Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #31: Blue Velvet

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Blue Velvet
(released September 1986)

Dennis Hopper (as Frank Booth) & Isabella Rossellini (as Dorothy Vallens) in Blue Velvet

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The opening sequence of Blue Velvet tweaks an all-too-familiar Hollywood version of cozy small-town America: white picket fences, sun-kissed rose bushes, waving firemen, children bounding through carefully patrolled crosswalks, and charming single-family homes. Suddenly, a man watering his lawn collapses -- stroke, heart attack? -- and a yappy little dog drinks water from the hose he's still clutching in his hand. "Oh, that's sad... and kind of perverse" you think. And then the camera slithers through the grass, goes underground and reveals a cluster of icky, frenzied bugs doing their thing. That's writer/director David Lynch's twisted way of warning you that awful things are going on beneath the serenely banal surface of Lumberton, a North Carolina logging town that's about to lose its big-screen virginity in the most unsettling way possible.

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is the son of the man who collapsed on his lawn. He comes home from college to work in his father's hardware story until dad recovers -- incidentally, dad can't speak, his head is locked in some kind of grotesque medical apparatus and whatever happened to him is never explained; he has roughly 35 seconds of screen time, so you can just forget about him. After visiting his father in the hospital, Jeffrey wanders back home through a vacant lot and discovers a human ear. "I found an ear, " he says, surrendering it promptly to a family neighbor, otherwise known as police detective Williams. Obsessed with the ear -- well, wouldn't you be? -- Jeffrey hounds Detective Williams about his investigation, but gets no answers. As he leaves the detective's house one night, high school senior Sandy (Laura Dern) literally emerges from the darkness to ask, "Are you the one who found the ear?" Fortunately for Jeffrey, Sandy is the detective's daughter and her bedroom is right above his home office. She's heard things. Maybe clues about who's missing that ear. It could involve Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a sultry lounge singer with connections to a seedy (trust me, that's a charitable adjective) drug dealer named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

Jeffrey and Sandy scheme like Nancy Drew and one half of the Hardy Boys to gain access to Dorothy's apartment. One sample of the gloriously bent dialogue that emerges from their plotting:

Sandy: "I don't know if you're a detective or a pervert."
Jeffrey: "That's for me to know and you to find out."

Jeffrey gets inside Dorothy's apartment, but when she arrives home unexpectedly, he hides, ending up trapped in a closet and forced to witness her rape (or is it a sexual game?) by the sadomasochistic Frank Booth. This involves scissors, a blue velvet robe, the snorting of some kind of unidentified gas (amyl nitrite?) and the creepiest, most profoundly uncomfortable utterance of "Mommy!" ever. Seriously, ever. A detached human ear pales in comparison to what happens between Dorothy and Frank, so Jeffrey becomes obsessed with the lounge singer. Ostensibly, he wants to help her because Frank has (maybe) kidnapped her husband and small son, but an unhealthy sexual relationship develops between Dorothy and Jeffrey. She's whimpering "help me" one moment and "hit me" the next. He obliges. Simultaneously, Jeffrey and Sandy are falling in love like a couple of high school kids in a very strange 1950s sitcom. Eventually, Frank and Sandy discover that Jeffrey has become Dorothy's "special friend." And Detective Williams more or less proves that he should have picked a different line of work.

Blue Velvet is deeply unsettling, brazenly over the top and built on a mystery -- who's missing the ear? -- that becomes largely irrelevant as the film progresses. Writer/director David Lynch has created a highly-stylized world where everything is off. It's a retro 1950s landscape -- not a single car looks like it was built after 1970 and the pop songs that punctuate various scenes are all from the 1950s or early '60s -- but it's definitely taking place in the mid 1980s. That world is not compelling just because it gets increasingly weirder and more dangerous; weirdness, sex and violence will only get you so far. Lynch establishes a foreboding undercurrent from that opening sequence, but he really excels at two things. First, he's brilliant at juxtaposing the innocent and idyllic with the dark and disturbing; it's a world of opposites. And second, he's given us four characters -- Jeffrey, Sandy, Dorothy and Frank -- that draw you into this world in wildly disparate ways.

Oh, what characters they are. Jeffrey is the bland, clean-cut, all-American boy-next-door who jumps at the chance to visit the dark side of Lumberton. And there he finds Dorothy Vallens, a seductive but complex bundle of neurosis and unique sexual predilections, and Frank Booth, more or less the personification of pure evil. Meanwhile, there's impossibly sweet and decent Sandy, the kind of girl who'd probably be worried about prom night in any other movie. As for the performances, Kyle MacLachlan is the right type for Jeffrey and he's fine, but everyone else is better. Isabella Rossellini (the daughter of legendary Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and Italian director Roberto Rossellini) is beaten, sexually abused, degraded, stripped of her clothing and teeters on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Plus, she has to sing (the 1950s hit "Blue Velvet," naturally) in a lusty and dangerously close to flat voice that instantly explains why she's performing in Lumberton and not Las Vegas. With only a handful of credits before Blue Velvet, the model-turned-actress is convincingly wounded and unstable in what can only be adequately described as a groundbreaking role. As Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper is... well, seriously committed -- and bizarrely comical, creepy and terrifying all at once. Foul-mouthed, deranged, depraved, manic and prone to violent outrage, this is the kind of character that leaves an indelible impression and spins iconic, not unlike Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lechter in The Silence of the Lambs. Nothing about Frank Booth is ever explained or rationalized, which makes him all the more unnerving. And sure, Dorothy and Frank are the showy roles and Rossellini and Hopper got deserved kudos, but Laura Dern flat-out nails the wholesome, hometown Sandy role.

