Sunday, March 10, 2013

Blue Velvet’s strange world

Blue Velvet, written and directed by David Lynch, was released in 1986 to puzzlement and even hostility by critics, including Roger Ebert. It was a failure at the box office until being praised by Pauline Kael. It is now considered a cult film and surreal movie classic.

It’s no wonder initial response to it was shock. Blue Velvet is not an easy film to watch. If you’re like me and you’ve seen it at least three times in the past 10 years the story gets more comprehensible, but it remains difficult to accept what you’re seeing on screen.

There’s a long documentary on the making of Blue Velvet included with the 2002 DVD release. Lynch tells of his initial inspiration from the 1964 song of the same name by Bobby Vinton, to casting the actors, to the characters’ motivation and intricacies of filming on location. It is all a very interesting look into the mind of a true film auteur, and to some very dark visions.

The late Dennis Hopper played one of the screen’s most bizarre bad guys, Frank Booth. In the documentary Hopper told how he had just come out of rehab for years of drug and alcohol abuse when he was offered the part. He made crazy, violent Frank memorable, one of the all-time great movie psychos. His performance is inspired, right down to his use of nitrous oxide. According to Hopper that was his idea. Lynch was amenable to ideas from his cast if it improved the story.

Co-star Isabella Rossellini, who was most famous as a model, was doing just her third film. She was extremely nervous about the part. In its own way it was groundbreaking, and was the cause of Roger Ebert’s original complaint about the film, that it exploited her. She explained her nudity. If the viewer accepts her motivation as an actor it gets easier to understand, that far from exploiting her it made her more realistic as a woman who has been completely subjugated by a psychopath.

In the documentary she explained the scene where she is commanded by Frank to “spread her legs.” The scene is shot showing her from the back. She claimed she was not wearing underwear (she said the strap was seen by the camera, so the decision was made for her to do the scene raw. It sounds flimsy, but it’s her story.) She was nervous about doing it, and apologized (!) to Hopper beforehand, that he would be looking at her vagina. He waved it off by saying, “I’ve seen that before.”

“By being rude, he made it easier,” she laughed.

The young leads, Jeffrey and Sandy, who stumble into the mystery, are played by very young Kyle McLachlan and Laura Dern, both of whom are intelligent, open-faced and attractive characters.

The movie begins with saccharine-sweet and quick cuts of bucolic small town life, down to a hardware store, fire engine, and colorful flowers against a white picket fence. It ends with a happy ending that is also over-the-top in its optimism, with one jarring note. A robin sits on a window sill with a bug in its mouth, which causes amazement by Sandy, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey’s aunt. The bird is supposed to be real, but it’s obviously mechanical. As Hopper said in his interview, “it’s American surrealism.”

Between placid scenes of normalcy and happiness is a very twisted plot and bizarre film; a dark counterpoint to sweetness and light.

The Bobby Vinton song that inspired the movie:


Kirk said...

Good film. My only quibble is one you might find odd. I found the fireman waving from his truck at the beginning of the film over the top. Not over the top in terms of sex and violence, obviously, but in regards to innocence. That would be too corny for a 1950s Debbie Reynolds movie, and it ended up seeming satirical to me, thus making the later revelation that the town had a dark underbelly seem slightly LESS, rather than more, shocking.

Postino said...

I thought of the fireman the same as I thought of the bright flowers, the white picket fence or the shots of the hardware store. They were counterpoints to the weirdness of the story. They were over the top, but in that context I think they worked.

Something I didn't mention was the strangeness of the hardware store having a blind employee who could "see." There was no explanation, and I wonder if it was a leftover from the original version of the film. As I read, Lynch was obligated to provide Dino De Laurentis a movie that clocked in at two hours. Lynch had a four hour movie that needed to be cut down, so several scenes were excised completely. The hardware store clerks were left in for a couple of brief, puzzling scenes.