Trouble Up North: Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue

By Kate Rennebohm

While parental absence is a key trope of so many of the Spielberg(ian) youth films of 1980s Hollywood cinema—not only E.T. (1982), but also The Outsiders (1983), Explorers (1985), The Goonies (1985), Stand by Me (1986), The Monster Squad (1987), et al.—the aloneness of the young protagonists is always more a matter of narrative pretext than actual subject. Loneliness in these boy-centric films is only the necessary condition for the characters’ adventures, and is quickly remedied by burgeoning (male-only) friendships, parental reconciliations, or both. It’s thus all the more interesting to note the emergence of a series of independent films from the same period, all of them orbiting around young female characters—including Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark’s documentary Streetwise (1984), Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985), and Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping (1987)—in which loneliness is something far more pervasive: an index of initiating absences, privations, and worse things yet that cannot be repaired by a redemptive return to the bosom of companionship or familial love, even were such things to be forthcoming.

Such is the plight of Linda Manz’s CeBe (née Cindy), the 14-year-old protagonist of Dennis Hopper’s shattering Out of the Blue (1980), a directorial highpoint for the filmmaker and artist. A punk-loving, swaggering androgyne on the verge of pubescence, CeBe was initially conceived by the film’s original director and co-writer Leonard Yakir in the mold of your traditional troubled youth, whose fraught family situation was to be overcome by the intervention of a caring psychiatrist (Raymond Burr). This version of the character died a week into the film’s Vancouver-based production, when Yakir was fired by the film’s producers after they deemed his footage unusable, and Hopper—a decade into his Hollywood exile following the critical and commercial disaster of The Last Movie (1971), and already on board the production in the role of CeBe’s ex-con dad, Don—seized the opportunity to get behind the camera once more. Loosely rewriting the film’s script over a weekend, and taking inspiration from Manz’s musical abilities and Neil Young’s controversial, punk-inspired 1978 song “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue),” Hopper created a film that is, to put it mildly, quite different from what the tax shelter-seeking producers had envisioned as a movie-of-the-week. One can only imagine the reaction when the backers viewed the opening flashback of Hopper’s drinking Don, with a younger CeBe next to him in his big rig’s passenger seat, driving full-speed into a stalled school bus full of doomed, screaming children.

Perhaps it was inevitable then that distributors would abandon the film upon completion (this after Canada withdrew its national sponsorship from the film’s premiere at Cannes), consigning it to temporary obscurity. A limited theatrical run in the US two years later, as well as the circulation of low-res video copies of the film by devotees, eventually won Out of the Blue a cult following that includes Richard Linklater, Sean Penn, Harmony Korine, Chloë Sevigny, and Natasha Lyonne—the latter two of whom were helpful in raising the Kickstartered funds for the film’s new digital restoration by Discovery Productions, which has been doing the festival rounds prior to a theatrical release this fall.

Looking back on Out of the Blue in 2011, J. Hoberman described the film’s deeply distressing portrait of life in America at the end of the ’70s as “genuinely alarming,” and that alarm has not lessened with the passage of time: if anything, Hopper’s unsparing vision of catastrophe both personal (in Don’s struggles with drugs and alcohol, a mirror of Hopper’s own notorious dissolution) and social (in the matter-of-fact acknowledgement of economic stagnation, rampant joblessness, and general collapse in the belief of a better future) is all too au courant in our present age of emergency. Following that harrowing opening, Out of the Blue’s first half focuses on CeBe and her mother, Kathy (a great Sharon Farrell), who have achieved something like an equilibrium during Don’s resulting incarceration—albeit one that involves Kathy dividing her attention between her waitressing job and her heroin habit, while generally leaving her daughter to her own devices. Said devices mainly consist of the teen broadcasting punk slogans like “Subvert normality” and “Kill all hippies” into the two-way radio in her father’s busted truck (which now lies stranded on the front lawn of their broken-down house), dressing up as Elvis in her bedroom while making guitar feedback and venerating Sid Vicious, or strutting around town with friends and sizing up older boys and rules alike as not worth their time. More often than not, though, CeBe is alone, keeping herself company with a running monologue delivered in Manz’s indelible accent (about a randomly sighted plant: “Pretty, but not ed-uh-ble”).

One night, fed up with her mother’s drug-induced abandonments, CeBe hitchhikes to the city, wandering through remarkable location-shot sequences of downtown Vancouver and its then-nascent punk scene. Taking advantage of Manz’s lack of actorly self-consciousness, Hopper adopts an improvisational approach that allows his lead to react in real time to the strange and often chaotic events around her, most notably when the drummer for the Vancouver punk band Pointed Sticks invites her to briefly take his spot during a packed show. If punk idolized authenticity, Manz comes as close as anyone could to embodying that ideal as she slides behind the drums and briefly looses a dazzled smile, void of either irony or guile.

However, Out of the Blue is quick to remind us that such moments are fleeting, brief respites from the threatening landscapes, both psychological and physical, that CeBe inhabits. Indeed, her sojourn through the city night increasingly reveals her vulnerability to dangers that are beyond her control: at one point, she tries to sleep in a brothel she’s followed a cabbie to, curling into a thumb-sucking fetal position only to have to fight off a sexual attack a few minutes later. This sequence speaks with brutal directness to the original sense of the term “loneliness” when it first emerged in the English language during the 16th century: not feelings of isolation or estrangement, but rather a site too far away from others, and the harm that could be found there.

