Friday, October 31, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #33: Trog

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..."

Trog (released October 1970)

Trog (Joe Cornelius) covets Dr. Brockton's (Joan Crawford) pink silk scarf.

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Trog is a low-budget British sci-fi monster horror melodrama about the discovery of a prehistoric man -- also known as a troglodyte. If it starred anyone besides legendary Oscar-winning actress Joan Crawford, it probably would have been forgotten decades ago. Widowed, financially strapped, a functioning alcoholic and still driven to work after five decades in movies, sixty-five-year-old Crawford took a part that required her to declare emphatically and with dignity, "It's my firm belief that Trog is the missing link." When you make 92 feature films, some of them are just not going to be very good. It's inevitable. If you're lucky, however, you might make at least one that's so bad it's good. Trog is Miss Crawford's bad masterpiece. She gets to speak science, like this:

"Conceivably, Trog was frozen solid during the long, long glacial age. A state similar to cryogenic suspension. Then as the underground streams and currents brought more and more warmth to the frozen atmosphere, his body thawed out. We now know that human sperm, red blood cells, bone marrow cells, even skin can be brought back to life after freezing."

And she sells that like only Crawford can. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

In the English countryside, a freelance expedition of three young British explorers -- Bill, Cliff and Malcolm -- stumble upon the entrance to a cave that's not on their map. Uh oh. Deep inside this impossibly well-lit, paper mache and fiberglass formation they find an underground stream with water "like ice." Malcolm concludes that "it's probably fed by subterranean glacial waters." Hearing that, Bill and Cliff immediately strip down to their adorable boxer shorts and dive right in because they don't want the "sub-aqua boys" to go first and take credit for whatever they discover on the other side of the stream. What they discover is an inhospitable troglodyte who's so peeved by guests dropping by in their underwear that he kills Bill and scares the shit out of Cliff. Malcolm rescues Cliff and takes him directly to a research institute conveniently located on the outskirts of a generic English village near the cave -- and, coincidentally, it's run by world famous anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford). Suffering from a serious case of bad-actor-in-shock syndrome, Cliff babbles about something "monstrous, like nothing I've ever seen before." Then Cliff disappears from the film entirely... which is unfortunate primarily because he looks quite good in boxers. Anyway, Dr. Brockton convinces Malcolm to take her to the cave because, "This could be the one chance in a lifetime. Who knows? An opportunity to lift the veil from the past." Dr. Brockton photographs the troglodyte and presents her evidence to the local police inspector along with a science lesson. "Half ape, half man -- trog -- a primitive cave dweller," she declares.

Next thing you know, curious villagers, police officials, the fire department, a TV news crew and somebody with a refreshment stand are all outside the cave waiting for the the sub-aqua boys -- Is this really what they call frogmen in England? -- to capture this primitive cave dweller so Dr. Brockton can look under its loincloth. Emerging from the crowd is Mr. Murdoch (Michael Gough), the sourpuss village idiot who has ferocious animosity toward Dr. Brockton. He's so bitter and acrimonious that you immediately suspect he's a rival anthropologist or spurned former lover from her past. No, not in this movie. His sole motivation for being a raging asshole is that he thinks her research is "taxpayer's money down the drain!" Really, he's like one of those insufferable Tea Party people, but with a British accent. So Murdoch thinks the whole thing's a hoax until the troglodyte unceremoniously bursts out of the cave, tosses a styrofoam rock at a TV cameraman and sends everyone scurrying away in fear. Except Dr. Brockton, of course. She came prepared with a tranquilizer dart gun that sounds like a shotgun.  

Back at the research institute, Dr. Brockton and her sweet blonde scientist daughter, Anne, feed Trog a rubber lizard. "For a senior citizen he certainly has a marvelous appetite!" Anne exclaims. They give him -- I guess it's a him; no one ever checks -- a doll and a train. He likes both. Gender-neutral parenting -- this movie was way ahead of it's time! And he likes Dr. Brockton's pink scarf so much that he puts it around his own neck, an obvious sign that he has a future in missy fashion design. They discover that Trog prefers classical music over rock and roll, meaning that he's going to be unbearable at dinner parties. But when they take him outside to play ball, he promptly strangles a German Shepherd to death. The town is suddenly outraged and there's an inquiry. This must have been a really beloved dog because there was no inquiry when Trog bludgeoned poor Bill to death in that cave. Dr. Brockton compares Trog to a "retarded child" that can't be held responsible for his actions. But Murdoch disrupts the inquiry, naturally, calling Brockton a heathen and sharing his two-point plan for handling Trog: "Kill it first, then study it's hide!" That retarded business aside, Dr. Brockton makes an impassioned speech on behalf of Trog and, to Murdoch's hammy dismay, gets to continue her research. Side note: As the odious Murdoch, Michael Gough is so over the top that it's amazing his career lasted long enough for him to portray the butler in every single 1990s entry in the Batman franchise.

