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Darren H

Blue Velvet and Lynch

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To cut to the chase, I'm hoping I can convince everyone who thinks David Lynch belongs on the Top 100 to throw their points to Blue Velvet, which would get my vote for best American film of the past 40 years. First a quick word about the other nominees . . .

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a very good film and among the best examples of Lynch's treatment of evil (something I'll write more about below). To my mind, though, it's disqualified, so to speak, for the same reason episode 8 of The Return is disqualified. Fire Walk With Me doesn't work very well as a stand-alone film. It's more like a mini-series that bridges the original two seasons with The Return. Twin Peaks is Lynch's greatest accomplishment, but I don’t know if it’s fairly represented by a two-hour snippet.

I've watched Mulholland Drive a half-dozen times over the years, most recently last month, and I think it includes several of the greatest things he's ever shot -- the audition, Silencio, Winkie's, the cowboy. It's also his most thorough exploration of the Hollywood mythos and a really fun puzzle to solve. But it's uneven, in the same way that I can imagine The Return would be uneven if, say, the Dougie scenes had to be spliced into a feature-length telling of that story. When Mulholland Drive drifts away from Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla to the side stories that would have been more prominent in the original TV concept, it loses some steam. And, ultimately, the questions at stake in the film aren't as interesting or as spiritually resonant to me as the ones driving his best work.

The common line on Blue Velvet is that Lynch is revealing the darkness just beneath the surface of everyday American life, which is true enough. But what makes Lynch a great and profoundly moral artist is that he’s only fascinated by evil (for lack of a better word) as a counterbalance to the awesome beauty of the good. Laura Palmer is his deepest treatment of the idea: she’s a pageant queen who volunteers delivering meals to the sick while masking the unimaginable trauma in her life. Lynch lost interest in the original series after the network forced him to reveal the murderer because the driving concept was to offer a corrective to the sadistic murder-of-the-week shows that have become even more ubiquitous in the three decades since. The whodunnit angle was just a hook to get viewers to explore the life of -- and to care deeply for -- a victim of the most horrific kinds of abuse so that we could learn to temper our sick fascination with evil, practice empathy and compassion, and become better. More than once in the run of the show, Lynch himself says, as Gordon Cole, “Fix your hearts or die.”

Like Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet is partly an homage to classic cinema, drawing on tropes from film noir and the teen movies Lynch watched as a kid in the ‘50s. One thing I enjoy about Lynch is that his genre experiments work as genre. The first 30 minutes of Blue Velvet is a great teen romance, the rare film that makes me nostalgic for those first conversations with a new crush. Jeffrey and Sandy begin as stereotypes of all-American kids, as embodiments of purity and virtue who can’t resist the pull of mystery and are too naïve to even conceive of the sorrow and violence they’re about to encounter. I use that word “sorrow” a lot with Lynch. I think his emotional radar is finely tuned to the horrible sadness of cruelty, waste, and destruction, but his eyes are also wide open to the allure of it all.

Once Jeffrey is inside Dorothy’s apartment, Blue Velvet leans on all of the formal techniques and psychosexual dynamics we talk about when we talk about Hitchcock, but he implicates us in the experience by turning the subtext into text. I remember revisiting Vertigo for the first time as an adult and being shocked by the moment when Madeleine wakes up on Scottie’s couch, which Hitchcock turns into a little joke about how he undressed her while she slept -- you know, instead of taking the unconscious, suicidal woman to a hospital. Jefferies’s leering at Miss Torso in Rear Window gets the same treatment. In his one-star (and, I think, stupid) review of Blue Velvet, Roger Ebert pretends to be offended on Isabella Rossellini’s behalf because “she is asked to portray emotions that I imagine most actresses would rather not touch. She is degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera.” In other words, she’s actually doing all of the things women have done for a century in cinema, but Lynch is forcing us to look at it without the comforting distance of innuendo, glamour, and symbolism. What actually offended Ebert -- and not just him -- is that Blue Velvet made him feel ashamed of the thrill he’d experienced while watching Rossellini undress (“in a sequence that Hitchcock would have been proud of”) just minutes before the scene turns graphic and violent. Sadism is baked into the pleasures of spectatorship. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy says of Jeffrey and all of us in the audience.

