If you’ve never heard of it or seen it Out of the blue, a 1980 film written and directed by Dennis Hopper, You Are Not Alone. Hopper, originally hired only to star in production, took over as his licensed director-writer, rewrote the script to put teenage actress Linda Manz in the spotlight, and delivered a knockout film. With a new emphasis on the character of Manz and his corrosive and explosive family dynamic, Out of the blue would give a particularly sensitive portrait of North American youth.
The only problem was that its producers would deem the resulting film simply too dark for release. While Out of the blue screened in Cannes and abroad, in Canada, where the film was produced, and in the United States, where Hopper and his co-stars Ganz, Sharon Farrell and Raymond Burr were all known entities, it has remained in full force. part unseen for 40 years, with the exception of a brief art-house made in 1982. Working from the original 35mm negative, Discovery Productions by John Alan Simon and Elizabeth Karr has since remastered and restored the film in 4k for a theatrically released in North America in early 2022 and a subsequent Blu-ray release.
“Bleak” describes the setting and events of the film well, and viewers should be cautioned: Out of the blue is not a special teenage afternoon triumph over adversity drama. In an era when most youth films reduced teenage dilemmas to awkward banalities or sexualized their young protagonists with makeover fantasies, Out of the blue treats his subject with frankness and respect. On screen for most of his odd 90 minutes, young Manz – who has only directed a handful of movies before a long hiatus – is formidable. Manz had been a magnetic screen presence as the younger sister and narrator of Terence Malick’s film. Days of paradise then as an androgynous pee-wee in the vagabonds before Out of the blue. (Sadly, Manz died of cancer in 2020, as restorations on Out of the blue were in progress.) Hers is a unique character too rarely seen on screen.
By focusing the film on Manz’s young “CeBe”, Hopper took an immense risk. Few of the films of the time (or since) dealt seriously with the confusion and chaos of puberty. CeBe lives with her mother, Kathy (Sharon Farrell), a waitress, while waiting for her father, Don (Hopper) to be released from his five-year prison sentence. In a heart-wrenching opening scene, Don crashes drunk – with CeBe in tow, dressed as a clown – his semi-trailer truck onto a school bus. And a movie that opens up about the deaths of innocent people will eventually crumble from there. If the crash happens unexpectedly, the narrative will take the characters into the dark.
Manz’s CeBe is caught in a whirlwind of turmoil. Her character worships Elvis as much as her father, but the naivety of the oldies that she sings to herself – especially “Teddy Bear” – betrays a dark and perverted secret about their relationship. Alternately sucking her thumb and terrorizing her classmates, young CeBe is caught between childhood and adulthood, with no one to show her how to navigate her teenage years. Her father is a drunken convict whose release offers no sign of remorse or redemption. Her mother is a facilitator with her own addictions. Adult men laugh at young CeBe and the other girls, seeing them only as potential sexual conquests. (Hopper’s skillful touch as a director is impressive as he silently traces a peeping slug looking at CeBe as the girls walk out of a movie theater.) It’s no wonder she runs away.
But freedom and liberation are fleeting, and CeBe is on the verge of being trafficked before he stumbles upon Vancouver’s burgeoning punk scene of the late 1970s. Here the briefly-large pointed sticks let CeBe wield the chopsticks, and for a while at least it looks like she might have found a way to express herself. In particular, the lawless, energetic, and “f * ck-it-all-and-do-it-yourself” philosophy of punk has given many young adolescents an outlet to reject their parents’ values and create their own culture. But for all the cause-less rebellious exuberance the scene offers, none of it impacts the crumbling, decaying family she hopes to reunite.
Family melodramas often present threats to the nuclear family unit, whether external or internal. But in them there is traditionally a presupposition that unity itself is worth preserving. In Out of the blue, the family unit – drunken Don, embossed Kathy, tormented CeBe – never really existed in harmony, not even before the accident that sent Don to jail. And there is no way that after his release they can be, as CeBe seems to want so much, happy to meet again. Don’s return is like lighting the fuse in a powder keg.
