Dead End America

On Dennis Hopper and Linda Manz's 1980 'Out of the Blue'

Following news of the death of Linda Manz yesterday at age 58, I’m publishing the text of a lecture I gave in Antwerp, Belgium on July 10, 2019, after a screening of one of the films on which Manz’s legacy safely rests, Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980). This talk was part of the annual Zomer Film College series, a long-running screening and lecture series in Antwerp. (Those so inclined can read my talk on Jim Van Bebber’s 1988 Deadbeat at Dawn, from the same event, here.) Out of the Blue was playing in a program called “The Shady ‘80s,” dedicated to “alternative” American cinema of the period; the other strand of the series was dedicated to the films of Roberto Rossellini, which should explain my opening comments. Out of the Blue was programmed as a work representative of portrayals of punk rock in North American cinema, and so the breadth of what’s discussed below is rather wider than the film itself—some of the material covered, or a very close variation on it, can be found in my 2019 discussion of Penelope Spheeris’s “punk” films at Criterion. The following was not written as a eulogy for Manz, per se, but as an attempt to understand and express the spirit of a film entirely unimaginable without her.

One of the pleasures of going back and forth between screenings in the two sections of this Zomer Film College series has been finding affinities between movies—not only among the titles in the “Shady ‘80s” section, but between those movies and the films by Roberto Rossellini. I was struck yesterday, for example, by the rapport between the scene in Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance (1981) in which he’s bouncing off the walls of his apartment while stoned on Quaaludes and the first segment of Rossellini’s L’Amore (1948), based on Jean Cocteau’s one-act La Voix humaine, which has Anna Magnani dangling on the end of a phone line, suffering through the end of her affair. And now we have Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue, which is, I think, closer to the Rossellini of Germany, Year Zero (1948).

Like many films in the Shady ‘80s series, Out of the Blue is concerned on some level with addressing the problem of realism, of conveying the texture peculiar to a certain place—the United States—at a certain time. And invaluable here is the presence of actress Linda Manz, one of the realest existential presences in American movies, then or ever. Following her on her solitary peregrinations, we find Hopper employing several winding and quite complex sequence shots. Some of this might be the exuberance of a man freshly out of movie jail—we’ll get to that in a bit—but it also serves to ground us in the physical facts of the environment that his young protagonist wanders through, un-looked after. And environment is key, for this, like Germany, Year Zero, is a film concerned with the psychological pressures that life in a still-smoldering warzone inflicts on the mind of a young person left to their own devices.

The U.S. experienced no Dresden; our wounds have been subtler and self-inflicted, over time. In Hopper’s movie, there’s been no actual war, but the setting is the rubble of an unspecified cultural catastrophe—the image of the garbage dump where Hopper’s character finds work here replaces that of a shelled-out cityscape. Manz’s Cebe, a tomboy whose radio handle is, paradoxically, the highly femme “Gorgeous,” is a child of the wreckage, with no outlet for her imagination beyond greasy spoon diners and bowling alleys. She’s still a kid in many ways—she carries a teddy bear and sucks her thumb—but she’s taken on the outward trappings of a street tough, the leather jacket and double-denim worn as armor. In a backwater, shit-kicker, country-and-western town, Cebe is a punk rocker—seemingly the only one around.

The significance of “punking out” as a rebellious gesture may be somewhat lost today. In 2013, the theme for the Met Ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was “punk rock,” timed to an exhibition called ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture.’ Sienna Miller wore a studded motorcycle jacket by Burberry. Miley Cyrus spiked her hair. Ivanka Trump wore a spring green Juan Carlos Obando gown. Among the attractions at the gallery show itself was a reproduction of the infamously foul CBGBs bathroom, where tourists might imagine a dopesick Dee Dee Ramone slumped in the bog.

If this doesn’t seem to have a great deal to do with Out of the Blue, or with the absolute abjection that is at the center of it—the emotional and geographical isolation and extreme sexual trauma endured by a fifteen-year-old girl who finally is driven to a murder-suicide—or the idea of punk rock that plays a role in the film as an escape from that abjection, that’s because it doesn’t, and part of what I want to talk about is how we got from one to another. What punk means, what it meant, and what particularly it might have meant to a walking wounded teenage girl in this particular town, in this particular movie.

The first Stooges record is fifty years old this year, and we’ve had a great deal of time to acclimate ourselves to the threat posed by the music and performance style it helped to introduce, and everything that followed in its wake. We’re talking about 1980 with Out of the Blue, and it would behoove us to turn back the clock a bit to understand where we’re at now, and where this movie came from—not, I should say, from out of the blue. When I was a teenager in the 1990s I was completely absorbed in punk and hardcore music, and there was a ‘zine called Profane Existence which billed itself as “Making Punk a Threat Again.” What I’m proposing to do is exactly that—to relocate the threat.

We’re here to talk about punk cinema in the light of Out of the Blue, but before we begin it’s important to get a grip on what we’re talking about when we talk about punk. It’s a somewhat slippery term because it’s at one and the same time a musical style— “punk rock”—and also an ethos. As a musical idiom, it has some more-or-less identifiable characteristics. We might say that these are an adherence to the small band model of early rock n’ roll (pared down from the jump blues combos that preceded it), a certain prioritizing of speed and of provocation in lyrical content and, in the early years, at least, a de-prioritization of musical ultra-proficiency, which came suddenly to seem a demerit—there is a somewhat famous illustration from the ‘zine Sideburns, the text of which read “This is a chord… This is another… This is a Third… Now start a band” which epitomizes the leveling, amateur-friendly spirit of punk. Even here, though, things aren’t cut and dry: bands like The Screamers and Metal Urbain and Suicide didn’t use rock instrumentation, but they’re still punk, aren’t they? Complicating matters further is the sartorial aspect—especially prevalent in the English scene, where Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s King’s Road boutique SEX played a crucial role as staging ground—but if you try to define punk along those lines, you’ll get bogged down pretty quickly: clean-cut straightedge hardcore kids; dirt-dreaded, patch-covered crust punks; liberty spiked UK street punks; and black-clad death rockers are all playing music that spun off from the punk explosion, but none of them are uniformed even remotely alike.

