AVENUE

“Blue Velvet” revisited – a film historian’s look back

Bill Ackerman’s scholarly essay on Wilmington’s most famous film production.

(originally published in Avenue May 2006 and updated, re-run in Bootleg issue #40, November 2008)

By Bill Ackerman

If we buy into the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls hypothesis that argues that the 1970s were a golden age for American film, that visionary director-driven cinema thrived until Star Wars changed the landscape, then the 1980s has to be consequently dismissed as a decade of escapist spectaculars. It was the heyday of Steven Spielberg fantasies and Simson/Bruckheimer blockbusters, when 1970s icons like Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman struggled to stay in the game.

The independent film world had the occasional breakout success, with pictures like Stranger Than Paradise or Return Of the Secaucus 7 achieved glowing reviews and decent ticket sales. Yet they were marginalized efforts, and maybe a little too hip to really feel threatening. Yet when writer/director David Lynch’s Blue Velvet was released in 1986, it had an immeasurable impact on the medium that belied its modest commercial success.

This landmark film is one of the most important motion pictures to have been shot in Wilmington, North Carolina. Based on Lynch’s second original screenplay, it deals with college student Jeffrey Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) journey into the seamy underworld lurking beneath the surface of his hometown after finding a severed ear in a field.

Partnering with the police chief’s daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), his investigation entangles him with mysterious nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and sadistic gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). The film smuggled kinky sexual behavior, surreal imagery, and ironic humor into the mainstream, and its fashionable/profitable arrival helped to open the doors for the subsequent Sundance/Miramax era.

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Lynch had first attracted notice with experimental feature Eraserhead (1977), one of the major successes of the midnight movie era that flourished in 1970s. Filmed over several years with a budget scraped together from AFI funding, donations from Sissy Spacek, and Lynch’s paper route, this uncanny meditation on the horror of parenting presented many of Lynch’s stylistic trademarks and thematic concerns in their most raw form. Mel Brooks was impressed by it enough to entrust Lynch with directing duties on The Elephant Man, which was a critical and financial success.

Having been swamped with offers to direct everything from Fast Times At Ridgemont High to Return Of The Jedi, Lynch signed on to helm a screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune for producer Dino de Laurentiis. Dune already had a tortuous history making it to the screen, with both Ridley Scott (who opted to do Blade Runner instead) and cult favorite Alejandro Jodorowsky (best known for the surreal midnight movie hit El Topo) attached to productions that had fallen apart.

Photographed with a somewhat murky brown color palette and overloaded with information (in futile effort to distill a very dense book, some very cumbersome voiceover is employed), Lynch’s Dune was a bust both critically and commercially. The project entailed a great deal of compromise from Lynch in both the production and the editing, and could have wrought real damage to Lynch’s career had The Elephant Man not been on his resume. As Lynch would later admit to writer Chris Rodley in the book Lynch On Lynch, “I got into a bad thing there.”

Blue Velvet was a necessary return to a more intimate, personal kind of filmmaking a la Eraserhead after the strain and concessions of Dune. Because de Laurentiis wanted to retain a working relationship with Lynch after Dune (while recognizing the commercial chanciness of a film like Blue Velvet), he granted him a small budget (6 million) and complete creative control of the film. Lynch, in exchange for this artistic freedom, had to cut his salary as writer and director in half. This arrangement would ultimately pay off for both, and Lynch has yet to surrender final cut on any film since.

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Behind the camera, Lynch reunited with Eraserhead alumni Frederick Elmes (director of photography) and the late Alan Splet (sound designer). Lynch had grown attached to shooting in black and white after Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, and shot Dune in color almost reluctantly. After some initial color tests on Blue Velvet wherein he and Elmes experimented with de-saturating the image towards monochrome, they opted to take the opposite approach. Elmes vibrant, highly saturated color photography was the antithesis of Freddie Francis’ work on Dune, and would ultimately earn many awards and nominations.

Splet’s sound design on Eraserhead had been one of its most distinctive, groundbreaking elements, and in the years following that film had subsequently earned a special Academy Award for his sound effects on The Black Stallion. Although a participant on The Elephant Man and Dune, Blue Velvet gave Splet greater latitude to experiment on the picture’s sound design. His final collaboration with Lynch would prove to be a terrific sonic achievement, combining humming ambient drones, animal cries, industrial grinding, and other pre-digital aural inventions into a dense layer of tones and effects.

Blue Velvet also marked the first collaboration with music composer Angelo Badalamenti. Since Isabella Rossellini was a novice a singer, Badalamenti had been brought in at the suggestion of producer Fred Caruso to help them get a workable take of her singing the title song. Badalamenti not only succeeded in working out the song’s sultry new arrangement, he solved a second musical problem for the film.

Lynch had hoped to use This Mortal Coil’s ethereal cover version of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song To A Siren’ in the film, but the indie chart-topper’s price was outside of the film’s budget (though Lynch was able to use it years later in Lost Highway). Badalamenti wrote a new song called ‘Mysteries of Love,’ employing his friend Julee Cruise to sing a poem of Lynch’s to one of his melodies. These initial accomplishments so encouraged Lynch that Badalamenti was asked to compose the full score to the picture, and a creative relationship was born that has carried over to all subsequent Lynch film and television projects.

