Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Film #145: Blue Velvet

This is a reprint of my first NYC-published review. It was first printed in a long-dead 1986 NYU film school magazine, right after I had seen Lynch's movie with a disbelieving audience partially comprised of unsuspecting 1986 film students. My fellow NYU film production cadets and I watched the film together at an East 28th street NYC theater upon its release (I, personally, had been looking forward to this event with great anticipation; I, in fact, FORCED all these people to come see this movie with me, as I was a longtime Eraserhead and Elephant Man fan; and thus my cohorts were scarred forever--none of them had any idea who David Lynch was at that time, and they all looked at me quite differently afterwards, I believe).

I am reprinting my review now in full, with many corrections; still, the original spirit, and structure, and most of the writing, is contained. The minor changes to my initial article have occurred after a recent big-screen revisiting of the film, with fellow 20-something viewers who'd never seen the movie (this made me feel really old; still, it made me feel great that these new 2011 viewers exited the showing just like my 1986 NYU buddies did). I've tried mightily to retain the essence of seeing Blue Velvet for the first time in this review; there're no mentions of Lynch's subsequent works here, though for a truly full post-1990 review, such mentions would be necessary. That said, I think Blue Velvet will always remain the quintessential David Lynch movie, even though I think he's made better films since (read: Mulholland Dr.). Anyway, here's my review, quite largely written in 1986 innocence, with only four subsequent David Lynch features to follow:

What, exactly, is a David Lynch film?

Well, maybe it would be simpler to ask what it is NOT first. It is, for instance, not a textbook for most of the carefully computed formulas of other Hollywood products. Yet it always condones and concludes with that most traditional of Hollywood devices: the happy ending (even though the delicate and syrupy denouements Lynch imposes on his films usually--and purposefully--go to show us how fatally stupid most happy endings are).

A David Lynch film, also, never belongs to either its actors or the crew that worked on it. These artists certainly help the pictures along their surreal tracks. But the end result belongs to Lynch and Lynch alone. Never one to be chintzy with his visuals, this 38-year-old's background as a painter is startlingly obvious when one examines the lush shades and tones contained in his two black-and-white masterpieces, Eraserhead and The Elephant Man--two films that are injected with more ocular vibrancy than most color efforts. Even Lynch's first color film (how many times, since the 1960s, has THIS phrase been written in film criticism?), the gigantically-scoped but still fatally hamstrung 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel Dune was still an energetically-hued jolt to the senses.

Above all, though, a David Lynch movie is never, EVER easy to take. With their bitter compare-and-contrast ironies, their fetidly twisted yet tender characters and unshakable images of ugliness that accompanies them, a David Lynch production is certainly not for the squeamish, shallow, or hopelessly average.

With all of this in mind, then, Blue Velvet begs to be considered as the quintessential David Lynch movie. It is, at once, exhilarating and exhausting. When the final credits are being superimposed upon a dynamic curtain made of the title fabric, the viewer feels resolutely steamrollered. This is what it feels like to put yourself in the control of a filmmaker who delights in every aspect of moviemaking. All of art is about the battle of control: control of its technical aspects, while its key artist is out of control of the forces that binds him or her; and as for the audience, there is the relinquishment of all control. All of life is a similar tightrope walk; lose your balance and you are finished. Lynch seems to have beat the system. He walks the rope.

Some people cannot take what goes on in Blue Velvet. They are hooked by the film's ambling first 30 minutes, but when the change comes (and, boy, does it come), they cannot brave it. Inevitably, when Dennis Hopper's stunning Frank Booth enters the scene, there are walkouts. Some viewers--more specifically, ones not familiar with the director's past works--consider putting their eyes in the grips of a director of this ilk to be an act of madness. But David Lynch is such a magnificent director that the more thoughtful moviegoers would have to look hard to find true fault with what he gets on celluloid, no matter how dangerously unbalanced it may be.

On its surface, Blue Velvet appears to be the kinkiest movie mystery ever made--which, of course, it is. Beyond all that, though, it's about what goes on UNDERNEATH surface appearances; we learn this early on, when an average man falls victim to an threatening internal struggle while, outside, another struggle for survival takes place beneath his well-watered lawn. This man's grass might be keen on the surface, but there are gnawing black beetles chomping away at those roots.

