The narrative of Dennis Hopper’s post-Easy Rider (1969) career is famously contentious. To some he was a brilliant visionary with ideas that were too radical for mainstream Hollywood. His directorial debut was seen as the hippest thing around when it was first released and, for an exceptionally brief moment, critics dared to suggest that he was his generation’s Orson Welles. This cultural phenomenon allowed Hopper to cement his status as an icon of the hippie movement, but he didn’t end up becoming one of the major directors of his generation. After the disastrous release of The Last Movie (1971), Hopper largely retreated from Hollywood and took nine years to direct another film.
His detractors would argue that Hopper was a hack who hid aspects of his reactionary ideology behind a radical chic veneer. For many, Easy Rider is a pretentious hippie-spoliation flick that gained popularity with a generation of privileged, entitled white kids who held a pious view of the failings of their parents’ generation. Chicago Reader critic Dave Kehr noted that “The film may be a relic now, but it is a fascinating souvenir—particularly in its narcissism and fatalism—of how the hippie movement thought of itself.” Hopper’s reputation has suffered in an era in which people feel more comfortable questioning historical narratives that have been shaped by privileged individuals. People are now less willing to accept the idea that Easy Rider was an authentic snapshot of the counterculture movement in the late 1960s and prefer to view Easy Rider as a cultural text that inadvertently reveals a lot about the self absorption that characterised aspects of the hippie movement.
In the debate over Hopper’s legacy, certain films tend to get left out of the discussion. One of those forgotten gems is Out of the Blue (1980), which served as Hopper’s directorial comeback after several years spent acting in independent films in Europe. It failed to make the cultural impact that Easy Rider made, but it also feels more timeless than Hopper’s other directorial works. It sets itself apart from the rest of his oeuvre by serving as a relentlessly bleak study of a teenage girl who feels utterly hopeless and lost. There is little of the self aggrandising showmanship that helped to sell Easy Rider. It is, dare I say it, an introspective, nuanced exploration of adolescent angst.
The entire film is set against the backdrop of the late-1970s and the dying of the hippie movement. Modern viewers will be aware of the fact that liberal idealists were in the minority in the 1980s, as conservative yuppies took over the country and worshipped at the altar of Ronald Reagan. This cultural and political context gives it an extra layer of emotional resonance, as it allows Hopper to reflect on the relationship between disillusioned former-hippies and their highly impressionable children. He sets the story in a small, financially struggling town that is full of unemployed layabouts who feel like they have wasted their lives. He portrays Don Barnes, an alcoholic redneck who is trapped in an unstable, mutually obsessive marriage to Kathy (Sharon Farrell). Barnes’s daughter CeBe (Linda Manz) is a young punk who idolises Elvis Presley, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. She loves her father, but she is haunted by memories of being in the car with him when he crashed into a school bus and killed several children. He is serving a prison sentence and CeBe is often left to her own devices by her negligent mother. She spends most of her time chasing danger and attempting to keep her depressing thoughts at bay.
Most of the beauty of the film is derived from the deftness with which Leonard Yakir and Brenda Nielson incorporate cultural references into a fairly simplistic story. The tale of a lonely, sad young woman coming of age is not terribly original and it is up to the writers to fill in the margins with illuminating details. Yakir and Nielson work to establish CeBe as a person who yearns for a period in time that may have never existed. She wants to imagine the 1950s as a period in which everybody was aggressively shaking their hips and speaking out against authority, but she can’t glamorise the past when she looks into the eyes of her emotionally fragile mother. Music is meant to offer her a brief reprieve from the horrors of her everyday life, but it ends up becoming a form of torture in itself. Elvis taunts her with a fantastical vision of youth that she will never get to experience and she slowly comes to hate the fact that music allows her to remain ignorant to the horrors of the world around her.
Hopper’s direction also contributes to the sense of hopelessness that the protagonist feels. Some of Out of the Blue’s most inspired scenes feature Manz walking around town while Neil Young’s haunting, highly disturbing “My, My, Hey, Hey” plays. Hopper’s strong, purposeful camera movements give every shot a level of conviction that isn’t found in some of the more vaguely drawn scenes in the film. There is a raw emotionality in the scenes that feature CeBe literally drifting around town and attempting to find her place in the world. She is unguarded and gawky in these moments, and you are reminded of how combustible she is. At any moment, she could either fall to pieces or begin screaming at the top of her lungs. She’s walking on a knife’s edge and if anything goes wrong, she would lose her will to live.
It is by no means a slickly produced drama that effectively plumbs the depths of all of the weighty themes that it aims to tackle. There are times when it feels like a watered down adaptation of a Carson McCullers novel and it does tend to overstate its points, but it has a forceful, elemental power that cannot be denied.