By Betsy Sherman
A welcome homecoming for a new 4K digital restoration of a landmark independent film that’s attained cult status.
Out of the Blue, directed by Dennis Hopper. Playing at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, May 13-15 and 17-19.
Out of the Blue (1980) was the only movie to star Linda Manz. A late ‘70s gift to American cinema, Manz was an unpolished New York street kid, a boyish girl teenager who looked younger than her years. She was like Tatum O’Neal possessed by the spirit of Jimmy Cagney.
After her scene-stealing debut in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with Manz. Dennis Hopper, whom fate allowed to move from mere hired actor to director and uncredited writer on Out of the Blue, did. He launched this uniquely brilliant performer like a torpedo into a tinderbox of a story that exposes rifts in the ideal of the nuclear family; the precariousness of blue-collar life in North America; and the trauma that ripples out from alcoholism, drug addiction and abuse. Moreover, the film is pointedly relevant to today’s conversations as it explores alternative ways to view gender and sexuality.
Out of the Blue had some success in Europe, but barely got released in the U.S. In 1982, Hopper traveled with a print, opening the film city by city. The U.S. premiere was at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre (then-owner Justin Freed’s photo of a jittery-looking Hopper is in the stairway gallery). Over the years, it’s attained cult status, though it’s been hard to find. A new 4K digital restoration opens on May 13 for a week’s run at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, and it’s a welcome homecoming for this landmark of independent film (the theater will also be showing Days of Heaven on Sat. and Sun. at 2 pm, and Hopper’s Easy Rider Wed. and Thurs., both on 35mm film).
The re-release was planned for the 40th anniversary in 2020, but, like so much, that was put on hold. Among the many sad events of that year was Manz’s death at age 58 from lung cancer and pneumonia. Manz had left show business in her twenties, married and had kids. She popped up in cameos and small roles, notably in Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997). But her fans never forgot her; this restoration is presented by two fellow risk-taking actresses, Chlöe Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne.
Out of the Blue remains a stunner. Manz plays CeBe Barnes, who lives in a backwater town with her waitress mother Kathy (Sharon Farrell) and truck driver father Don (Hopper). A preface scene that finds father and daughter in the cab of Don’s big rig starts out endearingly, with CeBe in Halloween clown makeup obsessing about Elvis Presley. Dad’s furtive swigs of booze while driving will have consequences: a horrific collision that affects many more families than just his own.
The story resumes as Don is coming to the end of a five-year prison sentence for causing the crash. On the soundtrack, Neil Young sings his “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)”: “The king is gone, but he’s not forgotten/This is the story of Johnny Rotten.” Fifteen-year-old CeBe is still hung up on Elvis, but she’s discovered punk rock. Perhaps it’s the genre’s cathartic nihilism that speaks to her; a song like “Pretty Vacant” is more relevant than “Teddy Bear.” She sits in the crushed truck cab, talking on the CB radio (hence her nickname). Her “Does anybody read me?” serves as the film’s plangent thesis statement. No one within physical reach is on her wavelength. She’s been abandoned by her father, the now-dead Elvis, and the imploded Sex Pistols.
CeBe’s mother, a woman of slippery standards, can’t control the rebellious teen. Her idea of a life lesson is telling her daughter there are two kinds of men, the sexy bad boys and the providers; she’s been playing house with her dull-but-indulgent boss at the diner, tingling with anticipation for the return of her delinquent husband.
Manz gives CeBe a spark of life that makes you hope she doesn’t get subsumed into the end-of-the-‘70s bleakness that surrounds her. This mood is reflected in locations that include the diner, a bowling alley, and, fittingly, a dump. There’s a churning mix of emotions when CeBe and Kathy go to the prison’s visiting room. CeBe and her father were intensely close, like two peas in a pod, but he hasn’t communicated with her in years. Once he’s back home, which way will this relationship go?
The skeleton of a plot also involves the return to town of Don’s best friend, Charlie (character actor Don Gordon oozes malevolence). Kathy fools around with Charlie, and shoots up heroin. Don’s release precipitates a feverish reunion between husband and wife; he resumes his drinking, and quickly turns violent. CeBe hears it all—the shouting, the scuffles, and her mother crying—while curled up in her bedroom, the tough kid rendered vulnerable, sucking her thumb.
CeBe’s mode of escape is to hitchhike to the big city (the film was shot in Vancouver). But she doesn’t make it to her Oz—a punk club—without a detour into the underworld. A cabby takes CeBe to some kind of brothel, where a garishly lollipop-sucking woman in lingerie looms over the denim-clad teen. CeBe hightails it out of there and is soon among a crowd happily pogo-ing to the band The Pointed Sticks (the pogo being least sexual dance ever, proudly so). CeBe hangs out backstage, and gets to bash the drums during the Sticks’s next set. Aaaand, then she gets busted for stealing a car.
Cut to a diffident CeBe and a tearful Kathy in the office of a social services psychiatrist played by Raymond Burr. In a normal movie, Dr. Brean would turn things around by sanding Cindy/CeBe into a round peg, the better to fit into convention’s round hole. In this movie, he personifies the impotence of the Establishment. The formidable Burr recedes into the furniture as he plays against Manz. “It’s my life! I can do what I want with it!” snaps CeBe, and the movie does not contradict her.
Out of the Blue has undeniable power, and fine performances by Manz, Hopper and Farrell, but it isn’t without flaws. The narrative is sometimes tangled, with off-ramps that go nowhere, and some scenes are pure histrionics. A word that comes to mind is volatile, which could also be applied to Hopper, for better or for worse.
That said, the commentaries on gender and sexuality made through the character of CeBe are bold for a time period that didn’t have much vocabulary beyond “tomboy” or “androgynous.” In CeBe’s world, gender roles are taken to their extremes: there are macho men and the seductive women who strive to please them. Whenever the teen obeys her parents’ wish that she wear a dress, it seems like a performance, or a disguise harkening back to her Halloween clown makeup. She represents a place where dualities meet. The movie is deeply compassionate towards her search for identity.
Two developments going on in the household build towards the movie’s harrowing, Oedipal climax. As a sky-high Kathy frets to Don and Charlie, “I don’t want her to be a dyke!,” CeBe is in her bedroom putting on lipstick and Daddy’s biker leather jacket, and drawing on sideburns. The confrontation leads to a revelation, and a combustible situation that recalls further lyrics of the Neil Young song.
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, and Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.