Blue Velvet takes Shakespeare's timeworn moral "All that glisters is not gold" (from The Merchant of Venice) and twists it to improbable shapes. With this first scene, scored with Bobby Vinton's lilting 1963 version of Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris' 1950 standard, David Lynch plunges us into the seedy underbelly of an outwardly serene lumber town named, appropriately enough, Lumberton. And so, the writer/director contorts one of the Bard's favorite iambic lessons like it's never been contorted before. Absolutely nothing in Lumberton is as it seems: not the rosy, white-fenced gardens, nor the store-lined main streets serving as beards for bizarre crime rings, nor the model nuclear families bearing through tragedies of grotesque proportions, and neither the quaint little sharp-gabled homes that, with their obligatory skeletons, standing as monuments to the emaciated American Dream. Even here, in the most scrubbed and naive God-fearing communities, moral and sexual decay cannot be staved off (or can it?).

Jeffrey Beaumont (expertly underplayed by Kyle MacLachlan) has just come back from visiting his hospitalized, desperately enfeebled father (looking very much like Kenneth McMillan's horrible Baron Harkkonen from Dune, minus the pus-filled facial warts). On the way back home, Jeffrey returns to a field, throwing rocks at an old green bottle, when he discovers an ant-infested, messily hacked-off human ear. Searching for something to engage him in this quiet city, he nonchalantly retrieves the ear and plops it in a brown paper bag (I think his discovery of the ear visually matches his discovery of future vaginas). Jeffrey delivers the ear to his neighbor, Detective Williams (an unnerving George Dickerson), at his downtown office. "Yes, that's a human ear alright," he says, looking into the bag suspiciously. (There's a lot of smart-aleck dialogue in the first part of Blue Velvet; it's meant to put you in a place of upheaval later on.) After having his men search the field, Williams--sensing that Jeffery is a wannabe detective as he once was--insists that Jeffrey not get involved in the investigation. "Once the case is all sewn up, we'll call you in" Williams says, in the first of many of the script's hilarious word-plays.

What Williams has not counted on, however, is the involvement of his daughter, Sandy (a gorgeous Laura Dern). After Jeffrey's visit to the Williams household, Sandy emerges from the darkness, in her pink sweater and feathered blonde hair, asking "Are you the one that found the ear?" She protests throughout, but she's just as hungry as Jeffrey is for some excitement in Lumberton. Clearly in the throes of a crush, she approaches Jeffrey and tells him of the "bits and pieces" she's "heard" about "the ear." For example, a name she says keeps popping up in her father's conversations belongs to the Slow Club (is this a reference to how "slow" the film is in its first half-hour?). The main attraction there is a singer named Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini), who's more popularly known as The Blue Lady. (I need to mention now the film's contributions by sound designer Alan Splet, cinematographer Frederick Elmes, production designer Patricia Norris, editor Duwayne Dunham, the sublime sound designer Alan Splet, and the fantastic score's composer Angelo Badalamenti, who collaborated with lyricist David Lynch on the film's one original song, "Mysteries of Love;" I have to also note the film's magnificent source music score that includes Ketty Lester's "Love Letters," William Doggett's "Honky Tonk (Part I)," and and most importantly, Roy Orbison's "In Dreams," lip-synched unforgettably in a powerful one-scene performance by a powder-puffed, mascarared Dean Stockwell).

Jeffrey goads Sandy--who has a football player boyfriend--into attending the Slow Club with him, after enticing her with the unknown quantities of this town-wide mystery. She sees the danger, but is excited by it. They have an uncomfortable conversation about the beers they order--Heineken (which is LATER answered by one of the most powerful brand-name retorts ever: "FUCK THAT SHIT. PABST BLUE RIBBON!"). And then Dorothy appears onstage. Backed with brightly blue and red lighting, she delivers the movie's signature tune, "Blue Velvet" in her own inimitable, slightly stiff way. Hearing her voice, Jeffery is immediately intrigued; aroused, even. The day after, he meets with Sandy and concocts a scheme to sneak into the singer's apartment in order to get more clues about this severed ear.

Naturally, this is either a grave mistake or a stroke of luck. From here on--and no more will be said about the plot of Blue Velvet--Jeffrey is subjected to the harsh discourtesy of Frank Booth (the incredible Dennis Hopper), who's a drug-crazed, foul-mouthed Freudian nightmare with a fetish for snooky nitrous oxide and (what else?) blue velvet. From this point on, Jeffrey and Snady are thrust into the black heart of everything that is evil--rape, kidnapping, assault, joyriding, drug addiction and, finally, murder.

With all the intricate plotting at the center of Blue Velvet, is it too innocent a notion to dismiss the contrast between Lumberton's sunny daytimes and sinister nights as just a more vivid way of reiterating Shakespeare's aforementioned maxim? Probably so. Blue Velvet is too vivacious a film to be limited to just that. Like each of David Lynch's movies, almost anything--depending on the personality of the viewer--can be read into the story. The movie could be seen as a criticism aimed at the clash between the passive, TV-blitzed 1950s America (notice, in the opening scene, Jeffrey's mother as she watches a spooky, gun-toting film noir movie on her television) and the liberated, degenerated, yet socially-aware USA of the 1960s and 70s.

