Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Weird on Top: A Discussion of David Lynch

by Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob DiCristino
Week Two: Blue Velvet

Note: This conversation will spoil Blue Velvet.

Rob: Welcome back to Weird on Top, the series in which Alejandra and I take a deep dive into the work of our favorite mad genius, David Lynch. Catch up with our Week One introduction here!

The first proper entry in our series is 1986’s Blue Velvet, the film that helped re-establish Lynch’s auteur status after the critical and commercial failure of Dune (1984). It begins with All-American college boy Jeffrey Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) discovery of a severed human ear in a vacant lot nestled deep within his picturesque neighborhood of Lumberton, North Carolina. He immediately brings his discovery to the attention of police detective John Williams (George Dickerson), but soon decides to start his own unofficial investigation with the help of Williams’ daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). Sandy tells Jeffrey that the ear may be connected to the activities of a strange woman named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a singer at a local nightclub. As they’re drawn into Vallens’ dark and tragic life, Jeffrey soon finds himself in the crosshairs of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a vile sadomasochist who wields a mysterious power over Dorothy. The further Jeffrey and Sandy dig beneath their world’s beautiful surface, the more terrifying the hidden truths become.

Ale, this is your favorite of Lynch’s films, so why don’t you start us off with your thoughts on Blue Velvet?
Alejandra: Where do I even begin? While there isn’t a Lynch film I don’t like, to me, Blue Velvet is his most perfect accomplishment. It’s possible that I feel this way because it’s actually the only one of his films I’ve seen on the big screen, so witnessing it that way might have created a much more visceral experience for me than all of this other work. To say that Blue Velvet is dreamy feels trite and a little underwhelming, because that can be said about every single piece in Lynch’s oeuvre, but there is something especially lucid and dangerously seductive about this one. Actually, I would even go as far as to say that one of the eeriest Lynch moments is Blue Velvet’s opening montage, which presents the suburbs of Lumberton as hyper-whimsical with its perfect rosebeds and unchipped white picket-fences. The viewer is seduced by the promise of Lumberton’s immaculacy, but at the same time made uneasy because we know what it looks like when something is too good to be true. Lynch does this a lot through his work, and in the case of Blue Velvet, it’s what makes me the most uncomfortable throughout the entire film (besides the “baby wants to fuck!” stuff, but we’ll talk about that later).

This actually is one of the most popular readings of Blue Velvet, and actually a theme that is seen often in other work like TheTwilight Zone. They tell the truths (and fears) of the darkness that hides behind the facade of an impeccable suburban life. Of course, Lynch hyperbolizes this to make a point, but it still rings true much of the time. I wanted to approach the film in a different way upon revisiting it this week, and I now have a new reading that I would like to share with you, Rob. I’m never a fan of “it was all a dream” theories because I think it cheapens the film in question, but I think it provides for an interesting reading of Blue Velvet. I don’t think it was so much of a dream, but what if what unravels is an exaggerated fantasy that Jeffery is having? Watching it this time, I noticed how unbelievably saccharine the ending is, particularly how Jeffrey's father seems to have completely recovered since the last time we saw him in a full body brace in a hospital bed. In fact, that is the last time we really see him and it happens to be right before Jeffrey’s dangerous investigation starts.

Let me digress for a moment: when we are introduced to Jeffrey, we are told that he is an art student who has made it out of the suburbs for school. Having to return after his father’s stroke, is it possible that he is now skeptical and seeks to reject his familiar “perfect” suburban lifestyle by immersing himself in a perilous fantasy where he is the hero? I know it’s a bit of a reach, and I can’t say I am fully on board myself. Still, I couldn’t help but feel as if how boldly Sandy and Dorothy contrasted each other represents Jeffrey’s internal conflict about the lifestyle he knows and a lifestyle that stimulates him. With Sandy, he maintains the familiarity of the perfect suburban life he has always had before leaving, but the fantasy of Blue Velvet allows him to flirt with danger in a way that doesn’t force him to commit to it. It makes sense for him to have left it completely unscathed in the end. Tell me Rob, am I totally on to something or is this bogus? Also, are there any other ways you’ve read the film?

