Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Happy 70th Birthday David Lynch! And 30 Years of Blue Velvet (1986)

For today's post, we're wishing a very Happy Birthday to another living legend and U.S. born film director. Now 70 years young, David Lynch is, like John Carpenter, arguably one of the finest and most unique film-makers America has produced during the past 50 years. But while the former is pretty much universally loved by horror film fans, the latter is, understandably, much more polarising within this crowd and, of course, outside it... no doubt due to his surrealist bent and a taste for absurdist humour that's often in uncomfortably close proximity to the more disturbing and nightmarish content the films also contain. Which is of course a long winded way of saying Lynch isn't going to be everyone's cup of coffee. 

For myself though, I've long been a fan, ever since first seeing the likes of Eraserhead (1977) and the underrated Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) late night on TV as a young 'un. It's hard to articulate the effect these and other films of his had on me upon first seeing them but for one thing, they (along with others by the likes of Dario Argento and John Carpenter) are among a select group of films ultimately responsible, but better or for worse, for igniting my interest in and insatiable hunger for "midnight" movies... i.e. those that seem like broadcasts from another planet and/or dredged up from the depths of the unconscious sleeping mind.

Working in tandem with this tantalising, dreamlike quality his films so potently exude, was Lynch's power to pull me completely into his world... a world which while strange and often unsettling, also feels completely real, living and breathing, down to the smallest tactile details. In fact I struggle to think of many directors who are as adept at conjuring mood and atmosphere and creating such a believable sense of place. A lot of this I'd attribute to Lynch's background as a painter giving him an eye for texture and also, his brilliant use of sound design and music. I mean in this latter capacity alone, Lynch is still probably ahead of most of the cinematic curve. 

Anyway, enough hero worship from me for now. I could of course go on but I realise y'all have busy lives to be living and all. So yeah, David Lynch rocks in my book. Aside from the great man himself though, we're also here today to talk about what's perhaps his most well regarded film, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Yup, it's...

Undoubtedly one of the most talked about and analysed movies of the 1980s, there's not a huge amount I can add to what's been discussed and recited over and over about Blue Velvet. Most of the theory and trivia behind the film is, I'm sure, well known enough already. So instead I figured I'd share my own history with/opinions of it with you. And maybe we will get into a little bit of behind the scenes stuff too as we progress...

I must admit upon first seeing the film, I think I was a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect though, I'd attribute this to a few factors. First and foremost, I'd already eagerly devoured and loved stuff like Eraserhead, Wild at Heart and Mulholland Drive and came to Blue Velvet later... and going into it with very high expectations (seeing as it's so critically lauded) was always going to lead to something of a let down. Only slightly though, as there was still enough in there I loved or was intrigued by to warrant many repeat viewings. Also, the DVD I had back then was fairly muddy... and seeing the film later in all singing, all dancing HD, it really came to life a lot more... especially during the darker scenes (of which there are a good few, this being a Lynch film and all).

Before we continue, a brief synopsis for anyone unfamiliar. College student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is home from school as his father has just had a stroke (as witnessed in the now iconic and still startling opening, post-credits sequence). Walking home one day from the hospital he finds an ear in the grass (crawling with insects; an image which, as many have pointed out, recalls Un Chien Andalou). He takes it to local Detective (and neighbour) John Williams (George Dickerson). And later, said policeman's daughter, Sandy (Lynch favourite Laura Dern, making her first appearance in one of his films here) gives Jeffrey more info on the case (that she learned from eavesdropping), which leads the curious young man to launch his own investigation and later lands him right in the middle of a very shady situation involving kidnapping and a sado-masochistic relationship. Basically, nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is at the mercy of the psychopathic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, who is like a force of nature in this film), who has kidnapped her husband and son, giving him the power to get her to do whatever he wants.

Sorry, that wasn't exactly brief. Anyway, that's the setup. And young Jeffrey (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Sandy) gets lured in deeper and deeper, eventually becoming involved with Dorothy and later being taken for the joyride from hell with Frank and his gang of ne'er do wells (who include Brad Dourif and another Lynch regular, Jack Nance). 

Unlike Lynch's debut feature, Eraserhead, and the trilogy of sorts comprised of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Blue Velvet is, relatively speaking, quite classical and conventional in terms of its narrative... which is probably why it's his most widely respected film. Sure, there are mysteries and ambiguities here and there, but for the most part, everything proceeds in a linear fashion and is wrapped up happily at the end. And it's this I suppose that may be another reason it took me a bit longer to really dig and love this film, having been so enamoured of the more overt weirdness of some of the others.