So that takes us to the ethos. Richard Hell, the frontman of the Voidoids, who those of you who’re sticking around to watch Smithereens (1982) tonight will get to see as an actor, once called Robert Bresson’s The Devil Probably “by far the most punk movie ever made.” Now, Bresson’s movie was released in 1977, that annus mirabilis of punk—and also the year of Elvis Presley’s death, much bemoaned by Cebe—but its characters are longhairs and there’s no electrified rock music heard in the entire movie, so if it can be “punk,” it’s clear that we’re dealing with one definition of punk that can only very obliquely be related to 1960s garage rock or whatever other tree of influences you want to dig down to the root of. The late English writer Mark Fisher blogged under the name of “K-Punk,” writings recently collected in one voluminous doorstop volume, and though punk rock per se was only occasionally the subject of Fisher’s writing, he made no secret of the fundamental influence of punk on his worldview—punk being defined by Fisher as an act of abnegation, of refusing to come to terms with things as they are. Greil Marcus wrote an entire book, 1989’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, in an effort to connect the dots between Dadaism, the Lettrist International, the Situationist International, and the Sex Pistols’ anti-everything invective—a history of an ethos that posed itself against history, against tradition, and proposed a total teardown.

Now, the Sex Pistols’ “No Future” nihilism is just one strain of punk rock, but if you were putting together a dossier on what constitutes or constituted punk, this anti-everything invective, that comprehensive rejection of systems and norms and allegiances, that anarchic anger would have to be a big part of it. A common strain in the examples cited above is, again, abnegation, the oppositional stance, the big “NO.” Bresson’s movie follows a disillusioned young man, played by Antoine Monnier, as he systematically rejects anything that might give life meaning—education, religion, psychoanalysis, activism—finally ending his own life: as, incidentally, did Fisher.

This as extreme a rejection as one can offer—the same at which Cebe arrives in Out of the Blue—but while we should hesitate to label punk a death cult, we can at least say that refusal is a very large part of whatever core value system it has. This value system is, in Cebe’s case, more intuited than anything else—in the profundity of her cultural isolation, she’s responding to an idea of punk rather than to any actual community offering instruction. In less destructive terms, this rejection could encompass the do-it-yourself, or DIY approach, creating alternative systems of production and distribution for independent music, a refusal to make use of the infrastructure put in place by corporatized major labels, and thereby to have to play by their fixed rules. This is surely familiar, remedial material for some people in this room, but not, perhaps, for everyone—the term “sell-out,” once as foul a “them’s-fightin’-words” accusation as could be thrown about, has largely left the vocabulary of a younger generation of Americans.   

So let’s say that a discontent with the state of things, and a refusal to go along with them, is something central, and shared throughout the various strains of punk—so then Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, with his unbudging “I would prefer not to,” might be the original American proto-punk. Or perhaps Groucho Marx in Horse Feathers (1932), singing “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” There may be disagreement on what is the matter or what if anything’s to be done, but at least there is agreement in the feeling that something, somewhere, has gone terribly, terribly awry, that a wrong turn was taken somewhere along the line. The unifying feature might be called a sense of urgency, a response to gathering doom. Punk is then, Cassandra-esque, panic music—though, again, the responses to this gathering panic vary, from earnest calls to arms to hysterical surrender in anticipation of everything coming down and a great Walpurgisnacht party happening in the ashes.

More recent discourse on punk tends to amplify its “positive” aspects, so that punk rock is increasingly identified with its constructive political wings, with the Clash and the lyrics of Joe Strummer, the boarding school-raised son of a foreign service officer, whose position could be aligned with an identifiable and reassuring liberal-left lineage. This is, however, all part and parcel of an ongoing project to domesticate art, including more scrofulous or “problematic” strands like punk or the horror film: to give them their inoculation shots and clean them up and welcome them into the academy, while glossing over some of their rough edges or fastidiously sanding those edges off entirely.

And so we try not to spend too much time on the Sex Pistols’s “Bodies,” with its suggestion of an anti-abortion sneer—“She was a no-one who killed her baby/ She sent her letters from the country/ She was an animal/ She was a bloody disgrace.” And we try not to linger too much on Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious modelling swastikas, or the fact that the first Joy Division EP, 1978’s An Ideal for Living, features a blonde Hitler youth pounding on a drum on the cover, or that proto-punk fellow traveler David Bowie, posthumously enshrined as an impeccable ally, spent a good bit of the 1970s spouting off about strongman dictatorships while biting pieces of stagecraft from Sir Oswald Mosely and his British Union of Fascists. And we talk about the rise of right-wing populism and say that if nothing else it should make for a lot of great punk music, when in point of fact the breakout years for punk in the US and the UK came under the respective administrations of Democrat Jimmy Carter and Labour Party Leader James Callaghan.

