Skip to main content

I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.

Blue Velvet
(1986)

(SPOILERS) Revisiting Blue Velvet, what’s most striking is how this is really the start of Lynch’s career proper. Admittedly, a great many will tout Eraserhead as his masterpiece (I’m not one of them), and in perma-hallucinatory form it certainly sets up his stool, both tonally and audibly, but its sprawling doodle of a severely-leaking cranium doesn’t provide the insight into his subsequent approach to narrative that Blue Velvet exemplifies. And The Elephant Man and Dune, as merit-worthy as the former most definitely is, are high class director-for-hire affairs; it’s as if, no sooner had he begun his career proper, than he took a decade out before resuming his magnificent obsession. It was worth the wait, though, because Blue Velvet is his true masterpiece.


It’s impossible to watch the picture now without the marbling effect of his subsequent forays taking informative hold, most notably Twin Peaks. There’s the obsession with drapes (colour not withstanding), logging (Lumbertown), the darkness beneath the veneer of white picket fences (albeit that micro-interrogation of elements, found in the bugs in the opening scene here, combined with the omni-present – when there isn’t a lush, mournful or melodramatic score over the top – auditory rumble/disturbance, runs uninterrupted through Eraserhead and The Elephant Man), the demonic force of inexplicable evil, both personified and as pervasive atmosphere (Frank here, Bob in Twin Peaks), Angelo Badalementi’s synths, Julee Cruise’s vocals (and dialogue, “Now it’s dark”), the facility for the uncanny tableau (most notably when Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s apartment to find the yellow man slumped upright, having taken a gunshot to the head, and her earless husband dead in a waxwork death throe), and a thing for psycho-erotica that would only be trounced in the disturbing stakes by Fire Walk With Me. And then there’s Kyle MacLachlan.


Lynch’s oddness would be allowed the luxury of time to embed itself on a TV show, but it’s in abundance here, from his riveting of ‘50s wholesomeness to the seedy  and unseemly present day, so manifesting in a very different way to the nostalgia (Back to the Future) or looney tunes satirical swipes (Gremlins) that had manifested on screen over the previous couple of years when referencing the world of three or four decades prior. Lynch has one of the supporting characters (George Dickerson’s Detective Williams) speak entirely as if he has stepped out of the Eisenhower era infotainment, with stiff, nuance-free cadence (“Yes, that’s a human ear, alright” he says to Jeffrey, without a trace of irony; at the climax, after Jeffrey has shot Frank in the head, and Williams bursts in too late, he offers a redundant “It’s all over, Jeffrey”).


Lynch’s isn’t throwing straight-up non-diegetic sequences at the viewer, yet he’ll give us a plain-as-mud fake “robin” (with a real bug in its mouth) to symbolise Sandy’s dream that the world was dark, “when, all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free” (“I could never eat a bug” advises Aunt Barbara). Dorothy (Isabella Rosellini), after their first encounter, tells Jeffrey “I looked for you in my closet tonight”, as if he might be magicked there every evening. And, in a Lynch universe of moving paintings and backwards-talking little people, that wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.


Jeffrey (MacLachlan) is a Lynch alter-ego, infested with the eccentric insights and attitudes of his creator. A creator likely to give commentary on the enormous tongue of an old school friend, or inform his Aunt Barbara (Frances Bay) “I love you, but you’re going to get it”. It’s interesting to see how self-assured MacLachlan is here, in only his second role, and telling how, even though Jeffrey is the innocent, and in way above his head, MacLachlan doesn’t play the character as transfixed and terrified on being plunged into Frank’s world.


Mainly because Jeffrey wants this adventure, this twisted rites of passage, having come home from school to a small home town with big ideas on his mind (After Hours has nothing on Jeffrey’s night out with Frank). And, for all that Jeffrey ponders “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?”, perhaps he has his answer when Frank attests “You’re like me”. Perhaps Jeffrey’s insatiable inquisitiveness, his capacity for exploring the limits, is what leads to a Frank? Otherwise, Jeffrey would have rejected the invitation “I want you to hurt me”, and wouldn’t have slipped into the demonic, slurred parallel reality that is their sadomasochistic entanglement (and which conforms to Frank’s visage during the earlier assault). Of course, the manner in which Dorothy repeats Frank’s railings on Jeffrey also suggests something almost communicable.