Dr. Brockton recruits an American surgeon to implant a "micro-trans" in Trog and then he's hooked up to a TV that shows us his memories. Trog's memories -- stop-motion dinosaur battles, erupting volcanoes and glaciers that led to his "icy hibernation" -- look suspiciously like four minutes of garishly tinted footage from a 1956 Irwin Allen (yeah, the Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno guy) documentary called The Animal World. Oh, and the "micro-trans" thingy also gives Trog the gift of speech, which he uses to compliment sweet blonde scientist daughter Anne's blue dress. All this makes Dr. Brockton cry, leading you to wonder if that was in the script or if Crawford is weeping, understandably, for the mortifying demise of her once illustrious career.

Before Trog can reveal "the baffling secrets of evolution," there's yet another inquiry and more of Murdoch howling about this "murdering monster." To prove his point that Trog is a murdering monster, Murdoch breaks into the research center and frees Trog so that he can, presumably, choke more dogs, frighten everyone in the generic English village next door and kill somebody else. Not surprisingly, Murdoch The Village Idiot did not think his plan through; he's expeditiously beaten to death by Trog the Murdering Monster. Finally, Trog runs amok because, well, it's not like you would expect him to skip back to the lab, tie Dr. Brockton's pink scarf around his neck and arrange a tea party for that guy who implanted a "micro-trans" under his skin. No, this movie needs a suitable climax -- roughly fifteen laugh-out-loud minutes of Trog being naughty. He flips a car, murders some shopkeepers, terrorizes a playground and kidnaps a blonde girl. And you know what happens to people -- or troglodyes -- that kidnap little blonde girls. Spoiler Alert (but not so much): "It's got to be destroyed!"

Trog is the kind of movie that deserves an exclamation point in the title, just because. Alas, that must not have occurred to the three men responsible for the screenplay -- Peter Bryan, John Gilling and Aben Kandel. It also didn't occur to them to give Dr. Brockton a first name, or explain why her own daughter has an English accent and she does not. But, holy hell, they sure did concoct a heinous mashup of The Miracle Worker and Frankenstein, with a pinch of King Kong. No director could have saved Trog, but Freddie Francis stages everything so ineptly that it's mind-boggling to find out he'd actually directed eighteen other movies first. Incredibly, Francis went on to become a respected cinematographer who's worked for Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.

The credits tell us that Trog was designed by Charles Parker, a makeup artist who worked in movies from the early 1940s until his death in 1977 (his last film was Star Wars). He also worked on Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). If you've seen it, you'll probably remember that it begins with a sequence commonly known as "The Dawn of Man," wherein about a dozen Paleolithic man-apes figure out how to use a bone as a weapon. Only one of the man-apes is ever shown in a medium closeup, but watch carefully and you'll see a distinct resemblance to Trog. Looks like Parker recycled the worst of those masks for this film and just attached some hair.  It looks unfinished; somewhat better than a Halloween mask, but nowhere near as convincing as the state-of-the-art makeup Hollywood used two years earlier for Planet of the Apes (1968). Trog is just a goofy creation in a bad rubber mask, a silly loincloth (really, when did he decide to cover up his junk?) and a pair of big furry house slippers. You can't take him seriously as either missing link or monster. However, the chunky man under the mask (Joe Cornelius) appears to be having a blast.

Trog, a face that only People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) could love.

Stray Gay Observations: Trog has sexy legs, nice arms and a cute little belly, making him somewhat more attractive to me than Bigfoot. After a couple of margaritas I'd probably fuck him.

Crawford's wardrobe is regrettable. Only Trog looks worse. I wanted to blame it on the costume department, but my research turned up an interesting fact: the budget was so tight, Crawford wore some of her own clothes. I know she's supposed to be an anthropologist and all that, but yikes, there are some unflattering outfits here -- even for 1970.

Crawford worked steadily for nearly five decades, starting in silent films with 1925's Pretty Ladies. Along the way she made some really entertaining movies, including: Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), Johnny Guitar (1954) and (arguably her last great film) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The success of Baby Jane should have led to other good parts. It didn't. Left nearly broke from her last marriage, Crawford took the roles she was offered -- lurid, low-budget thrillers like Strait-Jacket (1964), I Saw What You Did (1964) and Berserk! (1967). By her own admission she hated Trog; it became her final feature film performance. But as awful an experience as it might have been for her to make Trog, Crawford commits to the damn thing with a shocking degree of sincerity for someone who's required to act with one of the most unconvincing beasts in celluloid history. Bad as Trog is -- and it's shockingly bad --  Crawford somehow manages to give the whole thing an endearing quality.