I’m not saying this to hang a sign labelled “reactionary” around the neck of punk rock, or to out it as a secretly conservative movement, but rather to get a grip on the nailbomb, omnidirectional blast force of this music, this ethos, this initial impulse to provoke, offend, and alienate which succeeded so well out of the gate that it still basically works. I’m saying that this is part of what gives it its lasting significance, and why we’re talking about it now, is because of how thorough and absolute its scorched earth stance was. Around the time of the Trump election I saw in several different venues the motto “Conservative is the New Punk Rock” or some variation thereof, the idea being I guess that Donald Trump is a figure who is intrinsically offensive to a certain class of educated people, and that the fact of that offense tickles a certain class of Trump voter, but this doesn’t track either—the Stranglers said “No More Heroes,” which doesn’t square particularly well with a political movement that’s all about erecting idols and licking boots, even if “just trolling.”

“Anger is an energy,” John Lydon, formerly Rotten, would bleat on a song by his post-Pistols band Public Image Ltd.—and if nothing else, the longevity of punk is proof positive that anger is a battery with surprising endurance. So where did this anger come from? Film historical discourse, as with cultural discourse as a whole, has become more and more acutely aware of various “isms”—racism, sexism, etc.—and the way in which they’ve shaped the culture that we have today, and this is to the good. What is less dealt with is the issue of, to use a term bandied about in art historical circles, presentism—the degree to which we tend to judge the past from an imagined vantage of present-day enlightenment, as though observers thirty years from now won’t think us blinkered, too. And I think what is too little understood is that a lot of these kids participating in this scene were really and truly damaged goods—not necessarily the ones you’ve heard of, not necessarily the ones that made it out or made careers, but the rank-and-file punkers who filled out the crowds. Kids like Cebe.

That catastrophe-steeped punk ethos, like any other ethos, didn’t just appear from out of nowhere, but we need to make an effort to span the gap, to get back there. 1977 is a long way away. 1980 is a long way away. We’re as far away from it now as 1980 was from 1941, as far as American Gigolo and “Another One Bites the Dust” and Zenyatta Mondatta by the Police are from Pearl Harbor and, well, swastikas. This is a photograph of Ian Curtis from Joy Division on his wedding day. He’s nineteen and she’s eighteen. He’ll be dead by suicide in four years time, leaving a baby behind. Everything about this image screams of a northern English working-class culture consisting of pressures and expectations and obligations that are practically unknown to most young people today pursuing a career in the arts—myself, when I could still be termed young, very much included. In his superlative book Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Joe Carducci, a former co-owner of the independent label SST, posits that hardcore punk in its American form of the late ‘70s/ early ‘80s was at least in significant part a blue-collar, working-class phenomenon, and it’s best to bear the particular constraints and traumas to which that group was vulnerable during this period in mind when thinking about punk.

Out of the Blue gets all of that, and it gets it thanks, in no small part, to the extraordinary veracity that Manz, seen here as a pint-sized Bronx bully in Philip Kaufman’s 1979 film The Wanderers, has whenever she appears on screen. Manz was a child actress quite unlike any other going in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, raised on East 78th St. in Manhattan. No coddled child of the industry, her mother was a hearing-impaired cleaning woman who worked at the Twin Towers who’d had an idea that Linda would be an actress, and towards that end enrolled her in Charlie Lowe’s Broadway Show Business School for Kids, likewise the alma mater of Brooklyn’s Elliott Gould. Manz was discovered during a casting call for Terrence Malick’s second feature, 1978’s Days of Heaven, in which she would go on to play the younger sister of Richard Gere’s character. When Malick was having trouble finding his movie in the edit, he was struck by a bolt of inspiration, and invited his 15-year-old star to record a voice-over. In 2011 I interviewed Manz over the phone at her home in California’s remote, orchard-rich Antelope Valley, where she moved after an early retirement from acting, rarely interrupted. “They took me into a voice recording studio,” she said. “No script, nothing. I just watched the movie and rambled on… I dunno, they took whatever dialogue they liked.” This is, as Cebe would say, “A punk gestchah.”

Dennis Hopper had relied heavily on such punk gestures—on-set inspiration, chance operations, and a cultivated air of hopefully-creatively-profitable anarchy—to bring him through his second feature as a director and his last before Out of the Blue, 1971’s The Last Movie, whose title came over the following decade to seem almost prophetic. Hopper had briefly been the toast of Hollywood after his 1969 Easy Rider pulled down $60M on a budget of something like $400,000 and became a cultural touchstone—in Albert Brooks’s two best films of the 1980s, Modern Romance and Lost in America (1985), it becomes a point of reference signifying a counterculture dream deferred, unimaginable in the tamed New West that’s the terrain of Brooks’s films. Hopper’s own career by 1980 could be pointed to as a lesson in the dangers of excess. After The Last Movie failed to recoup its budget or anything approaching it, he’d spent the ‘70s as a tarnished icon, an actor-for-hire, and an increasingly uncontrollable and erratic addict. 

Hopper hadn’t even been hired to direct Out of the Blue—he was brought on as an actor on the film, then called Cebe, which was to be directed by one of its screenwriters, Leonard Yakir. It was to shoot in Canada, taking advantage of the huge tax write-offs then available for filmmakers bringing their movies to Canada, write-offs that were responsible for bringing us the Golden Age of Canuxsploitation. The rules in place for what constitutes a Canadian production—Canadian Content, or CanCon, as it’s called for short—explain the presence of the hulking and unhappy Canadian-born Raymond Burr, in his least-necessary role since he was shoehorned into the American version of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954). Yakir was fired after delivering two weeks of film deemed unusable by producer Paul Lewis, and shortly after the film’s backers decided on Hopper directing being their nearest best bet.

