Out of the Blue
Cebe (Linda Manz, Days of Heaven) is a teenage rebel obsessed with Elvis and the Sex Pistols. Her trucker father, Don (Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider) is in prison after drunkenly smashing his rig into a school bus, and her mother, Kathy (Sharon Farrell, It’s Alive) is a junkie waitress who takes refuge in the arms of other men, including Don’s best friend, Charlie (Don Gordon, Bullitt). With Don’s release, the family struggles to reconnect and the trauma of the past looms large as dark secrets slowly begin to emerge.
Despite only taking over directing duties eight days into the shoot Out of the Blue arguably represents Dennis Hopper’s strongest film as a director and features an astonishing performance by Manz. Newly restored in 4K, this cult-classic is ripe for rediscovery and is on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK.
Previously hard to come by on video, BFI brings Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue to Blu-ray in a new 2-disc set, presenting the film with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on the first dual-layer disc. BFI is using a new 4K restoration performed by Discovery Productions. The 35mm original camera negatives were used for the initial scan. Both discs are locked to region B, so North American viewers will require a player that can playback region B content.
Considering what can be done nowadays in the realm of film restoration it really shouldn’t be a surprise anymore how incredible the end results can turn out, and yet, despite that, I still came out stunned at how amazing this presentation has turned out. The film has had a rough distribution history and has been incredibly hard to come by due to that history, with limited screenings and Anchor Bay's DVD releases during the early 2000s (now long out-of-print) in both North America and the U.K. being about the only way to see the film in recent years. Considering that, I would have suspected the original elements to have been in terrible condition. However, if that were ever the case, this presentation hides that fact. There are a handful of minor blemishes that I recall, small specs and such, but they’re few and far between, the restoration having cleaned things up to a near-spotless condition.
The digital presentation is also very clean. Film grain is rendered so cleanly, keeping a very fine, natural looking texture, which then leads to impeccable detail levels. There’s a lot of denim in this, and the textures are rendered perfectly. Artifacts are not an issue, and there is a wonderful film look to everything.
The film has a warmer look here, though not overly so, and looks about right for the period. Colours are saturated nicely, reds popping and blues looking clean and deep. Some night scenes take a deeper, greener look, though I think this is baked into the original photography since it looks as though the filmmakers were using what available light there was, fluorescent lights probably being a heavy source. Blacks are rich and deep, delivering incredible shadow detail in the process.
All around this looks incredible, the restoration brilliantly cleaning things up with BFI delivering a fantastic encode. A very welcome surprise.
The film’s monaural soundtrack is presented here in 2-channel PCM. Quality is surprisingly good, dialogue and music sounding both crisp and sharp with surprising range and fidelity, no filtering sounding to have been applied. There is also no damage to speak of as well. It sounds great!
BFI has packed this 2-disc set with a large amount of material, the content managing to gather together a swath of participants in an effort to provide as comprehensive an edition as possible for the film. On the first disc there are no less than three audio commentaries. The first features director Dennis Hopper, producer John Lewis, and distributor John Alan Simon, which was recorded in 2000 for the Anchor Bay DVD.
As the commentary (and other supplements in this set) make clear, the film has an interesting production history to say the least, and a lot of that more than likely played into the film’s difficulties in finding distributors through the years, paired with its subject matter of course. The film was a Canadian production, made to take advantage of tax laws at the time, the caveat being the cast and crew had to be made up mostly of Canadians. In what sounds like the basis for a CBC TV movie, Raymond Burr (a Canadian actor) was cast in the lead role of a psychiatrist looking to help a troubled young girl, still played by Linda Manz, who had a contentious relationship with her parents, both played by Sharon Farrell and Dennis Hopper. What sounds to have happened is that producers saw what the director had shot during the first week of the production and were horrified, feeling the material was unusable. Instead of abandoning the film, they approached Hopper and asked him to fill in as the director. Hopper agreed on the condition he could rewrite the film from scratch, though using the same base storyline.
The background and evolution of the project is clearly spelled out throughout the track, the three explaining what happened, how things were changed around, and the difficulties that arose because of it. One of the biggest changes was Burr’s role was cut to a couple of scenes, though Hopper had to shoot a lot of material around him to give the star the idea he still had a big role in the film. This, along with other Canadian cast and crew members taking on smaller roles in the production, led to the film losing its special tax credit, leading to future difficulties.
Hopper also discusses his choices in framing and editing, along with what inspired him in relation to story and characters. Unfortunately, as I recall from other Hopper commentaries, he really needs to be pushed to talk, otherwise I get the feeling he’ll just sit there silently, so Simon’s and Lewis’ contributions are usually just questions for Hopper, in the hopes of getting him to talk. This unfortunately leads to some lengthy stretches of silence, but the commentary still features some interesting material around the film’s chaotic production and difficult distribution.
