Blue Velvet David Lynch (USA; 1986) Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini; Dennis Hopper; Laura Dern
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 8 Dec 2021: ticket: £7
In a way David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet is another of those one song films – Dr Zhivago – Lawrence – Casablanca – movies that pirouette around one song, the emotive attraction of a chord sequence. Of course Blue Velvet unlike the other titles mentioned plays against the grain of the music, goes contraflow to the song’s endemic sentimentality, playing against type to offset its lyrics against the violent sadistic abusive relationship that comprises the core of the script.
Ironic inversion of mood stylistically defines the sort of ‘realism’ increasingly depicted in 80’s movie scripts.
Appearances are deceptive. In her novels written in the 1950’s through to the 70’s, Patricia Highsmith effectively explored the dissonance between the appearance and the actual. Her most infamous protagonist Mr Ripley exploits his nonchalant ingenuous image, the straight all American young man, as an effective cloak of invisibility for a series of cold blooded psychopathic casual murders. Highsmith with satiric edge probes the darkness that lies beneath the tight nap that characterises American society. Lynch models ‘Blue Velvet’s on a similar premise, but playing with images rather than text. He uses film to set up a pictorial proposition of an idealised 1950’s Americana townscape: Lumberton, Lynch’s small town in Blue Velvet. It’s modelled after the types of communities that are the subject of Frank Capra’s Hollywood propaganda films for the American Way of Life: Mr Smith goes to Washington; It’s a Wonderful Life. Movies celebrating the probity and essential decency of small town USA with its ‘small people’. The which claim for like ‘decency’ was interestingly appropriated by Richard Nixon in his electoral campaign for the Presidency. But at the end when the veneer of office finally rotted through. Nixon was seen for what he was, not a ‘little person’ but a corrupted power crazed politician who would use any means necessary, violent or illegal, to hold on to office. Perhaps Nixon, he of the manic eyes and sour body odour was an appropriate inspiration for Lynch’s way of seeing his native land.
Highsmith’s novels are highly pointed satires, almost falling into a literary category that might be termed ‘revenge porn’. Her targets are gender stereotypes and social pretensions of what might be called the middle class: respectable heterosexual comfortable people. Pretensions that of course veil an endemic American darkness. Her writing takes place in ordinary settings in ordinary sorts of circumstances amongst ordinary people allowing her to underscore social conventions of Americana with an acid dark observational humour, a black humour that never ends.
As film maker Lynch assembles a series of defining small town visual tropes: the neat serried houses lining leafy streets that are straight as dies; the manicured grass front lawns, the local store, the school, the diner. He sets these off against an increasingly disturbed scenario that like the song, wallows into parody. In ‘Blue Velvet’s opening sequence we see Jeffrey’s dad watering his lawn then suddenly dramatically crumpling collapsing onto the turf. The green green grass of normalcy, is visited by the shocking the abnormal: cue Jeffrey’s return home from college. Later as Jeffrey visits dad in hospital it appears that dad’s had a stroke or perhaps a heart attack. Monitored and with multiple tubes inserted into his body he is a victim of the lawn, a sad consequence of the impulse to maintain appearances.
After this ‘opening up’ event the script kicks on with Jeffrey’s discovery of the severed ear lying in the grass, setting up the ‘mystery’ and allowing a pall of weirdness to descend haze-like upon the action and settings. The audience start to understand something about this little town. But whereas writer Highsmith is careful to underplay her outrageous plots with a certain level of restraint and stylised irony, at this point in his scenario, Lynch is only able to engage in an orgy of complete self indulgence.
Lynch’s self indulgence is highlighted by Dennis Hopper’s role, his playing out of the resident town psycho. At this point in his career as an actor Hopper has little more to offer than self parody. With his tensed facial musculature and fixed staring eyes, he explodes into each scene with a self important strut and balled fists, he’s a joke. After Hopper’s first grand guignol entrance entrance Lynch’s scenario descends into slapstick pantomime.
Perhaps in the 1980’s people were shocked at ‘Blue Velvet’s’ level of violence which is given a notional permission by being depicted as part of the SM relationship between Dorothy and Dennis H: “ Hit me!” says she. Perhaps the audience were persuaded that the punches and slaps were part of the new realism in violence and sex visited upon Cinema by the likes of film makers such as Lynch and Hopper.
But of course this type of realism plummets deep levels of double standards, hypocrisy and dishonesty. The violence is a cheap theatrical trick. When violence is portrayed on screen as a stylised piece of the action there is no reason to pursue it any further than the one event: someone is shot, someone hits the deck. No further communication on the event is required, the script is closed off at this point and the protagonist moves on to the next thing in the scenario. The stylisation of the violent act serves the mechanics of plot; it is not in itself part of the subject matter of the script. When a stylised piece of violence is depicted as a means of the closing out of a scene the purpose of the violence has been served.
But when violence is exploited in a script in other ways, for instance when it is embedded as part of a key relationship within a film, then other considerations surely apply? When relational on-screen violence is represented on camera as something ‘real’, when the intention on the part of the director, David Lynch, is that the violence he has depicted is taken as part of a relationship, then another dynamic applies. We have moved out of the realm of stylisation in which actions have only a mechanical function, into the realm of meaning.
But when there is meaning to an act of violence and when meaningful scenes of violence are depicted as ‘real’ then the audience should experience not just the cinematic infliction of this violence – slaps, punches, kicks etc. – but also the effects of these blows: the black eyes, bloodied noses, split lips, purple bruising, broken faces. Without seeing the reciprocal effects of being hit, violence on screen is simply an exploitative device to manipulate the sensibility of audience. In the case of Blue Velvet, the one sided depiction of Hopper’s aggression is a cheap trick to give some substance both to Denis Hopper and the movie itself, to give substance to what would otherwise be an empty vacuous character lost in an empty vacuous script.
Acts of violence embedded in the relational core of a film are subjected to a distortion of both good faith and logic where they are indulged, for the sake of titillating the viewer, but have no consequences . Lynch doesn’t so much promote a weird dark world but an inconsequential world. Like his song Lynch’s movie is a one shot indulgence of a fake proposition.