Waking from a Dream: Deconstructing David Lynch's 'Blue Velvet'
30 years after its release, Blue Velvet is (arguably) David Lynch's signature film.
In the following clip, the late, great David Foster Wallace talks about what the film did for him as an artist, as well as discusses a certain scene that demonstrates how the film works its nightmarish magic -- which we will then take a look at together and the experience will be educational and fun (for me).
Foster Wallace wrote, among other things, the celebrated, widely-owned and seldom-finished Infinite Jest, an epic about a near-future where Americans are consumed with addictions to everything from tennis to drugs and sex and almost everything that can numb them. His characters use entertainment as a narcotic; in fact, in his book, movies are actually dangerous. They can kill you -- film itself has been weaponized. Wallace, also an astute critic and entertaining journalist, had written about Lynch in a great piece where he visited the set of Lost Highway, and his comments here about Blue Velvet, and particularly the Yellowman, are particularly astute. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
First things first: David Lynch is an Eagle Scout. The Montana native is just about as clean-cut and wholesome as they come, at least to all outward appearances, and yet his first feature, Eraserhead, one of the more unsettling films ever made, was a true labor of monomaniacal love that took several years for the director to produce, direct, write, score, set design, cut and probably cater. While it's not unusual for a filmmaker to spend that much time on a film, when the finished film is a sui generis, black and white nightmare about the man with the titular hairstyle, his girlfriend, and their monster child, the results are very far from usual.
But all the years of effort were worth it: the film was an instant cult classic, and with one film, Lynch was made. Now, this is not the most profound insight, but when Hollywood sees a film like Eraserhead (probably in some private theater), and then proceeds to hand its creator the keys to the kingdom, it's clear that a nerve has been struck. And one could argue that Lynch is the perfect "prestige" filmmaker for any major studio.
His personal aesthetic (shirts buttoned to the top, a 'golly-gee' manner) and powerfully cinematic vision is unlike anything without being too out of left field. The Elephant Man is, for all its powerful imagery and vision, a rather traditional movie, in other words, one that tells a straightforward story and features themes that even the most philistinous bond-company stooge can relate to. In that sense, he's a studio's dream: an "art" filmmaker whose films can connect with mass audiences, cost little to make so even if they fail, it's not a big deal because, you know, the tentpole pictures are propping up the art films.
But when the art films get eight Oscar nominations, then the director tends to get capital. For instance, P.T. Anderson and Boogie Nights, a film that enjoyed such massive cultural infiltration and popularity that it gave the director the ability to make Magnolia, a nearly three-hour melodrama of life, love, death and Divine Intervention in the San Fernando Valley). Lynch used his capital to make one of the most influential, subversive, and yet utterly original and inimitable films in memory, to say nothing of a Hollywood film with movie stars and production values and whatnot.
Blue Velvet fixed Lynch's cultural coordinates for people who hadn't even seen his films. A commercial and critical success, the film left its director in the enviable position (perhaps) of becoming cultural shorthand, familiar to even those who hadn't seen his work. The film turned Lynch into an adjective -- to be memorialized thusly is a rare (and sort of dubious) honor; in the same way that Kafkaesque is used on a daily basis by people who don't know that Kafka was a writer and simply assume it's a good word to sum up the sheer hellacious alienation that one experiences over the course of an afternoon at the D.M.V. Lynchian has become a lazy way of describing something that you don't have the energy or intellectual horsepower to articulate in words that will maybe impress people at parties. Depending on the party.
Now, entire books (entire careers) have been devoted to the works of Kafka, and Lynch has generated in his lifetime considerably more attention than Kafka did in his (though this was a man who published a thin volume of work in his short life and instructed his best friend to burn his work upon his premature death from consumption, though whether said friend would have carried out this order is like, you know, doubtful). Which is to say, I'm not going to be breaking any ground here, since, in academic shorthand, Lynch (and Blue Velvet in particular) is a rather "well-plowed field" of study. But we stand on the shoulders of people, I think is the saying, and so I'll just take Foster Wallace's off-hand remarks to Charlie Rose and run with them. The Yellowman, you guys. What the what?
In the film, which is often described as a modern noir, because people can't not describe things in terms of things they've seen (Jaws meets Manhattan, etc.), Kyle MacLachlan, a sort of wholesome Lynch proxy, returns to his idyllic, white-fence America hometown of Lumberton after his father suffers a heart attack and things get weird. The first two minutes of the film are startlingly original, cinematic and an object lesson in getting to the point. This is not a film where we wait around twiddling our thumbs; we may not know what is happening, but it is happening. It is most definitely, um, happening:
A facile interpretation of the film (and of Lynch's entire body of work) is that he rather heavy-handedly sets about constructing a dialectic of modern American life; a reading of that sequence as a "things aren't what they seem! Sheeple!" variety of heavy-handed lecture assumes that Lynch is either cynical or stupid, and that he has an overt agenda.