Following that, BFI then includes two new academic commentaries, the first featuring Kate Rennebohm, the second Kat Eillinger. Of the two I probably preferred Ellinger’s, which has what could call more of a central thesis, the critic and writer going over the film’s representation of the punk scene at the time, relating her own personal background and stories to the events in the film. She also takes the time to look at the film as an examination of the working class and the impending doom that would be the 80’s. She even interestingly compares the film and the central character played by Manz to the English working class, “troubled young man” films of Alan Clarke et al.
Rennebohm’s track covers some of the same material but doesn’t have the same focus, looking at the film and its subject matter with a wider scope with more scene-specific moments. She covers the film’s production troubles in a bit more detail than the other tracks before giving background to how specific cast and crew members came to be involved, and manages to even get into Dennis Hopper’s substance abuse problem at the time (I forgot to note who said it, but I recall someone in the features mentioning on top of being director, star, and writer, Hopper was also an onset dealer). She also talks about the film’s structure and its compositions, even sharing how they delve into the psychology of the characters.
Of the two I probably liked Ellinger’s more focused take, whereas Rennebohm’s can jump around a bit much, but both make solid contributions to the release.
The first disc then features a few other supplements, starting off a couple of interviews with Hopper that includes one for television from 1984 with Tony Watts, running 96-minutes, and then an audio recording of a conversation between Hopper and Derek Malcolm at the 34th London Film Festival in 1990, which is presented as an alternate audio track over the film, running 91-minutes. The two are both career overviews so touch on similar ground (if from very different periods of his career), though they both have their clear advantages. The last half-hour of the ’84 interview features Hopper talking in greater length about James Dean and his admiration of the late actor, talking about what he learned from him and the high regard he still holds. The ’90 interview features a clean-and-sober Hopper, who doesn’t hold back anything about his past drug and alcohol addiction and what that did to him, both personally and professionally. His paranoia, for example, had built up so much he had delusions that some roles he was being offered were part of a conspiracy to have him assassinated. This particular interview starts out as a wild ride, but does settle down a bit as we go.
Outside of that material, Hopper then talks about his acting and directing work, both interviews featuring a lot of focus on The Last Movie, Malcolm saying the film works better for audiences “now” (in 1990) than it would have during its initial release. The ’90 interview also features Hopper talking about a couple of his then-newer films, which sound to have both been screening at the festival: The Hot Spot and Catchfire (also known as Backtrack). He lost final-cut for the latter film, and he talks extensively about how the studio butchered the film, giving the directing credit to Alan Smithee.
They’re both really fascinating interviews and tonally different, the actor/director clearly in very different places at the time of each’s recording. Though there is some repetition between the two it’s very little in the end and well worth devoting the three total hours to.
BFI also includes a couple of advertisements for the film, including trailers, a re-release one and the original, the latter of which has been restored, along with a radio spot featuring Jack Nicholson promoting the film. It’s mentioned elsewhere in the supplements how Nicholson rarely endorsed anything, if ever, and especially never endorsed anything he wasn’t involved in, but he gladly endorsed Hopper’s film, and he’s very enthusiastic about it in the 1-minute spot.
BFI then pack in a visual essay by Amanda Reyes and filmmaker Chris O’Neill called Subverting Normalcy: Linda Manz Comes from Out of the Blue. The 18-minute essay offers a look at Manz’s unfortunately brief career and her performance in the film, examining what her presence brings to the character. Sadly, this was her only lead role in a film, but it was apparently also her favourite.
And it wouldn’t be a BFI release if we didn’t then get a small collection of shorts from their archives. Related to the film’s opening sequence, there are two 1-minute shorts, around drinking and driving. The first features the comedy duo Morecambe and Wise (of whom I’m admittedly ignorant) looking for a set of car keys so one can go to a party. The missing keys may be a blessing in disguise as heavy drinking appears to be a given at said party. The second is an animated short that focuses on holiday office parties, explaining how alcohol impairs judgement. The 1964 short is dated in a few ways (the end title card being the biggest thing) but it’s an interesting, even amusing piece of history.
BFI then includes two more shorts. Jane Campion’s 27-minute, 1983 black-and-white short A Girl’s Own Story is first. Taking place during the period where The Beatles were rising in popularity, the film is a coming-of-age story around a group of young girls' growing sexual awareness, which comes in conflict with their strict upbringing and societal expectations. It’s a very well made early short by the director, already showing her style and the themes that would pop up in her later work. The film also appeared on Criterion’s Sweetie though I think this may come from a newer restoration.
The other short is Carol Morley’s 1993 short, Girl, running 7-minutes. This one is more experimental in nature. With a voice over that (surely intentionally) seems to jump around between third and first person, we’re aware of an argument going on along with other noises (including what is supposed to be Morecambe and Wise on a television) mixed with various shots of an apartment, its exterior, and a young girl. I confess to not knowing entirely what is going on, with me only being able to pick out certain pieces, but it feels like Morley is reconstructing a memory, more than likely one around her own father’s suicide (and this of course only became obvious after I looked up Morley's background in more detail).
