If Elephant Man is about spectacle, Blue Velvet is about mystery. It’s essentially a film noir narrative, deviating from the norm by putting a young college student in the detective role, allowing a coming-of-age story to shine through now and then. Needless to say, as the opening foreshadows, the world our youth discovers beneath the surface is a dark one.
I’ve seen this film so many times already there’s very little for me to say about it, but what I noticed this time was how good the dialogue is. There’s a part where McLaughlan and Dern are having their first conversation, McLaughlan looks at a house they’re passing and says, “I used to know a kid who lived there, he had the biggest tongue in the world.”
The film is not without its spectacle, of course. The images in the opening alone would overpower a weaker film, to say nothing of the severed ear in a field, the frequent song breaks, using a lamp for a microphone. But it’s all hung over this mystery plot, which is eventually brought together in a somewhat conventional way. (Not that it makes a ton of sense; I can’t figure out why Frank is dressed as “The Well Dressed Man”.) If there is an epic battle throughout Lynch’s career between spectacle and narrative, narrative won this one – but will eventually lose the war.
Incidentally, Lynch says the ending came to him in a dream. “The dream gave me the police radio; the dream gave me Frank’s disguise; the dream gave me the gun in the yellow man’s jacket; the dream gave me the scene where Jeffrey was in the back of Dorothy’s apartment, sending the wrong message, knowing Frank would hear it. I don’t know how it happened, but I just had to plug and change a few things to bring it all together.” (pulled from here, originally from the interview book Lynch on Lynch)
Also from that page is the Pauline Kael quote: “This is American darkness – darkness in color, darkness with a happy ending. Lynch might turn out to be the first populist surrealist – a Frank Capra of dream logic.” But American darkness was going to get a whole lot darker.
This was fascinating for various reasons. It’s a classical narrative, but it still features a few dream-logic sections. It was nominated for eight Oscars, rare for Lynch films, and you can see why, as it features an outsider hero who gains a place in society. At the same time, it is about spectacle. Lynch compares two modes of spectacular presentation, with Merrick put on display in both the freak show and scientific contexts. Later, he is put on display to society, and while he is given a voice in this context, the question of exploitation still lingers. Viewers of the film are, of course, implicated in this exploitation.
There are three major surrealist passages in the film, at the beginning, climax and end (excluding the Fellini-esque return to the freak show in the second act). The beginning expresses Merrick’s birth trauma through slow dissolves of slow motion elephants and closeups of his mother screaming, with expressive and disturbing sound design of course. The climax occurs when Merrick watches a play: his ultimate triumph in the film is to assume the position of spectator rather than spectacle. Rather than show the staging of the play in detail, Lynch again shifts to slow dissolves, semi-abstract closeups of stage action details, and slips in a shot of Merrick’s “owner” in a cage. It’s a beautiful idea; Merrick’s victory over the antagonist is purely imaginary, through the art of spectacle. The final passage is right at the end of the film and represents Merrick’s death, which visually mirrors his birth as it returns to the closeup image of his mother. Instead of elephants, we have the night sky and a long dissolve to white.
So in the most intense moments, Lynch turns to surrealism, but leaves the rest of the plot to a more conventional telling.
Because it’s been a while for me, and because my lady still hadn’t seen some of my favourite living director’s films, I decided to curate a personal David Lynch film festival for us. We’re watching at least one film a week. Here’s what’s on the list so far:
Dune (not a great representative film, but we both wanted to see it again)
Wild at Heart (similarly, not his best, but I remember it fondly – I saw it in the theatre as a teen)
Twin Peaks pilot
The Straight Story
various shorts (he has quite a few, and I’ve seen barely any of them! Still figuring out which ones to watch)
A few of these are available on Netflix in Canada: Elephant Man, Dune, The Straight Story, and the entire run of Twin Peaks(!). There are Blu-Ray releases of some, but nowhere near enough: Dune, Blue Velvet, and a German box set that has Mulholland, Lost Highway and Inland Empire.
I will try and write up most of these films as we go. We’ve gotten through a few films already, and my writeups are lagging, so I wanted to post this part first.