characters into such sexual/drug crazed mania which becomes so relentlessly dark it comes unwittingly close to dark comedy) comes from Hopper’s mania, or an artist going as far as he can go, or both, but there’s no question the film ends up as a vibrant expression of rebellious and gritty Punk spirit, that’s for sure… while also as a portrait of an artist, Hopper, who comes across as both madman genius and over-indulgent narcissist all at the same time (amusing, that this film and the film from the previous decade that became the representative of the rock and roll counterculture dying-hippie movement of the late 60’s Easy Rider would be made by a director who would eventually ‘sober up’ – though there’s still plenty of stories in the later years of Hopper still smoking up some ganja, say, on the beaches of Cannes – to declare himself a Reagan Republican… ewww).
To be fair, the film also delivers moments of pure formalist cinematic poetry, of the lurid and gritty urban 70’s style, such as when Cebe is lured into a seedy prostitution den where she catches quite evocative glimpses of all sorts of activities going on around her, and ultimately ends up with an older sexual predator trying to take advantage of her (with Cebe’s attempt at blocking out the world by rolling into a fetal position and sucking her thumb for comfort one of the many examples of the underlying sensitivity informing Hopper’s relentlessly bleak vision), where Hopper reveals he is more than capable of capturing cinematic beauty.
You certainly have to hand it to him. While Hopper might have been nuts (with that ever-present genuinely manic-sounding laugh in almost all his performances pre-“Blue Velvet” always leading us as the audience to study him, the infamous Hollywood madman, more than whatever performance he might be up to at the moment) from something out of control he creates a film that captures both middle class struggle and the emergence of a loud and transgressive musical movement that came from it.
Reminds me a bit of Truffaut’s statement on war films (that you can’t really make an anti-war film, as cinematically creating scenes of war is just too innately exciting, or something to that effect), Out of the Blue is a film that acts as a kind of celebration of its debauchery, even while condemning it… and yet has the sensitive heart underneath to express the true damage that Don brings back home to the family. Manz, Farrell and Gordon all operate perfectly within this crazed playground Hopper concocts (with Farrell in later interviews corroborating just how much insane hell-raising Hopper was whipping up at all times during the fast-paced low-budget production). Hopper clearly relishes in the train-wreck besotted role of Don (hell, for him, it allowed him to get paid to be Don while making an artistic statement all at the same time!), but he allows so many wonderful small moments to pass between mother and daughter… and never fails to recognize within the narrative just how damaging his character is.
Then there’s iconic political-minded musician (yes, because popular musicians were once actually politically minded) Neil Young’s harsh-guitar folk song from where the film got its title, and Hopper clearly his inspiration (openly drawing out elements such as a backdrop of a fading Elvis before the birthing Punk/Johnny Rotten, and – perhaps more importantly – Young’s proclamation that it’s ‘better to burn out, than fade away’) that repeats throughout, as both declaration, exclamation point and final period. As he did with Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” back in 1969 in Easy Rider), Hopper managed to wrap a period-defining song around his messy, yet defining, cinematic snapshot of the time.
Pretty, pretty amazing achievements, that.