By Christopher Sharrett.
Hopper’s is a surprisingly radical statement for a filmmaker known for his very inconsistent political thinking.”
What to say about Dennis Hopper? In his day he could be a pain in the neck, publicly brandishing his neuroses, failures, and addictions – in the new Severin edition of Out of the Blue, Brian Cox remarks in conversation (not very advisedly) that Hopper might have been a “tortured artist.” Posturing might have indeed been a major characteristic of this man. Yet Hopper strode across the postwar youth counterculture like few others. He was a friend to legendary James Dean, acting in two of the three films starring the perhaps equally self-destructive star: Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. After appearing on TV shows like The Rifleman, and getting into trouble with mainstream Hollywood figures like Henry Hathaway, he made a film that became an emblem of Sixties rebellion, Easy Rider. His friend Peter Fonda made people ready for new motorcycle outlaw films with Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, while Hopper appeared as a Sixties archetype, the acid guru in The Trip.
For a bit, it seemed that Easy Rider signaled a new American cinema, where filmmakers could ignore the dying studios and make films with independent support. Then Hopper made The Last Movie, a condemnation of Hollywood’s colonizing impulses, lambasted by the industry and reviewers as nonsensical and unreadable, a dishonest assessment since film audiences in the U.S. were long exposed to Bergman, Bunuel, and Godard, filmmakers who advanced non-linear film narrative. Hopper’s dismissal included everything he produced. He had gifts in various arts, including photography – his noteworthy collection is Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961-1967 (Taschen), less important for the portraiture than for the images of overbuilt, suffocating Los Angeles in the Sixties.
Hopper seemed nearly to vanish, suddenly resurrected as the babbling photojournalist (based loosely on the crazed Russian in Heart of Darkness, the uncredited source novel) in Apocalypse Now. In the Eighties, Hopper enjoyed a major comeback (as an actor) in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, and, perhaps most notably, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Tobe Hooper’s witty and intelligent comment on the Reagan era. These films established Hopper as something of a cult figure, although he entered the Hollywood mainstream with Hoosiers, and subsequently directed a number of industry movies, like Colors. Hopper’s truly distinguished film, Out of the Blue, made in Vancouver, British Columbia as work-for-hire at the cusp of the Reagan era, was virtually ignored due to Hopper’s exile. The project was work-for-hire, the original director dismissed, Hopper rethinking the script into one of the bleakest images of the postwar working class ever put on film.
Out of the Blue was restored a few years ago, and has been enjoying special screenings in art cinemas and university towns; it has been released on Blu-ray by BFI and the Severin edition. The film has been regarded by a few critics as a summary statement on the American decline after Vietnam and Watergate, but most seem to give cursory attention its core subject matter, the sexual abuse of pedophilia and incest by the male. The light touch afforded these subjects seems unusual given their centrality to recent public discourse and policy, as various male celebrities and state officials go to prison (in a few cases oddly exonerated) and as society and its workplaces enforce (or appear to) stringent rules of conduct about sexual behavior.
Out of the Blue ties pedophilia to male presumptions about sexual privilege, associated here with societal collapse and the end of male authority as the female takes revenge – in a sense, the film is a rethinking of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, the painter’s profound remark on male power’s evil and self-destruction. Hopper’s is a surprisingly radical statement for a filmmaker known for his very inconsistent political thinking (for a long period, he supported the Republicans, sending notes of advice to the despicable Newt Gingrich).
