Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue ★★★★★

The punk ethos may have originated in Britain but it caught on in America where it tied into a nihilistic disillusion with so-called “responsibility”. While there were a few films celebrating the musical accomplishments of key bands from the period, there were fewer works which sought to capture the decadent spirit of the punk “movement” (if it can be described as that) and fewer that sought some kind of context in the process of everyday socialization. Dennis Hopper’s film of Out of the Blue is perhaps the seminal US work to examine and contextualize this punk aesthetic, determined as it is to provide a social perspective for its sense of despair and understandable outrage – it is perhaps for this reason that several critics (and an outspoken Jack Nicholson) have considered this film to do for its time what Hopper’s Easy Rider had for an earlier generation. Although Hopper was not scheduled to direct this film, he took over when all concluded that the original director did not have enough experience to carry the film, and then re-arranged its priorities to bring them into tighter shape. Hopper had however not directed since his box-office and critical flop The Last Movie ten years before. The result was a penetrating and detailed form of sociological observation and character study, one of Hopper’s finest works as actor and director and a confirmation of his continued vitality within American film (where many people had wanted to write him off).

Out of the Blue concerns a teenage girl (Linda Manz in an extra-ordinary performance), who is something of a tomboy and aspiring punk, obsessed with Elvis Presley (carrying a tape deck around with her, drawing inspiration and determination from music). As a young girl she was once riding with her truck driver father (Dennis Hopper) who whilst drinking collided with a school bus, injuring many children. This has led to Hopper’s imprisonment although he is now scheduled to be released from prison and with Manz’ rather weak-willed junkie mother, who has not remained faithful to Hopper, is set to be part of a family again. The mother holds onto a desire to make it work but is too weak to see this through. The prospect of Hopper’s return to the household has a mixed reaction on Manz however and she retreats into a defiant and directionless rage, running away when she sees her mother shoot up. However the people she meets seek only to sexually exploit her and she returns home, now with a social worker (Raymond Burr) assigned to her case. Back at home, she must deal with her father, an alcoholic who soon jeopardizes his job at a garbage dump. The re-united family disintegrates to the point where Hopper’s incestuous feelings for his daughter again surface and Manz seeks the ultimate punk act of revenge and escape as the only option left her.

This is a bleak film about the failure of familial socialization. The film explores the notion that American freedom is dangerously close to erupting into a form of desperate social anarchy, one of the few to assess the precarious link between freedom, decadence and anarchy. It is almost as if the socio-cultural values promised by the preceding generation (as represented by Hopper) have only led to social collapse and anarchy rather than social upheaval, equality and progress. Hopper is a failure of a man here, a wasted but conflicted and lost degenerate. America in this film is a moral wasteland. All inter-personal relationships in Out of the Blue are at the point of collapse and disintegration, with lives correspondingly directionless and wasted, with Manz retreating into a kind of undifferentiated rage. In this depiction it captures the sense of desolate emptiness that underlies the punk rebellion. However, Hopper concentrates on Manz and reveals her anger as a result of the failure of the so-called American ideal of family (which hides only a monstrous decadence finally unable to be controlled or repressed) and the dominance of the father. The dynamic between father and daughter is essential to this film and the gradual revelation of pathological perversity is emotionally devastating, the film being a kind of constant immersion in ever-deepening psychological trauma. The release of repressed tensions brings only horror and there is no escape except perhaps in the one thing that means anything in punk – death.

As a film about the unresolved anger of youth, Out of the Blue has few equals, although is in a clear line of decent from the James Dean ethos. Manz feels betrayed by the death of Elvis Presley as if he is her ideal lover / father image and the horror of the situation is how Hopper is believes he is both to her but is also driven in part by his awareness of his failure as a father. When released from prison, he slips back into drug-sodden immorality and perversity almost as if he cannot help himself, his disturbing sexuality offering an odd foreshadowing of his work for David Lynch in Blue Velvet. The loss of control here is the epitome of social and moral anarchy. The cruel irony is that the presence of the father in this case does not compensate for the absence of the father, as it is indeed Hopper’s return that makes a precarious social situation deteriorate even further. Hopper approaches his own character as a demonstration of the failure of socialization in terms of its qualification of “aberrant” urges. The terrible realization the film struggles with is that the father cannot repress these seemingly innate but repulsive urges. The character may thus symbolize a pointless transgression of social convention which he seems unaware of – a natural-born anarchist whom society cannot tame. Hopper does not validate this and indeed the film is also about the sheer horror of American anarchy as eroding humanity from within. The film understands the impulses behind the punk rebellion but is filled with despair for both the cause and effect of this sociological defiance. It depicts hopelessness in a defeatist world.