This was, circumstances notwithstanding, no mere for-hire job. Hopper re-wrote the screenplay by Yakir, Gary Jules Jouvenat, and Brenda Nielson, and recast all but the principal roles—Manz, Hopper, and Burr stayed on, the latter now in a much-diminished role. After the fact, Hopper would state that he shot at length with Burr while always knowing he’d whittle the role down to only two scenes, claiming that the aging actor never caught on that it wasn’t his movie anymore—a boast that seems almost unnecessarily cruel; why you wanna do Perry Mason like that, Dennis? But the result of all of this frantic reworking is an enormously personal work, a film in which the dead-end desperation of a rueful, regret-wracked anti-establishment icon in his mid-forties who had demolished his own life and that of an adolescent whose own life has hardly even begun dovetail with devastating effect.

Hopper, much as Marcus is in Lipstick Traces, is following his own trail of influences in arriving at punk, following a continuum in the history of American outsiders. As much as any American artist, Hopper had internalized the particular mythology of American rebellion. He was born in 1936 in Dodge City, Kansas, famous as a hub of the Wild West, through which more bona fide gunfighters passed than did just about anywhere else in the county, and his character in The Last Movie, not insignificantly, is named Kansas. The cowboys were gone in Hopper’s day, but there were still new heroes to be followed, and in Hopper’s own telling, there was no more significant event in his young life than his encounter with this man, James Byron Dean.

When Hopper was still a teenager, he appeared in two films with Dean, Nicholas Ray’s 1955 Rebel Without a Cause and George Stevens’s 1956 Giant, and the experience for him was revelatory—looking at the 25-year-old Dean, he saw not only a plausible big brother, but a model of nonconformity and an embodiment of Romantic rebellion, an all-American analogue to Dean’s middle-namesake, the renegade English poet. A recent reviewing of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now revealed that it’s a very bad movie about the American presence in Vietnam, but a very good one about the hero-worship legacy of Method Acting, with Martin Sheen—who’d done such a magnificent Dean impression in Malick’s 1973 Badlands—going up the river to confront an impenetrably cryptic Marlon Brando and his lapdog acolyte, Hopper. But I digress.

There’s no direct reference to Dean in Out of the Blue, but the movie, like countless others, has a lot of Rebel in its DNA—it’s about the amusement that teenagers make for themselves in their own dead-air time, stuck in whatever crummy circumstances they happen to have been born to, coping with the gulf between the size of their ambitions and the meagerness of their reality. As with Rebel, too, much of the discomfiture the kids experience has to do with the itchy imposition of gender roles—think about Jim Stark accidentally wandering into the women’s restroom, or freaking out over seeing father Jim Backus in his “effeminate” apron. Jim is in a double bind, at the same time horrified at his father’s failure to play man of the house and, a sensitive young man in a society that has little patience for such sensitivity in its boys, rankled by his own persistent sense of failing to live up to the expectations of masculinity.

Cebe, by contrast, disdains the trappings of traditional femininity as represented by her frivolous mother, gravitating towards male role models. There is her father, absent at first, and in his absence, a midcentury icon of American rebellion every bit as iconic as Dean, Elvis Aaron Presley—who, when in his teenage years, like Jim Stark, was basically a nice, shy kid, not really trying to cause a fuss with his pelvis swiveling. She finds the destitution at the heart of the lyrics to “Heartbreak Hotel,” and when she’s bounced out of a honky-tonk as underaged, even shows off some Elvis-style karate stances. She also seems, curiously, to be passionate about the music of Neil Young, particularly his song “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” the lyrics of which she quotes from at one point, and a song which is heard repeatedly on the soundtrack. I say curiously because Young was hippie adjacent, something that you might think would make him suspect in the eyes of any punkers, as evident in Cebe’s exhortation to “Kill all hippies,” which would be sampled extensively twenty years later on the band Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR album.

The Young fandom is a little off, but it also feels absolutely right. One of the things that I so adore about Out of the Blue is the way it captures that sense of real cultural isolation that you could have pre-Internet, and the way that isolation would produce real eccentricities and eccentrics—the way that you couldn’t acquire an entire identity off the rack, but had to piece it together from odds and ends. For those of you who were here for my talk about regional genre cinema, you may pick up on some of the same points that I’m hammering on here.

Now, this would be exaggerated in a relatively isolated, relatively rural background like that in which Cebe is growing up. Out of the Blue isn’t a regionalist piece, in that it isn’t absolutely clear about where it’s taking place; rather than a specific location, it’s going for a nowheretown—or, to borrow from Cleveland’s own The Pagans, “Dead End America.” Nevertheless, it does have an incidental sense of place. From the general color palette we might assume we’re somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, as mentioned, the movie was shot in Canada, specifically in the precincts of Vancouver. This perhaps explains the presence of Young’s music—CanCon strikes again!—though not, perhaps, Manz’s Bowery Boys-like accent. We know anyways that Cebe doesn’t live in a city center, and has to thumb rides to get to one. If there was a single other punk kid in her town, we sure don’t see them—would she still be jumping on the CB radio to message with middle-aged truckers to spread the gospel of punk, which she repeats in these repetitive almost mechanistic phrases, if she had anyone else to bounce off of? Has she even been to a rock show before her big misadventure in the big city? Did she come across some old interview with Johnny Rotten in one of her dad’s yellowing copies of Creem? You almost get the sense that she’s only heard of punk rockers before, and that the hotchpotch costume and interests that she puts together are this kind of out-of-touch working-class kid’s best guess at what a punk rocker might look like and be into. In this context, Cebe makes a lot of sense: leathers imitating the biker gang past of the father who she both adores and despises, and this strange slapdash masculine pantheon that includes Sid Vicious, Elvis Presley, and, yes, Neil Young.    