These days though, my respect and appreciation for Blue Velvet keeps increasing... to the level where now it's probably on a par for me personally with the likes of Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. I mean I'd always dug the atmosphere of certain scenes (e.g. all those moody shots on the stairwell leading up the Dorothy's apartment and Jeffrey's nightmarish night out with Frank and co) but the more I watch it, the more I'm coming to appreciate all the other elements more as well, not to mention the film as a whole.

Anyway, I feel like I'm rambling now without really saying a whole lot, so before I let you go, here's a few things I've come to love about Blue Velvet over some fifteen years of having been familiar with it...

First and foremost, the humour. While undeniably dark and serious, I also find it very funny in parts. Case in point, all Frank's beer related shtick... as exemplified by this now classic exchange of dialogue:

Frank: What kind of beer do you like? 
Jeffrey: Heineken. 
Frank: [shouting] Heineken!? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!

Kudos to the artist who made the above by the way. That was for a Lynch inspired art show I think. I'll try and find their name and add a link here later. Anyway, all sorts has been read into the above back and forth, basically saying how Jeffrey's choice suggests aspiration for a more exotic lifestyle and conversely, how Frank's shows him as a proud blue collar man. Oh and by the way, check out this ad for Pabst someone posted on Youtube using footage from the film. Gave me a giggle, I can tell ya!

And speaking of Dennis Hopper, I think it's safe to say (while all the cast are excellent) that he really steals the film. Just a phenomenal, balls-out performance... and a career defining one. I mean when I hear the actor's name, Frank is the first role I think of. Well, that and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which was released the same year. And holy shit, that and Blue Velvet would make for a hell of a double bill I imagine. 

The intensity of Hopper's performance aside, its also the range of it which really impresses me. As I said, he can be hilarious at times... but he's also terrifying at others... and sometimes the two overlap. He even manages to evoke the odd bit of pathos I think... as seen in a still further up from a scene where he's watching Dorothy perform. I mean you get the sense he actually loves her in his own twisted way.

Rossellini also deserves high praise for a fearless performance. I can't imagine many other actresses going to the places she does here, before, at the same time or since this film.

Again I'm aware this post is going on a bit so I'll try and wrap things up shortly. I'd be remiss though if I didn't mention the music. The inspired appropriation of the title song and the Roy Orbison number "In Dreams" aside, this also features a great score by a man who would become a key collaborator with Lynch starting with this film, and continuing for pretty up to the present day (although he's absent on Inland Empire I think). His music here sometimes evokes old school melodrama (especially the main theme) and is sometimes finger snappingly jazzy. And coupled with the inspired sound design (by Lynch and Alan Splet), it really helps bring you further into this foreboding yet intriguing world. Finally on the subject of music, hats off to Badalamenti, Lynch (who wrote the lyrics) and Julee Cruise (who sang it) for the sublime song "Mysteries of Love". Absolutely gorgeous.    

I mean really, everyone involved here deserves some kind of award, but if I went into all the specifics, we'd be here all night. Suffice to say, all the cast and crew brought their A game. 

As I said earlier, I think most of the trivia behind this film is well known, so I won't recite it here (if you're unfamiliar though, hit up the Wikipedia entry or its trivia page on IMDb). One thing I did spot though that I hadn't heard before was regarding the casting. Apparently, Val Kilmer and Molly Ringwald were offered the roles of Jeffrey and Sandy. While I'd be intrigued to visit an alternate universe and see that version of the film, for the most part I can't really imagine anyone else in the roles but MacLachlan and Dern.

So what's there left to say in summation? Well, for a start, if you've still never seen a Lynch film or have tried others and struggled, this is probably the best place to start. I mean if you hate this or find parts too weird, it's probably safe to say you won't like his other movies either. 

But if you're already well familiar, what better day to re-visit it, or any of his other works for that matter? I re-watched Lost Highway last night and am going to re-visit Mulholland Drive later this evening. I'll probably return over the next several days to talk about those two and also, possibly Inland Empire to boot.

Happy 70th Birthday David! Cheers for all your incredible contributions to film, music and TV, and roll on next year when we finally get to go back to Twin Peaks. I can't wait!

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