Rob: First, let me say that I think Blue Velvet is the best of Lynch’s early feature work. I’m not sure that will surprise anyone, but there it is. Eraserhead is a strange, intimate, and challenging student film. The Elephant Man, while certainly an elegant and passionate story, could more or less have been made by anyone with even half of Lynch’s talent. Dune’s ambition (and ultimate failure) surely taught the director hard lessons about studios, compromise, and creative control. Each and every one of those films is valuable and essential. But Blue Velvet is where he becomes a master. It’s the cleanest and most accessible synthesis of the tropes that would become career signifiers, and yet it’s somehow also one of the most raw and deranged works he’s ever produced. I dug it so much more on this rewatch then I ever have before.
As you said, it’s full of juxtapositions: The roses and the bugs, the pristine Americana and its rotting underbelly, the innocent blonde and the damaged brunette. In so many ways, Lumberton feels like a test run for Twin Peaks. Lynch loves contrasting working-class motifs (factories, diners, dingy clubs) with the warmth and comfort of suburbia (complete with Rockwellian character archetypes), and it’s rarely better than in Blue Velvet. Jeffery is clearly a Lynch avatar, both in his fashion sense and his inescapable fascination with the macabre. It’ll soon become our fascination, too: You mentioned the opening montage, and it’s worth noting that the film begins and ends with credits against blue curtains. This signals that Blue Velvet is a “performance,” but it also triggers a feeling of warmth and security that prepares us for an adventure into a young man’s subconscious.

Which brings us to your theory. I’m happy to say that I largely agree with your interpretation of Blue Velvet, which I think bodes well for the future of Weird on Top. We only differ in a few small facets of that fantasy. Go with me on this: The way I see it, it’s the story of a young man attempting to rid himself of his darkest sexual impulses (represented here by Frank and Dorothy) so that he can pursue a conventional suburban life and eventual marriage with Sandy. We first meet Jeffrey as he walks through the abandoned lot, and there’s a long, slow push-in on the rotting ear. This is our first clue that we’re going from the real world to the “other side,” be it Jeffrey’s fantasy, daydream, what have you. The ear leads into the brain, right? From there, we’re introduced to Detective Williams. He’s Sandy’s father, the man Jeffery will have to impress and get “approval” from if he’s going to have a future with her. Since he’s an authority and gatekeeper in Jeffrey’s life, it stands to reason that he would be a police officer. Williams doesn’t want Jeffrey to pursue this dark obsession of his. He wants him to stay pure and safe for his daughter.

We’ll soon enter a womb-like red room (see Twin Peaks) and meet Dorothy, a bruised and battered victim of sexual violence. Jeffrey sees her through the slats of the closet door (he’s literally “in the closet” with his unacknowledged sexual proclivities), and he’s immediately seduced by her vulnerability. He’s turned on by the idea of controlling her, but his reticence to act on it cues the arrival of Frank, Jeffrey’s “double.” He’s crass, cruel, and disgusting. He holds Dorothy hostage, forcing her to trade her body for the safety of her husband and son (the normal, Rockwellian life that Jeffrey is in danger of losing). Frank doesn’t just want sex. He wants pain and, to some degree, commiseration. He huffs gas and fetishizes Dorothy’s bathrobe. He whimpers about “Baby,” “Mommy,” and “Daddy,” showing the dark roots of his perversions. Though Dorothy fears Frank, there’s a quality of lust to that fear and the pain that comes with it. She asks Jeffrey to hurt her. He refuses at first, but he can’t hold back for long. After one encounter, Jeffrey tells Sandy that he’s “seeing something that was always hidden” and asks why there have to be “people like Frank.” Why does he have to feel this way? Why must he hide it? Why can’t he be normal?

His descent into Frank’s world is a descent into his own darkest fears about himself. During the famous Love Letter scene, Frank puts lipstick on both of them, creating a visual, sexual connection that confirms their shared identity (“In dreams, I talk to you”). We even meet Dean Stockwell’s effeminate Ben and his John Waters company of friends, who may symbolize other repressed impulses within Jeffrey. Later, after she and Jeffrey have slept together, Dorothy remarks several times that she has “his disease inside [her]”. He’s corrupted her with his sexual “deviance,” leaving her to walk the streets naked and alone. This makes the horrifying confrontation on Jeffrey’s front lawn even more poignant: Dorothy is now fully personifying the dark, repressed secrets of Jeffrey’s sexuality in view of Sandy, the woman he loves. Once Sandy sees what’s really inside him, it’s time for Jeffrey to destroy it. He confronts Frank in the red room (from the closet, no less), putting a bullet in his head. We then cut to a random light going out (recalling Frank’s habit of saying “It’s dark now” after a sexual climax), which tells us that Jeffrey has beaten his demons. The last shot of this sequence? A slow pull-out from inside an ear, this time a healthy one attached to Jeffrey’s head. Cue the saccharine ending you mentioned earlier, robin-eating-bug and all.