“My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” comes from Young and Crazy Horse’s 1978 album Rust Never Sleeps, one of the records produced by established artists in the wake of the threat of obsolescence posed by punk—the story of the influence of the sound of art-punks Suicide on the stark sound of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 Nebraska is sufficiently well-known as to not bear repeating at length. Young would later bring on the Akron, Ohio art-punk band Devo to appear in his 1982 film Human Highway, directed under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey. Devo, formed by graduates of Kent State University whose extreme skepticism towards human institutions and any narrative of progress was formed by the memory of the Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970, had an entire conceptual framework to their approach that made them among the most artist-friendly of the early punk acts—the great American experimental filmmaker and multi-hyphenate artist Bruce Conner, a fellow Kansan who was only three years older than Hopper, had made a short film set to the tune of their song “Mongoloid” back in 1978, during an extended holiday from the art world during which time he drank to excess, took photos of bands for Slash magazine, and thrashed around in the pit at Mabuhay Gardens.

So, suffice it to say that Hopper wasn’t the only aging hipster who was trying to figure out what this punk thing was all about—Young was also doing so, and around the same time Penelope Spheeris, then in her mid-30s, produced the other great American punk document of 1980, The Decline of Western Civilization. It was Spheeris’s first feature as a director, though she’d been a producer on her protégé Albert Brooks’s first film, Real Life (1979); Spheeris filmed between fall 1979 and spring 1980 using equipment checked out from the music videography company that sheran, Rock n’ Reel, a world away from the yacht rock outfits and bloated FM rock acts that she made a living shooting. A lightning-in-a-bottle document, it catches a pivot point in the southern California punk scene, as the center of gravity is moving away from the older, artier, more queer-oriented crowd in Hollywood, represented by the likes of the Alice Bag Band and X, and moving toward the dowdier precincts of the unfashionable South Bay and Orange County, where bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks were playing in a headlong, raw-power style that would eventually be distinguished—if never particularly well-defined—as “hardcore.” Conner, too, was right there in the pit with the kids, his mind so blown by the whole scene that in 1979 the only piece of gallery-worthy art that he produced was a brick wrapped in an Ace bandage—again, a punk gestchah.

Hopper, though he recognizes a kindred spirit between punk and previous countercultural forms, recognizes that there’s something here that’s fundamentally different, unique to the age, in this new thing. He recognizes, too, that he’s well and truly not a kid anymore, and the perspective he brings from the other side of a generation gap is part of what makes Out of the Blue such a fascinating film. There are many punk films that originate from the scene and its young participants, and this is resolutely not one of them—Dennis Hopper isn’t Nick Zedd. Hopper has a well-established persona, and he avers to it quite explicitly here, very often not in a flattering way. At one point Cebe dresses up in her absent father’s motorcycle gear to pose in front of a mirror in the stance of a surly biker, and it’s hard not to think here about Hopper’s Bill in Easy Rider, or even the Brando of The Wild One (1953), whose “What’re you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” is punk avant la lettre. Playing the father of punkette Cebe, Hopper seems almost to be claiming parentage of punk itself. The Variety reviewer from Cannes saw as much, commenting that the movie showed “what the 70s drug culture and dregs of the counterculture could have wrought on those easy riders who got off their bikes and tried to conform and had children.” Given the events of the film, it is very far from a flattering confession of patrimony.

So on one hand Hopper’s clocking the place that punk has in this anti-authoritarian tradition which he’s long aligned himself with, but on the other there’s a horror in finding this continuity, a sense of dawning knowledge of abdication of responsibility, of having been a deadbeat dad; a sense that the Utopianism of the ‘60s counterculture had given birth to something monstrous. To quote again from the Sex Pistols’ ‘Bodies’: “I don’t want a baby that looks like that.” And in this context, Cebe’s “Destroy, kill all hippies” takes on a particularly Electra complex quality, which of course corresponds to revelations that emerge in the course of the film, and its final bloodletting. Also part of Cebe’s screed is the insistence that “Punk is not sexual, it’s just aggression”—and you can well see how this idea would be a reassuring one for a girl who’d been violated as she has been. Right now, at Manhattan’s terribly corny Museum of Sex, there’s a show on called “Punk Lust,” but part of what was so radical about punk was an element of Puritanical recoil, the gobbing in the general direction of Free Love, at least as something that could be touted as a potential agent of transcendence. Still another chewy Johnny Rotten quote: “Love is two minutes and fifty seconds of squealching noises.”  

That Out of the Blue will be concerned on some level with the threat that one generation’s irresponsibility has posed to the next should be pretty clear from its opening scene, in which Hopper plows into a stalled school bus. Its opening shock is echoed in another of the essential punk films of the 80s, Spheeris’s 1984 Suburbia. After The Decline of Western Civilization had got Spheeris earmarked as Hollywood’s resident expert in the mores and folkways of hardcore punk, she caught the attention of producer Roger Corman, who gave her her first fiction feature, this kind of punksploitation picture, Suburbia. The film’s first scene, one of the most bracing and brutal in ’80s American cinema, depicts a toddler being mauled to death by a stray dog. Undeniably something to get an audience standing at attention, it inspired the Pet Shop Boys song of the same title, and the lyric “Let’s take a ride, and run with the dogs tonight.” It also effectively introduces the underlying themes of the film: child neglect, child endangerment, the free-floating hostility of the gutted suburban environment.

