Total Pageviews

Friday, 8 July 2011

"It's a Strange World Out There..."

David Lynch's film Blue Velvet arrived like an atom bomb in 1986, dividing critics and audiences, most of whom had no idea how to react to the disconcerting blend of humor, nostalgia, and sadomasochism (hailed as a masterpiece by The Village Voice, derided by Roger Ebert, who felt embarrassed for the actors appearing in it). It seems no less incendiary when viewed today. In this third and final (?) post of The Pleasures of the Damned series, I will examine the examination, so to speak, of the horrifying underbelly of Americana at it's most wholesome.

A thin blue velvet curtain, undulating menacingly, introduces us to the film. And what are curtains for but to be pulled back? At once, we are welcomed into the small town of Lumberton. Lynch revels in archetypes in this introduction: beautiful red roses, white picket fences, friendly morning radio banter. It feels safe to be in Lumberton, that is, until we zoom in on a man watering his lawn who suddenly couples over, seemingly suffering from a stroke. The camera elegantly moves past the man, hose still in hand, into the grass. The music grows intense. We are gazing into the soil, face to face with grotesque beetles chomping and chewing, their animalistic sounds overtaking the soundtrack. An unsettling glimpse at what truly lies beneath the manicured lawns of Lumberton, and America as a whole.

The man who suffered the stroke is the father of Jeffrey Beaumont, the hero...of sorts, of Blue Velvet. He is the viewer's surrogate, the tabula rasa onto which we project our own horror, discomfort, and shock. Jeffrey returns from college to be with his family after his father's hospitalization. After his first hospital visit, Jeffrey walks through a back field near his house, discovering a severed, ant-infested (hello, Dali) human ear. This discovery is an entry point into the suburban nightmare that follows.

Succinctly, since plot machinations are better left to the viewer and not the reader, the ear leads Jeffrey to the police, which lead him to the police inspector's daughter, who leads him to nightclub singer Dorothy Valens, who finally leads him to Frank Booth, the true agent of chaos in this tale.

Frank, as played by the late, great Dennis Hopper, stands as the antithesis to safe, small town values. He inhales amyl nitrate while ritualistically raping Dorothy, her blue velvet robe stuffed in his mouth. He is wild, unpredictable, violent; everything Jeffrey is not. It seems incomprehensible that this man can exist alongside the white picket fences of Lumberton. But he does. This juxtaposition of evil surviving alongside innocence and purity, of monsters operating just under the noses of people going about their daily lives, allows Lynch to tap into our innate fear of the unknown, of boogeymen in a darkened closet. Nothing is safe.

At one point, the police inspector's daughter, Sandy, tells Jeffrey about a dream she had:

I had a dream. In fact, it was on the night I met you. In the dream, there was our world, and the world was dark because there weren't any robins and the robins represented love. And for the longest time, there was this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed that love would make any difference, and it did. So, I guess it means that there is trouble until the robins come.

Innocence meets experience
During the bizarre climax, complete with another severed ear and a gunshot wound to the head that isn't quite fatal, good does eventually triumph over evil, but at what cost? Jeffrey and Sandy have borne witness to true, unspeakable evil, right in their backyard. Innocence and experience have intertwined, visually summarized by the final scene of the film: a robin has returned, perching just outside Sandy's window. In it's mouth a beetle it is grotesquely consuming.

Is Lynch criticizing the innocence and shelter of modern suburbia, it's distancing effect from truth it has on it's inhabitants? Or is he saying we should be happy this thin veil, this curtain separates us from people like Frank Booth? Jeffrey, our intrepid boy-detective, gains valuable life experience by following the advice of Andy Warhol, of "peeling slowly and seeing" what lies beneath. Lynch never directs the viewer to an easily digestible conclusion, leaving each to bring his or her own experience, prejudice, and judgement upon each of the characters.

This willful act of exploring the dark, sad, and pitiful state of human nature is common to the three artists I have highlighted in these entires. Bukowski, Weegee, and Lynch are not carnival barkers inviting us to revel in misery and despair. They ask us not to gawk at the misfortunes of others, but to see ourselves reflected in their art. Our shortcomings. Our hopes. Our fears. In the end, everything that makes us who we are, warts and all.

I, for one, consider it a gift.

No comments:

Post a Comment