A Second Take
Blue Velvet



teresa—




So, I know Blue Velvet is, like, your favorite movie, and truth be told, I used to be quite fond of it myself. But watching it again a little while back, I experienced one of those weird critical epiphanies (of the “what the hell was I thinking?" variety).

It's not that it's a bad movie per se—okay, sorry, wait, it actually kind of is. The question it sparked in me upon my last sit-down, shortly after the release of the special edition DVD, was: How much of this does Lynch get away with because, well, he's Lynch? A lot, I think. I guess when your name has become an adjective—the second-highest form of flattery, after imitation?—people forget to call you on shit.

I can understand how Blue Velvet would've been pretty exciting to a certain brand of moviegoer in 1986. (I'm thinking of that hilarious scene in The Squid and the Whale where Jeff Daniels drags his son and his son's first girlfriend to the Lynch film, rather than Short Circuit.) But it's aged worse than anything else in Lynch's filmography, save maybe Dune, and either way, that's not saying much.

"It's a strange world," we get it, and small Midwestern towns are stranger yet. Except not so much, really. I've spent my entire life in a small Midwestern town, and while I'm not about to try and champion the virtues of a kinder, simpler way of life, I haven't found any stray ears lately. I'm not calling Lynch on ditching some sacred semblance of realism, mind you, and I enjoy his omnipresent '50's nostalgia (ingrained more effectively in Lost Highway anyway). I'm just wondering whether he's actually saying anything here that needs to be said—or that even needed to be said twenty years ago.

But you're a neat girl, Sandy, err, I mean, Teresa. What exactly do you see here?

Best,
Josh


Josh,

First of all, I see your main "qualms" with the film are that it's dated, and, in your (valued) opinion, unnecessary. Correct? Or is there something more about it that bothers you to the point that you would call it a bad film? Any Ebert-esque accusations of misogyny, by chance? I'd just like to be clear before I dig in, so to speak.

In the meantime: how much does Lynch get away with for being Lynch? Well, back in '86, when he could barely get studio backing on Blue Velvet, I'd have to say not much. Today, though? You may be right. With the new Mulholland-lovin' generation going back and reviewing Velvet, it's entirely possible people would create some kind of nightmarish, over-the-top masterpiece that doesn't actually exist. But I really don't feel that if it was such a "bad" film, this would be very likely.

The movie certainly has its admirers—but those that detest it as well. Even with the rabid cult following, or its appearance on many critics’ best-films-evah lists, I wouldn't describe it as overly revered. Those that really love it, love it for what it is. Not its reputation.

What is it, and, more pointedly, what do I see in it? A more than skillful drama that translates human emotion to celluloid (from wispy happiness to humiliation and violation) in a way that very few other films have managed. No, it's not pleasant to watch—not even with the hearty doses of adorable teenage coupledom or the brief moments of (black) humor. It's also not an especially strong story, I'd agree, but it's done with so much passion and pull that it hardly matters.

It's easy to nitpick at some of the film's less charming aspects, but its punch and impact (not only on the viewer, but on society [at the time] and film history) were no fluke, and that cannot be denied.

Or can it? You tell me, Josh.

-Teresa


Teresa—

Well, I've give it my best shot.

I tend to believe Lynch (The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive), like Spielberg (A.I., The Terminal) and to some degree, Scorsese (Kundun, My Voyage to Italy), has gotten better with age. He's matured, both as a filmmaker and as a thinker, while developing a singular style that's come to warrant the "ian" so often read after his surname.

Regarding Blue Velvet's view of women, well, you took the word right out of my mouth—and I'm no disciple of L'Ebert's, for the record. Right, they're just characters. Right, it's just a movie (whatever that means). But there's only so much you can sit back and stomach, without feeling rather sorry for an auteur's wife and daughter.

That's what I mean by improvement and maturation. Mulholland Drive really was Lynch's breakthrough in terms of treating women fairly in his cine-universe. Give or take Sissy Spacek's mentally disabled daughter in Straight Story, Naomi Watts' Bette/Diane and Laura Elena Harring's Rita are the first non-peripheral female characters in a Lynch film to feel genuinely, thoughtfully fleshed out. They're not insufferable hags (Diane Ladd in Wild at Heart), brainless, naive bimboes (Laura Dern here and in and Wild at Heart, albeit in different ways), or impossibly neurotic femme fatales (Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway and, most disturbingly, poor Isabella Rossellini here).

