Obviously, one reason I’m tackling Blue Velvet is that it’s a more challenging movie than many of the others we’ve looked at, which means that it’s going to contravene the checklist more, so we’ll look at more deviations. Let's start with these two:
Deviation #1: This is definitely a “Character motivates, plot complicates” movie and it has many potential problems associated with that: Our hero has almost no motivation to get involved in this case: (no one he knows or loves is at risk, he hasn’t been accused of the crime, etc.), he has no reason not to trust the police (they seem trustworthy and competent for most of the movie, and they seem to already know the information he uncovers)
The Problem: Stories tend to work better when the hero is forced into the story by external plot complications, then in the second half, as the plot becomes less important, the hero’s volatile character chemistry begins to drive the situation. This movie is the opposite: the hero’s volatile psychology wills the situation into existence with very little motivation, and this only becomes a problem in the second half when he realizes how complex the plot is.
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. This movie works as both a tragedy (where we lament the downfall of a self-destructive person) and a conspiracy thriller (where we root for the hero to uncover the truth). We both cheer for him to solve the mystery and disapprove of the moral degradation he experiences as he does so. We remain invested in seeing the problem solved even after we acknowledge that our hero is part of the problem, and he’s victimizing this woman as much as saving her.
This leads us to:
Deviation #2: It’s unclear if he’s the only one who could solve this problem.
The Problem: The movie sort of hedges its bets on this problem. For most of the running time, we suspect that the cops could handle this better on their own without Jeffrey’s involvement (which should be death for the story), but as Act 3 begins, we have a more typical movie development: Jeffrey finds out that one of the bad guys is a detective, and decides once again that it’s all up to him.
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. In theory, we should get fed up with Jeffrey and insist on rooting for the cops, who we trust more to solve this case, but our interest in seeing the case solved is co-equal with our interest in understanding Jeffrey’s creepy psychology, so we’re willing stay with him (and then they finally reveal that a cop is on it, which is a more traditional way of getting us to root for him to solve it on his own. But even then the chief seems to be taking appropriate steps, though we can’t tell for sure.)
The discovery of a severed human ear in a field leads Jeffrey Beaumont on an investigation related to beautiful, mysterious nightclub singer Dorothy Valens and a group of criminals who have kidnapped her child, led by nitrous-huffing psychopath Frank Booth. Over the course of his investigation, Jeffrey enters into a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with Dorothy while also romancing Sandy Williams, the daughter of the police chief.
#1: CONCEPT 19/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who
hears about it?
one sentence description uniquely appealing?
A voyeuristic college student finds a severed ear in a
field, leading him to discover the dark side of his small town and himself.
the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
idealistic amateur detective discovers he’s just as creepy as those he
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto
a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Yes, a coming of
age story in which the adult world our young man discovers is insanely dark
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a
concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Yes and no.There’s lots of plot, but it mostly
takes place off screen and remains unexplained so that the movie can focus on
there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily
Yes. Two hours of
deleted scenes attest to how slimmed down the story is (only stills survive,
but those stills can be seen on the DVD).
the story present a unique relationship?
Yes, an amateur
investigator in a sadomasochistic relationship with his target.
least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Yes, many, but
this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or
an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
three.Ironic answer: Why do
there have to be people like Frank, he asks, but he’s becoming Frank.
something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the
Very much so.
this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero
to want to do (a conflict)?
Yes.He’s endangering both women that he’s
falling in love with, but he’s compelled to continue.
end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes and no. He has to shoot Frank
because the police don’t get there fast enough, but if he hadn’t intervened
we sense that they could have solved the problem better.We’ll never know if the police
couldn’t have just handled it better on their own.It’s possible Jeffrey did more harm than good, but that
doesn’t hurt the movie, because we find his neurosis fascinating.
the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Yes. He pretends to
have reverted to normal at the end, but we don’t buy it.
Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend
Yes and no.It’s an effective Hitchcockian/erotic
thriller in the end, but it doesn’t “feel” like a thriller for most of its
run time.What it feels like is
an art film, and it mostly satisfies those viewers, but not entirely.It’s stuck somewhat between the two
this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be
used to promote the final product)?
