When Dennis Hopper’s third film, Out of the Blue, was released in 1980, the trailer pushed it hard at an arthouse audience, with pull-quotes from the British Sight & Sound and The Daily Telegraph: “A sharp shock to complacent faith in civilization,” “Hopper brings intelligence to bear on the punk phenomenon.” Indeed, the notion that Out of the Blue somehow distills the mood of its period is reflected in the frequent claim that it does for the 1980s what Hopper’s drug-addled debut, Easy Rider, did for the 1960s. In a Film Comment article on Hopper, Michael Almereyda wrote that Out of the Blue “crashes working-class reality into punk nihilism,” producing what J. Hoberman dubbed its “skid-row lyricism.”
Besides the 1980s, Out of the Blue’s most blatant theme is its protagonists’ irreversible drive toward self-destruction. After Don (Hopper) crashes his semi into a schoolbus and kills several children, he goes to prison for five years, during which his daughter Cebe (Linda Manz) grows up into a sneering, precocious punk. She makes ham radio broadcasts from her dad’s decommissioned truck and spews slogans like “subvert reality, subvert normality”; gets kicked out of strip clubs for ordering rum ‘n’ cokes; cock-teases older boys with her pubescent classmates; and gets high in flophouses with folk-punk cabbies; but mostly she just drifts, her life unfurling on the side of roads and railroad tracks. Hanging out at home is impossible, because her mom (Sharon Farrell) is always there with a creep boyfriend, shooting up and watching football. When Don gets out, his rehabilitation quotient is zero—back to the same old patterns of drinking and driving, antagonizing everyone around him, and getting much too intimate with Cebe. It’s a ruthless world in which nobody cares about anything except booze and getting laid or anyone except themselves.
Out of the Blue’s bleak, suburban Vancouver setting, along with its sparse use of music, frigid color palette, and adlibbed, introverted dialogue, make it reminiscent of Maurice Pialat’s hyperrealist masterpiece L’enfance nue (1968), with its aimless pre-teen protagonist’s total lack of socially constructive interests and his inexorable slide into delinquency. But more than a study in adolescent anomie, Out of the Blue is an essay on nihilism. A graffito in one of the punk dives that Cebe wanders into puts it best: “Suck sucks.” Sure, disco sucks, but—in an echo of Heidegger’s enigmatic “the nothing itself nothings”—suck itself sucks. The movie’s second-to-last line (SPOILER ALERT) sums it all up: “That’s totally meaningless, I don’t see the point.” It’s delivered by Cebe’s mother moments before they’re both blown up with dynamite in a climax that literalizes the recurring Neil Young lyric, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” The subject having been stripped of all moral values, all that’s left to destroy is its body. Turgenev found his cinematic, 20th century match in Hopper.