(David Lynch, 1986)
(essay by Kevin)
[This is a repost of an entry I did on the subgenre of Neo-Noir a while back…I am leaving it untouched here for one purpose: I have not added any addendums to this essay about whether or not Blue Velvet is a ‘horror’ film; so, let’s discuss whether it is or isn’t in the comments.]
If Chinatown uses the style of noir to create an atmosphere of loneliness and despair – revealing the corrupt truths of America the way Gittes reveals the corruption of the Cross case; and if Blade Runner uses noir’s style to look into the future to raise the level of awareness about a kind of hyperreality we live in; then David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is an attack on the ideological nostalgic 1950’s America filtered through Lynch’s twisted, microscopic lens. Lynch’s film peers into the secrecy of our lives in order to see what lies underneath the façade of Everytown, USA. Blue Velvet involves families, strokes, teenagers in love, severed ears, murder, drugs, and yes, sadomasochism. And yet Lynch does in deed bring all of these elements together in noir fashion to create an ethereal experience, something so surreal and so bizarre, it is as if the viewer is taking hits from Frank Booth’s gas tank.
What Lynch does so brilliantly, and the reason why people refer to Blue Velvet as a neo or postmodern-noir, is through an ideological lens he paints a picture of how we wished the small American town actually were so squeaky-clean and upheld the ideals of Americana. At the time Lynch was making the film, 1986, this was a powerful response to Reagan’s America. The film has two kinds of scenes: (1) The everyday small-town scenes, in which people go out on dates to the soda fountain and drive around town in shiny cars, and (2) the subterranean scenes in which the most unspeakable acts take place behind closed doors (i.e. the reasoning for the severed ear…not only are we blind to such things existing around us, now we have become deaf). We see this common thread running through both Chinatown and Blade Runner but something new comes into play with Blue Velvet: The theme of exhibitionism, and how no matter how badly we may want to turn away, we cannot help but look; and that if we look hard enough there is corruption and perversion underneath every seemingly perfect small town (John Cheever’s brilliant short story “The Enormous Radio” comes to mind, too).
Lynch offers two key visuals to guide the viewer as they wade through these troublesome postmodern waters: The first symbol is at the beginning of the film in the form of a severed ear. We come to find later that the ear does indeed belong to someone important to the story; however, more than mere foreshadowing and plot device, Lynch is asking the audience to remember the visual throughout the film. It is a reminder that drugs and sadomasochism are protruding this small quiet town and that if you look hard enough, you can find just about any kind of unspeakable horror in your seemingly contented existence. The other meaning behind the ear seems to be more politically charged. Through Lynch’s own warped and darkly comedic way (Blue Velvet is all at once a comedy, a horror film, and a noir) he is reminding us that we have turned a deaf ear to the things we choose not to listen or look for in our own small town America’s. Notice how the films opening is in slow motion, people smiling, white picket fences, firemen, dogs, and friendly neighbors waving at the camera. Lynch juxtaposes this ideological world with the ear, the representation of the outside world that is about to assault this small town.
The other key visual is more of a technique, and one that is crucial to any good noir film: lighting. Lynch uses many of the techniques of noir, but the film isn’t as toned down with drab colors or shadows like those in Chinatown and Blade Runner. Lynch uses specific, vibrant colors, focusing them on one part of the screen creating an almost uber-glossy rendition of noir, with its night clubs and nightmare sequences being drenched in spotlight, where the lighting seems non-existent – this is a dark world where there is rarely any room for light to enter – there is also an emphasis on disorientating color schemes (Lynch is a painter in addition to a filmmaker) to create a world of both illusion and allusion. The film is both dreamy and grotesquely real, there is almost a hazy feel throughout the film, the feeling between being asleep and being awake throughout the nightclub scenes and especially the nightmarish scene where Jeffery and Dorothy are taken to the strange house of Ben (Dean Stockwell), the man holding Dorothy’s child. And yet, the film is beautiful to look at, an allusion to some of the great noir films like Double Indemnity, T-Men, White Heat, and Touch of Evil; Lynch is obviously aware that pastiche is the ultimate postmodern trope.