Yes, many: the ear,
the blue velvet, the robins, the weird heart attack, the beetles, the
there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
Yes, many.Almost every scene, in fact.
the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
hitting her, her showing up at his house, Frank being the well-dressed man,
Gordon being a cop, etc…
story marketable without revealing the surprise?
conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
#2: CHARACTER 19/22
Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball,
or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I
was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Lots of oddball
moments.Just the way he says “I
found an ear.”When he shows
Sandy the chicken walk.
hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Yes.We never learn any backstory.
the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Yes, the good son.
the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Yes, the creepy
the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job,
background, or developmental state)?
Yes, ‘50s gee-whiz
the hero have a default personality trait?
Yes, creepy placid
the hero have a default argument tactic?
disagreement, proceeding with a slight smile.
hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and
revealed early on?
No.He has no
obvious motivation to investigate this case.We have to surmise that his actions are motivated by a
deep-seated neurosis that predates the movie.
Do we feel for the hero?
the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a
false piece of advice early on)?
“I’m just real curious” “I don’t want to cause any trouble.” “No
one will suspect us because no one would believe two people like us would be
crazy enough to do something like this.” He believes that he’s fundamentally
different from Frank.
the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Yes, he’s there to
help out with his father’s hardware store.
the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a
hidden, private fear?
Yes, that the
people who cut off the ear will never be caught. Yes, that the world is evil,
that he’s evil.
hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Yes.He feels pain when hit, and even more
pain when he does the hitting.
the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
Yes for each: he’s
voyeuristic, creepy, and morally slippery
Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural
flip-side of a great strength we admire?
Yes, he’s curious,
charming, and a great improviser
Very much so.
hero generally resourceful?
Very much so.He figure out how to break in,
how to trick Frank at the end, etc.
the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Look under rocks,
you only live once, I can get away with anything
hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Yes, nobody else
would have noticed the ear or other things he spots.No one but he would have discovered
the cop was a crook.
is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
polite and softspoken, hiding his internal turmoil. He certainly has
qualities that those around him lack, but he’s in no hurry to let them know
that out loud. His roiling internal contradictions become clear to us through
his shocking actions, not because he speaks up to share his unique point of
hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Yes, like many
heroes, he just lost his father, putting him in charge of his own affairs.
the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve
problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Somewhat: he uses
the bug spray to get in, etc.
#3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/21
Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or
her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal
Only slightly, in
that we see him chafe and his treatment by his mom, who clearly sees him as
still a kid (His real “problem” scenes were cut out in the editing room. They’re
in the script that’s online, and worth reading.We meet him already spying on a girl being almost
date-raped at college, and only stopping it when someone else is approaching,
then his mom tells him that not only does he have to come home, but that they
won’t be able to afford college for him anymore, and he’s frustrated.He feels that there will be no outlet
for his darker impulses at home.)
this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning
of the story?
Both scenes above
would apply, but they were both cut, so we only have a free-floating sense of
his frustration, which is fine.
the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
In his own twisted
way: he finds an ear, which represents a chance to find the hidden truth
about his town.
the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
No, he plunges in
willfully and heedlessly.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the
end of the first quarter?
Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict
with another person?
Yes, Dorothy, then
the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Yes, he tries to
hide and spy without being seen, but he’s caught first by Dorothy, then by
the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
Yes, he enjoys his
voyeurism, and even gets to have sex with his target. He smiles big when he
tells Sandy about some of it.
easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a
safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
The crises are in an unusual
order.At first it seems like he
has an early physical disaster, but he enjoys being raped at knife-point, so
it’s not a problem, but then she gets him to hit her at the halfway point,
which makes for an early spiritual disaster, and at the ¾ point he finally
has a real physical disaster, getting beaten up and almost killed. The closet
is no longer safe, and then his house isn’t either, because Dorothy shows up
Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Yes, he admits his
secret investigation to Sandy’s father, admits his voyeurism to Sandy.
the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Yes, he finds out
that a cop is in on it, and that Sandy is better able to straddle both worlds
than Dorothy is.
stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Yes, there are car
chases and his world is invaded.
the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Yes. He gets
caught and beaten up, and realizes that Dorothy is too lost to save.
further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Well, the real
spiritual crisis happens earlier, and continues for a long time, but it does
culminate when he sees how his behavior looks in Sandy’s eyes when she finds
Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
Not really: he remains conflicted
Williams says “You’re all through with this now?” he responds “Yes sir, I
sure am,” but he continues investigating.Later, he says to Sandy, while holding Dorothy,
“Forgive me, I love you.”
that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which
still seems far away?
the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero
switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Yes, he’s proactive
these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the
hero to improvise for the finale?
unexpectedly shows up.
strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the
Yes, in a fairly
cliché way, Sandy and her father burst in as he shoots Frank.Dorothy isn’t there, though.
the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time
as) his or her outer struggle?
