Out of the Blue (1980)
Written by Leonard Yakir and Brenda Nielson
Directed by Dennis Hopper
As we close out our series on American Disillusionment in the 1970s, our eyes return to Dennis Hopper, who we last saw in The Last Movie. That was the last film he directed before this picture. Out of the Blue is a transitory film, moving its focus from the boomer generation’s self-involved anxieties to see what happened to Generation X in their parents’ emotional absence. It’s a painfully nihilistic film that continues Hopper’s career-long struggle with wanting the American mythologized to him while seeing that it is falling apart before his eyes. His take is expectedly reactionary and therefore unable to provide a fully coherent point, but the emotions that underlie the story are genuine. It’s the story of a generation already lost before getting on their feet.
Cebe (Linda Manz) is a troubled teenage girl growing up in a cultural wasteland. Her dad, Don (Dennis Hopper), is serving a prison sentence for a vehicular accident that killed a school bus full of children due to his negligence. Her mother, Kathy (Sharon Farrell), isn’t interested in a divorce but fools around with other men; we’re never sure how much Don knows. Through a series of episodes, Cebe retreats deeper into herself, her love of punk music, and Elvis. She presents herself androgynously and doesn’t seem to be attracted to anyone. This is noticed by the adults in her community, particularly the men who fantasize about “curing” her. The world of the late 1970s/early 1980s here is bleak, where children get chewed up and spit out by the people who should be protecting them.
My favorite thing about Out of the Blue is that it refuses to talk down condescendingly about punk rock and youth culture. I never enjoyed punk aesthetics, but I can respect the artists that make it. I know The Talking Heads are considered punk; I like them but just feel that their style of music & performance is not really what punk is defined as in the modern context. However, I have noticed that many early punks didn’t eschew what had come before, like Elvis, but found a recontextualized appreciation for the music. Punk fans could articulate aspects of older music that had been overlooked and see them as pushing back against cultural norms that had been countered by the music becoming so absorbed into the consciousness. Elvis is seen as harmless now, but in the context of his debut, he was causing young people to ask specific questions about what was acceptable. Elvis also stole the entirety of his career from Black music, but that is a conversation for another time (Hm, Baz Luhrman does have that new movie out…)
There’s a horrible truth in Out of the Blue that your mind will want to ignore and move past, but you need to pay attention. From the film’s start, something horrible happens between Cebe and Don. The opening scene (the accident) has Cebe dressed up as a clown for her school’s Halloween celebration. Don is openly flirting with his daughter, who is meant to be around 10 years old at the time. He’s playfully touching her shoulder, kissing on her cheeks; it’s a level beyond anything I would hope my readership would find acceptable, made even more specific when he kisses her on the mouth. That’s the moment when the crash occurs; his attention is focused on molesting his own child. It’s so infuriatingly vile & nasty the way the scene plays out, but that is Hopper’s intent. He hates people like Don as much as you do.
Linda Manz delivered the performance of her life here, clearly an angry teenager who doesn’t have the words to articulate the source of their pain wholly. There’s a moment where Cebe is taken to a psychologist after running away from home and voicing suicidal ideation. Kathy withholds the dark truth she knows but won’t say, and Cebe, while messing with toys on the psychologist’s desk, spits out, “Don’t listen to her.” It tracks with the incoherence that victims of abuse experience that Cebe holds such anger towards her mother but still wants to idealize her father, the source of the abuse. Her dream state is achieved briefly when she runs away, hitchhiking and exploding with profanity at those who drive right by, and finally reaches a punk club where she erases her pain by becoming part of the whole, raging on the dance floor. Reality won’t let her escape completely, and it comes rushing back when a cab driver offers to help her score some weed, only to take her to a brothel and try to force Cebe to participate in a threesome with a sex worker. The adults of this world won’t leave Cebe alone.
There’s a stomach-churning moment where Don, recently released, talks to Cebe about recreating a truck driving job he’d done years earlier. It’s implied that they engaged in sexual behavior on her trip with him, and Don questions if she’d like to go on another trip “like that one.” Hopper’s performance is intense, not as far as Manz goes, and he’s clearly struggling in real life from his substance addiction issues. He brings in much of his burnout experience to present Don as a wide-eyed, haunted man. There’s no honest introspection or self-awareness in the character; it’s a man existing and making no effort to think about the profound harm his actions are causing. In the film’s third act, he, Kathy, and a drunk friend talk about Cebe’s androgyny while she hides in her bedroom. They settle on the idea that a man needs to force himself on her, and that’s implied to have happened off-screen.
This tormented thinking did not die out in the 1970s, and I am afraid they are finding fertile soil today. One of the “concerns” Don and Kathy voice about Cebe is their worries that she’s a lesbian. Today, you have people working themselves into a psychotic fury about the existence of trans people or even that their own children might be trans and would be encouraged not to repress it. Simultaneously, the news has been talking a lot in the last week about a 10-year-old Ohioan girl who had to cross state lines into Indiana to have an abortion.
The conservative talking heads have tried shifting the talking points to the rapist being an undocumented immigrant or the Indiana AG saying his office will investigate the doctor who performed the procedure. I’m not seeing any of them condemn the statutory rape that occurred. The message sent is that child rape is not the most significant point of concern in the situation, and that should be chilling to you. I woke up this morning to headlines from liberals like Fareed Zakaria and others talking about the need for Democrats to pull back from defending trans people to ensure electoral success.
America is slipping further into the fascism of its colonial roots, presenting itself as sexual violence against children. Children being riddled with bullets until they cannot have open casket funerals is glossed over. The mobs of red-in-the-face, foaming-at-the-mouth parents swarming school board meetings are constantly concerned about LGTBQ+ recognition. This week I read a story of one of these parents being arrested for sexual contact with a minor; the contact was heterosexual.
I don’t want to believe it, but I think there is a faction of fascists in the United States who are working to normalize heterosexual underage sex. It’s something libertarians have always mentioned that made my skin crawl; their obsession with regulation almost always becomes a critique of age of consent laws. The derangement of the “Great Replacement” theory could easily be used to justify turning little girls into breeding stock. We can’t say it hasn’t happened before; check out chattel slavery. I have always found the people that stir up mobs over these things, who spend day-in and day-out obsessed with the bodies of minors and their sexuality, to be the ones we should be frightened of. As “genital checks” come to a state near you under the pretense of “keeping trans people out of girls’ sports,” do not be surprised if a generation of young women is left scarred by sexual abuse. These are monstrous times, and the anger Hopper communicates in this film is still so palpable today.