The film’s opening is remarkable, as the camera holds on a pastoral scene, with a large red barn filling the left portion of the frame. The image is slightly corrupted by a road in the foreground, a large tractor-trailer coming from the background toward us. The remains of bucolic America (and the future) about to be destroyed by industry. We go inside the truck’s cabin. The driver, Don Barnes (Hopper), wears a cowboy hat, swigs from a bottle, and romances a young girl we learn is Cindy “Cebe” Barnes (Linda Manz), his daughter. She wears grotesque clown make-up, another remark on why the clown is horrific rather than amusing. Don asks Cebe (named after the then-popular Citizen’s Band radio craze, adapted from truckers’ behavior, an earlier form of asocial “social media” that the film underlines as merely destructive) if he is “sexier than Elvis.” Utterly distracted, Barnes fails to see a school bus on a crossroad in front of his barreling truck. The image cuts to the interior of the bus, as children clad in Halloween costumes see the impending tragedy, one child, notably without a monster mask, cries as he walks in the bus’s aisle, a terrifying moment. The awful crash is shown in flashback twice during the film, the truck forming a “v” of the bus as the images reveal more horror with each repetition; the bloody driver and a child (obvious but effective mannequins) spill out of the door as the vehicle crumbles. The moment, an establishing sequence, encapsulates the entire film with its sense of the end of an innocent North America, as the young are destroyed by a perverse older generation (the topic of some of the distinguished horror films of the last decade, including Martyrs and Hereditary). The truck’s cab, or its remains, are preserved somewhere, partially covered by a tarp. Cebe uses it as her hideaway, where she places CB radio calls to truckers, her “handle” supplemented with punk rock slogans of the moment like “pretty vacant” and “kill all hippies” (more on punk rock below). Cebe, after her tough-girl punk slogans, creates a nest in the cab, cuddling her teddy bear as she sucks her thumb, one of her most important characteristics.
Linda Manz’s Cebe is at the center of the film, a nearly-abandoned and quite diminutive child, walking the streets and overpasses of Vancouver, looking about plaintively through a chain-link fence, the name “Elvis” worn as a large sequined patch on the back of her denim jacket. While Manz has been celebrated as an actor, I can sympathize with the character portrayed while withholding support for the performer, far too overvalued, in my judgment. James Dean has repeatedly been invoked in celebrating Manz, including by Manz herself, a fan of Dean. I see nothing of Dean’s languid yet highly controlled physical acting in Manz’s too-assertive performance, her loud, unmodulated Brooklyn accent simply a distraction, yet Cebe’s opposition in the world of the film necessarily draws sympathetic interest.
Cebe’s life in the narrative is betrayed almost immediately. Her mother Kathy (Sharon Farrell), a waitress at a local greasy spoon, wears a cowboy hat, adding misplaced local color. She caters to the sexual whims of her unkempt, hangdog boss Paul (Eric Allen), noted by Cebe. Kathy, seeing her daughter’s observation, gives her advice of the worst, patriarchal kind: she admonishes Cebe that there are “wild and sexy dancin’ men,” and there are “providers.” She gestures toward Paul with the last word. Although Don has been imprisoned for five years as a result of the bus crash, Kathy is emotionally dependent, changing not a whit when he is released. She is likewise dependent on Don’s friend Charlie (Don Gordon) for heroin, and, as we have seen, Paul for employment. Don and Charlie are doubtless the “wild dancin’ men” while Paul is a “provider,” yet the film is explicit that none of them contribute a whit to the well-being of anyone, and in fact bring on devastation.
Cebe’s conflation of rock at its beginning (Elvis) and its possible end (punk rock), is instructive, given that one argument about punk is that it was rock culture’s attempt to preserve and reinvigorate itself, as the rebels of a new generation tried to wrest rock music from corporate culture.”
Kathy’s instruction to her daughter would be understandable were her acquiescence not so complete, and without qualification, as she explains the patriarchal way of the world to Cebe – her situation represents, to her mind, the way things are. The working-class world, as conceived here by Hopper, is without consciousness (making one think about the working class in the Trump era), nor is there a sense of a past sexual/economic awareness extinguished by current circumstances. The narrative takes place, it appears, in 1979 (concurrent with the making of the film). The world of rock and roll becomes a key temporal indicator.
