Friday, October 07, 2016

Blue Velvet (1986)

USA, 120 minutes
Director/writer: David Lynch
Photography: Frederick Elmes
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Editor: Duwayne Dunham
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, George Dickerson, Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nance, Frances Bay, Fred Pickler

I wrote about Blue Velvet a few years ago for a group project countdown of favorite movies (see here) and tried to cover the basic points then: the shattering experience of seeing it totally unprepared, and its basic dynamic of shuttling between extremes, which I compared somewhere else in that series with It's a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz. Inevitably, 30 years of popular culture grinding away at norms of decorum have worked to make even Blue Velvet seem slightly tame and a little buffoonish now. Still, a recent look convinced me that its powers to shock, unnerve, and move me remain nearly as powerful as ever, and I still think few other films have managed its extraordinary dynamics quite so well. Or, as they like to say in the movie, "It's a strange world, isn't it?"

I'm writing it up again because it's in the top 100 of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, and among other things I'd like to call attention to the fact that director and writer David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., currently #66, has surpassed Blue Velvet, currently #75, in the esteem of critics at large. This happened about five years ago, when Mulholland Dr. surged from #276, with Blue Velvet at #102, shortly after the wave of 2000s best-of lists. To be sure, Blue Velvet has also benefited from the general updraft in Lynch's critical reputation at that time. But I'm thinking we might have a bit of a Taxi Driver and Raging Bull situation on our hands here with Lynch's two masterpieces.

But enough with this horserace talk. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing inferior about Blue Velvet to Mulholland Dr. is the music by Angelo Badalamenti. Blue Velvet was their first collaboration and it's more conventional, perhaps under some studio duress (talking about Dino De Laurentiis here), though the trademark celestial moodiness does come through more in the second half, notably a late scene with Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) dancing.

Yes, that's Jeffrey Beaumont, like Hugh Beaumont, who played Ward Cleaver on TV's Leave It to Beaver after a career doing B-movie film noir. Jeffrey is fascinated by mysteries, like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. Or think Fred MacMurray, except Kyle MacLachlan plays it as boy scout and only boy scout. I had to catalog how swiftly the changes go by in some places. The famous sequence, for example, where Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) kidnaps Jeffrey and takes him out for a night on the town, which is arguably the core of the whole picture. After the iconic treatment with Dean Stockwell of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams," the titanic declarations of power by Frank (who is "a very, very dangerous man," as Jeffrey already knew), and the ritual humiliation of singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini)—Frank calls her "Tits"—the real violence happens. Two henchmen hold Jeffrey while Frank methodically pounds on him.

This is a point in the movie where especially first-time viewers may be quite emotionally broken down—though I imagine today's audience is a tougher breed. The beating itself is brief, we only see the beginning. Really, it barely registers after all that has just gone on. Then that cuts to the next morning, with Jeffrey sitting on the side of his bed, dressed and ready for the day but still stunned, helplessly breaking down into tears. It's powerful and raw, surprisingly so—it looks and feels like the moment when innocence itself has been irreversibly corrupted (though it hasn't, rest assured). Then that cuts to a light-hearted breakfast scene, where Jeffrey arrives at the table and holds his hands up in the faces of his gasping mother and elderly aunt, politely but firmly saying he "doesn't want to talk about" the fact that he has obviously taken a beating.

The opening is also as effective as ever, establishing the narrative element of mysteries wrapped in further mysteries, and beginning to plant the insidious seeds of the voyeurism that powers it, motivating its characters as much as its audience. The 1963 "Blue Velvet" hit by Bobby Vinton has never sounded better, more alive or poignant or just sweet, than during these scenes of some fantasy small town summertime idyll, with red firetrucks and blue sky and white picket fences, with beyond it all a man having a heart attack, a ferocious pet dog standing on the corpse, in battle with a hose, and under it all ... insect wars. Minutes later in movie time, Jeffrey finds a human ear in a field and the central mysteries begin.

The ending may be what suffers most from seeing Blue Velvet a few times and/or getting used to its style of aggression, as the grotesque tableau of two corpses in unlikely positions, for example, seems more strained and silly than anything. But the rhythms of those final events are still rousing, reminiscent of the heroic ending of Rear Window (which in some ways makes me think we might also have a Rear Window and Vertigo situation on our hands). Certainly one of the most powerful moments in the whole picture is when Dorothy shows up at night in Jeffrey's front yard, naked. Everyone is slow to get her a coat, even as she mentions emphatically to Jeffrey's girlfriend and her mother that, "He put his disease in me." She tells them twice, in fact.

So that's the way we do it. In the cataclysmic climax, Jeffrey, Dorothy, and Sandy all survive overwhelming traumatic experiences and come out the other side. As an audience, we are so affected, so helplessly identified with these markers of human goodness, that the strange joy they take in a bold robin that appears in their window with an insect in its mouth seems like the affirmation of life we are so open to and willing to embrace in that moment. Bravo.

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