I promise a big screening log next week (it’s a great week for movies in NYC), especially given that this week is my smallest list yet. Part of this, as you’ll see, was that I visited Austin and spent more time at the bar than the multiplex, though I did visit the famous Alamo Drafthouse. I was nervous about a waiter running through the film, but it turned out to be no less annoying as any general than your usual crowd at a movie theater, actually less (though it was a bit annoying to rummage through my wallet for a 5-dollar bill while the movie played). However, I drank a Pabst Blue Ribbon during Blue Velvet—how do you beat that?
-Blue Velvet, 1986. Directed by David Lynch. 35mm projection at the Alamo Drafthouse (6th Street).
-Kuroneko, 1968. Directed by Kaneto Shindô. 35mm projection at Anthology Film Archives.
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet has always been a favorite of mine, notably for its amazing performances by Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini. But on my fourth viewing of it, I found myself less interested in the bigger, more fantastic moments and performances of this nightmarish film, than its quieter details. And one of those stunning details is the performance of Laura Dern.
Yes, there was something sublime in the performance of Dern. I’ve always been a big fan of her work (Jurassic Park was a childhood favorite of mine thanks to irresponsible parents, and I hear she’s quite terrific in Enlightened on HBO), but had written her and her character off as somewhat secondary to the main action of the film. This time around, however, it was the film’s first thirty minutes that struck the chords with me more than the film’s descent into madness. How did all this madness begin exactly?
Surely we all recognize Blue Velvet’s glorious opening sequence, but there’s something oddly curious about what follows Jeffery’s decision to enter the apartment on that fateful night. He tries to discuss more with the detective, but he’s told to not look forward. But then, a voice from the darkness, and a beauty emerges:
Lynch often gets cited for his scenes of horror, but this moment of beauty struck me as a rapturous moment, with the score by Angelo Badalamenti swelling as if he was Bernard Hermann, and Dern looking like a Hitchcock blonde (Lynch makes the Hitchcock reference explicit with the shot of Jeffrey looking with his eye through the closet, a direct correlation to Psycho). Jeffrey’s excitement here is not just a vision of innocence rising from the darkness, but the possibility that knowledge is out there, knowledge Sandy has, who also wants more of it.
Why does Jeffrey continue to tell Sandy about his exploits, even when they become troubling to him as what he sees? Perhaps it’s because to play detective, Jeffrey needs an audience to satiate his entrance into darkness. Jeffrey fears throughout the film that he is becoming the monster. “Why are there people like Frank?” is really a question directed at himself—what if I become Frank? He keeps having nightmares, which Lynch slows down into the frames, the audio distorted as well. But the one that’s clear each time is Dorothy pleading “hit me,” and his action that followed. Jeffrey needs Sandy because he needs to hold onto his own innocence.
The beauty is that Dern plays both lines—naively innocent but also devilishly curious to dig into the darkness as well. I love the looks she gives any time she’s about to head off with Jeffery, worried about Mike and what he will think (the answer is she doesn’t give a shit). There's also her great facial reactions to Jeffrey staring at Dorothy at the club. Is it jealously? Is it confusion? Dern let's it all play out. But Dern also commits strongly to things that might be hokey—something like the robin monologue, which Lynch overemphasizes with the church in the background. Dern never bats an eye at any of this; she simply believes in the power of such hope.
It’s these scenes outside of Dorothy and Frank that ground Blue Velvet’s beautiful dichotomy. This isn’t a film about the seedy underbelly of a town, as much as it is about the relationship between these two. Sandy is the key to this. She wants both the innocence and naivety of high school romance, as well as the fun of playing detective. It is only when she finally sees the nude and beaten Dorothy that she collapses, her mouth contorting in ways no mouth ever does. Dern elongates as much as possible before breaking down. The face of horror is not the face of a madman. It’s innocence, seeing what the madmen do.