Cebe walks alone, often humming Elvis Presley songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” also heard by a bad imitator diegetically, the songs coming through Cebe’s tape recorder. Presley died in 1977, an event that preoccupies Cebe, who feels Presley “left” her, along with the more-recently (1979) deceased punk rock hero Sid Vicious, of the Sex Pistols, perhaps the most famous of the punk groups. Cebe has made an altar to Presley, composed of photos from magazines pasted to her bedroom wall – the room also contains a drum set and electric guitar, neither of which can Cebe play. Like the photos of Elvis, the instruments have fetish value as reminders of loss. The loss includes Don, the absent father, seen in a photo on Cebe’s dresser, wearing a motorcycle cap associated with Elvis and Marlon Brando, once a hero of youth rebellion. The photo connotes “rebellion” to Cebe, who is blind to some of rock’s attachments to the rule of the father.
Cebe’s conflation of rock at its beginning (Elvis) and its possible end (punk rock), is instructive, given that one argument about punk is that it was rock culture’s attempt to preserve and reinvigorate itself, as the rebels of a new generation tried to wrest rock music from corporate culture. Cebe would seem to embody the rebellious youth sensibility from Fifties to the time of the film’s making. The conflation of Elvis and punk is elsewhere; the cabbie who takes Cebe, without her knowledge, to the brothel, acknowledges Cebe’s interests by saying “Elvis was the first punk,” a mistaken notion, but a way of valorizing The King in death. There are many misperceptions – or deliberate ignorance – about Elvis Presley, who in his early public years displayed monumental talent with and understanding of popular music. Presley was a Southern conservative, who for a time projected defiant social attitudes (although there is no evidence that his defiance was conscious) by his limp-wrist poses, longish hair, stage gyrations, and mascara. We note that Cebe’s allegiances contain no prospect for her own liberation, and certainly not that of her world, from its deadly assumptions. Given the fate of Cebe and her family, it’s reasonable to emphasize the film’s apocalyptic sensibility, as it dismisses any attempt at the new society dreamt of by the postwar counterculture that embraced rock.
Cebe’s flat singing of “Heartbreak Hotel,” the song in the original an example, as Greil Marcus once noted, of Fifties “cool jazz” influencing rock, is rendered by Elvis in at first triumphant, then morose, defeated tones, may be a good accompaniment to social defeat. “Teddy Bear,” on the other hand, refers to the infantilization surrounding Cebe and her world for all the tough postures. The idea of punk as a remedy, and a reassertion of rock in its early, primeval form is misleading. The punk catchphrases that fascinate Cebe, like “kill all hippies,” contain nihilism at best, since punk, based on historical traces, proposed little more than a social/political retreat vaster than anything in the tune in, turn on, drop out Sixties. Punk becomes another sign of the mistaken tendency to substitute cultural trends for political activity, even as punk published its magazines, hortatory but aimless pamphlets, and album liner notes.
Elvis and punk are tentatively knit together by the main theme, written by Hopper friend Neil Young: “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue).” Young sings “My, my, hey, hey, rock and roll is here to stay/The King is gone but he’s not forgotten/this is the story of Johnny Rotten.” The movement from the vital to the dissolute seems basic to rock’s story, not only in the trajectory of the genres but in the individual narrative. Cebe’s Elvis altar contains a number of pictures of the clean-cut Elvis of the terrible Sixties films, films that, made Presley “physically ill” (as he said) when he came to the studios each day, a point ignored in the recent, obscene Baz Luhrman extravaganza, Elvis.
We might note here that the obscenity of Elvis flows, as usual, from ignoring the base tragedy of Presley’s life. His talent presided over the mid-to-late Fifties, but was throttled with his time in the Army (which his management imposed on him), followed by the endless bad films that “cleaned up” his image – the sideburns and long hair were gone. In the Seventies, he toured endlessly, became a Las Vegas fixture – a very antiseptic one, clad in white or black jumpsuits that served his karate movements and other gyrations. Gone were the androgyny and Black southern culture that made him a threat to the older white audience two decades earlier. Drugs and bad diet, features of his life since early stardom, finally took his frustrated life, Presley dead in his bathroom at 42. Far from a story of the self-made man, Presley was about escape from dire poverty and paralyzing fear of returning to it.
Hopper captures some of this tragedy in a scene of Cebe watching a homeless man/street performer, clad in a filthy, improvised jump suit, his boom-box playing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” a representative Elvis ballad whose refrain one must answer in the affirmative. The deranged man is accompanied by a similarly-dressed, impaired little man on crutches. The promise of rock is succinctly summarized in these images.