Yes, he comes
shooting out of the closet.
there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally
resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed
(possibly through reversible behavior)
Yes, he’s embraced
his parent’s idyllic life and possibly married Sandy, but we see the Robin
eating the beetle and we have to wonder if he’s crushed or absorbed the evil,
which are two different ways of reading that image.
#4: SCENEWORK 18/20 (Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, then Dorothy
catches Jeffrey in her apartment and seduces and/or rapes him at knifepoint.)
Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction
explained how he intends to get out before she arrives.
the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the
beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it begins at the beginning and
this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Yes, he’s hiding
and spying in a stranger’s apartment.
of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite
possibly has something better to do)?
Yes, Dorothy isn’t
prepared for this.
there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Yes, oddball bits
of conversation that go nowhere.The nitrous.
the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious
Yes, we know that
she’s coming home, then we know that she’ll eventually use the closet, then
we suspect that Frank could come by, then we wonder how much Jeffrey can take
until he interferes, then we wonder if he can get out before he gets knifed.
Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal
character through emotional reactions?
both put through the ringer emotionally.
the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may
Yes.It’s interesting: at first, we share his
salacious desires, then when he succeeds beyond his and our wildest dreams
(He finds out her dark secrets, sees her undress, sees her cry, then gets to
have sex with her.That’s pretty
much the peeping tom’s grand slam) we’re both turned on and revolted, both by
the general situation and his sketchy reaction.By the end, we’re rooting for him to not have sex with
her, but he does it anyway.
two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Yes, he wants to
learn all, then to have sex, then to learn more, then to comfort her, then
once again to have sex .She
wants to get ready for bed, then she wants to talk to her son, then she wants
to confront him, then she wants to punish herself with masochistic sex, then
she wants to placate Frank.
the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of
which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Yes: surface: why
are you spying on me, what did you learn? Suppressed, for both: what’s wrong
suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied
through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Yes: he’s in the closet in
more ways that one. The knife is a phallus, implying a reversal of the rapist
the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct
Yes, they each
trick information out of the other.
there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners
(often resulting in just one touch)?
Yes, lots. Yes,
the scene begins with lots of distance and gradually culminates in lots of
objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Yes, she takes his
wallet, then his ID, he takes her knife, she takes him in sexually.
Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing
something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
confesses all and undresses, they both have sex.
the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the
Yes, he goes there
to violate her privacy in secret but he winds up totally exposed.
previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previous: We get a lot more info about several questions, but no complete
answers yet. Who all did she talk to on the phone?Who is Don? Why is she like this?
the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by
the circumstances of the next scene)?
No, it goes to the
audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next?
(Not just in the next scene, but generally)
We’re now worried that Jeffrey
is losing his soul in the process of his investigation.
#5: DIALOGUE 12/16
Is the dialogue true to human nature?
the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Yes, in its own
way.Lynch’s style is cold, but
everybody, even Frank, is vulnerable.
each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather
than the wants of others?
Yes, Jeffrey seems
to be investigating selflessly, but it’s clearly just for his own kicks.He and Frank have a lot in common,
including kinkiness, compulsion, and bouts of crying.
the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and
even to themselves)?