Moviegoers need to know what CeBe doesn’t know: that a Dennis Hopper character simply won’t make a father figure. Hopper’s anxieties, contractions, and stammers are fully visible as Don, a man who has to mend his past but doesn’t know how to do it. While CeBe clearly adores him – too much, it’s obvious – Hopper’s other tormented and manic roles of the time in movies like Enraged dog Morgan (1976), Tracks (1976), and American friend (1977), not to mention the drugged photojournalist later in Apocalypse now (1979) or the frightening Frank in Blue velvet (1986), are not far from his Don here. Days before his release from prison, Don is quick to hit the alcohol and outbreak plans: his presence is like a tornado vortex spinning out of control and pulling everyone – including CeBe – in its wake. .
Hopper was at the time of Out of the blue would have been plagued by its own addictions. The next year Human highway he would have snorted up to three grams of cocaine a day, according to Peter Biskind’s New Hollywood story Easy riders, raging bulls– sometimes hunted with a crate of beer, a handful of seals and a pitcher of free Cuba. Biography of Jimmy McDonough on Neil Young Shaky says Hopper cutting a Human highway co-star with his knife tricks on the set. Let me just say that Hopper is totally compelling and scary as a user who can’t control their mood, addictions, or urges.
As a director, however, and even plagued by his own addictions, Hopper’s eye is keen. Following the surprise success of the 1969s Easy rider, he had only one subsequent chance to achieve: an abstract business failure of the 1970s The last movie. Following that, and because of his behavior on the set in the 70s, no studio would consider entrusting him with the direction of a set. Corn Out of the blue demonstrates his talent, even under particularly difficult circumstances.
The film’s use of the music of the time is particularly acute. Hopper weaves together the lyrical content from his friend Neil Young “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)” from Rust never sleeps with its references to Elvis (“the king is gone but he is not forgotten”) and to punk (“This is the story of a Johnny Rotten / Better to burn than to rust”) with the fate of CeBe in a deeply touching and ultimately shocking way. That in the years that followed the title song gained even more seriousness, Lennon’s thoughts on this in his finale Playboy interview and Kurt Cobain quotes him in his suicide note, gives its use an ethereal and elegiac quality.
Elsewhere throughout the film, whether CeBe disguises himself as Elvis or Don shakes his employer’s apartment building, Hopper exhibits a keen sense of the striking visual image. And if like me you’ve been through the late 70s and switched to punks, or even for that matter if you haven’t, you’ll appreciate the details of her staging, from denim and hairstyles to the Walkman. Newly emerging punk cassette players and piercings, band buttons, motorcycle jackets and combat boots.
Today, films which feature the struggles of young women for self-fulfillment, especially in underprivileged backgrounds, are fortunately less rare than they were at the time of Out of the blue. Although Out of the blueThe protagonist of CeBe is younger than any of them, the young women of the Molly Smith Metzler Netflix series Maid, the neo-noir of the Appalachians by Nicole Reigel Bawl, or the wonderful documentary by Jessica Earnshaw Hyacinth (all published in 2021) all face fractured family dynamics and dire economic hardships. Along with these and a number of other films, Out of the blue, deemed too dark for its 1980 audience, has some meaning to be reconsidered in early 2022, both as a throwback to the punk era and to the kind of stories the film too often failed to tell in its past.
Out of the blue is slated to screen in a number of independent and arthouse theaters across the United States from January 2022. It is a treasure trove of North American independent cinema that fully deserves its remaster, restoration and its reissue. And it’s a visual treat to see the talented Manz onscreen again, even if that joy is tempered by the knowledge of her recent passing. Potential viewers, however, should be forewarned that the film’s final act is deeply disturbing and can trigger trauma, especially for those who have been victims of sexual assault or abuse.
For all its darkness, however, Out of the blue is a film that aims for a truth that will shatter the myth of the intact nuclear family. Deemed too dark to be published in 1980, Hopper’s richly structured study of childhood is worth seeing today, even if seeing it is in itself a traumatic experience. The adage of Neil Young that “it is better to burn out / than to disappear” is one of them. Out of the blue literally takes, and at its conclusion, as it takes us “into the dark” it makes it clear that “there is more to the picture / than it looks”.