Blue Velvet

April 8, 2011

The camera tilts down from a clear-blue sky into some brilliant red flowers. A man is watering the lawn on this small-town afternoon. It is a quiet scene, yet the rhythms of the editing lend a sense of foreboding. The water is spitting out of the hose with alarming power and, as the pressure builds, the man is stricken and falls to the ground.

Whereupon the camera seems to descend into the lawn; leaves of grass loom in huge close-up, and then the camera burrows into the ground itself, revealing a nest of battling beetles. Fade to black.

Something strange is going on in Blue Velvet, and two minutes of film have not yet passed. This startling opening sequence sets the peculiar tone for the rest of the film, which turns out to be possibly the weirdest major film of the past decade.

It’s from writer-director David Lynch, whose previous films were Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Dune. Lynch has one of the most vivid imaginations at work in films today, and he sets it free in this bizarre mystery.

Moments after the opening, the stricken man’s son (Kyle MacLachlan, the Yakima kid who starred in Dune) is walking across a field. He’s been called home from school, he can’t help his incapacitated father, and he has nothing to do. While looking for pebbles to toss at something in the field, he sees something else in the grass: a decomposing, severed human ear.

He should let the police handle it, but he’s clearly inspired by the thought of pursuing a mystery. He enlists the aid of a doubtful girl (Laura Dern) who helps lead him to the pivotal figure in the mystery, an extremely sultry chanteuse (Isabella Rossellini), who wears tawdry makeup and warbles off-key renditions of songs whose titles contain the word “Blue.”

It would be bad form to reveal much of the plot, but the trail eventually leads to a sexual psychopath, played by Dennis Hopper. (Hopper, of course, is famous for his nutso roles, but this time his performance is genuinely frightening.)

Even though the plot takes some strange turns, the uniqueness of Blue Velvet comes from its disorienting tone. Interspersed among the hypnotic suspense scenes are sequences of (apparently intentionally) ludicrous dialogue and oddly stylized behavior.

For instance, when Dern tells MacLachlan that her vision of hope is linked with the arrival of robins, Lynch stages the conversation in front of a glowingly lit church, with inspirational music. The scene skirts self-parody. (I don’t think Lynch means us to take this straight. If he does, it’s an even stranger film than I thought.)

The clashing of tones seems to come from Lynch’s attempt to discover a new kind of film, wherein the narrative reflects back on the nature of film itself. At the same time, he conjures up images—such as the burrowing of the beetles in the opening—that consistently draw us deeper into dark, exotic, disturbing territory. The only close comparison I can think of for this sort of thing is in the work of the perverse Spanish master, Luis Buñuel.

Blue Velvet will probably provoke derisive laughter in some viewers, and excitement in others. It will, however, provoke something. For those adventurous enough, it will supply a jolt not quite like any you’ve felt before.

First published in the Herald, September 1986

You see Blue Velvet for the first time, and then you go write about it, and you do the best you can. It certainly felt like a movie people were still going to be talking about 25 years later, which was part of the excitement of watching it for the first time—that realization of how significant it was. I watched it 3-4 years ago while preparing for a lecture, and it held up as an American classic, just the right blend of mystery and mystery. It stacks up at my other website as the best film of 1986, where I say a couple more things about it.



March 21, 2011

Freddie Jones and Sting, a la Dune

I had been warned that Dune was confusing, so I was set to pay close attention from the very beginning. Surprisingly enough, I found that, on the plot level, Dune was rather easy to follow. There is a lot of information discharged in the first half hour, but the main movement of the story, and the many characters, are pretty easily identifiable. Oh, there’s the occasional weirdness–the bit with the potion that makes the user’s lips turn red went by too quickly for me to catch, so that when Brad Dourif came on muttering an incantation and applying the nectar to his mouth, I wasn’t sure what it all meant. But any frustration I felt due to ignorance of that particular detail was overruled by my delight with Dourif’s wacked-out performance (which unfortunately ends much too early in the film).

No, those unexplained details didn’t bug me too much. The most confusing thing about Dune is: What does this movie think it’s doing? Dune may be the most bewildering movie of the year, and not because of its plot. What was David Lynch thinking about when he decided to have people provide voiceover explanations of events we’ve just seen? “The spice…the worms…is there a relationship?” Of course there is, you bonehead, how could there not be, based on the information already provided to us?

These voiceovers are just one symptom of what’s wrong with Dune; the main problem would seem to be that Lynch has tried to be overly faithful to Frank Herbert’s novel. But that’s conjecture, since a) I haven’t read Dune, and b) I can’t hear what’s going on in Lynch’s mind, thank heaven. But there are things in the film that cry out for capsulization. For instance, Lynch got Sting to play one of the bad guys; given that, why not combine his role with that of the other bad guy played by big Paul Smith? Any reason that couldn’t be just one character, who could do twice as many mean, nasty things, thus providing a strong opposite number for the hero? (To be crass about it, that would make commercial sense too, since Sting is a big rock star and a certain audience is going to come to this film just to see him.)

As it is, Der Stingle is barely in the film at all, and the climactic knife battle with hero Paul Atreides is ho-hum time. But more than that, Sting, who has proven himself a fairly dynamic performer elsewhere, is out-and-out bad in Dune—he glowers and rolls his eyes without a trace of subtlety (and thus without a trace of menace). Or take the case of the University of Washington’s own Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the main character. MacLachlan is physically right for the part; he’s all heroic chin and hair, and he looks as though he’d have the necessary stamina to housebreak a sandworm. But he’s a bit on the stolid side, and there’s no humor in his performance. That I blame on David Lynch, who doesn’t seem to have conceived of the tone that his performers—or that the film itself—should carry. That uncertainty combined with a lack of rhythm and forward motion doom this Dune to be scattered to the winds.

After I saw Dune and Peter Hyams’ ridiculous 2010, was I ever in the mood for Runaway, the Tom Selleck vehicle about murderous robots in the near future. It is, to be sure, substantially inane; but it also has a friendly, funky spirit. Besides, it’s basically a cop movie in sci-fi trappings, as Selleck is out to catch a madman (Gene Simmons of KISS) bent on ruling the world through robot domination. Doesn’t that sound great? I thought so too. Add to that some killer spider robots, who clatter noisily before they exterminate their prey, and add Selleck’s partner, Cynthia Rhodes, the blond dish from Staying Alive, who sweats very appealingly in the scene where Tom removes an explosive bullet from her shoulder. When you mix in Simmons’ performance, which consists entirely of curled lip and bug-out eyes, you step back in time about three decades or so, and settle comfortably into the realm of chewy B-cinema. As such, Runaway works just fine. Writer-director Michael Crichton has a few good uses for Vancouver, B.C., and he gives us a shot from the point of view of a heat-seeking bullet. He also stages a genuinely exciting top-of-a-skyscraper finale (compounded by Selleck’s vertigo—say, where have I seen this before?). What’s it all add up to? Not much, really, but when you’ve been assailed by hours of pretentious science fiction hoohah, this sort of thing is a tonic.

First published in The Informer, January/February 1985

Still haven’t read Dune, and I haven’t been tempted to follow up this original experience with seeking out any alternate cuts or anything like that. Well, maybe during that sabbatical year. Sorry to say that I didn’t review Crichton’s crazy Looker at the time it came out, and thus can’t reprint anything on this Eighties website, but I did write an editorial review for, which can be accessed here.