Yes, every time
Jeffrey wants to say something genuine, he says something dippy instead to
characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they
Yes, he and Sandy
avoid talking about her boyfriend, Dorothy never explains anything
characters interrupt each other often?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world
and each personality?
the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or
Not really.You hear snippets of lumber talk on the radio, but for the
most part the talk is decontextualized and intentionally generic.This is Anytown, USA. Almost
everybody is an amateur, and the dialogue is oddly stylized.
there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default
personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
familes: Dorothy has the language of a sexual
submissive and lapses into schizophrenia at times, and Frank is both a
top/bottom: “Mommy, baby wants to fuck!”Frank also has the language of film noir: “I’m
gonna send you a love letter.Straight from my heart, fucker.You know what a love letter is?It’s a bullet.Straight
from my gun, fucker!” Personality traits: Dorothy:
crazy.Frank: sadist.Sandy: optimism mixed with an urge to
misbehave. Argument strategies: Frank traps you with your own words. Dorothy
ignores your objections and uses her body to influence you
Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes. All of
Jeffrey’s plans are concisely laid out.
the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes,
No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Not really.The language is oddly formal.
non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or
Yes. The sentences
are all simple.
the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and
Hmm…I guess you
could say Jeffrey is head (a Hamlet-like character, called home from college
and still living in his head, acting without realizing that his actions
affect the world) Sandy and Dorothy are two very different types of heart,
and Frank is gut?That seems
like a stretch though.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld
the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest
or primary emotional partner?
really.Nobody ever gets him.
exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to
Yes, Jeffrey jumps
in with very little information.
there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters
really lay into each other?
Yes and no: the
subtext falls away when Dorothy shows up at Jeffrey’s house, but Jeffrey and
Sandy still don’t have it out openly.
Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the
Yes.It’s a Hitchcockian/erotic thriller
throughout, albeit it an odd one.
story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without
Yes, the voyeur,
crooked small-town movie.
the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few
Yes, the villain
is killed and the girl is got, but we suspect that the hero will never be
satisfied now that he’s seen the dark side.
from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.)
established early and maintained throughout?
Yes, very much
so.Post-modern, creepy, oddly
optimistic, sleazy. This is established instantly in the pan down from the
perfect flowers to the beetles underneath, the dog ignoring its owners
distress to drink from the hose instead, etc.This is a world with a dark underbelly in which bonds are
breaking down.The danger is
that the darkness will surge to the surface.
Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the
audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
Yes, whose ear is
Does the story use framing devices to establish
genre, mood and expectations?
Yes, the mom is
watching film noirs (films noir?) on TV, and we see gumshoes on the TV doing
what Jeffrey is about to do.
there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await
Yes, he doesn’t
want to end up like his father, he’s afraid he’ll end up like Frank.
foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s
attention on what’s important)?
Sandy has a dream
of how the movie will end, keeping the focus on issues of good and evil,
rather than the details of this crime.
reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Well, we get
transferable behavior when he waters the plants like his father, and then
when the robin eats the beetle: goodness consumes (or absorbs) evil?He hides for different reasons at the
beginning and end.
dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
Yes, we finally
see the man with the missing ear.
Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good
(or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Yes, two evils:
naivete vs. cynicism
thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and
Yes, Sandy says,
“I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” so the question is, “Is
there a difference?”Later,
Jeffrey asks, “Why are there people like Frank?Why is there so much trouble in this
world?” which really means “Why am I becoming like Frank?”
characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils,
instead of choosing between good and evil?
Yes, (well, they
don’t have to, but they choose to) Is it wrong to spy to solve a crime, to
steal a girl from a lame lunk-head, to accept sex from a damaged woman, etc…
Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
the story reflect the way the world works?
Yes and no, it’s
nightmarish and bizarre, but still feels fairly real.
the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it
based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
Not really.This is an ideas movie. The city and region are never
named.This is set in an idea of
middle America, not a specific reality.
the story include twinges of real life national pain?
violence coming to small town.
these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral
of the actions have real consequences?
transgression causes real suffering.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so
that it need not be discussed often?
many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic
Yes, everybody is
eavesdropping on each other in different ways.
one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story,
growing in meaning each time?
Yes, the ears, the strip of
blue velvet, the party hat, etc.
Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it
Not really, we still can’t decide
which is worse: naivete or cynicism. Jeffrey has decided to restore
his life to a level of naive idealistic artifice, but it is merely a mask for
his yawning chasm of dark cynicism, and we sense that he’s still utterly torn
between these two unpleasant choices.
the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Yes, he defeats
evil by absorbing it
end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved,
some answers left vague)?
questions are left unanswered.
characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing
the audience to do that?