The dramatis personae of Suburbia have made it to the threshold of adulthood, a little further than Cebe, but as emotional cripples, surviving now through an almost tribal, take-care-of-our-own code of behavior. Through the characters of teen runaways Sheila and Evan (Jennifer Clay and Bill Coyne), Spheeris introduces the viewer to a group of squatters who call themselves T.R.—The Rejected. Having left home, they’ve created their own makeshift family, like the one jerry-rigged together by Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo in Rebel, though with none of the Gothic romanticism of their abandoned mansion retreat. The backdrop here is decidedly non-picturesque cities of Downey and Norwalk, the T.R. manse a run-down tract house located near the Alondra Boulevard off-ramp on I-605. This is the punk house, a society outside society, as described by The Adolescents in their song “Kids of the Black Hole”: “House that belonged to all the homeless kids/ House of the filthy, house not a home/ House of destruction where the lurkers roamed.”

Spheeris gravitates toward hardcore’s destructive rather than constructive aspects—the DIY ingenuity and egalitarian spirit, for example—and has a definite taste for the scurrilous side of squatter life. Along with the circle-the-wagons, insider ethos of punk, she seems to be fascinated by its Puritanical undertone—an understandable emphasis given that it sets punk apart from its countercultural antecedents, with hardcore among other things appearing as a response to the license of the positivistic “Do your own thing” ‘60s, which had produced skyrocketing divorce rates and the broken or hugely dysfunctional homes from which T.R. flee, and which Cebe is a product of as well. The backlash is real; I’d recommend anyone to check out the book Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs by Brendan Mullen, Don Bolles, and Adam Parfrey, which details the degree to which the Germs frontman—featured memorably in Decline—was marked by his experience at the Innovative Program School, whose New Age-y curriculum would be hard to imagine outside the context of hippified California.

Evan’s mother in Suburbia is an embittered, divorced lush; Joe Schmo (Wade Walston) bails to the T.R. house because he can’t stand living with his “homo” father, glimpsed lazing in a Hockney-esque poolside scene; peroxide blonde Jack Diddley (Chris Pedersen) is running away from his stepfather, who he doubly disdains as both a cop and a Black man. The racism in the punk scene is very much in evidence in Decline: one of Spheeris’s star interviewees is a skinny, bigoted fourteen-year-old skinhead called Eugene, who appears between testimonial from an Asian-American punker wearing a swastika T-shirt, a pointed juxtaposition that limns out the scene’s paradoxical position as a forbidding shelter, an incubator of intolerant tolerance.

Spheeris, a lifelong rock n’ roller and genuine freak, was able to manage a level of access to this scene that would’ve been quite difficult otherwise, and her film maintains a winning balance of fellow-feeling and comic distance. Hopper, however much of a wreck he may have been, was always a hip guy who kept his ear to the ground: He was an avid art collector, put onto the hobby by Vincent Price, who he’d met as a very young actor—the freakazoid collectors played by James Caan and Katharine Ross in Curtis Harrington’s 1967 Games are supposedly based on Hopper and his wife Brooke Hayward—and he seemingly kept his ears open for whatever was going on in popular music, too. His next directorial effort after Out of the Blue was 1988’s Colors, a cops-and-crips action melodrama which featured music by Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. & Rakim, M.C. Shan, and Kool G. Rap. Credit, of course, is due to the movie’s music supervisors, Sharon Boyle and Gary Goetzman, but at the same time this innovative use of what was then quaintly being called “gangsta rap” is completely consistent with the sensitivity to pop music on display in Hopper’s previous films, his sense for how it permeates people’s inner lives. I don’t know to what degree Hopper immersed himself in punk rock before coming onto the set of Out of the Blue, but I do think he understood something essential about it, which was its counter-counterculture energy, and I think he was both fascinated and appalled by this, because in a way punk offered the ultimate endpoint of the outlaw attitude, of oppositional stances fortified and re-fortified until finally you finally immure yourself completely, seal yourself into a tomb built of rejection. Colors, incidentally, would be made around the time that Hopper’s political allegiances took a permanent rightward shift, and he became a supporter of President Ronald Reagan.

Hopper began the 1980s just about as low as you could go, on the brink of a second Hollywood exile—his first, for those wondering, came after he’d locked horns with director Henry Hathaway on the set of 1958’s From Hell to Texas, a fit of pique that would consign him to television purgatory for a time, his only film work coming on Harrington’s independent Night Tide (1961). When Out of the Blue was finished, it competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but there wasn’t at this point sufficient interest in Hopper to secure a decent distribution deal until 1983-84, the period during which whatever Americans saw the movie saw it for the first time.

The argument can be made that Hopper’s Colors, which after all is a ride along with the LAPD, shows marks of his conservative conversion, of the ideologue overtaking the artist—which is risky whatever the ideology in question may be. Not so in Out of the Blue. And while the film shows an absolute emotional and psychological fidelity to its characters, the contentious, sick father-daughter relationship at the heart of the movie also happens to speak to the estrangement between that first wave of punks and the Beat-to-hippie counterculture continuum which Hopper had ridden into middle-age, only to find himself washed-up and prey to his addictions. Out of the Blue was made during a rock bottom period, as well as a period of taking stock, to use Alcoholics Anonymous terminology. Among other things, then, in Out of the Blue, Hopper seems to be sifting through the detritus of the years, examining his conscience. Again, the legacy of Rebel Without a Cause is crucial, for Ray’s film is among other things a wake-up call to responsibility, the crucial line Jim’s plea: “I am involved. We are all involved.” Less relevant than the solutions that he eventually endorsed is Hopper’s sense of crisis here, which corresponds to that sense of crisis at the heart of punk, and which is embodied so ideally, and if I may say so, so heartbreakingly, by Manz.

