Thursday, July 22, 2010

Blue Velvet

David Lynch is a difficult director to watch.  His movies are intentionally obtuse and his use of imagery and symbols over plot and characters is alienating for many viewers and attractive for many critics.  Blue Velvet is one of Lynch's more linear stories, which makes this one of his more accessible films for the general public.  Of course, that's just by comparison.  This is still a weird ass film.  If I had to sum up the story in one sentence, I would say that Blue Velvet is like a Leave It to Beaver episode that woke up from a nightmare, only to find itself being raped.

The story begins with Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) coming home from college to help with his family's business, while his father recovers from a stroke.  While wandering around the idyllic Lumberton townscape, Jeffrey finds a severed human ear.  He takes the ear to Detective Williams (George Dickerson), who assures Jeffrey that he'll handle the case.  Jeffrey is an annoying little busybody that clearly doesn't have enough to do like, oh I don't know, running his father's business, so he stops by Detective Williams' home to ask about the ear.  In the process, he is reintroduced to Williams' daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern).  Sandy and Jeffrey step out for a malted milkshake (or something equally wholesome) and swap information on the ear.  Sandy is a dirty eavesdropper and her father discusses a surprising amount of his work at home, so she dishes that there is a nightclub singer that is a person of interest.  The singer is Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and Jeffrey decides to sneak into her apartment and investigate her.  While he is searching her apartment for some clue that may connect to the ear, she comes home; Jeffrey narrowly avoids detection by hiding in a closet.  It doesn't work for long, though; Dorothy discovers him, keeps him at knife point and... performs fellatio?  Well, that's an unexpected reaction.  The couple are interrupted by a knock at the door.  Dorothy hides Jeffrey in the closet once more and lets Frank (Dennis Hopper) in.  Frank is rude, vulgar and abusive, both physically and verbally.  He huffs some unnamed drug (identified as amyl nitrate by Hopper in later interviews), smacks Dorothy around a little, and dry humps her until he's finished.  As a side note, watching that scene allowed me to check two items off my bucket list.  I'm not saying what, though.  This scene causes Jeffrey to sympathize with Dorothy and he delves deeper into her nightmare of a life, filled with Frank and his associates, but still spending time in the TV Land-ish Lumberton proper enough to fall in love with Sandy.  It's dangerous to explore the seedy underbelly of any town, though, a lesson Frank will soon teach Jeffrey.

This film is sometimes described as a neo-noir, but I disagree.  While there are similarities to the noir genre (tough guys and dames without real emotions, a mystery to solve, etc.), they only really exist within the seedy underworld of Lumberton.  In many ways, this film is about duality and how deceiving appearances can be.  On the one hand, yes, this is a noir when Frank and Dorothy show up, but it is a surreal visit to the sunny neighborhoods of 1950s television when the story focuses on Jeffrey and Sandy.  Obviously, the differences between Jeffrey and Frank are shown in sharp contrast when Jeffrey and Dorothy become lovers as are the differences between Dorothy and Sandy.  Lynch does a good job showing the importance of digging beyond the surface in the opening scene, as the camera zooms past Jeffrey's father having a stroke in the middle of their perfect neighborhood and into the grass, until all we see are bugs busy in the dirt.

I don't like categorizing Blue Velvet as a noir because I feel it is better described as surreal.  The sunny Lumberton portion of the film is almost deliriously ideal, visually bright and clean.  The characters in these scenes speak and act as if they are in a classic TV sitcom, spouting trite garbage and throwing around cliches like it's their job.  The despair of the seedy Lumberton is just as bizarre.  While I'm sure that sadomasochism and unusual sexual practices happen everywhere, but Frank's experiences put even the nastiest celebutant to shame.  There is absolutely nothing in this movie that rings true.

Well, almost nothing.  Isabella Rossellini's performance is eye-opening, and not just because she gets nekked.  Her character is very complex and has the most easily understood motives out of anyone in the film.  Rossellini does a great job handling what would have been simply an erotic role for most actresses and transformed it into a study on power, pleasure, pain and fear.  It's shocking to me that she was not nominated for at least a supporting actress award at either the Oscars or the Golden Globes.

Dennis Hopper's performance is not nearly as honest as Rossellini's, but it's just as captivating.  As Frank, Hopper plays his most frightening role.  This is at least partially because he is inexplicable and unpredictable.  Is he going to cry while watching Dean Stockwell lip-sync to Roy Orbison, or is he going to start breaking furniture with the same stimulus?  At times, Hopper's acting is so beyond the realm of plausibility that it becomes funny, but he quickly snaps back into exuding danger the next moment.

Lynch's work is equally fluid.  The film's cinematography is wonderful.  Lynch has a gift for finding great visuals and exploiting them.  He is at the top of his game here.  His direction of actors, on the other hand, is typically alien.  I am familiar with many actors in this movie, as well as the casts in other Lynch films; in every movie, it feels like he is deliberately directing his cast to act poorly.  If there is an unnatural pause or a way to make a clever line not funny, that is the take that makes the film's final cut.  If this type of acting was limited to certain members of the cast, I could conclude that Lynch is making a point about those characters, or their place in society or whatever.  But he does it with everyone.  Lynch wrote this movie, as well, so his intentions can be found by watching the camera work, seeing the acting, and hearing the dialogue.  But it's all still very confusing.  This film doesn't work as a satire of the 1950s American ideal if the "real world" that Frank rules is equally surreal.  So...does that make this a movie about naivety?  About the need to hold on to the comforting while experiencing the discomforting?  If that's the case, then why all the surreality?  To be honest, I don't care because thinking about David Lynch's intentions is just frustrating for me.

That frustration happens whether or not I am focusing on what the director intended, though.  The acting is, for the most part, painful to watch.  When Hopper and Rossellini are on screen, that pain turns into discomfort.  That's not a huge upside.  The supporting characters have absolutely no depth or humanity to them at all, and simply exist to provide momentary distractions for the cast.  Perhaps if one side of the story was told differently, this movie would be more appealing to me.  If the mystery aspect held any suspense whatsoever or had any importance, for instance, I might have invested more of myself to this film.  Instead, I am left disliking the movie, but admiring two performances and the camera work.  I guess that kind of balances things out pretty evenly.


  1. Dennis Hooper's Frank happens to be one of the best five villains of all time, but I would not expect you to know that because you are dumb.

  2. Hey, I admit that Frank is a scary character. I am dumb, though, so I don't know the other four top villains. Darth Vader, Angel Eyes, Belloq, and Jason Voorhies all come to mind, but that shuts out Bond villains entirely.