April 6, 2011 4 Comments
Artisphere in Washington DC is celebrating the magnificent works of film auteur David Lynch by screening his works every Wednesday of this month. In honor of this well-deserved tribute, the film writers of the DC-based online entertainment magazine Brightest Young Things (myself included) have chosen to write a few personal thoughts on a film of their choosing — by Sir Lynch.
I personally had to go with Blue Velvet, for many reasons. My commentary on this 1986 masterpiece is below. If you are not acquainted with the film staff at BYT, they have some pretty great writers who know their movies. If you’d like to read some thoughts on such works as Wild at Heart, The Straight Story, Mullholland Drive, Dune (yes, Dune), Lost Highway, Inland Empire — and the mega cult classic Eraserhead, then click on the BYT Loves Lynch article. The BYT film writers include Alan Z., William A., Zach G., Logan D., Erin H., and BYT editor Svetlana L.
Here are my initial thoughts on Mr. Lynch’s Blue Velvet:
It all starts – with an ear. A severed human ear, decomposing in a lush green field. The camera slowly zooms in to the canal as the sound amplifies and the busy ants swarm around the flesh. Thus begins David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet, a modern-day film noir with elements of surrealism thrown in for good measure. As we get a closer look inside that rotting ear, we are invited in to Lynch’s world of a dark and violent underbelly lurking just beneath the surface of a seemingly peaceful suburban logging town.
Blue Velvet is certainly not for everyone — a polarizing film, if there ever was one (you may recall Siskel and Ebert’s famous argument over the film’s merits). Regardless, it garnered Lynch his 2nd Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Director,’ on the heels of Woody Allen calling it the single best movie of 1986. Since its theatrical release – through VHS, laserdiscs, DVD’s and now Blu-Ray — the film has reached legendary cult status, playing on many a midnight movie screen.
College student Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Lynch fave Kyle Maclachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton to see to his ailing father when he stumbles across the detached ear. He takes the ear to the police, but his own voyeuristic tendencies take over and Jeffrey proceeds to begin his own investigation, with the help of the police detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). The ear draws him deeper into his hometown’s sordid underworld, where he meets the captivating torch singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), whose son and husband have been kidnapped in return for sexual favors by the sadistic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, at the top of his game in a career-resurrecting role). Jeffrey becomes further involved, running into a cast of sleazy characters, trying his best to save the helpless Dorothy – and later, himself.
Lynch had the idea for this film in the early 1970’s – before his first feature film Eraserhead (another cult classic) was released. After his marvelous work on The Elephant Man (1980) and the failure that was Dune (1984), he was given complete artistic freedom and final cut privileges with Blue Velvet, culminating in a truly personal work. His casting choices here are right on the mark. Rossellini no longer had to cling on to those Lancome advertisements – she is finally given the opportunity to test her acting chops in a meaty role. With all that her character must endure at the hands of Frank, it is a truly courageous performance – and opened up a whole new career for Ms. Rossellini. Dean Stockwell plays Ben, a drug dealer and one of Frank’s accomplices. His lip-synched performance to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” is both chilling and somewhat comical and makes for one of the film’s highlights. Laura Dern turns in a solid performance as the high school girl who is a perfect paradox for Dorothy and all that she represents. Maclachlan holds the film together quite – he is strong when he needs to be (remember that tremendous backslap to Dorothy in a moment of pleasure and rage) and completely naïve and vulnerable when at the mercy of Frank. The film also delivers one of cinema’s greatest villains of all-time in Frank Booth, played deliciously by Mr. Hopper. This guy is one scary sociopath. Between his palpable Oedipal issues, vulgar mouth, peculiar sexual proclivities, and that oxygen mask (which Hopper later said was Amyl nitrite) – Frank Booth remains one of film’s most iconic characters. On top of the stellar performances, Angelo Badalamenti’s score is a true stand-out, creating that film noir atmosphere while also helping to create a haunting mood.
The film isn’t all that’s polarizing though – Lynch himself is one of film’s most divisive figures. You either love him or can’t watch his stuff. There are many directors who I greatly admire, but there are a small handful that I would call true auteurs – David Lynch is surely one of those very few. Perhaps it is because of his background and work in the visual arts, but Lynch is the only director who comes to mind where you can take a snapshot from any moment in one of his films – and it comes off as a true work of art. His attention to color, to place, to character, and to the human psyche is truly unique. So unique that many dub his style to be “Lynchian.” He changed television with his phenomenal opus, Twin Peaks and has continued to perplex and dazzle his audience with one daring work after another. But it is Blue Velvet that, to date, is his seminal work.