Anyway, so the Yellowman. An associate of Frank (the nitrous sniffing psycho played by Dennis Hopper, who reportedly campaigned hard for the role, feeling he was the man for the job; I do not disagree), he is discovered in a death scene near the end of the film by all-American boy Kyle MacLachlan. The scene is representative of what Lynch does so well, and I think Wallace and others make a good case that far from being "weird for the sake of weird," Lynch's originality is that he is, by and large, not working on a conscious level, but it works for him, most of the time, because Lynch is not a profligate filmmaker, sitting around and waiting for his muse to strike; sedulous in pre-production (which saves money on the set). In touch with his unconscious, he taps into the unconscious of all humanity. (Does that sound lame?) Specifically, Lynch is a filmmaker who deals with dreams, dream logic, mood and tone. There is a theory which states that the plot of any narrative work (usually it refers to the novel) is merely a means to an end, a skeleton on which the author imposes their ideas and concepts. This is no doubt true, but in Lynch's case, I would even go so far as to say that it's truer.
Just as our dreams are influenced by and filled with the imagery of the culture we inhabit, Blue Velvet takes familiar American sights and sounds and defamiliarizes them via rendering the absurd and fraught nature of dream logic in terms of the idiom of the American, three-act film, using tropes of the mystery, the noir, as well as the imagery of Eisenhower's America, the phantasmic, never-was innocence of the 1950s.
Lynch knows what he is doing, but he doesn't think we have any need to know; the imagery in the film is dreamlike and it is so affecting because the dreams are Lynch's. He has said before that part of the inspiration for the movie was a vision he had of "a severed ear in a field" and that image is powerful enough to stand on its own, especially in a cinematic context. What the ear means can be debated endlessly, but ultimately it bears no real weight on our enjoyment of the film as such. Lynch recognizes that if an image is vivid enough, if it arises from his unconscious and so participates in the universal human experience of dreaming and so possesses its own opaque logic, then it cannot help but have an affect on his audience.
So, while it is possible to generalize about the director's motives and to hypothesize themes (i.e., crazy things happen at night behind closed doors where people are freaky maniacs and Kyle MacLachlan stands in the dark and watches you like a creepy weirdo), but any argument that stops here is flawed because it assumed that the director's intention was to consciously put these themes into the film. The same goes for more erudite attempts to locate the film within any system of thought, precisely because it is not quantifiable.
The Yellowman demonstrates, as Foster Wallace described briefly, some of what makes Lynch's work so powerful on a purely cinematic level:
So much of the scene's power comes from Lynch's very conscious (I would wager) use of withholding information both narrative and visual (which is just plain old good storytelling). In a great analysis, this piece argues that one of the film's main strengths is how the "constraints of reality" that constitute the rather banal plot are always just "reaching the heightened quality of fantasy, but only reaching always within the restrictions of reality...all drawn within the lines of an A-B-C thriller plot."
Nothing in Blue Velvet's plot is very surreal or dreamlike, as was the case in Eraserhead and would be the case with some of his later works. Rather, it's the fact that the surreal lives within the banal that we recognize, and this is a juxtaposition both familiar and unsettling. Uncanny, is how a certain psychiatrist would have put it. (And I know I said the film is incompatible within any formal system of thought; I stand by that; but it is uncanny, and Freud wrote about the uncanny, so whatever, mom.)
In essence, the lesson of this film is that no matter who you are, you are one of us -- a person, that is. The writer of the piece referenced above discusses Christopher Booker's epic and opinionated treatise on narrative, The Seven Basic Plots, a book which I've previously blathered on about at length. Here the focus is on Booker's explication of the "nyktomorph", or "night shape", "an image which, because the brain cannot resolve it, becomes invested with far greater power than if it could be clearly seen and understood." Therefore, the film benefits from a cutting rubric which serves to occlude rather than show, and a mise en scène "so rich in detail that it’s impossible to absorb it all, with details always going missing." All layered on top of a pretty simple plot. What we are left with then is a cinema of dreams that is both dreamlike and comprehensible, and so therefore much more disturbing (and commercial, but not by much).
In 1997, the critic Susan Sontag lamented "the vanished rituals -- erotic, ruminative -- of the darkened theater," where images and not sounds are what move the spirit of the cinephile. She understood movies as sacred ceremonies, and ceremonies have something of the dream to them. In David Lynch's dream, though, which is both his and ours, we in the audience are forever like MacLachlan's Jeffrey, peering through the slats of a closet at a thing he's not quite sure he's seen, and which we can only glimpse. But before we know it, the reverie has ended, the ceremony is over, and we walk out into the daylight, blinking and awake, dazed by something we can't quite remember. And that's what I did on my summer vacation.