Lynch works in extremes, whether in terms of emotion, character, or surface veneer. This, I realize. I also concede that the male principals in Blue Velvet aren't especially appealing either. At the same time, though, there are moments in the film where it's fair to suspect that Kyle McLachlan's Jeffrey (Lynch's on-screen surrogate) has actual, logical thoughts running through his head: I shouldn't be here, This is dangerous, Heineken is good, etc. Not so with either Dern's witless Sandy or Rossellini's masochistic Dorothy Vallens. If the only valid defense of these characters' lack of depth is that they're ciphers, pawns in Blue Velvet's tapestry of Americana grotesquerie, what, then, does that say about Lynch's broader thoughts on the opposite sex?

I'm with you that Blue Velvet isn't a pleasant movie to watch. There are plenty of films I'd say the same of that I'd willingly go out on a limb to defend—Pasolini's Salo, for example, or Paul Schrader's Hardcore. In these cases, though, when a film proves legitimately "difficult" to sit through, it's essential that there's actually something there to reward an audience's effort.

Am I missing it in Blue Velvet?

Best,
Josh


Josh,

Perhaps Lynch has indeed matured with age. And while I love nearly all of his filmography, as with all the directors you named, I tend to prefer the "earlier work," so to speak. Inspiration hit harder and faster, things were less meditated, and the results were fascinating. It looks like that will just have to be a difference of opinion, agree-to-disagree thing. (I also think The Terminal is one of Spielberg's worst, but that's another story...)

Okay, the mention of misogyny. Something no Blue Velvet argument is complete without. To keep things simple, I'll say what I've always said: Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is a misogynist. David Lynch, not one. Does the infamous scene in Straw Dogs make Sam Peckinpah a rapist? No, because he didn't actually commit the act. He filmed an actor doing so. Lynch filming Rossellini's degradation certainly makes him seem insensitive and unappealing—but if you know what's up, nothing worse. And no, it's not "just a movie." But it is a movie—a movie about a man who treats this woman appallingly. I mean, really, does that make Dennis Hopper a misogynist also? Yes, Lynch wrote and filmed it. But as fiction.

I find it interesting that the bulk of those who hold your view are male. I have yet to come across a woman who's made this claim (though I'm sure they're out there). Pauline Kael, for instance, is possibly the film's most famous admirer. Rossellini has spoken on camera and in print numerous times about how great Lynch is and how much she enjoys the film. Somehow, she doesn't strike me as the type who would be in any way insincere about that. Nor is she a naive young starlet who wouldn't know the difference between real acting and being exploited just for kicks. Now, Ebert (I apologize for mentioning him again, but c'mon) penned the boobs-and-ditzy-girls-galore B-movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. And that's cool (where Blue Velvet isn't), because it's a comedy, right? Right...

Now, this is by no means any sort of assumption towards you, as I can see you have valid reasons for feeling the way that you do. I just find it intriguing how the male vs. female view presents itself.

You mentioned Salo, which features adults mistreating and torturing children. Did that film really, ultimately have a point? And if it did, was it necessary to show what it showed onscreen in such a graphic manner to get that point across? If your answer is yes, apply that to Blue Velvet, whether you like the movie or not.

No, Lynch’s film is not a cautionary "Don't ever live in the Midwest" tale. It's also not just "It's a strange world." What it is, is something closer to "As sick as some people are, there are good things out there," and the balance that light and dark gives us. Nothing is all good, all the time—and vice versa. And yes, we did need to see these things happening, for it to really hit home. Although Rossellini is clearly the focus, she wasn't the only one being subjected to violence and whatever else. As for Dern's character: sure, she's dim-witted. Not any moreso than Jeffery. She doesn't "do anything" because she's part of a different world, and doesn't know what's going on half the time. Sure, Lynch could have made her some quick-thinking Nancy Drew—but that wouldn't have been true to the character (however 2-dimensional you think she was). She was a nice, normal girl. Nothing extraordinary, but certainly nothing offensive.

Bottom line in Blue Velvet: Even good people in a close-knit town can find themselves in badder-than-bad situations. "Why are there people like Frank?" Well, there just are. But there's also robins, milkshakes and fresh-faced teens. Sunlight, flowers, happiness, etc. Do we need a film to tell us that? Probably not, no. But when it tells us that in such a painful, unsettling, effective way, well, that's an accomplishment.

Maybe that's just not your bag (baby). Or maybe you've got more than just personal dislike up your sleeve?

-Teresa


Teresa—

Dennis Hopper is the best thing in Blue Velvet. He's also the best thing about Speed, which despite AMC's inexplicable insistence on airing it six times a week, is hardly an American movie classic.