The remarkable career of Joan Crawford (1906-1977) has been somewhat eclipsed by the publication of adopted daughter Christina Crawford's harsh 1978 tell-all screed, Mommie Dearest, and its subsequent screen adaptation starring Faye Dunaway ("What's wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers... EVER!"). Here's how I feel about Mommie Dearest: I think the book is probably exaggerated BS from a disgruntled kid, but I regularly regard the film as the best worst movie ever made.

Sorry, I just couldn't resist...

"What's a troglodyte doing in this cave when I told you no troglodytes... EVER!" 

Should You See It? Absolutely. Here are three reasons: (1) this is an unbelievably cheesy, profoundly absurd movie; (2) it's an infamous camp classic that has to be seen to be believed; and (3) Joan Fucking Crawford. 

PS. I would also like to argue (with tongue firmly planted in cheek, sort of) that Trog is a prescient motion picture of significant importance. The Murdoch character -- an intolerant, blustering, overprivileged white male with unwavering contempt for science -- gives us an uncanny glimpse into America's future.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #32: Shakespeare in Love

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..."

Shakespeare in Love
 (released December 1998)

Shakespeare in Love
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps 

Here's the most recent VOD trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: It's London, circa 1593 -- the glory days of Elizabethan theatre. Young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is struggling to write his latest play, a comedy he intends to call Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. The words aren't coming. "I have lost my gift," he acknowledges with exactly the kind of grandiose woe befitting a self-absorbed writer. He seeks inspiration. The solution, he ascertains, is to find a muse. Preferably one he can take to bed. With actors and theatre owners clamoring for his latest work, Will appeases everyone by promising them a play he's barely begun to write and starts auditioning players. Enter Viola de Lessups (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who loves Shakespeare's poetry and despises the fact that women are banned from performing on stage (yes, that's historically accurate). To circumvent that exclusion, Viola disguises herself as Thomas Kent and auditions for the part of Romeo by performing a bit from Will's earlier works. Convinced he's found his Romeo, Will casts Viola/Kent.

As the play takes shape, Will discovers Viola's ruse, a passionate love affair begins and Shakespeare's comedy morphs into his most famous romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. In other words, he finds his muse. There are, of course, a series of major and minor complications, misunderstandings and revelations for Will and Viola to navigate. For instance, Viola's father has arranged her marriage to the insufferable Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a nobleman who only wants an obedient, grateful and fertile wife with no qualms about relocating to Virginia (which actually did exist in 1593, but did not become a permanent English settlement until 1607... in case you were wondering).

As Shakespeare and Viola, Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow are perfectly cast. Fiennes is a bundle of disconsolation, obsession and verve -- he makes the historically enigmatic Shakespeare amusingly cocky, a bit of a rascal and ultimately affecting. Paltrow seizes the opportunity to play her first fully realized character, a burgeoning young woman who becomes a thoroughly plausible playwright's muse -- she's radiant, ardent and feisty. (Her impeccable English accent never wavers, either.) The supporting cast is a sensational assembly of stalwart Brits: Tom Wilkinson (a stagestruck financier), Rupert Everett (rival playwright Christopher Marlowe), Imelda Staunton (Viola's nurse), Geoffrey Rush (a perpetually harried theatre owner) and the superb Judi Dench (as Queen Elizabeth I, a monarch with vinegar coursing through her veins). Finally, Ben Affleck goes full peacock, spoofing the eternal vanity of self-important stars who covet the largest parts; his comic timing is surprising and impressive.

Screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard have created a sublime pastiche, mimicking the structure and beats of the Elizabethan plays perfected by Shakespeare. They juggle history, fiction, comedy and drama, striking a rare pitch of fervent romance, bawdy fun and marvelous wordplay (that doesn't sound discordant or anachronistic). Early on, they're cribbing of Shakespeare is witty and playful. There's a cheeky irreverence in their characterization of the man, too. But by the end you can feel their admiration for Shakespeare and what he accomplished. It's a smart script, laced with clever literary inside jokes for those who were paying attention in school, but it's most definitely -- and thankfully -- not a pretentious history lesson. It does, however, give you a true sense of the role theatre played in English life at the time -- seriously, not even plague could shut down the playhouses.