Haneke’s Funny Games has also been nominated for the Top 100, and it’s doing something along these lines, implicating viewers in their desire for violence. I admire Haneke but right now I find more wisdom in Lynch’s artistic ethic (not sure if that’s the right way to put it). The other mistake Ebert made was reading Blue Velvet as satire. I have the benefit of having seen Lynch’s career unfold over the past 35 years (imagine having to review this film after seeing it for the first time in 1986!), so I can chart his style and tone, and I’m now deeply moved by scenes like Sandy’s “robin” speech, which I’m sure I found ridiculous when I first watched the film as a teen. Lynch is playing with clichés here, but staging this speech in front of stained-glass windows and scoring it with a church organ isn’t a joke. Or, at least, it isn’t only a joke. It’s a sincere expression of Lynch’s morality -- “the blinding light of love” that is so magnificent and grace-filled only because it’s illuminating the bitter darkness of the world.

I’ve already written more than 1,000 words, so I’ll stop for now except to say that the moment-to-moment image-making in this movie is brilliant. Sandy’s appearance is kind-of a lift from Vertigo -- she emerges from darkness rather than green neon -- but it’s still one of my favorite images from any film.

 

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You've convinced me Blue Velvet should be ranked higher than Mulholland Drive for the list, even though that's probably my favorite Lynch ahead of Fire Walk With Me, but I still think the treatment of evil in that film should rank it ahead of Blue Velvet. However, your point about it needing the TV series to make sense is giving me pause. Also, Blue Velvet was one of the first Lynch films I saw, and it's been awhile since I've rewatched it, so maybe I'll do that before voting.


"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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Evan, I don't know how many times I've seen Blue Velvet, but I've gone through three stages with it. I first saw it in high school or college, probably after reading about it in Rolling Stone or maybe after Twin Peaks premiered. As a naive evangelical kid not too different from Jeffrey and Sandy, I was a bit traumatized by it and would have called it "weird." For years I didn't think I liked Lynch, so in my mid-30s I watched/revisited everything he'd made, in sequence, and at the end of it I decided Inland Empire was my favorite of his films but Blue Velvet was the most complete feature and also the most concentrated expression of Lynch's style. When I watched Blue Velvet again recently, after The Return, I was stunned. I like Mike D'Angelo's line: "12 minutes in, when Sandy slowly emerges from the darkness of her tree-lined street as Badalamenti's score goes full Herrmann, I could no longer comprehend why most other filmmakers even bother to make films."

All of which is to say, if you've seen a couple hundred films since the last time you watched Blue Velvet, I suspect it'll be a different movie for you this time.

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Didn’t need much of a push to rate it highly, but you made me want to throw my Blu-ray in again. Thanks for that.


"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

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I am not on the voting committee so have no say in the Top 100, but your breakdown of the power of Blue Velvet, Darren, is amazing. Blue Velvet is my favourite "dramatic film" (the only movies I like more are Return of the Jedi, Spirited Away, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which are all fantasies of various sorts) and so if I was voting on this Top 100, it'd sit at or near the top. You beautifully capture two things that are absolutely critical to understanding Blue Velvet: 1. We are meant to be implicated in the sadism on display. We are Jeffrey in the closet. 2. The robins are not satire or a cute symbol of innocence. They are profound love.

In this current pandemic, I often find myself remarking to my wife (who admires Lynch and loves Twin Peaks especially, but isn't a big moviegoer) that "there is trouble 'til the robins come", using it as the shorthand for hoping for the moment when the pandemic ends and fear leaves us. Sandy talking about her dream is such a profound moment in the film and has become a shorthand for my own way of expressing goodness in the world. If that's not spiritual power in cinema, I don't know what is.

On 4/26/2020 at 1:36 PM, Darren H said:

I've gone through three stages with it

Me too, although in a much more condensed manner than you describe (I'm not even 30, so obviously that is the case). First time, in high school, I was cautiously admiring but more than a little disturbed. Second time in university made me reconsider just how formally audacious the movie is. Then when I finally started living on my own and went off to film school, I watched it again and it basically clicked that Jeffrey Beaumont is probably the character I most connect with in all of cinema. Understanding myself in Jeffrey was one of those "Aha!" moviegoing moments and the film went from being something I greatly respected and thought was brilliantly constructed to something I love and see the world through.

