#19, MARCH 2006



Films You May Have Missed
by Alfred Chamberlain

Hey there, kids! The first film we’d like to share remains one of the least seen masterpieces we know of. Equal parts punk atom bomb & Cashiers du Cinema burnout, Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen. “Oh, him” yr prolly burping right about now. But trust us men, one glance at Hopper’s filmography will leave you wandering just what the hell you were thinking. Despite tremendous gaps where the man’s career was deader than black death, the goddamned thing is chock full of some of the finest celluloid in history.
        He’d been a promising youngster alongside James Dean & Natalie Wood & Nicholas Ray in some sort of U.S. pre-new-wave in the mid-50s. After his close friend Dean fed the Beyond’s insatiable appetite for hip souls, Hopper tried to fill the void w/his own ego. On the set of ‘58’s From Hell to Texas, Hopper, then 22, disregarded 30-year veteran director Henry Hathaway’s instructions for a scene. The stubborn Hopper refused to alter his original take—the take he wanted to use—aping it eighty-plus times over ensuing days, infuriating everyone & earning a rep w/in the studio system that destroyed his burgeoning career for more than ten years.
Tho he claims he turned down the lead in the Splendor in the Grass, Hopper was ignored by Hollywood thru a decade of TV and B-film work. After learning the ropes like so many of his contemporaries under B-film kingpin Roger Corman, Hopper directed his unknown pals Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, & Karen Black in 1969’s small-budget Easy Rider. His directorial debut changed the landscape of American cinema. It revolutionized everything from the soundtrack (it was the first American film to use “found music”—music not specifically composed for the film) to the way studios viewed the risen American youth/insurgency. Hollywood finally found something that the hip would buy from them.
Hopper and friends became household names & the studios came calling. His directorial follow-up, ‘71’s The Last Movie, would push his success to the END. Shot in Peru w/actor & musician friends (especially dig Sam Fuller making one of his infamous cameos), The Last Movie is a sprawling, broken masterpiece that eats itself raw, spewing endless ideas, improvisations, and you-are-watching-a-film fuckery. Walled up w/the footage back at his compound in New Mexico (& zonked out of his mind from every drug on the table), Hopper panicked during the editing process, supposedly calling in Alejandro Jodorowsky for help (yip!). The film is surely the most radical & fucked expression ever produced by a Hollywood studio—and an absolute nuclear bomb “at” the box office. Universal was dumbfounded at the final product & w/zero distribution since its limited release, one of the penultimate expressions of the period remains widely unknown & unseen. (For more on this period, dig a bootleg of American Dreamer, a documentary about the editing of The Last Movie, featuring naked groupies, naked Hopper, and naked ego.)
Hopper was a Hollywood zero following this second unforgivable sin & would be seen almost exclusively in foreign-made films for another ten years, save for kingpin Coppola’s offbeat castings. In 1980, between his resurrecting turns in Apocalypse Now & Rumble Fish, Hopper took a co-starring role in a tiny family trauma-drama called Cebe, to be shot in Vancouver. The executive producer of the film was Hopper’s longtime friend Paul Lewis, production manager on Easy Rider & producer of The Last Movie. Hopper was to play the father of Cebe (Linda Manz) in a true story about a young girl who had killed her father & a few others & was then rescued back from the damned by a shrink, the film’s star, narrator, & Canadian, TV’s Ironside & Perry Mason, Raymond fucking Burr.
During the first week of shooting by writer & first-time director Leonard Yakir, hip Hopper bonds w/hip Manz. Manz, just barely 18, had co-starred in reclusive genius Terrence Malick’s masterpiece Days of Heaven a couple years earlier. A stumpy, scarred, & beautiful feminine oddity, Manz is a sub-cult fave of the cineaste. Not much is known about her early life except that it was horrendously rough, a misfortune that seems to come across in her roles. Hopper, then in his 40s, probably realizing that he’s working a particularly shit job, spends much of his down time hanging out w/Manz, picking up on her zeal for punk & playing drums.
Eight days into production, producer Lewis realizes that the footage shot so far is completely unusable. W/just over five weeks left of the six & a half week schedule, he gambles & makes a change. Hopper agrees to step in as the new director & promises to bring the film in before the deadline—a notion that probably seemed ridiculous to anyone who’d seen The Last Movie. He rewrites the entire story during a short weekend, making Manz’s Cebe the focal point of the film & all but removes Burr’s shrink. He asks his friend Neil Young for a couple songs off his latest record; "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" & "Thrasher" would be masterfully woven into the third film that Dennis Hopper was allowed to direct, the freshly christened Out of the Blue.
         Manz is given free reign to explore the new Cebe, a punk-loving vitriolic 15yr old drummer-wannabe whose drunk, big-rig driving father Don (Hopper) returns from a 5yr prison stint for no-shit killing a busload of smalltown USA’s children. The unruly, confident, & staunchly tomboyish Cebe constantly laments the death of Elvis, Sid Vicious, & Johnny Rotten (who was thankfully still alive at the time & unfortunately remains so). Her father’s imprint has left Cebe hanging in the balance, oscillating between a childish thumb-sucking ballerina & pure punk nihilism. Manz—who admitted to Hopper that she did still suck her thumb at 18—pantomimes her way to an extended, uncompromising fuckyou.