Now, is my logic airtight? Of course not. But given what I know about Lynch’s style, this is the reading that makes the most sense to me.
Alejandra: It makes TONS of sense! I really love what you said and I almost want to watch Blue Velvet again to receive it through that lens. Your reading speaks a lot to the sensual element that oozes out of the film, like I was mentioning earlier. Blue Velvet obviously has some sex in it, but what makes it so seductive is that it’s set up like a sexual fantasy all throughout the film. I mean, I personally think this is the sexiest looking of his work with the exception of Twin Peaks, if that makes any sense at all. Every time I think about my favorite moments, it’s like they’re burned into my brain because of how sensual they felt to look at. The most obvious example is when we first meet Dorothy as she is giving a breathy performance of “Blue Velvet” inside of The Slow Club. There’s this really incredible contrast in the lighting on stage, with a blue spotlight on Dorothy while everything behind her is red and the rest of the room is hazy with fog. Lynch loves to do this, and does it a bunch in Twin Peaks: The Return, but there’s something fantastical about the way we see it done in Blue Velvet. The performance has the same effect on me that it does on Jeffrey, and I always need more of her.

Blue Velvet is just as disturbing as it is sensual, though. It is sometimes really tough for me to stomach the sexual violence in Lynch’s work, and it is riddled with it. To be completely honest, I still don’t know how I feel about it. I think Lynch does it in a way that incites empathy for the victims, so I don’t know that its mean spirited as much as it is just hard to watch. I just don’t know, what do you think?

Rob: I think the interplay between sex and violence in Lynch’s work is often built around tragedy. Laura Palmer and Dorothy Vallens, for example, are both trapped by impulses they should know better than to indulge, and -- though both of them have altruistic goals by the end -- their journeys are often about absolving themselves of the pain or guilt that comes with those experiences. They’re punished for what they are, what they want. I think a lot of us can relate to that. This doesn’t excuse the violence or suggest they “deserve” it, but I think Frank says it best when he talks about a love letter being like a bullet from a gun. It often can be. So, for as horrible as the violence is, we at least understand the emotional machinery grinding away behind it. To me, that makes it a bit more palatable.

This actually brings me to the one thing I wanted to cover before we close, and that’s Roger Ebert’s review of Blue Velvet. We all get it wrong sometimes, and Ebert got this one -- most of Lynch’s work, really -- spectacularly wrong. He said of Rossellini’s performance: “Rossellini is asked to do things in this film that require real nerve. In one scene, she's publicly embarrassed by being dumped naked on the lawn of the police detective. In others, she is asked to portray emotions that I imagine most actresses would rather not touch. She is degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera. And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film...What's worse? Slapping somebody around, or standing back and finding the whole thing funny?”

What do you think of Ebert’s assessment of the film?
Alejandra: I don’t think I agree with most of what he said. I don’t think we’re meant to find “the whole thing funny,” and actually think Lynch sets things up in a way where if anybody is humiliated, it's Booth. What we learn about his fantasies is obviously deeply unsettling, but also embarrassing. I also think Ebert isn’t giving her a fair evaluation. I feel like his criticism almost perpetuates the idea that playing a role like this is something that SHOULD be embarrassing and degrading. She plays it bravely and exceptionally well. I guess my problem isn’t how sexual violence is presented to us in Lynch’s work, but more so how often.

I don’t know that this was a super happy or positive note to end on, but I do love Blue Velvet dearly. I think it’s one of Lynch’s more easy to follow movies, but that’s not to say it is simple by any means. There are so many layers to explore, as is evident by our own varying readings of the film. It reminds me so much of my beloved Twin Peaks (and Fire Walk With Me) in that I really feel like I’m revisiting friends every time I watch Blue Velvet, and I don’t know that can be said about any of his other films.

Rob: Blue Velvet isn’t my favorite Lynch film, but it’s definitely a warm blanket. I really love it. This was fun! We’ll be back in two weeks to discuss 1977’s Eraserhead, David Lynch’s very first film. For those wondering: No. We’re not going in any specific order. Because Lynch. Until then, remember: This world is wild at heart…

Alejandra: And weird on top.

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