I love many other David Lynch works, most notably Twin Peaks, but I don't think anything else he has done captures the essence of his art in such a complete manner. It's the combination of genre and avant-garde, evil and love, camp and nostalgia, that defines him, but all in one perfect two-hour package.

So, whoever is voting, please put this at the top of your Lynch works. It's his best.


"Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film." - Werner Herzog

3brothersfilm.com

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I would be lying if I said that the thought of Blue Velvet high on this list didn't make me a little queasy. Still too many scars from living in the Bible Belt and having to justify R raterd movies, I guess. Of course, that's easier to do when you have a personal affinity for the film, which I've never developed for Lynch. 

That said, I trust that if you all vote it up, you'll assign someone to write the blurb to articulate things clearly. And I will watch it again, because I haven't seen it in decades, and we do change.

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This just arrived in the mail, so Darren, you managed to persuade one person of Blue Velvet's essentialness.

 

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"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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I acknowledge the cinematic brilliance of this film, but I personally can't bring myself to watch it again. I've read several reviews from various interpretive perspectives, yada-yada-yada. It still repels me.


There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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I did not have the Lynch epiphany I was praying for in the other thread, though I'm not done yet. (Yeah, I know, watching films in segments isn't ideal, but that's finals week.)

I have been thinking a lot while watching about what is the difference between this, which I don't care for, and Eyes Wide Shut, which I nominated. In some ways, the seediness of the film makes me distrustful. I've been inundated for most of my life with the Broadcast News thesis that evil should be beautiful, seductive, charming. Sometimes it is. But sometimes evil is crude, banal, stupid, gross, I guess. 

 

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10 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

In some ways, the seediness of the film makes me distrustful. I've been inundated for most of my life with the Broadcast News thesis that evil should be beautiful, seductive, charming. Sometimes it is. But sometimes evil is crude, banal, stupid, gross, I guess. 

The divided popular reactions to demagogues from Hitler to the present day suggest that it's often both simultaneously, depending on the beholder.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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> Sometimes evil is crude, banal, stupid, gross, I guess. 

Ken, you and I have talked a couple times over the years about how we're members of this horrible fraternity of people who have lost loved ones to stupid, brutal violence. I'm not in any way suggesting that you should respond the same way I do to films like Blue Velvet. I just want to note that ever since we lost Joanna's parents, I've come to value great art (with an emphasis on "great") that confronts audiences with the crudeness and banality and sorrow of violence. I'm especially sympathetic to Lynch because I share his repulsion at entertainments like murder-of-the-week shows. Again, goodness is revealed in contrast to evil. If the evil is just as pleasurable, seductive, and beautiful as the good, then the distinction becomes less meaningful.

Fwiw, I was surprised to find myself downgrading Hitchcock films in my scoring because of this discussion.

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> I'm especially sympathetic to Lynch because I share his repulsion at entertainments like murder-of-the-week shows.

Once again, I'm really bummed we left Network out of the running, and now I'm thinking about a Blue Velvet/Network double feature.


"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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5 hours ago, Darren H said:

Ken, you and I have talked a couple times over the years about how we're members of this horrible fraternity of people who have lost loved ones to stupid, brutal violence. I'm not in any way suggesting that you should respond the same way I do to films like Blue Velvet. I just want to note that ever since we lost Joanna's parents, I've come to value great art (with an emphasis on "great") that confronts audiences with the crudeness and banality and sorrow of violence. I'm especially sympathetic to Lynch because I share his repulsion at entertainments like murder-of-the-week shows. Again, goodness is revealed in contrast to evil. If the evil is just as pleasurable, seductive, and beautiful as the good, then the distinction becomes less meaningful.

Fwiw, I was surprised to find myself downgrading Hitchcock films in my scoring because of this discussion.

This discussion is helpful. (Not sure if it changes my vote, but it is helpful.)