And Frank. In a sense, there’s a reason nothing Lynch has done since (though Mulholland Drive comes very close) has equalled Blue Velvet, because it commands you to sit up and take notice in such an unrivalled manner. Wild at Heart may have topped it in gaudy excess, but it’s Lynch’s equivalent of shouting, in capitals, where Velvet is fully of carefully positioned, deliberately-dealt punctuation marks.


Dennis Hopper, fresh from rehab, would reignite his career with this and River’s Edge, but he’d just as soon sink into self-caricature again, with the odd noble exception (True Romance might even be his one-scene masterpiece; certainly, the most empathic he’s ever been as a performer).


Rosellini has mentioned that she couldn’t understand how Lynch would be laughing away at the deeply disturbing “Baby wants to fuck” scene, but the truth is, it’s so extreme, so pushing the boundary of the absurd, that it is funny at times; whatever twisted place drug dealer Frank Booth is in doesn’t mean laughter as a natural defence mechanism isn’t legitimate (although who knows precisely what tickled Lynch).


Certainly, Frank’s later interactions are a deliriously threatening hoot, from his contempt for Jeffrey’s taste in beer (“Heineken! Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”) to his veneration of Dean Stockwell’s Ben (“Suave. Goddam, you’re one suave fucker”). Such is Hopper’s presence, from whatever he’s inhaling to his disappearing act (“Let’s fuck! I’ll fuck anything that moves!”), pretty much his every line here has entered the quotable lexicon (the only way to top it was to come back with a silent monster in Bob). Frank is a creature of Lynch’s ID environs, an arena that co-exists with our own that, Lovecraft-like, only partially extends into this one, and which he’d explore a great deal more of in the subsequent decade.


About the only thing more unnerving than Frank is Laura Dern’s face when Sandy witnesses the extent of chanteuse Dorothy’s relationship with Jeffrey. I don’t think I was ever that bowled over by Dern in this, but that’s part and parcel of Sandy. In contrast, Rossellini’s performance is extraordinarily raw and damaged, only occasionally punctured for relief (Mike’s reaction when she wanders on to the scene naked is to ask what Jeffrey’s mother is doing there, before breaking into wickedly funny sincere apologies; “I’m really sorry”).


And Dean Stockwell. Well, he really is fucking suave, coming on like Andy Warhol on laudanum as he mimes In Dreams and then illustrates he isn’t quite the doped-up luvvie we’ve assumed by landing one to Jeffrey’s gut. About the only unforgivable thing is casting Brad Dourif and having him do absolutely nothing.


Perhaps the real trick with Blue Velvet, something Lynch has been less bothered by since, is that, in having a solid narrative surround – such that Blue Velvet frequently plays with walking the line of the proficiently straight thriller (in particular the walkie-talkie climax) – all the other elements can comfortably group and unfold in whatever manner he chooses.


I don’t think he’s found such a comfortable format since. Not even Twin Peaks, where he fought against the procedural trappings in a manner that was ultimately the show’s undoing (to not have solved Laura Palmer’s murder was delusional thinking on his part – if he ever considered it would fly –  not just for the studio, but also for viewers). There are elements here that don’t quite work (Frank’s disguise never seems entirely relevant), but the fact that the mystery is so thin doesn’t matter when everything else bears such darkly narcotic fruit.


As Jeffrey says twice in the course of Blue Velvet, “It’s a strange world, isn’t it?”; through Lynch’s prism, doubly so. The director leaves us on a note of order restored, of mothers reunited with children and Sunday lunch prepared by picture-perfect young lovers. But it amounts to restored order with robotic birds and yukky bugs, so it’s never, ever going to match that surface, white picket fence level (however mock-soothing the score is).


Rossellini said of the Lynch that he exudes what he is thinking, rather than articulating it, and there are times in his work where you are left merely baffled, rather than struck by his genius. Blue Velvet, by embracing melodrama, Hitchcock by way of Bunuel, with even a touch of Sirk, but drip-fed into a nightmarishly hyper-sexual dreamscape, might be the most accessible of his true “Lynchian” films, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still his best. And it really does feel like a movie made by Jimmy Stewart from Mars.





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.