In continuing my ongoing streak of seeing older films by American directors that I admire. Films from the 3 most important American directors, that, as I’ve said before, have and still continue to have such an impact on me that it’s almost as if I have a relationship with them (and no not just in the movie sense). Even despite my thinking I’m well versed in both American writer/directors and foreign ones equally. There still have never been a set of directors that had more of an influence on me in developing my own personal vocabulary in relation to film as who I consider the “quintessential three”. Those being Stanley Kubrick (okay, he’s from the UK, but I still in some sense consider him, at least in his later period, as an American director because many of his films were made in the English language starring American actors. Then of course there’s Paul Thomas Anderson, who many of you might know just based on the simple fact that I’ve done a complete career retrospective of his films over the course of the summer. And last, but not least, someone who I consider maybe the greatest of them all – David Lynch. Now Lynch might seem like an easy choice for a favorite as anybody who is versed well enough in film can attest to his utterly original, singular voice, whose films have impacted legions of filmmakers that followed to have reworked Lynch’s ideas, themes, and style into works of their own. Which to me has always been the trademark sign of a great filmmaker. I could go on and on and on about my love for David Lynch and how his films have impacted me on such a deep level. But then I’d be writing a totally different piece. Not a movie review.
“Blue Velvet” opens with one of my favorite montages in movie history – set to Bobby Vinton’s rendition of “Blue Velvet”. Lynch immediately brings us into a world of red roses in front of a backdrop of a white picket fence house, a red fire truck with fireman waving at the screen, a set of upper middle class homes with their beautifully manicured lawns. But then the “contrast” begins, and he edits to a man watering his lawn who has a stroke and falls flat on his face. From there the camera zooms in underground, to what we “don’t see” from the surface. An underground severed human ear that’s infested with ants. To me, this opening sequence basically sets the tone for the rest of the film. As it is essentially a series of contrasts. You see Lynch knows it’s a beautiful world on the outside, and one gets the sense that it’s pretty genuine. But what’s so fascinating is his exploration into what lies underneath. The cruelty, sickness, perversion, and horror that lies beneath the surface of nice, clean, Caucasian, American middle class neighborhoods. Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern play the two leads, whose discovery of the severed human year leads them on an investigative journey that involves a nightclub singer, played by Isabella Rossellini, in what must have been one of the most bravest and courageous performances by an actress to date. Rosellini’s character we come to learn is wrapped up in a precarious and dangerous situation by Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper (who by the way demanded the role to Lynch because he said he needed to play the role because he “was Frank Booth”). Hopper, or shall I say Frank, is depicted in the film’s most shocking, disturbing, and violent scenes because well, he’s clearly a sadistic, over-sexualized, misogynistic, and overall dangerous man (maybe the most dangerous villain we’ve seen in film history-?). The investigation of MacLachlan and Dern’s characters follow the trail of breadcrumbs that Lynch expertly sets up for you. And really, what we get here in the subsequent story that follows is an investigation into the darkness and depravity of the underbelly of society. As the investigation runs deeper and deeper until all of those involved immerse themselves into a dark, sinister world that they can’t get out of.
This was and still is a bold, gripping, stylish, and highly controversial film that’s really only for the hardest of film aficionado’s who can appreciate and admire (but certainly not “enjoy”, unless your some kind of sadist) such a singular and unique piece of work. It’s filled with graphic sexual violence, particularly in the scene stealing scenes by Hopper, that combines an air of twisted mystery with an ironic, satirical look into America with a light, sometimes fluffy, stylized tone. Which speaks to this “contrast” between good and evil that I hinted at earlier. It’s repulsively strange (as are many of Lynch’s films) though given his tastes of depicting the avant-garde (or what we know to be avant-grade in cinema), is congruent with almost all of his other work. Particularly in the films that followed like 1988’s “Wild At Heart”, 1990’s TV series “Twin Peaks”, “Lost Highway” (1997), and Inland Empire (2006). Lynch doesn’t seem to care about what the audience thinks but more about his own instruction of them. It’s a masterful exercise in controlling the audience’s attention and planting a seed in their subconscious, which I think is at the heart of most of his work, and certainly in this film. It’s references are endless – to its “film noir” feel, to its Salvador Dali “look”, to the voyeuristic scenes involving both MacLachlan and Rossellini. Which to me anyway, seem like nods to Alfred Hitchcock (especially 1954’s “Rear Window”). It also features some of the most absurdist, iconic scenes ever imagined and put to screen (remember Lynch gets the majority of his ideas for his films from his subconscious and dreams). Dean Stockwell lip-synching to Roy Orbinson’s “In Dreams”, the Hopper/Rossellini rape scene, Rossellini’s rendition of “Blue Velvet” at a local jazz club while Hopper chews on a piece of blue velvet, MacLachlan getting beat to a pulp also set to Orbinson’s “In Dreams” while a prostitute dances atop a car, to Hopper ridiculing MacLachan’s choice in beer – “Fuck Heineken! PABST. BLUE. RIBBON!” (which incited the biggest reaction/laughter/clapping from the Portland crowd). This film is littered with such scenes, but despite these iconic scenes, one never gets the impression that Lynch is somehow trying to please the audience or entertain them, which I think is the strongest component of his films. Lynch’s films seem to want to exist outside of what we consider more accessible cinema and shows us sides of human nature that we pretend we don’t want to know exist, or at least don’t want to believe actually take place in our own neighborhoods that we deliberately tuck ourselves away from in hopes of keeping us safe (classic bourgeois mentality). But in reality, situations like this occur all the time. Even if so many of us have tried to remove ourselves far away from them in our own closeted, middle class lifestyle. Lynch shows here that violence doesn’t discriminate against socioeconomic class, as danger is imminent to us all even if we try to not think about it or turn a blind eye to it when it actually happens (“well, at least it didn’t happen to me”). This is without a doubt Lynch’s masterpiece, and also one of my top 5 to 10 favorite films of all time. Its influence and relevance is just as important today as it was almost 30 years ago. I’ll end with a simple quote from the film that I think sums it up quite nicely – “it’s a strange world, isn’t it?”.