The second dual-layer disc is loaded to gills with material, made up primarily of new interviews recorded remotely with the film’s distributor, John Alan Simon. It gets a bit excessive, though, with well over 5 hours’ worth of footage available here.
The bulk of the material consists of interviews with members of the cast and crew, all of which is found under Remembering Out of the Blue. Running around 174-minutes in total, the collection of interviews feature script supervisor Christine Wilson, second assistant director Bob Akester, punk band Pointed Sticks and actor John Anderson, composer Tom Lavin, camera operator John Holbrook, production coordinator Patti Allen, unit publicist and post-production assistant Julia Frittaion, film editor Doris Dyck, and actress Sharon Farrell.
At just under 3-hours there’s a lot to wade through here and it can admittedly be a bit much. Most everyone offers introductions to start things out, covering their background and details around their duties. Of all of these intros I found Wilson’s path leading to working in the Vancouver film industry the most interesting, and she gives a great description of what her duties as a script supervisor were. Farrell’s is short, but she talks about Manz (who she didn’t realize until recently had passed away) and Hopper, and recalls the scenes she did with Burr, not sure what was still in the picture. Thankfully the moment she seems most fond of is still there.
The lengthiest segment ends up belonging to Frittaion, who had two job titles, yet it almost sounds like she just got stuck with picking up the things that no one else would handle. She had several duties, which even included securing the music rights for the film after filming and Hopper had already picked what he wanted. This of course included Neil Young’s Out of the Blue. (Numerous songs in the film were original ones, and composer Lavin talks about these.) There are lots of stories throughout about the original director being fired and actor Burr’s bigger part in the film before he was almost completely cut out, but Frittaion seems to remember more of these details than others.
The length of it all can be a bit much and I almost wished that maybe the material was compressed into a documentary with maybe an “outtakes” section like Arrow does on occasion, but paired with the Hopper commentary you get about as thorough a “making-of” around the film you could ever want with this material.
The interviews don’t end there, though. The next collection of interviews, running about 94-minutes, features appreciations for the film and its director by those who had worked with him in the past. Entitled Me & Dennis, the section features interviews with actor Ethan Hawke, and film-makers Richard Linklater, Julian Schnabel and Philippe Mora, again all done remotely with Simon. Hawke’s contribution takes up half of the time, going between the film, Hopper and other actors of his generation, and manages even manages to segue to Flannery O’Connor. The conversation goes a bit all over but it’s an interesting one at least. The rest are shorter and more focused, the best probably being Mora's contribution, the direct talking about working with Hopper on Mad Dog Morgan (and I recall watching something else around the film recently, and oh man, Hopper sounds to have been a hoot, to put it nicely). Separate from all of this, director Alex Cox gets his own 13-minute interview, the filmmaker recalling how he first saw the film at a debut screening in L.A. with the reels out of order, though Simon, the film’s eventual distributor, says he was not aware of such a screening. Whether Cox is mistaken or not he still recounts the impact the film had on him, before moving on to his experience with working with Hopper on Backtrack.
Closing the on-disc material off is a 30-minute remote Q&A from the 2020 Montclair Film Festival following a virtual screening of the film and its new restoration, featuring interviews with Simon and Elizabeth Karr, the film’s distributors, and moderated by Tom Hall. The three discuss the new restoration before recounting its rough distribution history. (Karr makes mention that she hopes the bottom line for doing that restoration will eventually go “into the black”, but the joke/song reference seems to go over the heads of the other members, or Simon’s at least.) It’s been hard to see due to it taking many years for the film to finally get a small distribution in the 80’s, with home video pickings having been slim, but they're ready for that to change. I appreciated the heavier focus here around the film's distribution, which gets mentioned briefly all throughout the rest of the supplements, and it's a great discussion is such things fascinate you.
This limited edition also comes with 32-page booklet. Sheila O’Malley first provides a great, lengthy essay on the film, though it does cover some of the same material scattered around the other on-disc supplements. The booklet also features a composite of Hopper’s remarks around the film, which has apparently been collected from remarks he made in March of 1982 and from an interview he had conducted with Julian Petley and Peter Walsh. Next is a short essay by Vic Pratt on the film’s use of music and its representation of the time, followed by a couple of contemporary reviews written by Richard Combs and Julian Petley. The booklet then closes off with notes around the features found on the discs.
All around this is a very stacked edition, though admittedly I couldn’t help but think it could be a bit much; there’s easily around 13 hours’ worth of material here total, from commentaries to interviews and more, and it took me an insane amount of time to get through everything (not aided by the holidays and the various surprises thrown at me during them). I found some of it repetitive, and not all of it was gold, but if there’s any film that deserves such a treatment and help on finding a new "lease in life" (as editor Doris Dyck stated) it’s this one, and BFI have certainly done the film justice.
BFI’s edition may go a little overboard in additional content, but if a film ever deserved it, it’s this one. It’s a lovingly put together edition with an impeccable presentation, giving the film a much deserved spotlight.