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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Out of the Blue’ and ‘Strawberry Mansion’

Marc Mohan reviews Dennis Hopper's punk masterpiece "Blue" and Kentucker Audley's surreal futuristic "Mansion."

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Linda Manz and Dennis Hopper in “Out of the Blue.” Photo courtesy Discovery Productions.

Plenty of movies capture the punk rock attitude and aesthetic as it exploded in the late 1970s and early ’80s: Repo Man, D.O.A., The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, The Decline of Western Civilization, even Sid and Nancy. But perhaps no movie captures the nihilistic pull of punk in the shadow of the ’60s counterculture’s collapse than Dennis Hopper’s nearly lost Out of the Blue, which opens in a gloriously restored edition at the Hollywood Theatre this weekend.

Hopper, who rocketed to directorial prominence with 1969’s Easy Rider, was just as suddenly cast into the wilderness after the debacle of his followup, 1971’s The Last Movie. Nearly a decade later, he was cast in Out of the Blue as Don, the father to the film’s teenaged protagonist, CeBe, played by Linda Manz. The story goes that, a couple of weeks into production, Hopper took over the directing chores, rewrote the screenplay, and ended up producing a stunningly potent drama that doesn’t come by its nihilism cheaply.

Truth be told, there are two geniuses to thank for Out of the Blue, and Manz is the other. From her screen debut in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Manz exuded a unique, genuine combination of spunk and vulnerability. Her CeBe is a paradigm of lost youth, worshipping Elvis and the Sex Pistols in equal measure while pining for her pop, who’s in prison after drunkenly driving his semi into a school bus full of children. Left in the care of her drug-addicted mother (Sharon Farrell), CeBe runs away to join the punk scene in Vancouver, B.C. There’s a fantastic sequence, in which she attends a show by a band called Pointed Sticks and gets to sit in for the drummer briefly, that captures the thrill of collective rebellion and unfettered expression beautifully.

Alas, CeBe’s escape is only temporary, and shortly after she’s returned home, Don is paroled. (Six years for multiple vehicular homicide seems light, but this is Canada…) He gets a job at the local garbage dump, and there’s the barest hint of redemption in the air. But Don is, it turns out, irredeemable. His coming-home party devolves into drunken, rage-filled mayhem. CeBe, who has preserved an image of her father in her mind all these years, finally comes face to face with his true, despicable nature.

The movie gets its title from Neil Young’s “My My Hey Hey,” which reprises repeatedly throughout and seems to have inspired the character of CeBe. (“The king is gone but he’s not forgotten; this is the story of Johnny Rotten.”) And, as Young sings, the only way out of the blue is into the black, so that’s the path CeBe takes. If Hopper thought that Out of the Blue was his chance at a directorial comeback, he certainly didn’t compromise in order to make it more commercial.

Out of the Blue premiered at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, but despite good reviews from Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby, it didn’t get a (token) U.S. release until a couple years later. It then basically vanished, although Sean Penn liked it enough to hire Hopper to direct Colors, the film that did jumpstart his filmmaking career, later in the decade. This new 4k digital restoration, presented by indie stalwarts Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigny, looks amazing, especially considering the movie’s minimal budget.

Hopper was always unfairly tagged as a sort of hippie auteur, but what made him and his work so complicated was his appreciation for the dark side of the counterculture. With Out of the Blue, he holds an unflattering mirror to the disillusionment and psychic hangover of the post-Vietnam years, a mirror that reflects both its specific time and a universal, generational rage. (Opens Friday, Feb. 18, at the Hollywood Theatre.)

ALSO PLAYING THIS WEEK:

Strawberry Mansion: The character actor Kentucker Audley has maintained a thriving parallel career as a director of no-budget films, and this, his latest, is his most ambitious. It’s set in the year 2035, and centers on James Preble (Audley), an ordinary tax auditor. Ordinary, that is, except for the fact that what he audits are dreams—in this future, we’re all taxed on any products that appear in our dreams. He arrives at the home of an elderly, eccentric artist (Penny Fuller), who hasn’t paid her taxes in years. To audit her dreams, which are preserved on thousands of VHS tapes, he must watch them all using a sort of deep-sea-diver helmet contraption.

Kentucker Audley and Grace Glowicki in “Strawberry Mansion.” Courtesy of Music Box
Films.

Wait, it gets weirder. As Preble investigates the woman’s dreams, he finds himself drawn to the younger version of her (Grace Glowicki) he meets there. He also comes across a devilish, capitalistic conspiracy designed to bring advertising into our subconscious minds. There’s also a saxophone-playing waiter with the head of a frog, sailors with rat heads, and a lot of fried chicken. In other words, it’s a gloriously weird cult classic in the making.

Strawberry Mansion, which Audley co-wrote and co-directed with Albert Birney (who plays Frog Waiter), is a masterpiece of inexpensive ingenuity, using handmade practical effects and convincing, lo-fi digital work to conjure a vision that’s somewhere between Michel Gondry and David Lynch. And the message at its core is one that a filmmaker such as Audley can surely appreciate: never let the people with money tell you what to dream. (Opens Friday, Feb. 18, at the Living Room Theatres. Many of Audley’s previous films are available to stream through Amazon Prime.)

Breaking Bread: The latest culinary documentary to come down the pike combines mouth-watering foodie fare with a positive political message. It follows Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, the first Arab winner of Isreal’s “Master Chef,” who starts a festival where Arab and Israeli chefs collaborate on dishes that honor their respective traditions. Maybe resolving this region’s age-old problems involves more than just not being hangry, but it’s a good place to start. (Opens Friday, Feb. 18, at the Living Room Theaters)

TAG! Queer Short Festival: The 2022 edition of this fest is streaming-only, but is presented by the Hollywood Theatre. It features dozens of short films from around the globe, exclusively directed by queer and trans folk. The movies are organized into six themed blocks, one of which will debut online each day between Feb. 21 and Feb. 26. Purchasing a ticket to a given block will allow access through March 6. For more information, go here.

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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