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Reassessing Blue Velvet: a Criterion Collection Release

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By Christopher Sharrett.

I have had a difficult history with David Lynch’s breakthrough film Blue Velvet (1986), and for that matter, much of the director’s work. At first, I thought the film a good antidote to the “morning in America” claptrap that was a major feature of the Reagan era of reaction and retrenchment, with movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) declaring in its tagline “This time we win!” (the war in Vietnam). The retroculture of Reaganism seemed to look back nostalgically to the 1950s, always a purported time of absolute innocence and prosperity for the U.S. 50s design informed all manner of 80s kitsch, from furniture to humorous postcards. I am surprised that the Trump hoodlums haven’t invoked the decade. In any case, I felt that the presentation of the 50s suburbs (the time isn’t indicated in the film, but the entirety of the mise-en-scene suggests the decade) as a nightmare was effective. I also noted how, at the time of release, women seemed to like the film, while men seemed to despise it. This is anecdotal, of course.

Then I read Robin Wood’s essay on the film, later included as a preface to his Hitchcock’s Film Revisited (Columbia University Press, 2002). Wood pointed out that Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, made almost forty years earlier, makes all the points of Lynch’s film much more effectively, and with more complexity and conviction. Wood noted how the characters of Lynch’s film perfectly represented the temperament of postmodern culture: they are not recognizable human beings, unless we perceive people as characters on a TV sitcom from the 50s, only somewhat “quirky” (a word that has become meaningless in its overuse – does it mean “strange?” If so, what is being served by this strangeness?) due to their one-dimensionality. Are we supposed to laugh at these odd simulations? The larger questions circulate around the archvillain Frank and his entourage, most of whom represent some form of perversity, but in opposition to what? All the characters who represent sexual transgression, including Dorothy – a rape and kidnapping victim who, for some unknown reason, appears naked in suburbia – tell us that everything that is outside of heteronormative sexuality is ugly and bizarre. We are apparently supposed to see them simply as aberrant. The instance of Ben, the film’s “evil faggot,” presents serious problems. He is an over-the-top caricature of a gay man, but with few human qualities, unlike the killers in, say, The Big Combo (1955), whose sadistic gay hoodlums have at least a little recognizable humanity – one can feel sorry for Mingo as he cries over the dead Fante.

Blue 03Blue Velvet seems to present us with an oddball, at times horrific, image of the 1950s that we can goof on, feel superior to, and know has nothing to do with us. As Wood suggests, the film is indeed representative of the postmodern sensibility: we no longer believe in the old myths, but we enact them anyway. During the era, television ran old episodes of sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver, with their ridiculous images of America, used very consciously by advertisers to promote gender conformity, an “Us vs. Them” outlook, and emphasis on middle-class white America as a way of raiding the American wallet (see Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-1960).

The characters of Blue Velvet seem indeed to be, as Wood said, evidence of “the mortician’s art,” with the film’s postmodern aesthetic refusing to accept human beings as anything more than simulations so synthetic one might enjoy them only as quasi-nostalgic effigies of a past civilization – that we are asked to enjoy as both necessary and contemptible.

Reaganism provided the opportunity to enact all sorts of atrocities while feeling that the moral impulses behind these crimes are old hat and have no relationship to then-present needs. Wars can be presented as abstractions, like video games, as we demonize cultures foreign to us. We can pretend that we are somehow as innocent as the Howdy Doody puppet as we put ourselves through deliberate regression, pretending to be adults involved in the world, and above all hip, informed consumers who do what the Reagan gang (and all of their successors) tell us. A new version of “cool” arose in Reagan’s postmodernism, one that reminded us of its meaning, while refining and firmly asserting cool as a way of living: it is unfashionable to show emotion, especially when it’s easier to look sleek in our sunglasses and ever-changing fashions, in a culture producing ever-changing “theories” of itself, most of which are readable only to the with-it, well-off cognoscenti.