That said, I find it unconscionable to let Lynch off the hook entirely, via your "Frank Booth is a misogynist, not Lynch" trapdoor. Maybe, more interestingly, Booth is the yin to Jeffrey's yang, and together they combine as a snapshot of Lynch's bipolar psyche. Either way, it's tough for me (as a male, admittedly) to stomach. Dorothy Vallens may be a masochist. I'm not.

Still, I want to rearticulate that Lynch's dubious treatment of women is hardly the film's sole flaw. Griffith's Birth of a Nation is abhorrent for its infallibly noted product-of-its-time racism, but it's also an amazing piece of filmmaking (even today, and beyond its myriad innovations), with as much to say about the history-writing process as any film produced since. Salo is the fiercest critique of fascism ever put to celluloid, implicating a discomfitingly complicit viewer base along the way.

Blue Velvet is what, again? As you put it, a demonstration that "as sick as some people are, there are good things out there." Well, that's terrific and good to know, but does it really justify watching Rossellini getting raped and beaten to a pulp? Or to get off my moralistic high horse, does this overarching lesson finally make up for one-dimensional caricatures and shooting fish in a very safe barrel? It's pretty easy to paint a picture of "light and dark" when your palette doesn't extend beyond black and white.

One last head-scratcher I'd like to throw out there: Why does Lynch fanbase responds so fervently to Blue Velvet, as opposed to, say, The Straight Story or Elephant Man?To be sure, there's the weirdness factor, and I'll readily admit that there is a certain idiosyncratic charm to Dean Stockwell covering Roy Orbison, or Hopper championing the "merits" of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Looking past this, though, it's such an obvious, archetypal moody-outsider-versus-his-boring-environment yarn; the same general appeal that Hot Topic kids find in Donnie Darko. Because, come to think of it, at the end of the day, the world's actually not that strange of a place. Same shit, different day is more like it, so far as I can tell.

Or do I need to "look closer"?

Best,
Josh


Josh,

Well, Dennis Hopper is also the best (okay, my favorite) part of Apocalypse Now, and that is indeed an American movie classic. As is Blue Velvet, for better or worse.

As for Jeffery and Frank being opposing sides of Lynch himself, that is entirely possible. As a fellow writer, you should know, every author inserts elements of themselves into their work—that's inevitable, especially with fiction. So, we could just as easily say that Dorothy is as much a part of Lynch as Frank or Jeffery. In fact, we could say a lot of things. All it would be, in the end, is speculation. I also realize that my defending Lynch as anything but a misogynist, could also be speculation, and thus, inaccurate. But if he is, there needs to be a whole lot more proof than Blue Velvet.

If you find the film itself misogynistic, or you feel that way when watching it—that's, for lack of a less passive term, fair enough. If the movie had been out-and-out pitch-black, dead serious, and unfaltering in showing how awful Dorothy's treatment was, perhaps you'd appreciate it more (and it would be more in the vein of Salo). But that would be defeating the film's entire outlook. Everything isn't that awful. Life doesn't ultimately have an answer, or a destination. Sometimes we deal with horrible things, and move on—but they're still there, ready to happen to someone else. Blue Velvet is more of a comment on that than anything else.

If the characters had been more fleshed out, less like "caricatures," we wouldn't be able to identify the same way. Lynch is observing these people from a distance. They could be anyone. Something like this could happen to anyone, and could happen anywhere. Frank Booth is clearly over-the-top, for instance, but it's not unimaginable that he could be a real dude somewhere. That goes tenfold for Jeffery and Sandy.

The reason why people hold Blue Velvet above some of Lynch’s other work is because it's (in my opinion, natch) his best film. Everything he's made since has taken elements from it. It was the first film he'd written himself that followed a (relatively) logical storyline. It was something he felt extremely strongly about, and he executed it perfectly. As good as his other films have been, they've never packed the artistic intimacy of Blue Velvet. His vision has never been so pristinely focused.

You don't need to "look closer." Everything is unearthed, and laid out in front of you—both in the film itself, and hopefully in this email. There's probably nothing more to see in the film than what your eyes and mind pick up. (I know you're not the average movie-goer, and you've invested all you can.) Blue Velvet doesn't sit well with you? Well, it shouldn't. You think it's a bad film? Personal-fave bias aside, I'd say it's one of the finest of the past 25 years. You just don't dig it? Okay, I can live with that.

-Teresa


By: Teresa Nieman and Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2006-06-01
Comments (9)
 

 
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