Kansas-born actor and director Dennis Hopper had an incredibly illustrious but volatile career after debuting in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. Hopper worked with star James Dean for a second time on Giant, and these two encounters had a massive influence on his acting style and artistic expression. Over the course of five decades, Hopper shaped his oeuvre around playing characters who, in many ways, reflect darker, more exaggerated elements of his own life: the rambling, alcoholic father in Rumble Fish; the violent and sadistic gangster of Blue Velvet; the sleazy, wild B-movie director of The Blackout. Hopper was known to give erratic performances that very much reflected his unpredictable life, which was plagued by addiction and controversy.
Most commonly, Hopper is remembered for his work with Peter Fonda on the 1969 counterculture classic Easy Rider, a film that sees both men ride across America in search of freedom. A combination of influences informs Easy Rider: the hazy, drug-fueled malaise of the ‘60s and the popularity of French New Wave aesthetics in cinema at that time, from jump cuts to handheld cameras. Easy Rider’s success as an independent film helped to form what would become known as New Hollywood — a period during which studios would allot large budgets to young directors, along with nearly full creative control, including such names as George Lucas, Miloš Forman, and of course Hopper. This opportunity of unbridled freedom allowed Hopper to make The Last Movie, a metafictional acid Western that virtually ended his career and sent him into Hollywood exile.
During the following decade, Hopper worked mostly in world cinema, with a starring role in Wim Wender’s beautiful and elliptical crime drama The American Friend, and a turn as a rebellious bushranger in Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan — Hopper directed no films himself during those years. It wasn’t until he started acting in a Canadian drama — originally titled No Looking Back, but now known as Out of the Blue — that he would be able to take control behind the camera once again. At one point, the film was almost scrapped due to the removal of its original director, Leonard Yakir; instead of letting the production fail, though, Hopper took the reins, in the process morphing the script from a lighter drama about the reformation of a rebellious teen to a darker, social-realist film. The film’s title was taken from Neil Young’s melancholic rock ballad “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” a track that accompanies the film’s images like a haunting specter.
Out of the Blue is a work boiling over with youthful rage, all harnessed by its kinetic lead character, Cebe (Linda Manz), a 15-year-old punk who idolizes Elvis Presley and is constantly lashing out at the institutional systems that have failed her. Hopper conducts the film entirely through Cebe’s perspective, even basing many of its narrative elements around Manz herself (Out of the Blue was her second film, after Days of Heaven a few years prior). We follow Cebe as she navigates a precarious period of adolescence, growing up in a broken home, with only punk music to guide her. Aside from visits to prison to see her alcoholic father, Don (Hopper), with her mother, Kathy (Sharon Farrell) — who constantly battles to raise her troubled daughter as a single parent — Cebe mostly wanders through the first half of Out of the Blue in a kind of listless haze. Then, after a whirlwind of events that escalate feelings of alienation, Cebe hitchhikes to the chaotic streets of inner city Vancouver.
Cebe only finds true solace in one scene — at a Pointed Sticks show that she attends whilst roaming Vancouver. She’s surrounded by a sea of punks who feel just as lost as she does, and through this collectivity — the crowd’s buzz of energy and communal spirit clearly articulated — she experiences a moment of warmth. It’s a brief snapshot in time where nothing else matters, where the freedom and joys Hopper captured in Easy Rider return to a new generation of rebels. This respite serves to alleviate the heaviness of the film’s darker moments; an outstretched hand amidst Out of the Blues’ many miseries. It’s a moving, remarkable scene — plenty of directors have attempted to capture punk aesthetics on screen, but few have ever demonstrated an understanding of the vitality and community of a punk show like Hopper does here.
Cebe’s link to a certain punk ethos is obvious after just the first five minutes of Out of the Blue, when she starts chanting, “disco sucks, kill all hippies.” Through Cebe, viewers can see Hopper reflecting on his own past and the disdain that the younger generation feels for his era. She signifies a new youth, a new era of counterculture that does not understand or care about the “glory days” that Hopper would have known, one that sees through the lies they were told and recognizes the promises that never came true. This new generation has seen their lives neglected by their families and by institutional systems alike; now, they turn to something more aggressive and socially disruptive.
About halfway through Out of the Blue, the film suddenly shifts gears into something even more harrowing — right around when Cebe’s father, Don, is released from prison. What had been a youthful reflection on cultural malaise spins out into a bleak social drama about addiction and abuse, with Hopper’s portrayal as Don — a failing father whose alcoholic rage overflows into violence — acting as a heightened reflection of the director’s own substance abuse problems, which haunted him until his eventual turn to sobriety in the mid-’80s. To be clear, Out of the Blue is very much Linda Manz’s film — she commands each scene with great force — but it’s Hopper’s fragmented performance, as a man for whom a loveable appearance only masks a sociopathic nature, that fuels things during a distressing final act.
Hopper’s films frequently see everything end — abruptly — in chaos and fire. The intergenerational conflict, whether it’s between ‘60s hippies and old conservatives, or aging hippies and young punks, becomes too much for society to handle, to the point where it can only lead to destruction. Out of the Blue captures this dissolution of counterculture, in a country growing ever more fractured and individualistic, in a brutal, yet poetic, way. Raging Bull is often cited as the final nail in the coffin for New Hollywood, but even despite being a Canadian film, Out of the Blue actually serves as a much more profound death knell: a pessimistic, realistic anticipation of a coming future. Or, as Neil Young sings it, Out of the Blue suggests that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 20.