A true, cinematic rebel flame has been extinguished. Linda Manz died recently, of lung cancer and pneumonia. She was only 58. She basically left the film industry behind forty years ago for a quieter, more normal existence. An anti-star in the purest sense, her cult legend has endured ever since, even though she only made a few films. Quality over quantity. From her astonishing debut performance at just sixteen, in Terrance Malick’s Texas panhandle period piece Days of Heaven (1978) – in which she impressed Malick and critics with her striking, largely improvised narration – through roles in The Wanderers (1979) and Boardwalk (1979), Manz left an indelible impression in a short span of time. With Out of the Blue (1980) though, she stood front and center in a film for the first (and last) time, playing a rebellious teenager devoted to punk rock and Elvis, with a severely dysfunctional home life. It’s the role she was born to play, and it made her a cherished icon of independent cinema forever after.
Out of the Blue‘s production was nearly as troubled as Manz’s character Cebe. Dennis Hopper, cast as Cebe’s ex-convict father, stepped into the director’s chair at the eleventh hour, replacing screenwriter Leonard Yakir. Ever the iconoclast, Hopper had his own ideas and tossed most of the script while steering the film down a more protean, organic path. He framed Manz in one starkly beautiful shot after another, on busy city streets, in her Elvis-adorned bedroom, or metaphorically trapped behind a chain link fence. Manz expresses Cebe’s punk rock spirit with an integrity born out of experience. Raised by a single mom in New York City, she was tough, and ran away from home more than once. She said of the role, “I think I was Cebe. “
Out of the Blue would pair perfectly on a double bill with another seminal teen rebellion film of the same time period, Over the Edge (1979). I first saw the latter right before starting high school; in other words, the absolute perfect time to see it. Visiting some family friends, I watched the film alone, probably on HBO, down in the den of their very 1970s style split-level home while the adults laughed and drank upstairs. From the first frame to the last, I sat pinned to the sofa, riveted at the site of these anarchic teens rebelling against the adults in their supposedly idyllic planned community. The film’s final, explosive act was a revelation. It’s not that I wanted to burn down my school; it’s that watching these kids express their pent-up anger and resentment through vandalism and violence was the sort of “fuck you” to authority I’d rarely before seen presented onscreen with such raw power. It both confirmed what I already suspected – the emotional chasm between teenagers and their parents was often as deep and turbulent as an ocean – and opened my eyes to the fallibility of adults, be they parents or teachers.
Out of the Blue explores many of these same themes. I have no doubt that if I had seen the film as a teenager it would have engendered much of the same feelings in me that Over the Edge did. Even now, it lands with a thundering emotional impact. The story is terribly tragic, about a child whose parents are too fucked up on drugs and self-absorption to parent properly, or even at all. The films opens with a gut-wrenching accident, the effects of which ripple throughout Cebe’s life thereafter. Yet, as the film progresses, we begin to realize Cebe’s innocence was likely already stolen prior to that moment. The film’s portrayal of nearly every adult in her life offers a pointed indictment of 1960s hippie culture, showing why punk culture emerged as a reaction to the corrupt ideals of the peace and love generation
The film drew strong reactions when it opened at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, but then, when American distribution deals fell through for this Canadian production, it basically disappeared into the ether, living on by word of mouth in rave reviews from those lucky few who saw it before it vanished. It first crossed my radar in the 1990s, in a film journal, probably read in the basement of my college library when I should’ve been doing course work instead (I was always pushing off course work to pour over film journal archives). Besides the evocative title (inspired by the Neil Young song, “Hey, Hey, My, My (Out of the Blue)”) and the Hopper connection, it was Manz and her solemn countenance in screenshots included in the articles that compelled me to read up on the film, and then obsess over finding a way to watch it ever since. I finally found it this week, in an adequate but less-than-stellar upload on YouTube. Thankfully, a restoration is in the works. Fingers crossed, we’ll get a Criterion edition, or something similar, soon enough.
It’s probably been on YouTube for a while, but as these things often go, it was brought to the forefront of my mind because of Manz’s death. After Out of the Blue, she didn’t appear onscreen again until 1997, and then never again after that. Maybe she couldn’t find good parts. Maybe she didn’t have the right agent, or any agent. Whatever the reason, she walked away. She raised her kids, became a grandmother, and lived a life far from the spotlight. Yet in film circles, Manz always remained a name spoken in hushed, reverent tones. So much of her acting was done with her eyes, which seem to express the enormity of Cebe’s yearning for something more than the ceaselessly sad life she’s been dealt. With an alcoholic, drug-addict father in prison for five years, a mother who regularly leaves her alone to have sex with other men, and after the death of the one man she can count on, her idol Elvis Presley, Cebe is mostly always alone. Certainly, she exists emotionally on her own island. This makes the film’s best scene all the more heartbreaking.
During a night spent roaming the big city, Cebe stops at a punk rock club where Vancouver band The Pointed Sticks are taking the stage. What follows is the only moment in the entire film where she experiences real, unfettered happiness. Brought onstage, she stands behind the drummer while the he bashes away on his kit, and then she takes over the sticks for the rest of the song. Drumming like a girl possessed, she’s finally free. For that brief moment, she forgets every awful aspect of her life. All that matters is music. The packed crowd in the tiny club cheers wildly and Manz breaks out into a truly spontaneous, positively beaming smile. It’s beautiful. Cebe is no longer alone, but instead connects to an audience of like-minded rebel hearts over their love of punk rock. This fleeting moment of true joy also makes the film’s ending that much more devastating. If only Cebe had found more moments like this. If only she had found her tribe sooner.
If any good can come out of Linda Manz’s death, let’s hope that Out of the Blue finally sees a release on Blu-ray, DVD, streaming, downloads, everywhere. More people need to witness one of the best performances of the 1980s, and one of cinema’s true, punk rock characters. When Manz delivers Cebe’s punk manifesto, partly cobbled together from several of the era’s repeated slogans, she more than subverts normality – she offers an alternate style of being. Now that Manz is gone, the monologue will forever stand as a testament to the fleeting, anarchic power and beauty she brought to the screen.
“Subvert normality. Punk is not sexual, it’s just aggression. Destroy. Kill All Hippies. I’m not talking at you, I’m talking to you. Anarchy. Disco sucks. I don’t wanna hear about you, I wanna hear from you. This is Gorgeous. Does anybody out there read me? Disco sucks, kill all hippies. Pretty vacant, eh? Subvert normality. Signing off. This is Gorgeous. Signing off.”
Michael Campochiaro is just your typical Gen Xer: cynical, sarcastic, hopeful, world-renowned expert on Michelle Pfeiffer. He is a contributing writer for the forthcoming book Tonight, On a Very Special Episode and can be found at The Starfire Lounge.