There’s a cleverness to the doting of Dennis Hopper’s brief auteurial oeuvre upon the search for “freedom”—in a decidedly American, if nebulously human sense—and the discovery of dead ends. Gawky, if timely, and blistered with disillusionment, his first three films invite the audience to celebrate their artistic failure as a socio-political metaphor. The reactionary stance of Easy Rider has especially enjoyed a long shelf life in spite of the film’s dated trippiness because the characters’ ultimate disappointment is vague enough to resonate across generations and lifestyles; is it hippie ideology that fails Wyatt and Billy, or are they unable to properly live up to the demands of their era’s “free” template? The narrative unkemptness underscores this ambiguity; our dissatisfaction with the plot’s ungraceful maneuvers mirrors that of the two on-screen searchers lost in America’s thicket.
But when Hopper, along with screenwriters Leonard Yakir and Gary Jules Jouvenat, approached the still-inchoate punk ethos in 1980s Out of the Blue, his cynicism toward the very idea of revolution was even more profound. Widely banned and/or shoved under the rug at the time of its limited release primarily due to its violently bonkers ending, the film’s alternately herky-jerky and languid cadence is suggestive of a terminally wounded body undergoing a death rattle. (Set, somewhat oddly, given the milieu, mostly to acoustic tracks from Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, the number of moody, wordless passages also give the impression of a full-length montage.) This produces a look and feel that communicates the blind rage and ennui out of which punk’s jabby power chords and raucous lyrics sprang. But the film’s punk apotheosis—the just-barely adolescent protagonist Cebe (Linda Manz)—is so flimsily fashioned out of guesswork and fetishism that the drama can’t be taken seriously as depiction or summation of that era’s anger.
Cebe lives with her drug-addicted, ditzily promiscuous mother, Kathy (Sharon Farrell), and waits for her father, Don (Hopper), to be released from prison, where he was sent after crashing a semi into a school bus full of children. Cebe, who was in the passenger seat during the accident, glamorizes the recklessness of her father’s attitude and crime (despite the fact that intermittent flashbacks make it seem like a freak occurrence rather than a byproduct of an uncompromisingly fast life) and adopts a precocious obstreperousness. She sneaks into cowboy bars in the suburban town where lives, flashes the bird and utterances of “Disco sucks!” to stunned passersby on the street, and morbidly worships Sid Vicious and Elvis Presley (“Elvis died…I’m gonna kill myself so I can go visit him,” she says).
Manz’s deadpan, unpredictable demeanor offers her character an organic quality, even if she doesn’t seem to understand the ideology to which she’s subscribing. (No one “buys” her fury: Living in a small town with an infamous father, everyone knows and sympathizes with her, and even when she’s thrown out of local taverns for being underage and spewing profanity, she’s told to go home with a slightly amused shake of the head.) We feel an unsettling tension between Cebe’s innocent, baby-doll face and her embrace of punk’s nihilist rancor, one that occasionally resolves itself with musical giddiness. In the film’s most convincingly lyrical sequence, “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” plays while footage of Cebe hitchhiking to an unnamed metropolis is crosscut with shots of her staring condescendingly at her mother, entertaining a male suitor in their parlor. In the big city, the camera loosens up but doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself; it pans back and forth between skyscrapers in time with the music, expressing the seldom-acknowledged fun to be had from punk and roots-rock hagiography.
But soon after this scene, Cebe smokes pot with a portly cabbie in a tiny, dirty apartment while a hooker sucks a lollypop in the corner, presumably for ambience. That the cabbie has other (unrealized) ideas for the punk nymphet nearly suggests marijuana as a gateway to social victimization. Out of the Blue isn’t quite coherent enough to be a cautionary tale, but the stray scenes where Cebe appears to be in over her head as she screams to be heard render punk as a petulant continuation of hippiedom’s mistakes. Where narcotics represented a false open-mindedness in Easy Rider, here they’re outright ensnaring and destructive, laying waste to a “normal” childhood and the nuclear family. (Cebe’s mom frequently shoots up in the bathroom, and fails to notice when her daughter runs off during late hours).
Ultimately, all kinds of freedom prove ensnaring and destructive in Out of the Blue. After the restless Don is released from prison, the film enters a dark and curiously revelatory third act where Cebe’s beatification of her father is challenged and then disintegrated; in the feverish, gaudy climax, Cebe oils back her hair, zips up a leather jacket, and steadfastly refuses to play the victim any longer. That she’s a victim at all is the movie’s fatal blind spot; aside from a propulsive scene with the Pointed Sticks, there are no other punks to which we can compare Cebe in this barren landscape, forcing her to paradoxically encapsulate the punk philosophy in both its pure/idealized and shallow/imperfect states. What we’re not sure of is whether the repressed memories and fragile emotions in the “blaze of glory” ending make her attitude more authentic, or a foolhardy outcropping of neurosis. If Easy Rider argued that all Americans worth a damn were pilgrims, Out of the Blue depicts us as strung-out survivors who symbolically punish our transgressors with ferocity and loud guitars. It’s punk as a PTSD symptom.