One of the metanarratives that has informed my teaching career (and more so my personal history of art reception) is that Plato's banishment of the artist from the ideal Republic (and, especially, his stated reasons for doing so) has cast a long, problematic shadow over (especially) Christian criticism. For long periods Plato, even though he wasn't Christian (didn't Augustine call him the pagan who came closest to Christianity) was used to buttress puritanical objections to art and puritanical moves to ban art. Because, I think, some of the first attempts to make headway in defending art/poetry challenged the assumption that art that wasn't "true" was demoralizing (in both senses of the word) there was an overcorrection (or maybe an undercorrection): art was good so long as it affirmed the notion that good was rewarded (in some way, emotionally, spiritually, usually literally) and evil was punished. So we get long periods of Restoration period type restrictions, censorship, etc. I certain see the Hayes code as a modern-day manifestation of that, though I am not an historical expert. (I do know that The Celluloid Closet asserts that part of the Hays Code wasn't just that, say Homosexuality could not be depicted, it was that evil had to be punished and virtue rewarded). The Wiki for the Code appears to assert as much via summary, though I wasn't able to find the exact wording of the code itself. 

 

Quote

The code sought not only to determine what could be portrayed on screen, but also to promote traditional values.[34] Sexual relations outside marriage—which were forbidden to be portrayed as attractive or beautiful—were to be presented in a way that would not arouse passion or make them seem permissible.[35] Any sexual act considered perverted, including any suggestion of same sex relationships, sex, or romance, was ruled out.[31] All criminal action had to be punished, and neither the crime nor the criminal could elicit sympathy from the audience,[8] or the audience must at least be aware that such behavior is wrong, usually through "compensating moral value".[30][36] Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, police officers, and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear that those individuals portrayed as villains were the exceptions to the rule.[37]

One problem with all this that we've booted around many places (most recently in thread on Christ Figures), is that it supports any number of implicit assumptions about Christianity or morality in the world that the art allegedly should mimetically imitate. Some of those assumptions are, at best, problematic, at worst, not true. Evil isn't always punished. Virtue isn't always rewarded...at least not in this world. And, post-Romanticism, as we (i.e. Western civilization) got more and more skeptical of the existence of any other world, speculating or asserting that there was a reward coming for the Thomas More's of the world and punishment coming for the Richard Rich's of the world (who, A Man For All Seasons, reminds us in a postscript, is the one character who died peacefully, in his bad, in old age), became unpersuasive and, to some, offensive. (Thoreau, for example, rails against the reward/penalty in the next life argument, because it allows an ongoing certainty of injustice in this world to continue on the grounds that it *might* be corrected or adjusted in the a subsequent life that may or may not ever happen.) 

So, in some senses, I may well be the target audience for a work of art that presents evil as ugly, benign, stupid, hideous, gross. But in another sense, if all a film asks me to do is be disgusted by things that are disgusting, then I don't really need the film's help on that score. I know the world I live in is not the surface, caricature world of Blue Velvet without having to see this particular incarnation of what it really is. If it's argument is that there is actual beauty in the world, even the ugly, disgusting, seedy world that is below the surface veneer, which is I think Darren's argument/claim though moreso for Twin Peaks, I'm not seeing it yet. I affirm there is, or could be, something spiritually important, even Christlike, in seeing the bits of beauty in the ugliest parts of the world., of training yourself to allow that ugliness to prompt compassion rather than disgust or contempt. I'm just not sure if I'm there yet, or if that's what the film is asking me to do. (Or, rather, if it is asking me to do that, whether it is doing so in such a way that I am hearing it.)

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"What do you want?"
"I don't know."

Oh man, I'm tottering. As a total aside, I'm sure I've used this analogy before, so forgive me, but there's a point in Peter Saccio's lectures on Shakespeare where he is discussing Lear's line, "She will come again no more / never, never, never, never, never" and he makes an aside to the effect of, you know some people think Shakespeare's genius is just in using big or obscure words, but really its in using the plain old ones to devastating affect. Also, the scenes in the car between Dern and Kyle M. play so very differently when I am 50 than when I am thirty. But then Hopper showed up and I had to turn it off for awhile.

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