“My My, Hey Hey” would receive a significant boost in public attention in 1994, fourteen years after the release of Out of the Blue, when it was quoted in the suicide note of one Kurt Cobain. Now, Manz is a few years older than she looks in Out of the Blue—she was eighteen when the movie played Cannes in 1980, but she’s playing fifteen in the movie. This makes her an approximate contemporary of a young Kurt Cobain and, given the Pacific northwest backdrop, you could almost imagine her as a young, female Cobain, as Cobain’s sister. Cobain was the son of a waitress and an auto mechanic—not a waitress and a bus driver-turner-junkyard worker, but close enough—who divorced when he was nine. It’s the same old story: substance abuse, domestic violence, shuttling between tenuous domestic situations, stirring up shit in these nowhere towns, sleeping rough some nights, looking to get out.

Splitting town, you can’t get away from yourself. Cobain made it further than Cebe does, made it pretty far from Aberdeen, but he was by his own accounting too marred by life to last for long. There’s a song by the musician Cat Power, the stage name of Chan Marshall, called “I Don’t Blame You,” that’s a sort of musical eulogy to Cobain. In it, Marshall sings “They said you were the best/ But then they were only kids/ Then you would recall the deadly houses you grew up in/ Just because they knew your name/ Doesn’t mean they know from where you came.” This is from her 2002 record You Are Free, a record that’s absolutely filled with references to child abuse, that speaks to an intimate acquaintance with this kind of trauma. And that phrase—“deadly houses”—encapsulates rather well the kind of domestic environment that we see in Out of the Blue.

A firsthand knowledge of those deadly houses puts a mark on people for life—and I would suggest that an inordinate number of the young people in America flocking towards punk as a route of self-expression in these years had at least a passing acquaintance with them. This tends, today, to be forgotten or misunderstood, and there is I think an identifiable reason for this. Much of art-making in America—much of art-making in the world as a whole—is today a middle-class-and-up activity. This has always been the case to a certain extent, but has been exacerbated by the steady disappearance of educational opportunities for social mobility and, particularly in the United States, the gutting of humanities programs, the kicking away of ladders of access. As art becomes the province of the middle-class, you have an increasing discomfiture with what has been labelled “problematic” work—a genuine inability to comprehend what sort of things people are exposed to when they don’t have a secure social safety net in place, and how that experience can manifest itself in rather tickling and uncomfortable ways in the art that is made by hurt people.

Out of the Blue, like Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1986), is a movie that’s not only interested in contemporary youth cultures—metalhead heshers and punk rockers—but in how those cultures relate to the counterculture of the 1960s, which in both cases is represented by Hopper—and in River’s Edge, which I hope all of you will see tomorrow morning, by the awful blowhard Boomer teacher who browbeats the kids in the classroom. What is particularly clear in Out of the Blue, however, is an understanding of punk as a counter-counterculture movement—“Kill all hippies,” remember? And this vengeful streak doesn’t represent the return of the repressed; rather, it’s the return of the unhappily liberated.

In Hopper’s mind, I think, this homicidal impulse isn’t unjustified; rather, it’s firmly rooted in the sins of the father. There’s not a shred of condescension or nose-wrinkling in this film at the “ugliness” or the nihilism of punk, to be unflatteringly contrasted to the open horizons offered by the hippies—though you sense Hopper is struggling with the degree to which the best of intentions among he and his generational coevals hadn’t necessarily borne the best of results for an upcoming generation, had in fact fostered a culture of self-indulgence and self-expressive license to which the more Puritanical aspects of punk were a response that perhaps should have been anticipated, and that too late he has realized “We are all involved.”

This aspect of self-examination isn’t limited to Hopper the public persona, to Hopper as Billy the Kid, to Hopper as a placeholder for the hopes and dreams of the 1960s counterculture. It also has a very personal dimension. Asked in 1983 about his film’s strong, independent-minded female lead, Hopper gives a disconcertingly straightforward answer—one so honest and unflattering that it’s impossible to imagine anyone giving it today. “There’s a great part of me that has always been very cruel, I guess, to women,” Hopper responds, “because I don’t understand them.” Hopper was, at least sporadically in his life, an abuser—his reprehensible treatment of Hayward during their marriage has been well documented. With this in mind, Out of the Blue takes on the form of an exorcism. However marginal a figure Hopper had become by this point, this is a public reckoning, a public reckoning of the sort that many people might argue shouldn’t be available to someone like Hopper, who has proven himself through his behavior a compromised human being. Regardless, Out of the Blue does exist, and it is a movie of enormous power, and its power in part derives from the fact that it keeps very little distance from its characters. And rather than an exhibitionist’s act of public self-flagellation, it is a candid and unsparing examination of the mechanisms of abuse.

Part of what makes Out of the Blue so rendingly emotional is its powerful imaginative empathy, its embodying of victim’s psychology, which is built into its very narrative. We know from the get-go that Hopper’s character has been responsible for the unforgivable, plowing an 18-wheeler into a busload of children, but through the course of the film, by virtue of the significant charisma that Hopper possesses as a performer, we begin to feel for him, for his character—we begin to hope for him to have a second chance, and side with him against the small-minded townsfolk who won’t allow it to him, who are giving him the torches and pitchforks treatment. The cocksure swagger that makes you forgive him everything.

