Saturday, July 19, 2014

Blue Velvet (1986)

Director: David Lynch                                       Writer: David Lynch
Film Score: Angelo Badalamenti                        Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper and Laura Dern

I can remember vividly going to the theater with a friend of mine to see The World According to Garp when it was first released. When we came out of the theater we both looked at each other and said, “What the hell was that?” Well, that was nothing compared to the surreal experience of seeing David Lynch’s Blue Velvet for the first time a few years later. Talk about falling into the rabbit hole--or in this case I guess it would be the ear hole. At the time, that kind of surrealism could only be seen in European films, and this is reinforced by the use of Angelo Badalamenti’s film score on the soundtrack. But the violence and the psychotic behavior are even unique for Europe. As a result, the film did not do well in the eyes of critics. Lynch had had an interesting track record up to this point, with the unique Eraserhead promising great things to come, but failing miserably with Dune. Next, he went mainstream by directing The Elephant Man for Mel Brooks and received good reviews. At that point it was time for him to venture out on his own, with a screenplay he had been thinking about for over a decade and a style that was unlike any other American director at the time.

Lynch begins by establishing a picture postcard nineteen-fifties version of modern suburbia, with vivid primary colors, white picket fences, and Bobby Vinton crooning “Blue Velvet” in the background. Then, when an old man watering his lawn is stung by a bee and falls to the ground writhing in pain, Lynch pushes in on the grass, going deep underneath to the ground where beetles eat ferociously, their sound amplified to horrific proportions. Suddenly the scene snaps back to a sunny billboard welcoming all to Lumberton. This, then, is the theme of the film, that beneath the surface of placid suburbia lies death and perversion if you are unlucky enough to kick over the wrong rock. Kyle MacLachlan walks through the woods to see the old man, his father, in the hospital, and on his way back through the woods finds a human ear in the grass. He turns it over to a detective at the police department, but can’t get it out of his mind. Then he meets the detective’s daughter, Laura Dern, and the two strike up a friendship. She knows bits about her father’s cases and tells him the ear is related to a case involving a woman, Isabella Rossellini. So MacLachlan hits on the idea to break into her apartment to see what he can learn about her, but when Dennis Hopper enters the picture things take a turn for the surreal and MacLachlan’s life will never be the same.

This whole idea of the perfect American neighborhood as a mask that hides a demented reality is something that has been explored recently in quite a few films, from American Beauty to Pleasantville. But Blue Velvet was really the first. And though the film has been called a mystery, or a neo noir, that doesn’t really seem to be Lynch’s purpose. It’s pretty clear less than halfway in that Hopper has Rossellini’s husband and child held captive and that they will threaten to kill them both if she doesn’t do exactly what Hopper wants. The film revived Hopper’s career and, in a way, Lynch was like an early version of Quentin Tarantino, able to see things in actors who had been discarded by Hollywood and unafraid of shocking audiences with something completely out of left field. And Hopper’s performance is definitely that. In some ways this typecast him for the rest of his career, playing the kind of crazies he did in Speed. But nobody does it better. The other leads, MacLachlan, Rossellini and Dern do a respectable job and are actually believable. Everyone else seems to fit into that opening montage of artificiality, George Dickerson as the police detective, Hope Lange as Dern’s mother, and Dean Stockwell as . . . well, whatever he is. The only other actor of note is the wonderful Brad Dourif who has only a bit part as one of Hopper’s henchmen.

Gene Siskel, at the time, compared the film to Psycho, and there is a strong parallel. The evil behind the façade of the innocuous everyday life is definitely there. And the unexpected violence is also something that the film shares with Hitchcock’s horror film. Both films are also resolved by the curiosity of the characters who are compelled to learn the truth. The one other theory that works well is the Oedipal, with MacLachlan as the son, Rossellini as the mother, and Hopper as the father. But I see the relationship between MacLachlan and Rossellini differently. They are both using each other for the same reason, MacLachlan wants her because she represents this incredible mystery that he wants to be a part of, and Rossellini wants him because he represents the normalcy she has lost. The film was nominated for one Academy Award, David Lynch for best director, and while reviews were mixed at the time it has it has gradually shed its novelty with the coming of Tarantino and can be viewed with a bit more objectivity. Still, the film doesn’t have a lot of depth to it. The story and the characterizations, for all the posturing of the “mysterious,” are fairly superficial. Style over substance, in this instance, does not seem like an unfitting label. Blue Velvet was a shocking film at the time, and still retains a disturbing undercurrent. But it’s ultimately a product of its time and the waning of Lynch’s feature career demonstrates its shortcomings as much as anything in the film.

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