The scene in the punk club, featuring the Vancouver group Pointed Sticks, whose drummer allows Cebe to momentarily play his drums, produces the only smile she allows. The scene is celebratory, the moment when Cebe is embraced by others, giving her some relief and the possibility of a way forward. She is still smiling for a few moments backstage, even as the camera shows people falling on each other, a male punk groping a female, as the general pandemonium basic to Hopper’s mise en scene takes over. Punk gives an accent to the atrocities perpetrated on Cebe and her mother.
Early in the film, Kathy enjoys bowling with Paul. She is a bit overly-happy at her early successes with the game; her joy is exploited by Paul, who looks forward to using Kathy’s joy to his sexual advantage. Meanwhile, Charlie and his reptilian pal Glen (Glen Pfiefer) sit at the snack bar, middle-aged men who assume their intentions are invisible as they eye the early-teen girls, who return their gaze with the innocence of the young. Charlie raps his fingers on the counter as he directs the attention of Glen to the body of one of the girls, the offspring of a woman who, in their early days, was a subject of sexual conquest. Glen is impressed, then directs Charlie’s gaze to Cebe; Charlie is immediately taken by the sexual maturity of his old pal’s daughter (“Yeaaaaahhh!). A climate of predation was never more successfully achieved. But Cebe shows no interest when Charlie attempts a too-obvious seduction at a pinball machine – the game emphasizes the age difference of the two. As a way of breaking the ice, Charlie comments on Cebe’s facial scar – caused by her father’s truck accident.
Charlie switches to Kathy, putting his hands all over her, while pretending it’s all friendly horseplay. He berates Kathy, who says she misses Don (“Yeah, you miss him so fucking much you don’t wear your wedding ring!”). The competitor, Paul, interrupts. Paul calls Don an “asshole” as he leaves. Kathy is perturbed that Paul should make trouble for “Donnie’s best friend.” The issues here are many, including the sexual allegiances of people without principle, the introduction of pedophilia as part of the everyday, the idea (a very old one) of the female as trophy. Yet, consideration is due Kathy – up to a point, as we shall see – the working-class woman fending for herself in a culture of predation.
Don’s release from jail introduces the degrading final chapter, as he is greeted with a drunken party, which includes the father of a boy Don killed in the truck smash-up. Don pours liquor over his head, calling himself an “asshole,” the word a synonym for a fool, a coward, or, more likely, an impotent “loser,” and therefore feminine, in modern Trumpian parlance. This is the extent of male self-examination, in any case. Don, still an obvious alcoholic, gets a job working heavy equipment in a garbage dump, which is always ransacked by seagulls, an emblem for the permanence of parasitism, of feeding on a dead world. The father of the dead boy gets Don fired; Don retaliates by destroying the tumbledown shack that is the main office. He further retaliates by murdering the father, with Charlie’s help.
Don’s return is notable, with Hopper’s face looking drawn and creased, his oily hair dark. He is comfortable with Charlie at the drunken, male-dominated coming-home party, but fails horribly in the traditional role of husband/father – Don takes wife and daughter to the beach on a cold, blustery day. The moment ends fast, with embittered language from Kathy. Patterns of behavior remain; Cebe sits between mother and father in the front seat of their convertible, but snuggles against Don. Don meets her at school, where the two flirt, then drive off, simulating the postures of the bus crash, Don still apparently “as sexy as Elvis” in Cebe’s eyes. The daughter finds various modes of self-destruction; her mother focuses her rage – passively – at everything about her except the male.