Lynch's film could also be an examination of a people who have no conscious, but many unconscious, desires to examine their sexual undercurrents (this describes the straitlaced Jeffrey perfectly; he blanches at every mention of Sandy's sexual unavailability, but has the slightest resistance to Dorothy's learned perversions, even though his participation in them leads him to nightmares and devastating crying jags; likewise, Sandy has many detailed desires of her own). Blue Velvet is surely, in the end, a harsh indictment of every counterculture our society has had to house over our past century--yet its also a celebration of such outbursts; it's the perfect mirror of the seemingly, astoundingly square visage of David Lynch, a man who marks only cigarettes and coffee as his vices, yet who clearly purveys a potpourri of glazed insanity.

Taking into account his entirely mindblowing 1978 film Eraserhead, and his radically different (but still similar) 1980 bio-pic The Elephant Man, as well as his inevitably failed 1984 adaptation of Dune, we still have to count David Lynch as a card-carrying member of the modern rebellion. However, we cannot ignore the fact that, while audiences may laugh uncomfortably and disparagingly at the sweet, myopic one-sidedness of Sandy's devoted monologue about the hopeful robins and their simultaneous brightness of love (surely one of the more inspired scenes in Lynch's film, even if it's not visually glossy), we choke in pure, nervous terror at the more electric, presently-oriented scenes with the terrifying Frank Booth and his chosen victim, Dorothy Valens. At last, Lynch seems to be asking us: "Wouldn't we all rather be saddled with blinders, as the Williams and the Beaumont families are, than be caught up with the looser but ultimately more debilitating and depressing non-conformities that belong to Frank and Dorothy?" In other words, be thankful for what you have got, because the grass is NOT always greener. This is a dazzling thing to learn from any movie.

This final theory seems a bit more weighty when examining the casting choices Lynch made regarding his available roles in Blue Velvet. Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern, as notable screen newcomers, stand as personalities primed for corruption. Meanwhile, we have an ineffably superb Dennis Hopper--a villain if ever there was one--playing Frank Booth. Hopper has been a counterculture figure since the mid-1950s. He was one of the hoods pitted against James Dean in Nicholas Ray's 1954 film Rebel Without a Cause. He opposed his Texan father (Rock Hudson) by wanting to marry a Mexican woman in George Stevens' 1956 film Giant. He was the isolated, mermaid-loving hero in Curtis Harrington's 1961 indie film Night Tide. He was a vocal admirer of Paul Newman's defiant Cool Hand Luke, in Stuart Rosenberg's 1967 movie. And he was, we all know, the star, co-writer, and director of 1969's Easy Rider, a story about two outsiders trying to rediscover America. Hopper has been associated with EVERY discontented youth movement to see the ink of national headlines. Who in the world could be more suited to play one of the most extreme sensation-seekers ever to be committed to film? Meanwhile, Isabella Rossellini was the very human product of mother Ingrid Bergman's then-scandalous 1950s love affair with Italian film director Roberto Rossellini (an avowed agent of worldwide change himself). She plays Dorothy, yet another innocent person jammed in the middle of what is seen by outsiders as pure peccadillo. She's been labelled by her parents' "sin," even if its not of her own making. While this is so, she's resplendent in every shot, even when bruised and beaten. (Laura Dern's unrelenting mask of dejection, upon the apex of the worst date ever filmed, smacks up cinema's most horrible nude scene, and makes it sublimely memorable; who has a face like Laura Dern's?)

Regardless, with all of this evidence--and forgive me if I appear to be shooting down my own theory--there is a strong possibility that Lynch means to convey to his audience an embrace of solid happiness, even in the face of cultural criticism. There's a great significance in the presence of the joyous (perhaps TOO joyous) outcome for the Beaumont and Willams' families following their momentary trifling with the murderous Frank Booth. The film concludes with the most knowingly corny of happy endings--just as did Lynch's Eraserhead. The robins return--with the evil black beetles in their beak---while Jeffrey's father is cured, the weather is once again beautiful, and lunch is on the table. Sandy and her beau appear to be in a state of bliss. Who knows what's next?

1 comment:

Ed Howard said...

Great piece, Dean. It's so cool seeing the obviously stunned, excited response of someone seeing this film for the first time, bowled over by its brutality and its in-your-face intensity, but also by its thematic depths. It's such a widely acclaimed movie that it's easy to forget just how deeply strange it is. Like you, I think Mulholland Dr. is Lynch's best film, but Blue Velvet is probably his most unsettling film, his most challenging.