Some things are great forever…some have an expiration date. For this fact alone, some “All-Time Greats” need a serious reality check to see if they still stand up or can still be considered great at this present time. Enter “The Wiz Retro Rewind,” where The Wiz re-examines some important and beloved films to see if it’s still good, still relevant or if could be expanded upon or updated.
Today’s film is from one of the most visually arresting and narratively complex directors to ever put celluloid to film. A few directors dip their toe in the weirdness and inspires them to make their films memorable, like Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), Darren Aranofsky (Pi) and Ajelandro Amenabar (Open Your Eyes). Other directors, like Spike Jonze and Shinya Tsukamoto, are clearly inspired by and possibly the successors of this director’s singular vision. They don’t copy it, but they damn sure to recognize his power.
His films are weird, abstract, dense, visually beautiful and filled with subtext and hidden meanings. So much so, in fact, that some film lovers and historians still have arguments of what his films are about.
To best describe him, take Stanley Kubrick, 50’s – 60’s melodrama and a literal crap ton of drugs, alcohol and huffing paints; and it would only be a fraction of how to actually describe a movie he has made.
He’s been nominated for 3 Oscars as director, and they are all wildly different types of films. One was The Elephant Man, which is a dramatic film about being different; another is Mulholland Drive, a trip, narratively destructive film about…well, I still don’t know to this day.
The one we are talking about today, however, is one of his most well known and celebrated films. It has his usual actors and it has a great art style.
It also might be his most well known, because, well…you can actually understand the film. To go on for this long glowingly about a director, I must be talking about David Lynch. His film?
Oh, Blue Velvet! You have to be the film that made fans realize if they vibe with David Lynch or not. Your beautifully realized setting along with great music and feel made people think it was a simple throwback. Little did they know the true darkness that proceeds the film.
But why is Blue Velvet so important this many year’s later? Some will cite the incredible performance of Dennis Hopper who’s character Frank Booth is considered to be one of the best villains ever put in film. Some say this film is an indirect inspiration to such popular movies like American Beauty and TV shows like True Detective. It could also be, like mentioned before, that it’s a David Lynch film that doesn’t take a deep understanding of the man himself to understand it.
So, that was then. This is now: where many people have chosen either Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive as his best film. Does Blue Velvet deserve to be the top? Or is there a reason that Blue Velvet has been a relatively quiet classic in its right?
A Picture of A Memory, A Memory of a Picture
The first few minutes of the film will pretty much tell you what you are in for. Lush flowers, white picket fences, friendly smiling faces and a hose used as a phallic symbol while a dog constantly tries to put his mouth on it.
Yep, that’s pretty much the first thing to let you know that you are watching a David Lynch movie.
But puppy pretend fellatio aside, the first thing you will notice right away, probably very obviously, is its colorful and vibrant 50’s era looking town and set pieces. In fact, the first ten minutes is literally just a showing of the beautiful areas in the movie.
With it’s bright colors of white, red, and blue, the cinematography is an astounding clash to all of the themes of the film itself. Even when the film gets to its darker themes of kidnapping, rape and oedipus complexes, it still is exquisite to watch. The cinematographer even makes scenes in moving cars picturesque and vibrant.
The music, from classic 50’s crooners, just adds to the weird effect that the movie has. It’s hypnotic to watch and listen to a movie that has such beautiful music and shot selection with such disparate themes.
From a visual standpoint, this movie is much like Lynch’s other movies: a beautiful surrealistic portrait of familiar and rather uncomfortable feelings brings in an rather effective juxtaposition.
Melodrama Personified…Though Far From Melo
The weirdness continues with how the story is actually handled. Nearly every part of the film is acted in a Douglas Sirk-like Melodrama. So, if you’re familiar with films like All That Heaven Allows and Written in the Wind, you’ll have a little extra to enjoy with this movie.
Everything, from the set pieces to how conversations are constructed to the actual characterizations of characters, is soaked in technicolor Sirk nostalgia. This adds to the aforementioned juxtaposition of the film’s overall core, which makes the film even more of a risky move to go through. To put this into a different perspective, let’s say someone made a movie like Harry Potter and mixed it with A Serbian Film.
To fully comprehend what Douglas Sirk is as a film, you need to understand that the settings, set pieces and events in the film are generously dramatized by more scenery chewing than nuance and is accompanied by a boisterous score that is accompanied by string instruments. The 50’s were ruled by these films and had many copy cats throughout.
Now, turn that around with Lynch’s weird sense of humor and his way of storytelling (often what you’re seeing isn’t the story, lots of visual metaphors) and most would see a very tough film to actually create, let alone sit through.
A Cesspool of Depravity and Inner Desires
Now, with the all of the Sirk like mentions, how the hell does the dark elements work in conjugation with the style of film making?
This is particularly difficult to do when the characters of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini) and Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) are introduced in a way that shatters those Sirk elements. In fact, the relationship of Vallens, Booth and Beaumont are deeply steeped in Freudian psychological theories, such as the id and eodipal complexes.
