Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Three Phases of David Lynch: Phase II: Part I: Blue Velvet

Phase I of David Lynch's career saw some extremely interesting and completely unique films, but did it see a film that I would consider an unqualified success, something that's as enjoyable to watch as it is challenging to think about? No, but would that come in Phase II? Well, not quite, but his best film, and the beginning of Phase III, would not have been possible, artistically or commercially, without what happened in Phase II.

The beginning of Phase II, and the film whose shadow hangs over almost every other project Lynch has worked on is Blue Velvet. Blue Velvet lacks the outright surrealism of Eraserhead or Dune, instead it creates a new type of world, one which almost all of Lynch's future films could be placed in. Blue Velvet explores the distinction between a bright surface and a dark heart, as manifested in the town of Lumberton. In the first images of the film, we see a red rose against a perfect blue sky, above a white picket fence, followed by a smiling, waving firefighter passing by, leading to a kindly old man watering his lawn. However, the old man collapses, and the camera follows him to the ground, then delves underground, showing a mass of swarming bugs right below perfect green grass. No image more perfectly sums up the themes of this film, Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me or Mulholland Drive.

The film features a character who is probably closer to Lynch himself than anyone else in Lynch's oevure, and that's Jeffery, played by Kyle McLachlan. Jeffery is an all American guy, who clearly loves the culture of his Midwest town, and is perfectly at home in it. However, he is also fascinated by the dark world that exists just beneath the perfect suburbs, and as the film goes along he gets dragged into it. The amateur detective finds himself drawn into very real danger, most notably chronicled on his ride with Frank Booth and his posse. Jeffery's descent into hell, as shown there, is not unlike Donna's trip to the pink room in FWWM.

Blue Velvet establishes a ton of Lynch trademark elements. The idyllic small town, that seems to be situated out of time is one. The town has some 80s elements, but also feels remarkably 1950s, from the car that Jeffery drives, his goofy slang, to the clothes that Sandy wears. The town feels very old fashioned, and the way that the characters talk is similar to how Betty speaks in the beginning of Mulholland Drive.

Another Lynch trademark is the singer singing in a nightclub, into an old microphone and in front of red curtains. This is probably my favorite Lynch trademark. I love the way he uses musical performance, not just music in his work. Most films that use songs on the soundtrack do so as a shortcut to tell you what a character is feeling. Witness the "sad" montage in any romantic comedy. However, what Lynch does is show how the song affects the character, and thus there is a genuine emotional release. When Dorothy sings "Blue Velvet" and Frank cries, it tells us so much about the character. A similar scene occurs in Fire Walk With Me, when Julee Cruise sings "Questions in a World of Blue," and Laura breaks down, or later, "Llorando" in Mulholland Drive. The red curtains return quite frequently, most notably in Twin Peaks. The musical performance here recalls the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead.
And on a similar note, the lip synch performance into the lamp by Ben, besides being a phenomenal scene, is similar to the Club Silencio scene from Mulholland Drive.

This movie also establishes Lynch's fascination with detectives, most notably amateur detectives. Jeffery's goofy enthusiasm at being caught up in a case is similar to Betty and Rita in Mulholland Drive, or even James, Donna and Maddie in Twin Peaks. Lynch's later films also make the audience into detectives, having to piece together clues to find out what the film means. And, Jeffery is similar to Agent Cooper, to the point that Cooper could very well be a grown up version of Jeffery.

What else does this film establish in Lynch's world? It is notable for bringing together Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti. Badalamenti would go on to score every future David Lynch film, and his contributions to Twin Peaks go a long way to defining the world of the series. It also is the first Lynch film to feature Julee Cruise, who would figure in some of the most important scenes in Twin Peaks.

While this in many ways is the archetypal Lynch film, it does have some differences. Frank Booth is a character unlike any other in Lynch's oevrue. Most Lynch characters are sealed up emotionally, but Booth is right out there, in a way somewhat reminiscent of early Bobby on Twin Peaks, or some of the people in Wild at Heart. However, Booth seems to be Lynch's most sustained look at evil, and the darkness within people. I find the character riveting, and compulsively watchable.

Another anomaly is how straightforward the story is. While there are plot twists, the reality of the narrative world is never called into question, as it is in almost every other Lynch film. It's very twisted concept wise, but Lynch does nothing to play with the form of the story itself.

So, that's Blue Velvet. It sets up Lynch Phase II quite well, with its 1950s small town feel. This is the film that leads into Lynch's greatest work, Twin Peaks, as well as lesser tale, Wild at Heart, as you will see.

Related Posts
The Three Phases of David Lynch: Phase I(12/13/2004)
Twin Peaks and Buffy Essay (12/17/2004)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (7/26/2005)
Lost Highway (3/19/2006)

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