BlueVelvetSo does Blue Velvet deserve revisiting? I think so, but primarily with a focus on Lynch as graphic artist, and as a preserver of the avant-garde in the Hollywood mainstream. His imagery comes through brilliantly in Criterion’s recent Blu-ray of the film, which includes much material on the film’s making but little on its inheritance and legacy. As usual, Criterion’s restoration is superb. The disc includes fifty-three minutes of excised, or “lost” – depending on which legend you believe – footage from the film. The dedicated fan can easily figure where these excised scenes might go. The sequences all show Lynch’s talented eye – yet we can figure why most scenes were “lost” (poor exposure, positioning of actors, etc.). There is an added making-of feature by Peter Braatz, giving us a young David Lynch in stylized footage termed a “meditation” on the film. There are interesting remarks from cast and crew, making the disc worthwhile to those who might already have several editions of Blue Velvet. Lynch influenced a host of “suburban hell” films of greater (Pleasantville) or lesser (American Beauty, dreadful in its focus on the emotional travails of the modern male, the female mostly a crazy shrew). Some of these films, like George Clooney’s fairly recent Suburbicon, give us the expected kitsch while restoring politics, reminding us that violence against blacks and general aggression to all were major features of the 50s. Unfortunately, the film wasn’t well-conceptualized.

The Lynch image needs attention, given its omnipresence in our present culture. It is hard to adumbrate all of the artists who make use – in one way or other – of his conception of the physical U.S. He evokes a feeling of decay by juxtaposing primary colors like red and yellow against gray, black, and brown, often insisting on low key or very high key light. The photographer Gregory Crewdson is very much in the direct Lynch lineage (which he has acknowledged), in his carefully articulated images of seemingly abandoned, deindustrialized towns of Western Massachusetts, like Pittsfield and North Adams. Crewdson adds surrealism, like showing a woman floating, Ophelia-like, in a living room filled with water.

8173nTPEhfL._SL1500_Speaking of Massachusetts, a visit to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMOCA) very often makes one think that Lynch is a collaborator with every person now working in the fine arts. Mark Dion creates tableaux depicting the nation as a garbage dump; he creates offices/installations reminding us of a grim history of repression, mainly by our obsession with order and taking orders.

Chroniclers of the deindustrialization of America bring an eye not dissimilar to Lynch’s in the “ruin porn” books that have established a peculiar niche in the art and “urban exploration” worlds. A major case in point is Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled (Damiani/Akron Art Museum, 2010). Ruin porn inspires some sort of reverie, but unlike, contra its supporters, the melancholy that had the Romantics brooding over the remains of antiquity. Its sensibility inspires, I think, combined joy (it all fell apart after all!) and revulsion that informs staring at dead urban remains.

It is useful to look back to Lynch’s acknowledged influences, like photographer William Eggleston, who remarked that he is “at war with the obvious.” Eggleston’s voluminous photo portfolio – especially his huge Los Alamos series – presages the attitude of Lynch. Eggleston indeed discovers the “perversity” (here hard to define) in the façade of a diner, a child’s tricycle, a billboard. Many, including myself, regard Eggleston’s photos as beautiful, but I cannot help but note that while he is penetrating the obvious, Eggleston sees our deterioration, our bad taste and judgment, our obliviousness to the rot we are making.

Speaking of Los Alamos, I appreciated Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), especially the entire episode portraying, with computer-based graphic art, the first A-bomb explosion, the episode placed more or less in the middle of the series, emphasizing in its hyper-detailed, black-and-white realization the all-bets-are-off character of the atomic age, as ghoul-like characters seem omnipresent, and God, a capricious and essentially cruel force. Even his divinity is polluted by human ambition, producing the very schizoid Kyle McLachlan’s hero-madman-shmuck. Lynch appears to be where he wants to be, by dispensing almost entirely with linear narrative, and seeing it accepted by the TV audience. I currently enjoy what he is doing, sensing a new moral commitment to his art. Blue Velvet may need revisiting with an awareness of Lynch’s manifestation as of now, recognizing that he was always concerned with showing the disquiet of American civilization.

Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International. 

Read also:

Eraserhead: David Lynch’s ‘Subconscious Experience’ Released on Criterion

Cinema Thinks: Film as Philosophy Edited by Bernd Herzogenrath

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