Booth represents the id, in a very literal way. Booth is the only character in this film that is playing by pure instinct and unstable drive to get what he wants, even if it’s including giving pain and humiliation to others getting in the way of his pleasure. His libido, which is Booth’s main weapon along with his various drugs he takes, is his destructive fore that is nigh unquenchable, much to the chagrin of Dorothy Vallens.
Vallens, the ego, is the through line of which reality is found, between the id and the super ego. She’s the through line of which real-life (day time) and dreamtime (night time) are connected. She’s the one that dictates and realizes what is real in the situation and what needs to be taken control of, for the need of the main character. She also is the one that rationalizes the most, i.e. Let Frank rape and sexually abuse me and my family stays alive.
Who’s the super-ego? Jeffrey Beaumont, played by Kyle Maclachlan. His aim of perfection, getting the child and husband back while getting rid of Booth, is the main process of which the super-ego tries to navigate the id, mainly through his naivete and his over willingness to help Dorothy. Jeffery is in all literal interpretations the main person who represents societal norms and accepted values: a boy who was blissfully unaware of such dark tangling webs until he met Vallens.
The id and the super ego are meant to be opposites in the equation; the super ego is what is wrong, what is right and what must be eliminated for this balance to resume. The id, of course, is unstable, out for its own desires and doesn’t stay with social norms.
What further brings this theory in mind is Oedipal Complex. Yes, the short of it is the son wants to have sex with the mom in order to truly be considered the superior of the family dynamic.
Again, this movie holds this theory on its nose, with Vallens forcefully giving Jeffrey fellatio. But the more subtle themes, such as Jeffrey’s infatuation with Dorothy and his confrontation with Booth, adds to the theory as well.
But both theories supplement with Jeffrey’s unwillingness and lack of comprehension to realize that the life he knew was false, in a way. His inability throughout the film to reconcile that not all is meant for outside consumption; not all is meant for the eyes of a child or sheltered person of belief.
But then again, these are only the most obvious of these themes and there is more than likely even more thematic elements I wasn’t able to come with.
But even so, this is par for the course with Lynch, who imbues all he does with psychological and philosophical thinkings.
Yeah, I Hear Ya, But How is the Movie, dammit?!
So, this is where the film gets murky. To truly enjoy the film, you need either a decent knowledge of how films in the 50’s were made and to be able to handle a lot of the darker elements of the movie. It’s a weird contrast to be able to recognize 50’s movies elements and to be able to handle rape, sexual abuse and self humiliation of characters is really going to narrow mind this movie.
If you can get into those themes, it’s a great movie to watch.
If not…well, it’s an interesting watch. People who are used to watching horror films and thrillers now might find the character of Frank Booth to be absolute scenery chewing. And with films pushing the boundaries of what they can show in regards to rape (including A Serbian Film, Irreversible, Salo, Boys Don’t Cry, Straw Dogs, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, et al), the actual scene will range from weird and strange to kind of funny.
(NO, I AM NOT SAYING RAPE IS FUNNY)
The reason is because the scene is still abiding by Sirk-esque elements. Beating and tearing sounds are exaggerated, the motions in which the characters act are overacted on purpose: think of the fight scene in the Godfather that was obviously staged and poorly executed.
So, the shock value isn’t there. In fact, the watching of the scene is rather diluted compared to other films that tackle rape as a subject. Could this cause a trigger in past victims? Maybe, it didn’t for me. But that depends on the person really.
On top of that, the power of the scene is compromised by what happens next, so it’s actually has no significance to the film other than giving a memorable scene.
Mainly, if you’re looking for some realism, you can’t find it here at all. In fact, there’s only one character who curses in the entire film. Guess who it is?
Is It Any Good? Is It Still Relevant?
No, It Can’t and Shouldn’t Be Remade – Some directors have tried to have the same success with movies as Lynch, only few have done it once and never returned. A remake would be rather pointless for this movie.
Lovers of David Lynch – If you haven’t seen this film yet, it’s a must. It will more than likely not be a new favorite, but a curiosity that will be sated for more Lynch.
However…it is one of his more accessible films – This is where this film differs from movies like Inland Empire, Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead: the movie is very comprehendible. There were very few scenes in the film where I sat there and said “What the holy hell is that doing here?!” or “What the fuck is going on in this film?!” Mind you, you may still say it, but…less so.
You are a Hardcore Film Buff – Do you know the difference between the Italian Neorealism and the Golden Age of Hollywood? How about the Bollywood movement and Japanese New Wave? If so, and you missed this film, this will be an interesting look at seeing 50’s melodrama with early 90’s dark surrealism.
Blue Velvet is more like a conversation piece you would have with likeminded individuals or people who are into film. This is a film that you pick apart, watch for what it is trying to do, discuss the themes and note the differences between your friends.
Is it a classic? No, I can’t say that really because its elements require a previous knowledge of many things to truly enjoy it.
Is it a cult classic? Definitely. This film screams multiple viewings, conversations and people yelling “I WILL FUCK ANYTHING THAT MOVES!” What it shouldn’t be called is a film you must see. To a certain sect of people, it is something they must experience.
And honestly, you know who you are.
The Wiz Retro Rewind #11