Ultimately, Blue Velvet is the kind of movie that makes you ask, "How did this ever get made?" It frequently plays like a daft satire of small-town life and it gleefully eschews or spoofs Hollywood storytelling conventions. I might even argue that Lynch is trenchantly flogging the shit out of the preposterously quaint 1950s-style American Dream scenario that U.S. conservatives still insist is real, universally desired and attainable through nothing more than hard work. Where there are dreams, there are nightmares, Lynch reminds us in his very own idiosyncratic way.

Of all the films I've reviewed for this series, Blue Velvet has been the most difficult to watch and write about. It's one of the earliest examples of American postmodern cinema -- films with a pastiche of styles that attempt to subvert the mainstream conventions of narrative structure and characterization, plus twiddle with the audience's suspension of disbelief. With Blue Velvet, David Lynch takes the sunny, idealized small-town movie trope and drops it directly into an intensely personal and innovative reinvention of the classic 1940s and '50s film noir genre. It's shockingly uninhibited, freakishly imaginative and boldly absurd in ways that may work for you, or not. I appreciate what Lynch does here, but I ended up admiring Blue Velvet more than I enjoyed it. That's not really a criticism. I've seen plenty of movies that were tepid, safe, artless and instantly forgettable. Blue Velvet isn't one of them.

Stray Gay Observations: If I had to sum up my Blue Velvet viewing experience in one sentence, I'd say something like, "David Lynch just sent me a poisoned valentine." However, there are number of things I unreservedly love about Blue Velvet. The music -- sinuous, jazzy, ominous, old Hollywood, strangely evocative -- is an extraordinary mix of mostly forgotten pop tunes and original compositions by Angelo Badalamenti. Then there's the production design by Patricia Norris and the work of cinematographer Frederick Elmes -- their collaboration expertly defines the light and dark sides of Lumberton, and the distinction is striking. Even the contrast between Sandy (blonde, fresh cheeks and invariably dressed in modest pinks) and Dorothy (black hair, red lips and dark, rich-colored clothing) is fascinatingly extreme -- and taken to an arresting degree when they finally meet face to face. And I just have to mention the appearance of an animatronic bird straight out of Disney's Mary Poppins -- for me it is the single most splendidly perfect and flabbergasting thing about Blue Velvet.

Dennis Hopper dominates every scene he's in, except one -- that's when his character, Frank Booth, and some of his colleagues take Dorothy and Jeffrey to a decidedly unsexy brothel run by a fey and vaguely sinister man named Ben (Dean Stockwell). Frank repeatedly and admiringly compliments Ben, calling him "suave." Stockwell manages to momentarily eclipse Hopper with a bizarrely insidious performance. And when Ben begins to lip-sync a classic old Roy Orbison tune, "In Dreams," the film reaches something like a queer apex.

Dean Stockwell as Ben the lip-syncing brothel owner

After Blue Velvet, David Lynch made another movie (Wild at Heart) and then co-created the revolutionary TV series Twin Peaks (1990-91), about an FBI agent who investigates the mysterious murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer in a Washington state logging town. I know people who think Twin Peaks is a masterpiece. I'd describe it as a hauntingly perverse, occasionally mesmerizing mess that might actually be a masterpiece if David Lynch had wrapped it all up in the first 8-episode season or simply conceived it as a miniseries with a definitive ending. But that's not how TV worked in those days. A network actually expected David Lynch to entertain a mainstream audience and sustain a level of compelling visionary weirdness episode after episode. That's a tall order. Viewers hung in there for a while but abandoned the series as soon as Laura Palmer's murderer was revealed in the seventh episode of the second season (and it's possibly the creepiest and most horrifying moment in scripted television history to that point). Nevertheless, Twin Peaks succeeds as a distinctive experiment that changed the network television landscape forever. And without Blue Velvet, there would never have been Twin Peaks.

Should You See It? After my initial screening, I thought the whole thing was messed up, self-conscious and propelled by forced theatricality. Then I gave myself a few days to think about it before I wrote this review. After some reflection, I still think Blue Velvet is undoubtedly and intentionally all those things. David Lynch is deliberately fucking with me, you, and everyone else. I think he knows exactly what he's doing and he's certainly okay with the fact that a lot of people just aren't going to get it. Whether or not you think there's any merit to what he's doing is open for debate. So, personally, I may not be wildly enthusiastic about Blue Velvet, but I'd recommend it to anyone who prefers their movies dark, vigorously peculiar and unapologetically surreal.

Next: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

1 comment:

  1. Definitely surreal and very much in league with Luis Bunuel films.