Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Hey Punk

Dennis Hopper's take on family.

By Chris Herrington

JANUARY 24, 2000:  Those who dismiss Dennis Hopper as a junkie burnout or a mannered, insufferable bullshit artist (and with ample evidence on both counts) probably won’t have their minds changed by Out of the Blue. This long-out-of-circulation sleeper was Hopper’s third feature as director/star and is once again available on video with this wide-screen print.

Hopper made his directorial debut in 1969 with Easy Rider. It was a colossal commercial success and, in some quarters, a critical one. With its open embrace of youth culture and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, not to mention its documentary feel, it changed American cinema forever. In many ways it hasn’t aged well, but its inclusive, Woody Guthrie-esque patriotism has only deepened: When Hopper and Peter Fonda ride their motorcycles through Monument Valley to the tune of the Band’s “The Weight,” Easy Rider becomes a John Ford Western for a very different generation.

After Easy Rider, Hopper could do anything he wanted. He went to Peru to spend millions of studio money and two years filming and editing The Last Movie, a sort of drugged-out Western epic that won best feature at the prestigious Venice Film Festival but that was dead-on-arrival in U.S. theaters. The Last Movie, which has rarely been screened since, almost ruined Hopper’s career, and indeed, it was doubtful he would direct again.

His return to the director’s chair — nine years later with Out of the Blue was unexpected. Hopper, who signed on to act in the film, was given the reins shortly before shooting commenced, and he changed the film’s focus from a psychologist played by Raymond Burr to the coming of age of one of his patients, a troubled adolescent played by Linda Manz. The film, which might be accurately subtitled “Where Punk Comes From,” tapped into late-Seventies/post-Vietnam feelings of youth alienation and the bankruptcy of adult authority.

Out of the Blue opens in the past, as a prepubescent “CeBe” Barnes (Manz) rides in the cab of a semi with her truck driver father Don (Hopper). CeBe and Don flirt while they drive, with a physical intimacy that is perhaps a bit uncomfortable (or a bit too comfortable). They sing “Teddy Bear,” and Don asks his daughter, “Am I as sexy as Elvis?” Preoccupied with CeBe, Don doesn’t see a full school bus stalled in the middle of the road ahead, and he plows into it. The film depicts this excruciating event from inside the bus, shows kids running to the door, screaming, just as the truck makes contact. At the point of collision, CeBe wakes up. It is a memory revisited in a dream: It’s five years later and CeBe has entered adolescence.

Don has been in prison for the last five years because of the crash and is about to be paroled. While he’s gone, CeBe, who has discovered punk with a vengeance and who builds a shrine to Elvis in her bedroom, hangs out in the mangled cab of the truck, deserted in a field, only the CB radio working. Using the handle her father gave her, “Gorgeous,” the pre-teen girl indiscriminately harasses truck drivers, filling the airwaves with propaganda by dead-panning a litany of pet slogans: “Disco sucks,” “Kill all hippies,” “Pretty vacant,” and “Subvert normality.”

While dad’s in jail, CeBe’s insecure junkie mother waits tables in a local dive, sleeping with the owner and shooting heroin with Don’s best friend. CeBe sits in her room surrounded by punk fliers and Elvis posters. When the King dies, CeBe seems to equate his abandonment with that of her father, and Johnny Rotten. “Why’d you leave me?” she asks of her Elvis shrine. Stuck with an unstable home and the limits of small-town life, the punk-inspired CeBe runs away to the city, crashing a punk show and stealing a car. Caught, she agrees to come back home as her dad is about to be paroled — the promise of a return to family normalcy the chief drawing card.

For a while, the tone of a fucked-up-but-loving family makes Out of the Blue seem like a post-hippie John Cassavetes film, but gradually the darker impulses of the film come to fruition. It doesn’t take long for Don’s return to trigger a series of bad situations. At his coming home party, Don is confronted by the parent of a child he killed. This man gets Don fired from his job at the dump — the only job he’s able to get — and Don and a sinister friend later murder and rob the man. For CeBe, her father’s anticipated return triggers memories of earlier sexual abuse — no more heroes — and she lashes out in a couple of startling acts of violence

The film’s theme song (and title source) is Neil Young’s “Hey, Hey, My, My,” with its inspirational conflation of the death of Elvis and the coming of the Sex Pistols (“The King is gone but not forgotten/This is the story of Johnny Rotten”) and its ambiguously romantic nihilism (“Out of the blue and into the black.” Young’s on-the-verge-of-self-destructing quaver is the sonic equivalent of Hopper’s raw, burnout cinema — later in the film, Hopper’s character works at a garbage dump to the tune of Young’s apocalyptic, visionary “Thrasher,” from the same album, the 1978 career peak, Rust Never Sleeps.

The extremely low budget Out of the Blue is rambling and incoherent at times, but still extremely powerful — held together by Manz’ performance and the Rotten/Elvis/Neil Young axis (or is that Elvis/Hopper/corrupt fatherhood?). It amounts to a searingly eloquent myth about incest, both literal and metaphorical. In other words, where punk comes from.

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