A movie made by accident that was almost never seen at all, Dennis Hopper’s 1980 masterpiece of alienation “Out of the Blue” opens at the Brattle Theatre this weekend in a stunning new 4K restoration, preserving the picture in all its ragged, unseemly glory. The film stars the miraculous Linda Manz as proto-punk teen CeBe, coming of age in an economically washed out, nowhere suburbia with her alcoholic, ex-con dad (Hopper) fresh from the joint and mom (Sharon Farrell) shooting smack on the living room couch, when she’s not sleeping around with her husband’s friends. CeBe idolizes Elvis Presley, Johnny Rotten and any other iconoclastic, anti-authority figures she can find, her sneering, “no future” ethos feeling like the only sane response to being born without one. Hopper frames the film as an almost anthropological study of how 1960s counterculture dreams crashed and burned, conjuring the nihilism of the 1980s. It’s in many ways a spiritual sequel to his seminal 1969 “Easy Rider,” a feature-length elaboration on that picture’s cryptic campfire lament, “We blew it, man.”
Of course, it was never intended to be like this. Originally titled “CeBe,” “Out of the Blue” was supposed to be an afterschool TV movie for families cobbled together from Canadian tax-shelter funds, chronicling the rehabilitation of a runaway teen thanks to the efforts of an unconventional therapist played by Raymond Burr. At the time, Hopper was a barely employed actor-for-hire struggling with substance abuse issues of mythic proportions, in the midst of his second stretch in Hollywood exile after the disastrous reception of his semi-inscrutable “Easy Rider” follow-up, which he’d perhaps prophetically titled “The Last Movie.” (A better film than its reputation might suggest, if a bit lost inside its own head.)
But when original writer-director Leonard Yakir was fired two weeks into production, Hopper swooped in to the rescue and rewrote the screenplay over the weekend, reportedly while listening to his buddy Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps” nonstop and replacing the old title with a line from the album’s opening track. He stepped into the director’s chair the following Monday morning having entirely reconceived the film around his own raging personal demons and the strengths he saw in Manz’s unique screen presence. This wasn’t the first time someone had reshaped a movie after meeting the young actress. Two years earlier, while editing “Days of Heaven,” Terrence Malick scrapped his whole script and switched the story to take place from the POV of the lead character’s little sister, so indelibly played by Manz.
You can’t blame them. There’s never been a movie star before or since like Linda Manz. Stubby, tomboyish and brusque, yet capable of an aching vulnerability, she was a Dickensian street urchin crossed with one of the Dead End Kids from a 1930s Bowery serial. Manz spoke in a guttural, Noo Yawk honk that always accented the words you least expect in a sentence and seemed incapable of a false or rehearsed moment on camera. What everyone remembers most about “Days of Heaven” is the narration Malick brought her back after filming to ad-lib, blunt non sequiturs beguilingly at odds with the film’s fussy, golden-hour images: “You could see people on the shore, but they was far off and you couldn't see what they were doing. They were probably calling for help or something, or they were trying to bury somebody.” (35mm prints of "Days of Heaven" and "Easy Rider" will also be screening alongside "Out of the Blue" on selected days during the Brattle engagement.)
Manz’s scenes with Hopper in “Out of the Blue” are marvels of improvisational ingenuity, the alchemy of two artists completely in sync with each other’s processes. She’s a brute and a bully at school, but sleeps with a teddy bear and sucks her thumb. CeBe’s always belting out the lyrics to Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” like it’s her autobiography. At night, she stays up late snarling punk catchphrases “Subvert normality” and “Kill all hippies” into the CB radio that still hums in the cab of her dad’s derelict truck, which has been abandoned in the backyard ever since he drunkenly plowed it into a stalled school bus and went to prison for five years. The movie means to be Hopper’s reckoning with the legacy his generation has left for their children, and as far as metaphors go, the original Easy Rider wiping out a bus full of kids while he was wasted isn’t exactly a subtle one. But then, we never admired Dennis Hopper for his understatement.
Hopper’s first film role was famously in “Rebel Without a Cause,” and “Out of the Blue” can be seen as a continuation of that movie’s overwhelming empathy for disaffected youth. Cebe’s rockabilly affectations, slicked-back hair and clothespin piercings are amalgamations of Elvis and the Sex Pistols and every other outsider perspective with which she can find the common cause she’s missing at home. (The closest thing the film has to a reverie is when she runs away to a ratty rock club and is invited to jam on the drums with Vancouver band The Pointed Sticks. But it’s telling that even the happiest segment of the movie finds her fending off a rapist with a broken bottle.) The picture is full of barbed visual references to Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” and other rebellious pop-culture icons. But the most subversive might be the visage of the filmmaker himself, once a counterculture god now looking drunk and exhausted in his 40s. Hopper wants us to see our silver screen heroes as sad-sack, abusive dads.
The film languished in litigation for a couple of years before Hopper and producer John Alan Simon were able to wrestle free the rights and release it independently themselves in 1982. Hiring an American director had killed the movie’s Canadian tax-shelter eligibility, infuriating financiers and leaving the film technically stateless. “Out of the Blue” remains the only movie to be presented at the Cannes Film Festival without a designated country or national anthem played before the screening, and it feels somehow fitting that this story ended up an orphan. Such a bleak, despairing drama was obviously never going to be a box office bonanza, except for around here — where it caught on with college audiences and broke house records playing for 17 weeks at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. This new restoration is being “presented by” actresses Chloë Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne, who are both around my age and presumably grew up as I did, with those old, hard-to-find VHS tapes of “Out of the Blue” being shared like a secret among cool older siblings and similarly-minded outcasts.
The Neil Young song that inspired Hopper's new title, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” is played multiple times throughout the film and can’t help but carry with it a sad added resonance now. In 1994, Kurt Cobain quoted Young’s lyrics in his suicide note, and watching the film today it’s chilling to realize that the late Nirvana frontman was roughly the same age as CeBe when the movie was made, growing up in similarly blighted Northwestern towns, two misunderstood, androgynous kids seeking solace in music from some of the same generational traumas. This makes the harrowing ending even harder to sit through (something I didn’t think was possible) but also illustrates the universality of the frustrations and confusions that Hopper and Manz have tapped into here, CeBe’s struggle still resonating with audiences more than four decades later. Like the songs say, it’s a denial, a denial, a denial. So lonely she could die.
“Out of the Blue” is playing at the Brattle Theatre from Friday, May 13 through Thursday, May 19. “Days of Heaven” screens on Saturday, May 14, and Sunday, May 15 while “Easy Rider” plays Wednesday, May 18, and Thursday, May 19.