If the 2020s have a zeitgeist, it’s weariness.
Two years into COVID, it seems to have inflected every corner of our media landscape, from the casual pessimism of internet discourse to the uncharacteristically depressing Sex and the City reboot. Even the most cheerful media properties are suddenly imbued with an exhausted, disillusioned edge.
If ‘80s counterculture was defined by punk music—anarchic, furious, leaning into nothing—the 2020s equivalent is harder to define. Perhaps that’s why it feels like an eerily appropriate time for a remastered version of Dennis Hopper’s 1980 drama Out of the Blue, which screens at the Hollywood Theatre starting Friday.
Set in rural British Columbia, Out of the Blue stars the incandescent Linda Manz (Days of Heaven), who died in 2020, as a teenage girl named Cebe. The film begins with one of the most upsetting opening scenes in cinema history: Cebe riding shotgun while her alcoholic father, Don (Hopper), chugs whiskey and accidentally plows his semi-truck into a school bus full of children. And it only gets darker from there!
Originally financed as a Canadian after-school special, the film almost imploded when its intended director backed out at the last minute. Hopper, looking to save the production, had one weekend to rewrite the script and step into the director’s chair. The result is a wild, galloping, associative masterpiece, with breathtaking cinematography by Marc Champion and an improvised feel.
Out of the Blue is most successful as a character study of Cebe: Cebe the thumb-sucking delinquent, Cebe the Elvis-worshipping punk. It’s her movie, whether she’s picking a fight, smoking angstily or getting kicked out of a country-Western bar where Canadian tuxedos abound in every shade of denim.
When Cebe witnesses her flimsy, histrionic mother (Sharon Farrell) shooting up in their living room, she hightails it to Vancouver. The rest of the film unfolds like a fever dream. Cebe even gets to play the drums amid the raucous nirvana of a Pointed Sticks concert, one of the few joyful moments in a film propelled by an aura of creeping dread.
Out of the Blue also chronicles Don’s release from prison five years after the bus crash. We watch as an already-dysfunctional family falls apart in real time and the story takes on a tilt-a-whirl quality, careening from one party scene to the next. Adults booze and leer at underage girls, while Cebe escapes into her Elvis records and punk.
At times, Out of the Blue feels like a moving painting. Don drives a forklift around a garbage dump, scattering a cloud of white seagulls. The family picnics on a deserted beach. Cebe gels her hair back and paints sideburns on her jaw and, in another scene, sings “Heartbreak Hotel” in an empty greenhouse choked with overflowing vines.
All of this is held together by Manz’s stoic, expressive minimalism, and Crazy Horse and Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey (Into the Black),” which gives the film its title (“Out of the blue and into the black/You pay for this, but they give you that”) and plays throughout. “It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away,” Young sings, reminding us that the characters in Out of the Blue are pretty good at both.
While Out of the Blue’s explosive, frankly ridiculous final scene might linger for some viewers, it doesn’t resonate with me. Instead, I often find myself thinking about the scene at the Pointed Sticks show where a camera crew trails the musicians. “What does punk rock mean to you?” a man asks as he waves a microphone in their faces. No one answers.
From the very first frame, Out of the Blue vibrates with a dark, animal cruelty. Cebe’s world is a dangerous place for a girl to come of age; it’s populated by broken people who don’t have much left to live for and lash out in startling ways.
If anything offers a counternarrative to the cruelty Cebe endures, it’s that punk show. Elbowing past the camera crew, eyes lit up, Cebe sits at the drum set, trembling with excitement when she’s handed the sticks. With teetering, fragile bravado, she fights and rocks out while the world crumbles around her. That’s punk.
SEE IT: Out of the Blue screens at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-493-1128, hollywoodtheatre.org. 7 pm Friday-Thursday, through Feb 24. $8-$10.