All is revealed in the final, drunken party involving Don, Charlie, and Kathy. Questions arose early on about Don’s sexuality; he is comfortable with the loutish Charlie and other male hangers-on, not with women. In this, Out of the Blue follows the traces of male homosexuality, with their idea that only the emotions and interaction of men are important, since the male genres began, Howard Hawks most representative. Some of the sexual encounters in the final, miniature bacchanal are unnerving – I don’t hesitate to say disgusting, and one of Hopper’s most courageous gestures. As Don makes himself the solitary, sloppy drunk in the kitchen, Charlie abuses Kathy in the next room. He scoops her left breast out of her soiled nightgown and jams his hand into her vagina (a question here must be Sharon Farrell’s acceptance of all aspects of this role – even if she did, the part never stops short of defiling the character, nor does it offer dignity to actor or characterization).
As the miniature orgy proceeds downstairs, replete with concerns about a violation of conservative gender conformity even as the wife is raped (Kathy is upset, so she says through her drunken haze, that Cebe might “become a dyke”). Enforcing traditional roles is revealed as deadly. Meanwhile, up in her room, Cebe indeed enacts transformations, going from her little-girl nightie, with teddy bear, to an Elvis/punk simulation, as she puts on a very oversized motorcycle jacket and greases her hair back into a ducktail hairdo of the Fifties (this moment is the film’s trademark still, the instance where traditional gender performance is violated). Don and Charlie pound on her door, with the apparent (they are too drunk for us to be sure) intent of raping her, thus saving her from “being a dyke”). Alarmingly, Cebe thinks she can defend herself (“come on in you muthafuckahs!”) with a chair, its legs pointed at the door. The assault dissolves, as Charlie drifts away (out of alarm over what he sees?), and Don hardly able to stagger. He proscribes things: the toy truck on Cebe’s dresser dropped to the floor (the dream of putting the rig back together revealed as nonsense), the pictures of Elvis and the punk rockers angrily dismissed.
Out of the Blue is indeed encompassed by apocalypticism, a not-uncommon ideology of the last half-century’s art, especially in genres like the horror and crime cinemas. Rather than confront and try to end the paralyzing political-economic system that causes us much pain, the response has been, often with the pretense of radicalism, ‘what’s the use?’”
The penultimate, startling moment has Cebe back in her nightie and on her bed, Don kneeling on the floor beside her. Cebe urges him to “remember” by shoving his face between her legs to “get a good smell.” She reaches for a pair of scissors, and, pushing Don backwards, slashes his throat, producing a gusher of blood. Our shock might be qualified: the moment indeed seems “out of the blue,” but perhaps because abuse has for so long been internalized; her rage has never displaced her idealization of her father, but neither has her rage dissipated over the years of oppression and abuse. We might recall too that Cebe’s experience of love, from any person, seems non-existent.
She, in the next moment, coaxes her mother to the derelict truck, where she has stashed sticks of dynamite purloined by Don from the garbage dump in an earlier scene. Cebe now sports a large safety pin through her left cheek, done by herself we must assume, the pain of the act perhaps ignored, as what is left of her affect dissolves. Once in the truck, Kathy expresses discomfort and outrage – she continues the image of the helpless female “hysteric,” always at someone’s mercy, as Cebe begins another punk discourse “When Sid Vicious left, he took his loved ones with him.” A fuse burns, the truck explodes. The family is destroyed in fire.
Out of the Blue is indeed encompassed by apocalypticism, a not-uncommon ideology of the last half-century’s art, especially in genres like the horror and crime cinemas. Rather than confront and try to end the paralyzing political-economic system that causes us much pain, the response has been, often with the pretense of radicalism, “what’s the use?” A total destruction of humanity – and the earth itself – seems to give many solace, and the spectacle of mass destruction (in the visual arts) is enjoyable (Bunuel’s famous remark that it is “fun to watch things blow up and burn,” suggesting an appeal at the deeply unconscious level) and consoling. Hopper’s film seems radical, a dismissal of the father, family, and depraved civilization, at the beginning of Reagan, with John Lennon murdered, suggesting to many at the time the end of idealism. By now, I think, we can see the virtues of a film as provocative as Hopper’s, while understanding that we need art that inspires other, hopeful views of human relations.
Christopher Sharrett is a Contributing Editor of Film International. He is Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at Seton Hall University and his most recent book is Breaking Bad (TV Milestones, Wayne State UP, 2022).