dir. David Lynch
I love "oh shit, that's where that came from" pop-culture moments. Obviously, many of my (and probably most other folks in my generation's) such moments are hip-hop related. Given the volume of sampling (not just of music but of other forms of media) in these songs, it's inevitable that we would experience such spiritually transcendent epiphanies as "Oh wow, this old Michael McDonald song sounds familiar. I didn't think I...oh shit, that's where that came from!"
[Finally, I have an excuse to post a Michael McDonald picture here.]
I should note, though, that aside from the hits, I didn't have a very thorough knowledge of hip-hop as a young'un (that would come later). Actually, until I moved to Maine at thirteen, I didn't know much about music of any kind. Let me give you a rundown of what I was familiar with up to that point: The Beatles, Vanilla Ice, The Beatles, MC Hammer, The Beatles, and...uh, yeah, that about covers it. After moving to Maine, in addition to burnishing my movie geek and TV geek credentials (at a very young age, I could tell after watching the first minute, exactly which episode of I Love Lucy I was in for), I decided to start getting into music. As opposed to my movie geekism, however, I didn't care too much about traveling far outside the obvious shit, music-wise. In high school, I was primarily a classic rock (and metal) guy. My radio station of choice at the time was the typical, small-town, classic rock station 105.1 WTOS: "The Mountain of Pure Rock".
As with any radio station, the DJ's at WTOS had a set group of random sound-clips they played when coming back from or going to commercial breaks. One clip that always stood out for me was Dennis Hopper's immortal line from David Lynch's Blue Velvet: "Heineken?! Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!" [Side note: It's funny to think of a time when drinking Heineken was seen as a sign in ultimate, douchey, upper-class beer snobbery.] Because I loved (and continued to love) cussin', I always got a kick out of this sound-bite. "Damn," I thought, "Where the hell did they get that from?" Little did I know that this line would turn out to come from one of my favorite scenes.
Cut to my late teen years and my first viewing of Blue Velvet. Although I enjoyed seeing the source of the above-mentioned quote, the overall viewing experience was far from pleasurable. I just had no idea what to make of this movie the first time I saw it. Sure I always liked weird movies, but this was weird in a way that so unsettled me I shivered at the thought of revisiting it.
Blue Velvet presents a typical noir (with a dash of The Hardy Boys) set-up. A mystery is established (a severed ear is discovered in a field) and a small-town young man (Kyle MacLachlan) attempts to solve the case with the help of a wholesome small-town young lady (Laura Dern). After discovering the abused victim (Isabella Rossellini) of a sadistic nitrous (or some other such gas) abuser (Dennis Hopper), MacLachlan develops a violent sexual relationship with the victim (this is where the story veers from Hardy Boys territory). As Blue Velvet unfolds, it becomes obvious that Lynch is less concerned with the machinations of the mystery-revealing unfolding of a noir plot, than with the exploration of the dark side of America, one not shown in fifties depictions of white-picket fence suburbia. Blue Velvet plunges deeper and deeper into oblivion, until eventually treating the viewers to an ironic, over-the-top, purposefully fake, happy ending.
[I did a google image search for "happy ending" and this came up.]
Of course, I didn't think about any of this shit the first time I watched Lynch's masterpiece. My thoughts were more of the "oh God, make the uncomfortableness stop. This is too much. I don't ever wanna rewatch this" variety. But rewatch it I did and rethink it I also did. As stated in previous blog entries, I've had my fair share of flip-flop movies—movies that don't do anything for me or repulse me on the first viewing but grow on me after a period of time and repeated viewings. Blue Velvet was one of my first. It was upon a rewatching that I realized one of Lynch's greatest strengths is tension build-up. Indeed, it is Lynch's ability to build and sustain suspense that was one of the biggest factors in my initial revulsion for this picture.
Case in point: the "candy-colored clown" scene. After Hopper discovers that MacLachlan has been having an affair with Rossellini, he takes MacLachlan, Rossellini, and a gang of freaks for a terror ride until they arrive at the home of a fifties style dandy (Dean Stockwell). Lynch builds the tension here to the breaking point.
We know that MacLachlaclan is in for some punishment, just what kind we don't know. Knowing that we know this, Lynch savors his chance at maliciously toying with us. Just as Hopper takes his time with his prey, Lynch keeps pushing and pushing, putting weirdness on top of weirdness until we finally say, "Just get to MacLachlan's punishment. I can't take this." Because Lynch lingers on the strange—implying unspeakable horrors—the dangers we imagine will befall MacLachlan inevitably will be darker than they turn out to be (Hopper et al. eventually beat the shit out of MacLachlan).
We see everything through MacLachlan's eyes. Much as Lynch is putting on a freak-show for us, Hopper is treating MacLachlan to a performance, implying, "Hey, kid, this is only a taste of what's to come for you." To further hammer home the performance aspect of this scene, Lynch stages the apartment as a performance space, curtains hanging on either side of the entryway, seats along the opposite wall for the spectators. This also serves to further accentuate the theme of MacLachlan's voyeurism. Whereas he previously hid in a closet and spied on Rossellini and Hopper, here Hopper has forced him out into the open to enjoy the show.
Here, Lynch fully showcases the contrasting Americas. Standing in opposition to MacLachlan's gee-shucks, respectable, middle-class, malt-shop world; Stockwell, Hopper and the rest are the deviant, outsider, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, underside of America—albeit that of an extremely exaggerated, fifties-caricature-on-acid variety.
Of course, despite the staged performance aspects of this scene, Lynch most succeeds in what he doesn't show. Note for example his handling of Rossellini's kidnapped son. After Hopper allows Rossellini to see her kid who is being held hostage in the other room, she runs inside, the door closing behind her. As the camera moves in to a closeup of the door, we can hear the sounds on the other side. Rossellini frantically screams the following lines, "Donny, Donny, Donny. No, no. Donny, mama loves you." What has happened to her son? Can the same be expected for MacLachlan? Who knows? Additionally, Rossellini's bit of off-screen dialogue, carries extra strangeness weight given her use of similar lines in previous sexual encounters. Welcome to creepy-town, population: ewww.
It is here, of course, that the justifiably famous section of the scene kicks in. Stockwell, using a work-light as a microphone, lip-synchs Roy Orbison's lost-love ballad "In Dreams". Hopper is enrapt. Rossellini returns to the stage room, hung-head, full of defeat. Soon, something in the song makes Hopper snap. He calls it off and tells everyone it's time to leave. After screaming, "Let's Fuck! I'll fuck anything that moves!" Hopper and the rest disappear from the frame.
Because I was so fucked up by this movie the first time around, I didn't realize how funny some of it was. I mean, c'mon, try watching Stockwell's Orbison synching (not to mention the henchman swaying on the couch in the background) and not at least let loose a "what the fuck" giggle. Maybe that's another thing that fucked me up on my first viewing: the strange mix of tones. I couldn't figure out why there would be humor, or attempts at humor, in a movie that deals with such fucked-upedness. But that's the point. Blue Velvet is supposed to unsettle and it does so swimmingly. How many other directors can elicit such strong, conflicting emotional reactions from their audiences. Yes, despite my admiration for the movie, Blue Velvet can still make me feel icky. It's not something I can put in for a lighthearted good time but it is undoubtedly the work of a cinematic master.