It works on Cebe, too. Manz is so extraordinarily vulnerable in the prison visit scene, in which an ill-advised tenderness topples her better judgement, blasts through her tough cookie, wise-beyond-her-years front. She welcomes this man back into her life who has caused her irreparable hurt, hoping against hope that he will have changed, and that he won’t resume the cycle of abuse the moment that opportunity allows. Which, of course, is exactly what he does, because he’s a weak man, and because he doesn’t know how to do anything but employ his not-insignificant personal charm to manipulate and exploit. Essential information has been withheld from us as viewers, but in essence we’ve been placed in a position similar to that of Cebe, a position of distrust coaxed into relaxation in preparation for a fresh betrayal—and it’s hard really to say how complete her understanding or recall of her abuse is until the final reckoning comes along, until this young woman who has been very much the gender-neutral tomboy throughout the movie we’ve been watching suddenly appears as a preternaturally sexualized young woman, a figure who resembles one of Balthus’s models.

Given her background, should it be any wonder that Cebe would be attracted to a doctrine of total destruction, a doctrine to which she finally, fatally commits? The environment in which she has been raised is one of total moral chaos and an absence of any viable authority—in fact, rather than say she’s been raised at all, we might say she sprouted like a flower, to borrow the phrase that Rainer Werner Fassbinder applied to his own postwar youth. Cebe uses music as a lifeline. A teenager in the pivotal year of 1955 that broke Elvis Presley on an unsuspecting world, the year of Rebel Without a Cause and the codifying of teenage culture, Hopper understands well how rock n’ roll music can bolster a kid’s sense of identity, can lend a kid a dream of liberation, not to speak of a sense of belonging, and he shows a profound respect towards the relationship that Cebe has to music.

To my mind one of the most moving passages in Out of the Blue takes place on Cebe’s trip into the Big City, where she goes backstage at a punk show and eventually is thrust out onto the stage with the band. The club, for whatever it’s worth, is the Viking Hall on Hastings Street in downtown Vancouver, and the band are The Pointed Sticks, mainstays of the Vancouver punk scene in this period; Cebe has flyers for local acts the Subhumans and Teenage Head on her bedroom wall as well.

It reminds me of Bresson, specifically the scene in his Mouchette (1967) where the title character goes to this little village carnival and, in a moment of respite from the almost unrelenting misery of her existence, gets to play on the bumper cars, and horse around a little bit with a boy her own age. For the first and last time, you understand that this girl who has encountered so little to inspire pleasure in her in the course of the film you’ve been watching has the same capacity for joy, for release, as has anyone else—she just hasn’t had the chance to exercise it. And this understanding is what makes her fate unbearable.

After Mouchette in 1967—though you can certainly make a very cogent argument that the preoccupation goes back to earlier films—Bresson is increasingly obsessed with the problem of suicide, with the question of total despair. This is perhaps one of the factors that has made some suggest an affinity between the later films of Bresson and the punk movement—Olivier Assayas, for example, has spoken of the profound identification that he would come to find in The Devil Probably, a film which rumbled with the same roiling discontent that he and his young punk friends were experiencing at the time of the its release.

Now, Out of the Blue is very far from Bresson in its cinematographic approach—thankfully, as Bresson is an unforgiving master who rarely awards emulation. But, like the late works of Bresson, it is absolutely in earnest in the way that it approaches or rather burrows into the emotion of despair—here, specifically, despair clad in the safety pins and studs of the punk rock movement, a subculture that is uniquely concerned with negative emotions. Like any subcultural movement or moment, punk rock was and to a certain degree still is a costume or a lifestyle choice for some people—which is fine, in fact how things should be. But Hopper is looking very close at someone coming on the wrong side of the tracks for whom it seems the only viable option, the only realistic possibility for self-expression when you don’t have the budget to buy any other uniform.

Richard Hell, discussing the shredded shirts that he would wear around the Lower East Side, described it as an aesthetic imposed by poverty. I’d like to return to Hell’s words on The Devil Probably, which he relates to his own songwriting in the mid-to-late ‘70s. “I remember for instance an interview I did with one of the people who was most sympathetic to what I was doing and saying, Lester Bangs, and I spent the interview trying very hard to elaborate (because he asked me to) on my take on things in songs like ‘Blank Generation’ and ‘Love Comes in Spurts’ and ‘Who Says (It's Good to be Alive)?’—songs which he was crazy about, but about which he could only willfully half-hear what I was saying in defense of their message of doubt and hopelessness because he thought there was something immoral in that hopelessness... I tried to explain to him, I wasn't choosing doubt and suspicion and despair, I was taken there by reality. I wasn’t affirming it, I was just trying to see clearly.”

If succumbing to despair is to be considered a weakness in a work of art, you might do well to ask yourself why so few manage to do it convincingly, without finally faltering for a note of affirmation. What Hell describes is what Hopper and Manz have achieved in Out of the Blue—a vision of “No Future” despair as seen with brutal, mournful clarity, its young protagonist indelibly moving thanks to Manz’s never-a-false-moment performance. Every time I watch the film, I’m happy to see Cebe again; every time, I want her moment on stage in downtown Vancouver to last forever, to turn over a new page. But it’s a terrible and true fact that those deadly houses exercise a pull stronger than anything else sometime, and Out of the Blue brings us back to that fact. I wouldn’t blame you for hating it for that reminder, any more than I could blame anyone for hating the world.