Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Overcoming Liabilities with Unique Imagery in Blue Velvet

For aspiring writers and filmmakers, it’s easy to look at Lynch’s works and say “Why can’t I do that?” Lynch breaks a lot of rules and gets away with it…so doesn’t that mean that those rules were bogus? Surely his accomplishments have not only liberated himself from restrictions but liberated all of us?

The short answer is no. Blue Velvet is the perfect synthesis of two of our previous rules: You have to know your liabilities and assets for an ambitious and/or difficult project, and you have to have unique imagery. Basically, Lynch knows that his subject is rather off-putting and his hero potentially unsympathetic, but he balances that out with a lot of eye-candy: not just the usual sex and violence, but vivid imagery that assists with tone and theme as well.

The list of memorable images in this movie is long:
  • First and foremost, there’s the severed ear (looking like an embryo) which becomes even creepier when it’s put in a brown paper lunch bag. Any other evidence of a kidnapping wouldn’t have had as much iconic power.
  • The beginning could easily have been lame. On the page, the scene could have been, “Life seems idyllic…but then a man has an aneurism, ruining everything!” but on the screen Lynch make the original the original “idyllic” shots even more disturbing than the attack. The pretty flowers have creepy beetles rooting around beneath, but we find ourselves wanting to flee the too-perfect flowers and take refuge with the beetles.
  • The literal fetishization of blue velvet (Frank cuts a piece of it out of her robe and rubs it whenever she turns him on), tied into the song of the same name, makes the title memorable and creepy. The material itself has a creepy sheen to it, creating an illusion of deep, dark mystery.
  • Given the villain his own nitrous tank (we never see where he has the tank on him, we just see the nose-hose) is a great creepy detail that we’d never seen before (and gives him a sense of escalating craziness even time he takes a puff).
  • And I could go on and one: we haven’t even gotten to Dean Stockwell singing into the repair light, or that amazing first performance!
Lynch has always tried to take us out beyond the limit of our comfort zone…but he does so by taking our hand and coaxing us along. His movies are bright, sexy, exciting, tuneful, and always filled with startlingly vivid, unique imagery that enthralls us. He knows that we didn’t buy a ticket to be disturbed, we bought a ticket to be astonished. He earns the right to creep us out only by doing so in an astonishing way.


j.s. said...

That lipsyncher with the work light would be Dean Stockwell, not Harry Dean Stanton.

But yeah, that's part of why Lynch is not just an exceptional filmmaker, but truly a great director. His openness allows initially good ideas to become infinitely better in the moment on the set, where that light just happened to be and Dean Stockwell thought it was put there for him by somebody (it wasn't). Lynch saw how amazing it looked and smartly opted to keep it.

Same with the nitrous tank instead of helium which was Lynch's idea originally. Frank's ridiculously high post-huffing voice would have deflated all his menace and Dennis Hopper knew this and argued for nitrous oxide instead, which also had the benefit of being a more procedurally accurate choice for a drug for use/abuse during sex.

Or the "soft explosion" of that building behind the Mystery Man in LOST HIGHWAY's night desert, which only turned out that way because Lynch hadn't been planning an explosion and his practical FX guy didn't bring enough explosives.

I don't buy the kind of false dichotomy thesis of this post, though, that Lynch's so-called narrative deficiencies are somehow overcome by snazzy imagery. It makes him sound second rate, like Danny Boyle.

Lynch also isn't making weird cerebral art films with striking yet impenetrable images like Peter Greenaway. I'd argue that he's a great storyteller, who pretty consciously works out of a tradition of mainstream Hollywood and European art cinema, with influences like Kubrick and Fellini but also, almost equally, Billy Wilder and just about any American noir. Even if the stories can get a little bit complex, as in ERASERHEAD or his two most recent features, they're pretty solidly narrative.

Matt Bird said...

Ha! I've always gotten the two Deans mixed up.

There's a big difference between liabilities (of which he has many) and deficiencies (of which he has none). I am referring only to potential marketing liabilities, such as a disturbing subject matter, alienating hero, or off-kilter tone.

Every movie has a few marketing liabilities (you'll get in trouble if you're so bland that you don't) but they all need to be offset by marketing assets, such as unique, vivid, beautiful imagery.

Compare this to a movie like Andrea Arnold's Red Road which is about ugly events and is also ugly to look at. It won't meet the viewer halfway.

Lynch uses the power of his imagery to lure in viewers who would normally avoid disturbing movies, winning himself a wider audience, many of of whom are surprising to find out that yeah, they are ready for more thought-provoking fair.

On the other hand, if Red Road was the first non-Hollywood movie you'd ever rented, I don't think you'd ever rent another.

j.s. said...

Good distinction between liabilities (especially if, in this case, it's mostly in terms of perceived liablilities -- "how do we sell this?") than deficiencies.

It's really too bad that there aren't more daring producers in Hollywood like Mel Brooks who can see how Lynch's talent can complement more mainstream subject matter. I mean, Lynch didn't just make THE ELEPHANT MAN, but he hit it out of the mainstream park twice. I'd say the G-rated THE STRAIGHT STORY is probably the best (even the most family friendly, since that's literally the subject) live action film Disney ever made, but the suits simply shrugged at it, perhaps without even watching a cut and dumped it in a few theaters because, wtf, David Lynch directed it.

We'll have to disagree about what's wrong with RED ROAD and/or Andrea Arnold. I think she's a talented director who's actually better at making images then telling stories. She's got a strong feeling for actors and locations, just not enough of a sense of how to spin them into stories worth watching for 90+ minutes.