Stray Gay Observations. Although there is historical evidence that Shakespeare married early (age 18) and fathered three children, there has been a lot of speculation about his sexuality -- fueled primarily by the fact that a significant number of his sonnets are written about and dedicated to a young man. Some scholars like to refute the possibility that William Shakespeare could have been anything but heterosexual, as if bisexuality is unfathomable. In Shakespeare in Love, the script deliberately flirts with the idea that Will is first drawn to Viola when she is dressed as a young man. Later, when she's still dressed as a man and before Will discovers her scheme, Viola kisses him passionately and he returns the kiss, not pulling away in disgust. When she abruptly departs, Will looks startled and confused by what's just transpired, but not repulsed. It's an interesting choice on the part of the writers and a rather lovely bit of acting by Fiennes.

Shakespeare in Love won seven Academy Awards (Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress and Best Picture). Winning that many Oscars almost guarantees a backlash. Shakespeare in Love beat Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture. Some people consider this a grievous, unforgivably tragic Oscar upset. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong... really, really wrong -- Forrest GumpCrash and The Artist, for instance. And sometimes the Academy has to choose between great films. Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan are great films, for wildly different reasons. Spielberg got a well-deserved Oscar for directing Saving Private Ryan, a film that breaks new ground in depicting war and arguably transcends a genre. But I can also argue that Shakespeare in Love transcends the romantic comedy genre, excelling at making something a lot of people dread -- romcoms and Shakespeare! -- into rollicking, accessible-but-not-insulting, bittersweet entertainment. If you want to contend that Saving Private Ryan is a work of greater significance because it's about war, go ahead, but I think that's a specious argument. And you can easily convince me that Ryan triumphs over Shakespeare when it comes to sheer technical virtuosity. But, Ryan is a film I admire (or uneasily appreciate) primarily for its astonishing, brutal and indelible battle sequences -- its epilogue and prologue are unnecessary and the middle section is uneven. I just don't ever want to watch it again because it spends nearly three hours convincing us of something we should already know: war is literally hell on Earth. Shakespeare in Love, on the other hand, has unfettered panache, winking erudition and surprising emotional depth. It's exemplary filmmaking -- an absorbing love story, yes, but also a movie that ultimately becomes an ingenious paean to the art of theatre. If you love this film, there's no reason whatsoever to apologize for it. Shakespeare in Love earned its Best Picture Oscar.

Throughout Shakespeare in Love, the Oscar-winning costumes (by Sandy Powell) are splendid.

For instance...

Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I

Judi Dench won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. Screen time: roughly eight minutes. Scoffing at the brevity of her role, some people don't believe Dench deserved the statue for this performance.  Broken down, Queen Elizabeth functions as a kind of deus ex machina -- and that could have been a major problem. However, Dame Judi's take on the monarch is droll, wicked and show-stopping. She steals those eight minutes. It's not really about the actual length of time she appears in the film. The question should be: How impactful was her work?

For some reason that escapes me entirely, there's a peculiar amount of irrational hatred for Gwyneth Paltrow out there. I don't understand this because, as celebrities go, Paltrow is pretty benign. She's an attractive, talented woman with solid fashion sense who seems to irk people primarily for looking good, winning an Oscar at 26 and having the the nerve to create a curated upscale lifestyle website, Goop, that delivers all kinds of healthy recipes, travel ideas, fashion advice, wellness tips and cultural musings.... that you can totally choose to ignore. It's not like she's ever held anyone hostage and forced them to eat macrobiotic food. Here's the real problem: Americans like their blondes dumb (Anna Nicole Smith), ornate (porn stars, cheerleaders, 97% of all female Fox News anchors), or tragic (Marilyn Monroe). That really doesn't describe Paltrow. The world is filled with awful, awful people that are out there ruining everything. Gwyneth Paltrow isn't one of them.

Originally, they were trying to cast Daniel Day Lewis and Julia Roberts. Him, sure. Julia Roberts? Just no. No. No. NO.

The Lust Factor. According to historians, there's no real evidence that Shakespeare ever commissioned a portrait of himself and there's no written description of his physical appearance. But here's a trio of portraits that reputedly represent him:

Left to right: 
The Cobbe Portrait (1610), The Chandos Portrait (early 1600s) & the Droeshout Portrait (1622) 

So, if you're going to cast someone as William Shakespeare and you want me to take him seriously as a romantic lead, then do this:

Joseph Fiennes

Should You See It? Like some of the best Shakespearean works, Shakespeare in Love is brimming with love, sex, despair, treachery, tragedy, tears, villainy, sword fights, wisecracks, ribald humor and cross-dressing. It's an enormously clever take on the historical figure widely acknowledged as the greatest English language dramatist in the world. Frankly, if you don't like this movie, there's a pretty good chance that you are, (A) averse to Shakespeare, (B) just being contrary, or (c) one of those people who thinks the Transformers franchise is awesome.

Next Time: Trog (1970)

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)