‘Blue Velvet’ Revisited

blue velvet

“Maybe I’m sick, but I want to see that again,” the film critic, Pauline Kael overheard after a screening of David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet. In her review of the movie in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael traces a sense of this conscious revulsion throughout Blue Velvet, which, she writes, takes the “mystery and madness hidden in the ‘normal’” as its subject; the movie is set in the quaint, fictional city of Lumberton, though the events that unfold there are hardly humdrum. Kael illustrates the movie as a kind of down the rabbit-hole dream adventure, that begins when Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), home from college, finds a human ear in a field. The mystery of the ear leads Jeffrey to the crime world of Lumberton’s illicit underbelly, run by the menacing Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), and into the arms of alluring club singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), as he develops a relationship with the policeman’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). Kael, seduced by the movie’s vivid color and beauty, is ultimately won over by the film’s art, arguing that the “kinkiness” of Lynch’s seedy underworld “isn’t alienating,” since, she writes, “this is American darkness: darkness in color, darkness with a happy ending.”

If Siegfried Kracauer’s claim in ‘Film 1928,’ his essay from the same year, that “[f]ilms are the mirror of the prevailing society” is true, Blue Velvet suggests a society wrought with contradiction, where its underworld creeps up into the homes on residential streets, permeating inhabitants’ safe lives. Its landscape resembles the symbolic forestry that Marshall Berman describes in his 1982 book, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: “where, as Marx said, ‘everything is pregnant with its contrary’ and ‘all that is solid melts into air’; a world where, as Nietzsche said, ‘there is danger, the mother of morality–great danger…displaced onto the individual…the nearest and dearest…the street…one’s own child, one’s own heart, one’s own innermost secret recesses of wish and will.’” Berman argues that modernity is predicated on paradox: the making of modern society relies upon its demise. Berman insists that destruction is inherent to the modern experience; to make itself anew, society must do so out of the debris of that which came before. Thus, the modern world will constantly replenish–and undo–itself.

In her review of Blue Velvet, Kael illustrates Lumberton as a similarly paradoxical society. While Lumberton appears to be a pretty, dreary city, under its pleasant façade lurks an illicit underworld, a vulgar crime organization that spins into its web members of the city’s police force. This undercurrent of corruption pulses throughout Lumberton, much as chaos looms in Berman’s society, ready to tear it apart from its core. Yet, as Kael observes, there’s something uncanny in the quotidian calmness of Lumberton. No more than “three minutes into the film,” Kael writes, “you recognize that this peaceful, enchanted, white-picket-fence community, where the eighties look like the fifties, is the creepiest sleepy city you’ve ever seen.” Kael observes that the camera focuses the commonplace, so that “you’re seeing every detail of the architecture, the layout of homes…furnishings and potted plants, the women’s dresses.” Society thus appears “meticulously bright and sharp-edged,” yet there’s something inherently surreal in its depiction for Kael: “It’s so hyperfamiliar it’s scary,” she writes.

In his 1936 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ Walter Benjamin argues that by bringing to light “hidden details of familiar objects,” close-ups improve our understanding of them and in turn, “the necessities which rule our lives.” But close-ups also hinder our ability to register these finer details, Benjamin argues; as the camera gets closer, it distorts its subject. Yet, Benjamin proposes that the zoomed lens, focusing inward, offers a new way of seeing with “unconscious optics.” It’s important to remember that Benjamin was writing under exceptional circumstances–shortly after the collapse of Weimar Germany, during the Nazi ascent to power–and at a time when movies were in black and white, and talkies still a novelty. Nonetheless, Kael seems to borrow Benjamin’s spectacles when she writes, in her review, of the ear Jeffrey finds, which “looks like a seashell; in closeup, with the camera moving into the dark canal, it becomes the cosmos.” As Benjamin suggests, the enlargement of the object doesn’t just clarify its image, but obscures it, as it takes on “entirely new structural formations,” and meaning.