Even some of the films most uncomfortable and horrifying scenes (i.e. Frank coming by for his required sex with Dorothy) are lit with beautiful soft light and framed with a kind of innocence that would exist in the 1940’s era Lynch is definitely mimicking (or mocking). For example, the scene where Jeffery is witnessing Frank torture Dorothy is seen through his point of through the blinds of a closet. The scene is framed and portrayed in way where Jeffery is almost like a child, witnessing for the first time the uncertainties of sexuality. He’s peering through the blinds of the closet, what he is witnessing is cut-up, fragmented. Lynch uses this visual to create a sense of confusion. Is what he’s seeing erotic or unlawful? Jeffery’s thoughts are ambiguous at first, but when he is caught the scene plays out like that of twelve-year-old boys being caught “experimenting” with their mother’s Cosmo magazines. Thus begins the journey of Blue Velvet, it is from that point on that Jeffery just keeps going down, further and further into the abyss bringing everyone “innocent” with him.
Another way Lynch comments on the small town is through the visitation of Jeffery. Jeffery used to live in the town and is visiting from college because his father had a stroke. Once he left for college, one can see how Lynch suggests that he became “wise” to the world, he is no longer deaf or blind to what is happening around him. This is why in one of the films most uncomfortable scenes, when Dorothy stands on Jeffery’s front lawn naked, he is seemingly unfazed by the event and hurries to cover her up and save her, leaving his girlfriend Sandy (Laura Dern) to wonder what is happening. She doesn’t understand and begins crying, storming home angry at Jeffery. The next scene, Jeffery has taken Dorothy home and is seen speaking with the angered Sandy on the phone, and to hammer the point home, Lynch has Jeffery say very little and has Sandy forgiving him for everything, even though Jeffery has in fact continuously rendezvoused with Dorothy for sex. Sandy, still blinded by teenage romance and unable to see the big picture because she is trapped by the ideals of her small town, is willing to exculpate the problems of her and Jeffery’s relationship caused by Dorothy. She is blind to the possibilities of Jeffery even having a sexual relationship with Dorothy. This is another reason why in the first scene that we are introduced to Frank and Dorothy (the closet scene mentioned earlier), Lynch has Jeffery in the closet and not Sandy. He represents that outer world; he’s rightly placed amidst the other outsiders of the story.
And finally Lynch’s film is cyclical, it ends the same way it begins, minus the stroke victim, but added is the reconciliation of Dorothy and her son. Throughout the film, as is the case with Blade Runner, there is a plot revolving around an absent center. Lynch gives us this de-centered, de-stabilized universe while keeping the main themes circling around this absent center; this is the vortex that Jeffery finds himself pulled down into the more he discovers about Dorothy and her situation. The last shot of the film suggests that even though we see Dorothy with her son, the film remains cyclical in the sense that there will always be corruption and horror beneath the surface of things (in our towns, in politics, etc.), and that even though there may be these outsiders that invade these small towns – invaders that come in and try to help the ideological small town open their eyes to the “real” world – there is no point, there will always be that corruption and horror (this is the nihilistic Lynch kicking in here), and America will forever remain deaf to the cries of the Dorothy’s of America.
In film noir ordinary people find out that evil lurks just beneath the surfaces of their lives; they inevitably get caught up in the shadow worlds, they find themselves capable of committing unspeakable acts. A proper film noir is, contrary to the limitations of genre labeling, not usually a gangster or crime film, but the story of how evil enters everyday lives. The genre is profoundly pessimistic; it does not show bad people doing bad things, but average people doing bad things. This complicates things and makes it all the more ambiguous because the implication is that we are all capable of evil.
(this film appeared on Troy’s list at #5, Kevin’s at #8, Robert’s at #13, and Jamie’s at #23)
The remaining 4 days will be our individual Number 1’s, since we each had a different film taking the top spot. So, from here you will see ‘1 of 4’ accompanying the films title at the top, and you shouldn’t worry about the order of the films presented.