If the Vancouver sequence illustrates CeBe’s loneliness as a state of actual material precarity, one could view the film entire as a site for the lingering damage inflicted on her psyche by prior events: CeBe’s urban escapade concludes with her driving a group of twentysomethings in a stolen car, their (implied) crash replaced at the moment of impact with a shocking return to that opening flashback, Hopper now letting the scene unfold with horrifying leisure as we witness the female bus driver being dragged to death while metal rends and children cry. In less overt ways, this formative event reverberates through the film from start to finish, whether in CeBe’s need to psychically colonize the cab of the truck that nearly killed her, or in her constant singing of the song she was warbling during the fatal crash (a different version of which plays on the soundtrack as CeBe hops her ride into town).

In defiance of these subliminal callbacks to her moment of trauma—though the revelation of an even more horrific one awaits us at film’s end—CeBe confidently announces to Burr’s state-assigned (and, as it will turn out, utterly impotent) psychiatrist that everything will be fine when her father comes home. When Don does return to CeBe and Kathy, he promptly takes his place in a long line of American pipe dreamers à la Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh or Stacy Keach’s washed-up pug in John Huston’s Fat City (1972), making drunken pronouncements about getting his rig fixed up even as he is compelled to take a job at the local landfill—that is, until the father of one of the children he killed gets him fired. Never on sturdy ground to begin with, the family’s semi-earnest but wholly inept attempts at “having a good time” crumble after this, as Kathy, Don, and Don’s equally soused friend Charlie (Don Gordon) sink into intoxication and screaming matches while CeBe barricades herself in her bedroom.

Given Hopper’s prioritizing of improvisation in his direction, these sequences foregrounding the adult performers make for a nervy mix of halting staginess and ever-rising chaos and mania, typically captured in the middle distance by the otherwise roving, restless camera (which generally stays at a remove from those characters who aren’t CeBe). This tension between determined choice and heedless abandon finds an unfortunate but unavoidable correlate in the onscreen presence of Hopper, visibly in the throes of worsening offscreen addictions. The echoes between Don’s spiralling abdication of personhood in the film’s late scenes and Hopper’s faltering consciousness as a performer imbue the careening narrative with a uniquely perturbing sense of impending cataclysm. In Out of the Blue, it truly seems like no one is in control of this world or capable of intervening in the fate of its lonesome protagonist, locked in her bedroom and waiting for a deliverance that will never arrive.

The last 20 or so minutes of Out of the Blue, which are some of the more punishing in the annals of American cinema, chronicle the now completely gone Sharon, Don, and Charlie mounting a series of horrifying incursions into CeBe’s bedroom: the first following on from Don’s plan to have Charlie rape CeBe so as to stop her from “becoming a dyke,” the second a final showdown between Don and CeBe wherein CeBe furiously acknowledges her preadolescent sexual abuse at Don’s hands, ultimately dispatching him with a pair of scissors. The intensity of this scene, with its unmitigated homophobia and misogyny (the latter echoing Hopper’s more cartoonish pronouncements of the same sentiments in The American Dreamer, L.M. Kit Carson’s 1971 doc about the making of The Last Movie) is not only matched, but exceeded by CeBe’s final act: leading Kathy out to the decrepit big rig, she lights the fuse on a stick of dynamite (stolen by Don from the landfill) as they sit in the cab. While it burns, she notes indifferently that this is a punk gesture (“It doesn’t mean anything”), and that Don knew more about punk than Kathy does: like Sid Vicious, he at least knew enough to take his loved ones with him.

While, on the one hand, Out of the Blue’s explosive conclusion expresses Hopper’s admiration for a movement that professed its preference for blowing everything up rather than clinging to hopeless dreams of change, it also finds a seemingly unlikely middle ground between the outré mores of punk and the moral vision of the Western, a genre that Hopper had played in frequently throughout the ’50s and ’60s before he self-reflexively exploded it with The Last Movie. Punk music had never been immune to the charms of country aesthetics (with the Mekons’ 1985 album Fear and Whiskey only the most explicit instance of the former embracing the latter), but Out of the Blue finds a more unexpected overlap between the anarchistic musical genre and the essentially conservative cinematic genre in the figure of the cowboy. Where that liminal figure had long embodied the fantasy of the individual as law incarnate, unifying human justice and a higher moral justice in the performance of righteous violence, the film’s conclusion sees CeBe recasting this figure in her own punk image.

Of course, CeBe’s self-annihilation as corollary of the cowboy’s virtuous violence carries none of the romantic self-sacrifice of the Western myth: if there is something like justice in her final act, it is ultimately a condemnation of the world she moves in rather than a redemption of it. Yet, in light of our current moment—in which our ever-greater awareness of endemic social ills lives side by side with an ever-greater consciousness of our inability to correct them—it’s hard to resist the idea of CeBe as some kind of genuine heroine: a girl who, in refusing to confuse loneliness with paralysis, at least opts to take some perpetrators of pain with her.