Re-watching Inland Empire brought on the thirst. Not the thirst for sprite, the thirst for rapper-funded energy drinks or even the thirst for suki suckhouse. No, the thirst of which I speak is none other than the David-Lynch thirst, and once it has its hooks in me I begin eying the collection and my calender for what comes next and when. I began to contemplate my collection.
Then Dennis Hopper died.
So it seemed my choice was made for me. On the eve of my next day off I loaded up on beer and sat down to watch one of my favorite films.
It’s interesting to look back at Blue Velvet from the future because it is easy to forget how extreme some of the material was to audiences in the year of Ronnie’s lord, 1986. Violent fetishism, rape, brutality and humiliation all play a roll in making Blue Velvet one big ol’ spoonful of fucked up that now, after experiencing films since such as Irreversible* make it look relatively tame.
In 1986 it was not so tame.
One of the best things about Blue Velvet on DVD is the inclusion of the Siskel & Ebert episode where Gene and Roger reviewed the film.
My do fireworks fly.
The entire review is not present** but what is highlights how violently Ebert reacted to actress Isabella Rossellini’s character arc, particularly her arriving naked and beaten on Detective William’s front lawn in the final act. Siskel smiles calmly as his friend calls David Lynch to task for his ‘humiliation’ of Rossellini, humiliation Ebert equates to rarely having seen outside the arena of pornography. Siskel reminds Ebert that Lynch has simply set out to ‘to play his audience just as all great directors try to play their audiences’. The whole clip lasts three minutes at most but definitely serves to provide a context to the film that is probably more often than not lost during modern viewing.
Ebert’s reaction is of course slightly silly in retrospect, but every viewer of a film’s reaction to that film is valid upon seeing it, even if it might change down the road. This is one of the most powerful and amazing effects of cinema and, more importantly, it is something Lynch knows. He knows that his images are often raw and volatile, and as such his films often work on multiple levels over time: that a viewer’s reaction to the images he assembles may be of joy or terror, disgust or elation. The point is they do react, and this is exactly what well-written, well-acted films make people do. But this is an endangered idea; endangered as pre-branded material and 3D become the most reliable sales drivers. You don’t need to move folks with clever scripting or breathtaking acting when you’ve got 3D explosions and well known characters that perform well across multiple platforms, i.e. toys, comics, video games, etc.
But I’m digressing, climbing steadily back up on the soapbox. At any rate I for one do not agree with Ebert about Blue Velvet. While I do not pretend to understand exactly why Dorothy Vallens ends up naked on Detective Williams’ lawn I do know that, especially in a film such as Blue Velvet, unfortunate things happen to the characters. Remember the dual ideas of Comedy and Tragedy? Lynch often plays elements of both in his films and Blue Velvet is no exception. Terrible things happen to people who, at first glance, appear ‘normal’ or beyond reproach. This then is a theme of the film, as ‘normal’ is unearthed as the illusion it truly is, held up by adults who try to pretend the world is good and decent when in reality there’s always a bottom floor. Lynch even goes so far as to visibly show us this – when Jeffrey Beaumont finds the severed ear at the beginning of the film (‘yep, that’s an ear alright’) the camera takes us down into the grass surrounding it, away from the sunlight, sprinklers and green foliage and into the dirt beneath it all. A close-up on an orgy of Beatles, of their frenzied and chitinous undulations is the ugly and unprecedented image that moves us from the small town family life Jeffrey knows as ‘normal’ to the seedy and dangerous underworld that, much as the dirt underlays and supports the existence of the peaceful land he knows, supports the mechanics of his home town.
Okay, so now we’re getting into it. It’s true that, in a popular sense, when people talk about Blue Velvet they dwell on Frank Booth. Dennis Hopper played the character that was originally written for Robert Loggia*** in a way that made Mr. Booth, arguably, one of the most iconic bad guys in the history of cinema. Because of this larger than life character it is easy to forget about the rest of the film. I do this myself; I can recite most of Hopper’s dialogue from heart, and I cringe and applaud at the nuances of the performance (they are there). But what else is going on here?
What about the rest of the film?
One of the most important things that underlies Blue Velvet is Jeffrey Beaumont. He is a clean cut, family-oriented all-American kid just getting started in the world outside his home town when he is drawn into not only the underbelly of the town, but the lowest areas of his own soul. He tries to maintain the illusion (mostly to himself) that he is investigating a crime and trying to help people but in no time it becomes impossible to deny that he is really exploring his own bottom floor. He hides in Dorothy Vallen’s closet, watches her undress, watches her as she is raped and brutalized by a very obviously dangerous man and then proceeds to have almost anonymous sex with her himself. Enthralled he tries to go back to the world he knows of french fries and pretty girls but it’s no use – he returns to Dorothy several more times, the sex always escalating. When she asks him to abuse her he does in spite of attempts to resist. Jeffrey has become what repulsed him at first and soon he is pulled straight down into that black void of debauchery he first glimpsed through the shutters of Dorothy’s closet.
And what about the home town he knew? Even Detective Williams, a grown man and police officer learns a thing or two when he finds his partner is involved with drugs and violent criminals. Think about the fact that Dorothy’s husband and child disappeared into captivity without so much as a neighbor noticing. No one until Jeffrey, and as Booth advises him after it’s essentially already too late, ‘Don’t be a good neighbor to her’. Booth is telling Jeffrey to mind his own business, to stay on his side of the tracks, his side of Lincoln. But it’s too late and from here all hell breaks loose.
Of course as dark as Lynch gets he is also an optimist. You can see in the arc of his career that even as his art demands he document the change in society that has come in dark and dangerous waves since his own ‘home town’ days in the fifties and sixties**** he still believes in (or perhaps reminisces for) those core American-dream values of family, community, love and hope. Or as he visually illustrates those things in Blue Velvet: the fire trucks, white picket fences and of course, the return of the Robins. And notice here they win.
What I find myself asking in the wake of this most recent viewing of Lynch’s masterpiece is do they win in real life? And if so, why does it seem the line between the Frank Booths and the Jeffrey Beaumonts of the world is even hazier than in 1986?
* Somethings can’t be unseen. Irreversible is, despite being a beautifully shot film, one of them I wish could be removed from my experience palette.
** As a tangent it was great being able to go back and see these two guys
the way I remember them from my childhood. I’d often spend Saturday evenings (or was it Sundays?) watching Statler and Waldorf, outfitted in bad
sport coats and witty revelry praising or razing films that were, in many respects, well
outside my field of experience.
*** Who would of course be back in Lost Highway as Mr. Eddie
**** If you look at his films in chronological order, with minor exceptions you really see how Lynch has moved beyond that hometown vibe and focuses more now on honor and salvation within the modern context. Rural settings with white picket fences and row upon row of brightly painted homes, while to degrees present in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and The Straight Story has since given way to apartments, town homes and mansions in his later films, starting with Lost Highway, moving through Mulholland Drive and finally into the very dark and urban landscapes of Inland Empire.
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