         Manz’s stunning presence does not go unmatched. Cebe’s Mom Kathy (a spot-on Sharon Farrell) is an adulterous junkie third-wheel that completes the dysfunctional triangulation. Don Gordon, Hopper’s old friend & intensely wild co-star in The Last Movie, was sent for in one of the new director’s first moves. Gordon, best known perhaps for being Steve McQueen’s best friend, disturbs as Hopper’s longtime cohort/instigator Charlie. Man, if there’s ever been an actor that seems to be more out of control than Hopper, it’s Gordon.
          & of course, Hopper lets a lot of reality into his role as the alcoholic kid-slaughterer whose every moment is haunted. Admittedly channeling the emotions that overwhelmed him from being behind the camera again after so many years, Hopper is spellbinding in scene after scene. Walking the invisible tight rope slowly, as the man said, between pure naked tenderness & raging drunken violence, it is gut-wrenching to take in his post-prison existence working heavy equipment at a landfill & trying to approximate his previous life at home. His welcome-home party—which opens w/one of the films many hypnotic, lengthy tracking shots—& the filming of the seagulls at the landfill are surely some of the most remarkable scenes of the period.

         Raymond Burr’s contract had to be satisfied by the filmmakers because of Canadian tax-shelter laws requiring x-amount of Canadians be used in the film. Burr clearly would have left the film if he was aware his parts had largely been written out, so he was never apprised of the new script. Instead, for seven precious days Hopper takes the lump thru all of his initially planned scenes, even giving in to the clueless Burr’s demands that he not only be allowed to write his own scenes, but read them from fucking cue-cards... It must have been quite a pleasant feeling for all those in-the-know that Burr would be relegated to a few precious minutes of actual screen-time. & in those scenes, Hopper turned Manz loose on the unsuspecting Burr. His confused horror watching Manz improvise w/a fan for a few seconds is quite tasty. Legend holds that Burr didn’t know he wasn’t the film’s star until he saw it well after post-production, perhaps at the Cannes screening.

         There are a number of street scenes where passersby & pedestrians are unknowingly cast into the film, sucked into Manz’s orbit. Even those who were hired—all the kids, the mom’s boyfriend, the AMAzing street performers, Vancouver punks The Pointed Sticks & their fans, & everyone else other than the four main characters—were non-actors, amplifying Hopper’s love of neo-realism, Truffaut, & freedom. It’s the element that allowed Hopper, like Allen Ginsberg, like Bob Dylan, to stay perfectly relevant & THERE despite the dramatic shifts in culture & subculture that’d take place during their lengthy careers. Freedom. It’s what makes Out of the Blue the missing link between Jules Dassin & Harmony Korine. It’s what makes every frame of this tightly-budgeted little wonder ooze w/the color & imagination & humanity that we should be running towards, & it’s out there waiting for you right now. Go cut yrself a slice, brothers.
        What happened to our heroes? Hopper would work well w/the eighties: Rumble Fish, Hoosiers, River’s Edge, Robert Altman’s O.C. & Stiggs (which is...well, we’ll try & deal w/the piece in a future spiel), & most memorably in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. He has been allowed to direct four more films, but hasn’t reached his previous heights in that respect. If you must, dig the dated but cool Colors & The Hot Spot, the best thing Don Johnson has done other than A Boy and His Dog.

         Perhaps we could toss Manz into the “genius actresses of the 70s who were canned by whitey in the 80s” bin (Ellen Burstyn being the finest example). But more likely, Manz probably retreated into family life, hopefully healing the wounds of her youth. By all reports, she lives on a farm in the valley w/five kids. She did, however, resurface in Harmony Korine’s 1997 freedomfest Gummo as Solly’s mom. It was her first role in a dozen or more years & she’s worked little since. The cracked staff over at Vice magazine recently reported that Manz sold her killer Elvis blue-jean jacket, donned throughout Out of the Blue, to Gummo co-star Chloe Sevigny.

         Raymond Burr would later renounce his Canadian citizenship.

Be free,
Alfred C.

(A word to the wise: an Out of the Blue DVD is currently available on the Passion Productions imprint & it ain’t such a hot product, tho it’s a worthy print & very inexpensive. It’s the one Netflix has. For those with more patience & budget, dig the earlier Anchor Bay DVD edition, which has a superior print, commentary w/Hop, & other shit.)

Alfred Chamberlain is a contributor to Smallflowers Press.