Friday, 2 December 2016

Blue Velvet: Emotion Over Symbolism

I’m always left somewhat surprised when people try to analyse a David Lynch film. That is not to say I disapprove of reviewing, interpreting or discussing his films, in fact few bodies of work are more suited to being reviewed, interpreted and discussed that that of David Lynch. What I mean is that whenever I see someone pouring through the allegories and symbols of his films, pondering every solitary frame of celluloid as if they will magically spot an elusive sign that will clarify everything, I can’t help but wonder if it is an exercise in futility.

Even 30 years after its release people are still deciphering ‘Blue Velvet’, but more importantly people are still talking about ‘Blue Velvet’. It leaves an impression on all who see it, for better or worse and there are several reasons for this. The timeless, dreamlike quality of the film, the way it taps into a primordial impulse that both repulses and fascinates anyone who watches it, the amazing performances, beautifully haunting visuals and arresting themes are just some of the reasons the film is still able to provoke such a strong reaction from those who watch it.

It is extremely easy to turn away from ‘Blue Velvet’ upon an initial viewing, to shut out the horrors of the world and return to a place of tranquil bliss. The fact that the film opens on a heavenly picture of suburban America only makes the ensuing descent into darkness all the more terrifying. As the camera pans across a freshly mown meadow of lusciously green grass our view dips beneath the surface to display hundreds of parasitic insects, shown in such lurid detail that one can’t help but wince at their movement. It may not be the subtlest metaphor but contrary to popular opinion Lynch rarely plays with illusive metaphors, his filmmaking is more intent upon capturing the raw emotional power of life, by whatever means necessary.

When one watches ‘Blue Velvet’ with this mind-set a lot of creative decisions come into clarity. The characterisations, directorial decisions and overall structure of the film are not necessarily alluding to some deeper meaning (though I invite anyone to try and find them because the film is worth your time and attention) but a means to tap into our most insecure and vulnerable emotions. One way or another Lynch wants to emotionally destroy you through your expectations and primordial instincts. What we rationalise as being acceptable and within the realm of logic is turned on us almost as quickly as our own subconscious desires. In an era where mainstream Hollywood was dominated by erotic thrillers in which the sex was just as if not more important than the plot, maybe Frank Booth’s actions struck a nerve for more reasons than the taboo nature of them? Maybe audiences were horrified to see their own subconscious desires rendered on celluloid for the whole world to see.

Manipulating the emotions of an audience requires a blunt tool. We are trained to spot the obvious and rarely willing to look deep enough into obscure metaphors. While a second viewing of a film may warrant hidden messages for the viewer to decipher, what good will that do when they are never compelled to revisit the film in the first place? One of the blunt tools that Lynch uses frequently in ‘Blue Velvet’ is the lighting, going from one extreme to another and frequently being deployed as an emotive instrument. The lighting of ‘Blue Velvet’ is what many academics point to as proof of the film being classified as a noir, and while that may be true to primary purpose of the light in ‘Blue Velvet’, in my opinion has always been about conveying emotion.

As Lynch draws you into his twisted world he uses the light to represent entirely different emotions, atmospheres and environments. The overbearing light that engulfs our characters near the end of a film could be likened to waking up from a surreal nightmare, the transition from the dark subconscious world to the morally decent world we have been raised in. The simplest term for why Lynch uses light in this way are as follows, darkness is bad, brightness is not. The audience knows that and so does Lynch.

But enough about what’s behind the camera. It would not be much use if this dreamlike world was rendered in the form of less capable actors who could not bring these nightmarish creations to life with such terrifying realisation. The morally grey line that Jeffrey Beaumont treads throughout the entire film is perfectly brought to life by Kyle MacLachlan (wo incidentally is also the dad from ‘Inside Out’, so try not to feel a little unnerved whenever your kids watch that film from now on). Like all of us Jeffrey is repulsed by this dark world yet also fascinated by it, so as the nightmare spirals further out of control we can only cling on for dear life and try not to break down along with him.

The contrast of Laura Dern and Isabella Rossellini’s performance is another key way to bookend the films constant use of juxtaposition. The idealised American lifestyle shown next to the epitome of our worst nightmares, shown by two very different female characters. One of innocence who gets caught on the fringes of this labyrinth, while the other lies at the very heart of it in a search for innocence. Once again though for all the Freudian mumbo jumbo that one can derive from Jeffery’s relationship to both women, it is the emotive aspect that Lynch seems to revel in the most. He establishes one character only to offer us the darkest vision of what might become of these people, letting our imaginations torment us with speculation over what might happen, only to then show us a vision even more terrifying than we could have imagined anyway.

Let’s not kid ourselves though, as any analysis of the performances in ‘Blue Velvet’ would be incomplete without addressing Dennis Hopper. The gas inhaling, psychosexually stunted, aggressively animalistic and foul mouthed sociopath otherwise known as Frank Booth may be the most truly disturbing villain in cinema history. Hopper’s performance is explosive, volcanic or any other violent sounding descriptive. Without ever overtly expressing his larger scheme or source of power, Booth’s desires and motives are so personal that you can’t help but feel even more frightened by how far he has gone to obtain them.

What makes his actions all the more terrifying are the way Lynch draws parallels to Jeffrey. As the protagonist and source of sympathy Jeffery represents us, so if Lynch sees an opportunity to unnerve us by making us view the darkness within ourselves you can bet he will take it. From their shared relationship with Dorothy to the mere fact that the film takes time to acknowledge that Jeffrey is a college student courting a girl that is still in high school. Lynch wants to exploit some perverse inner demon within us all and force us to confront it, and by rooting that demon within the confines of what we thought was the idealised suburban dream it only adds to the discomfort. A monster can come from anywhere and be anything.

Of course, when one looks at the conclusion of the film it may seem odd that my review would focus only on the darkest aspects of the film and what it has to say about human nature. It is perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of ‘Blue Velvet’ that when taken at face value the film can be read as appositive message of good triumphing over evil. While that is most definitely true and far be it from me to subtract that view if it the one you hold, we also seem to know it is an idealised version. The things we have witnessed can never be erased and the scars will be felt for a long time. Lynch knows this just as well as we do and the way he concludes his film is sure to provoke an emotional response out of the viewer. We may end on happiness but we have all witnessed what is beneath the surface, the question is have we brought it back with us?

This leads me back to how I started this analysis though. As much as we like to drone on about symbolism and hidden meanings we often forget that films are first and foremost a vehicle for emotion. A recurring element of Lynch’s films, whether it be ‘Blue Velvet’ or ‘Eraserhead’ or ‘Mulholland Drive’, is how they are studied. But personally I feel that while analysis is good to a certain extent, after a certain point the films should just be experienced. There is not always a need to generalise everything into some hidden allegory. Lynch makes films about life, in all its horror, joy and mystery, and maybe there is no meaning but it’s quite an experience all the same don’t you think?

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