With his 1927 essay, ‘The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies,’ Kracauer’s scathing commentary of a movie theater audience of caricatured shopgirls–the anaesthetized lab rats of Kracauer’s experiment–demonstrates his argument that though films are unrealistic reflections of reality, a movie that misrepresents can also make society “more correct,” through revealing “the secret mechanism” by which it operates. Of course, Kracauer’s shopgirls weren’t watching Blue Velvet–Kracauer was writing in 1930s Weimar Germany–in the movie’s exposure of a fraudulent society, perhaps when Kracauer writes of films that “go mad,” and “have terrifying visions and spew images that expose society’s true countenance,” he is referring to a similar type of horror movie. Yet where the scenes of Lumberton’s sleazy underworld in Blue Velvet might unveil reality for Kracauer, Kael would argue that such images don’t depict society, but rather aestheticize it. For Kael, Blue Velvet is a dream work, and Lynch the “genius naïf” painter.

Writing about one of Blue Velvet’s most visually magnificent scenes, in which Ben (Dean Stockwell), a “suave” affiliate of Frank’s in heavy make-up, lip-syncs to Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams,’ Kael is spellbound, her response to the scene like a sleeper to a dream. It’s a surreal masterpiece, and Ben is “so magnetic that you momentarily forget everything else that’s supposed to be going on,” Kael writes. Though Kracauer might argue that by concealing the repugnance of these criminals with art, as in this scene, Lynch makes an “escape attempt,” showing something close to reality, that doesn’t honestly portray it. Kael’s problem with Blue Velvet runs a similar course: Lynch doesn’t push his hands deep enough into the soil of its grimy underworld to unearth any real sense of its inner-workings. “Lumberton’s subterranean criminal life needs to be as organic as the scrambling insects, and it isn’t,” she argues. Yet later, she decides, “It’s the fantasy (rather than the plot) that’s organic,” as she chooses art over veracity, accepting that “the darkness was always there, inside” Lynch’s fantasy world.

Society’s reality isn’t marred by art for Greil Marcus, however, who argues in his 1975 book, Mystery Train, that the best pop music “does not reflect events so much as it absorbs them.” We might extend Marcus’ theory of pop music to film, so that Marcus might see in Lynch’s movie, and in Ben’s performance of ‘In Dreams,’ the same “reality of freedom” he heard in the Family Stone’s music which, he wrote, sounded “complex, because freedom was complex; wild and anarchic, like the wish for freedom.” As Marcus reads the Family Stone’s music as “a fantasy of freedom,” perhaps he would interpret Blue Velvet, in its departure from conservative reality into the crime world, as a gesture on Lynch’s part towards another, unattainable reality: free society.

Yet, at the end of Blue Velvet, Lynch returns to normality, granting his heroine, Sandy–and Kracauer’s little shopgirl–her dream; the dust of Jeffrey’s escapade has settled (all that’s solid has melted into proverbial air) and he’s back with her, at home: Jeffrey on the sun-lounger, she and his Aunt Barbara in the kitchen. It seems Kracauer’s argument that society will only accept movies it’s “comfortable” with is proved right in the case of Lynch’s film, which–like its lame hero, Jeffrey, who settles back into domestic life as he resumes his seat under the sun–slots into a safer, unoffending place in the mass ornament that is the movie industry. And perhaps the close of Blue Velvet, unruly but ultimately abiding, would disappoint Willis, for whom “there can’t be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution.” But Kracauer’s shopgirls, if they were watching Blue Velvet, still blushing from all the chaos and a naked Isabella Rossellini, would surely be satisfied with Lynch’s conclusion, as Kracauer writes for them, watching another movie, “Thank God the film recovers its rosy-cheeked smile. The little shopgirls were worried; now they can breathe easy again.”

Though before Kracauer’s shopgirls can heave a hypothetical sigh, there is, as Kael writes, “a little zinger” at the end of the movie, as we remember a dream Sandy tells Jeffrey about earlier in the movie, in which a world of darkness is saved when a thousand robins, representing love, appear. But when, Kael writes, in the final scene of Blue Velvet, “a plump robin lands on the kitchen windowsill, it has an insect in its beak.” Ending on this paradox of the robin–a beacon of love and security–carrying the slimy insect, Lynch’s return to the supposedly safe quotidian only lands us back in danger. Literally trudging up from the earth a reminder of the darkness that threatens to poison the world, Lynch ultimately returns us to the inevitable fate of the modern world, to Berman’s society, where the only thing solid is destruction.

One Response to “‘Blue Velvet’ Revisited”
  1. hgh reviews says:

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