I didn’t write about any movies in July, but it was the month I watched the most movies in so far this year. That’s partly because the BBC released a 100 greatest American films list, which is interesting on a number of levels, but more so gives me a new list of movies to watch.
I caught up with Robert Altman via McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the epic Nashville, the weirder than expected 3 Women, and the L.A. detective noir The Long Goodbye. I also went back and watched Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather just so I could watch The Godfather Part 2 for the first time, and I marathoned them back to back (for the record,
Part 1 is better). However, I didn’t feel like writing about any of them until I caught up with David Lynch and finally watched his acclaimed 1986 film Blue Velvet — currently streaming on Netflix.
Blue Velvet concerns Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who has returned home from college to Lumberton, North Carolina to visit his father who has suffered a sudden stroke. Passing through a nearby field, Jeffrey happens upon a human ear, riddled with ants and slightly decomposing. Rather than carry on with his day the endlessly curious Jeffrey bags the ear and heads down to the police station.
Lumberton being the small and simple town it is, Jeffrey finds an old family friend in Detective Williams who agrees to look into the case of the missing ear. Later that night at Detective Williams’ home Jeffrey is warned to drop it, but the Detective’s daughter Sally (Laura Dern) feeds his curiosity. They catch each other up on their respective lives as they walk the streets that night and Sally eventually shows Jeffrey the apartment of a singer connected to the case. From across the street Sally says the singer lives on the seventh floor and the camera pans upward to a building, all but three floors of which are cast in a dark shadow, and the classic noir music swells.
The next day at the local diner Jeffrey proposes Sally help him sneak into the woman’s apartment while she’s there, disguised as a man hired to spray for bugs. He’s learned that the singer’s name is Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and can’t leave well enough alone. He has to know more and the only way to do so is to get inside her apartment.
The plan works and Jeffrey is able to steal a spare key. That night Jeffrey and Sally go to the nightclub where Dorothy sings. After she sings the titular “Blue Velvet” the two leave to explore Dorothy’s apartment while she’s not there. To this point Sally has stoked Jeffrey’s desire to crack the case, but she’s hesitant here, says he shouldn’t go, and resolves to keep watch outside when Jeffrey decides to go anyway.
Even though there are lights lining the walls, the seventh floor hallway is mostly dark as Jeffrey approaches and enters Dorothy’s now pitch black and unoccupied apartment. Incredibly, Jeffrey decides to relieve himself this stranger’s place and of course Dorothy returns. Jeffery is just able to sneak into a living room closet before she enters, but is soon discovered and coaxed out at knifepoint. Dorothy demands that Jeffrey get undressed before she goes down on him in her blue velvet robe, but before Jeffrey’s dream gets too good they’re interrupted by a visit from Frank (Dennis Hopper), a verbally and physically abusive man who exerts sexual dominance and by extension mental control over Dorothy, using her one eared husband’s life as extortion.
The song “Blue Velvet”, as performed by Bobby Vinton, is heard a few times throughout the film but not exclusively as Altman did in
The Long Goodbye. It goes, “She wore blue velvet / Bluer than velvet were her eyes / Warmer than May her tender sighs / Love was ours,” and later, “Blue Velvet / But in my heart there’ll always be / Precious and warm, a memory / Through the years / And I still can see blue velvet / Through my tears.”
It’s hard to say that anyone can really claim love as their own in the film. Even Sally, who alienates her boyfriend to pursue this adventure with Jeffrey, never really has his full attention until Jeffrey is done playing detective.
Roger Ebert derided the film, in particular David Lynch for making a satire of physical abuse and intimacy, for not committing to his characters and the actors delivering great performances through them. I didn’t read any satire in the film at all. True the impressions of David Lynch are strong, but his surrealism, though nonsensical at times, is at others particularly impressionistic through repetition. The violence is sufficient and necessary for the film’s development and eventual climax, even if bordering on excessive to witness years later in an (arguably) more sensitive and (again, arguably) more respectable climate. Rossellini literally lays herself bare for the camera and her performance is the most varied and demanding of all the actors.
With hindsight Blue Velvet is memorable for the way it sets the baseline for how sideways a David Lynch film can get while still being rooted in reality. Lynch channels a lot of the foolish uneasiness that drives the plot through Kyle MacLaughlin’s character’s personal passion for continuing to investigate the mystery he’s wrapped himself up in, confused by love and sexual desire. Birds, beetles, ants, and ears, candles and other flames, all play small symbolic roles in shaping the characters and surreal atmosphere.
Lynch also does well to hit noir tropes without the film overly tipping its hat to the past. His camera is at times as unsettled as the characters who often emerge from shadowy darkness to stand in near blinding light, and there are numerous heavy fades into and out of dreams, out of and into one scene or another. By the end Dorothy’s closet, the hallway with the brightest of red exit signs and red trashcans, plus the stairwell leading outside contain the most thrilling scenes and are as important to the film as the characters themselves despite it being difficult to see much of anything happening. Those sets and shots are a real feat of noir filmmaking considering the film’s emphasis on color.
I’m hesitant to apply the term neo-noir even if Blue Velvet is the film that could be the poster child for the sub-genre. It sounds so cheap and unnecessary now because what’s wrong with just calling it a noir thriller? Slight digression: but the same goes for neo-soul, you can just say soul. And it’s some of the best noir, even if you want to make apples to grapples comparisons to the black and white classics of the 40s and 50s. Lynch creates his own unique brand of noir that rises above the neo- prefix. This small town Lynchian noir conceit was well adapted to the popular 1990-91 TV series Twin Peaks, also starring Kyle MacLachlan, then expanded upon and solidified in 2001 with Mulholland Dr., but that’s a blog post for another day.