Sunday, November 22, 2015
The films of David Lynch are full of doors, portals, ways into other (usually dark) worlds. In Twin Peaks, the woods are a conveyance into the mythical White and Black Lodges; in Mulholland Dr., it's a puzzle box that sucks the naive Canadian actress into depravity; something beyond my ken happens in Lost Highway that transforms a middle-age sax player accused to murdering his wife into a young mechanic. In Blue Velvet, the film that arguably laid the groundwork for what we now call Lynchian, it's an ear. Passing through a scruffy field, coming from visiting his stroke-felled father in the hospital, Jeffery Beaumont, while searching through the scrub for stones to throw at an old shed, finds a severed ear acrawl with ants. The camera corkscrews into the dark curves of the thing, and we and the characters are seemingly along for the ride, falling through the thin rime of All-American civility into the sea of chaos beneath.
Blue Velvet introduces the tropes and images that Lynch will spend about two decades sorting through. Before Blue Velvet, he gained notoriety for his avant garde parenthood panic, Eraserhead, which brought him to the attention of Mel Brooks, who hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man. A Best Picture Oscar nomination was enough to give the mainstream some confidence in Lynch, though a stutter in that confidence lead to meddling and Lynch's next film, an adaptation of Frank Herbert's massive Dune, was a muddled flop. Arguably, the stink of that expensive boner saved Lynch's career, curtailing any interest mainstream investors might have had in him. Dino De Laurentiis had faith enough in Lynch that he gave him carte blanche on his next film and, though he wouldn't put it into the contract for fear every subsequent director would demand it, he gave the director final cut. That level of freedom made it possible for Lynch to pursue the sort of intuitive filmmaking he would come to be known for, where the planned film is always vulnerable to the unplannable randomness of the making process.
Triggered by Bobby Vinton's 1963 performance of "Blue Velvet", the image of a severed ear in a field, and the odd desire to hide in a girl's closet all day hoping to witness the clue to a mystery, Blue Velvet was not immediately beloved, but eventually struck a chord thanks to its juxtaposition of traditional Americana (white picket fences, lawn care, AM top 40 classics) with bizarre seediness (languid night clubs, sadomasochism, amyl nitrate abuse). This tension between light and dark, polite reservation and manic bombast, sort of became Lynch's calling card, but it also falls in line with spate of myth challenging that was occurring in 80s culture at the time. That squeaky clean image of post-war America, the lawns as well kept as the haircuts, the home appliances as rounded and shining as the boat-sized cars in the carports, had been offered as proof that the deprivation of the Depression and the catastrophic horror of the second world war had been overcome through American exceptionalism and sticktoitiveness. Of course, this was a case of dressing for the job you wanted, not the job you had. Underneath that veneer, America was still roiling with political, racial, and moral angst. The attempt to exorcise that repression throughout the 60s and 70s lead back to another false front with the materialistic conservatism of the Reagan era of the 80s. The illusion of 50s prosperity came to be viewed as halcyon days of the country, and what better way to harken back to that veneer than to have a 50s movie star as your president. It might seem odd company, but the weirdo Blue Velvet became one of more than a few films such as Polyester, Back to the Future, and A Christmas Story to both celebrate and criticize the myth of the 50s, which was not fitting quite as snugly in the similarly deluded 80s.
Lynch is maybe the most successful purveyor of these national contradictions because they're thrillingly at work in him. An Eagle Scout from Missoula, Lynch carries over that healthy, confident can-do curiosity to areas that most people would prefer to keep hidden. For a time, Lynch found his perfect avatar in Kyle MacLachlan, who, in Blue Velvet and later Twin Peaks, oozes grinning, clean-cut, innocent inquisitiveness. And the more innocent the protagonist of a Lynch film is, the greater the drama of their possible corruption. If Lynch's work from Lost Highway onward seems less accessible, the absence of that innocent avatar might be the reason. Finding the severed ear, Jeffrey (MacLachlan), possibly an Eagle Scout himself, does the right thing and brings it to the authorities. That's where Blue Velvet might have ended if not for the police chief's angelic daughter Sandy (the still teen-aged Laura Dern) cluing Jeffery into the scuzzy side of their quaint Lumberton, specifically a sultry nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini) she believes might have something to do with this whole severed ear business. Jeffrey and Sandy, brimming with pluck and flirt, put on their detective caps like kids playing around after school. Satisfying Lynch's own animating desire, Jeffery sneaks into the vamp's closet and spies in a way that might call to mind a certain hotel owner with a penchant for birds. Like the world of warring ants that's revealed when the camera explores in the well-tended lawns of the American paradise, Jeffrey's looking closer uncovers a corrupt, violent, and depraved world teeming beneath placid Lumberton.
The embodiment of that chaotic depravity operating beneath the America idyll is Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), the amyl nitrate-huffing, lipstick-applying, blue velvet-obsessed madman. In early Lynch, good and evil exist in extremes, in their purest individual states. In subsequent films, the dichotomy will mingle and become muddy, but especially during MacLachlan's time with Lynch, the risk is always that pure good will be corrupted by pure evil -- evil, it seems, is incorruptible. And, indeed, as Jeffery becomes mixed up with Dorothy Vallens, as he samples the sex and violence of that world, he comes close to becoming a denizen of it. As Sandy -- who got him into this mess in the first place -- jokes, "I can't figure out if you're a detective or a pervert."
In some ways, David Lynch became David Lynch with Blue Velvet. It was here that he met Angelo Badalamenti, who would define the askew noir soundtrack of Lynch's worlds, and it's here that we first see the imagrey of the divided road at night, the luffing velvet curtains (in blue and red), and the guttering flame. The access points in Lynch's later films are, as far as the narratives are concerned, literal doorways which lead to literal transitions and transformations. But in Blue Velvet, the descent into the severed ear is a figurative entry point into the dark. In a larger sense, though, it is does make for an almost literal entry point into the work of Lynch. And, like his protagonists, the viewer, whether they pass through or are sucked through, usually come out changed.
"It had to be an ear," Lynch said about the severed part. "An ear is wide and, as it narrows, you can go down into it. And it goes somewhere vast..."