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In casting the film, many actors (including Val Kilmer and Molly Ringwald) passed because of the screenplay’s sexual content. Kyle MacLachlan was cast as Jeffrey, having previously starred in Dune. Laura Dern, fresh from the equally dark coming-of-age tale Smooth Talk, took the role of Sandy. The part of Dorothy Vallens went to Isabella Rossellini after Helen Mirren passed.

Dennis Hopper claimed the role of Frank Booth, famously enthusing “I’ve got to play Frank, because I am Frank.” Among the actors that unsuccessfully sought out the role of Frank, both Willem Defoe and Robert Loggia would appear as heavies in subsequent Lynch films. Supporting actors included Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, and Hope Lange.

The late Eraserhead star Jack Nance was given a small role in Frank’s gang, and he promptly took up residence at the Barbary Coast during the shoot. A few of the film’s supporting roles were filled with local Wilmington residents, including Debra Schuckman, Dennis Cyphers, Gene Pulley Jr., Fred Pickler and Jon-Jon Snipes. And if you were a Dixie Grill patron a decade ago, it’s likely that you were served by a local character credited in the film simply as “Bonnie,” who played the dancing Doll Woman.

Lynch shot Blue Velvet in Wilmington in early 1985 with an estimated budget of six million dollars. The production employed both the lone DEG studio soundstage and numerous downtown Wilmington exteriors (the Carolina apartments on Market Street, the Wilmington Police department, the Barbary Coast, New Hanover Memorial Hospital, New Hanover High School and the exterior of the coffee house on 4th St. among them).

The production ran smoothly (barring one incident explored below), with Lynch calling it “the best film experience for me since Eraserhead, for sure”. Sadly, no one was able to get a horse up the stairs of (the building) where they filmed the sequence involving Dean Stockwell’s famously suave Ben. How Lynch planned to incorporate the horse into things is probably best left to one’s own imagination.

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After a few festival screenings and an awful sneak preview (curiously paired with Top Gun), Blue Velvet appeared opened on 70 screens in the autumn of 1986. In terms of its critical reception, it became one of the most controversial films of its era.  For every smitten writer like The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman (“there hasn’t been an American studio film so rich, so formally controlled, so imaginatively cast and wonderfully acted, and so charged with its maker’s psychosexual energy since Raging Bull”) there was an appalled Rex Reed (on At The Movies, he called it “the sickest wallow in filth and sleaze”). Interestingly, novelist (and future Lynch collaborator on Lost Highway) Barry Gifford, whose Sailor and Lula was adapted into Lynch’s subsequent feature ‘Wild at Heart’, initially disparaged the film as an example of “phlegm noir” in The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films.

While the influential New Yorker critic Pauline Kael’s rave helped launch the film as a major event among cineastes, Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert’s fervent attack on the film might be the most famous piece written on the picture. Ebert held a particularly strong aversion to the scene featuring Isabella Rossellini’s character being found nude and beaten on the street, believing that “Lynch distances himself from her ordeal with his clever asides and witty little in-jokes. In way, his behavior is more sadistic than the Hopper character.”

Others would join in Ebert’s discomfort with this scene, and for reasons outside of mere film criticism, in the late 1990s when Isabella Rossellini’s autobiography Some Of Me was released. She describes a small crowd of families with “blankets and picnic baskets” being present during the shooting of the scene that refused to disperse, despite her pleading. Upon hearing “cut,” she was given a robe and saw that the crowd was gone. Her account is vague about when the crowd dispersed. On the following day, the Wilmington police told them that no further permits for shooting in the streets would be granted. 

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David Lynch’s public persona had yet to be softened into the amiable “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” character that made him a popular Tonight Show guest and Time cover star circa Twin Peaks. Reports of his breaking into hysterical laughter during the filming of the violent sexual encounter between Frank and Dorothy raised eyebrows, while his admission that the film’s initial inspiration came out of a desire to “sneak into a girl’s room to watch her at night and maybe, at one point or another…see something that would be the clue to a murder mystery” did little to quell the charges of misogyny that Lynch received.

Blue Velvet was the first Lynch film to marry strange imagery with a realistic, present-day Americana setting. In her review of the film, Pauline Kael presciently observed “Lynch might turn out to be the first populist surrealist – a Frank Capra of dream logic”. Where Lynch breaks with the values of, say, a Luis Buñuel, is in his conservative worldview. Rather than subverting or attacking small town bourgeois life, Blue Velvet celebrates it for all its eccentricities.

This approach was also to be adopted for Lynch’s follow-up project, collaboration with Mark Frost on the television show Twin Peaks. The show shared superficial similarities with Blue Velvet in that it dealt with murder and mysterious secrets in a small logging town, but it went on to enjoy much greater mass approval (at least initially) than any of Lynch’s films.

Blue Velvet often employs an absurd, deadpan tone that proved arguably more jarring to viewers than the violence, profanity or sexual content. Were emotionally earnest scenes like Sandy’s euphoric account a dream intended to be taken straight or as comedy? This ambiguity not only lies at the heart of much of the criticism the film received, but might even go some way to explain how so many disparate interpretations of the film have cropped up over the last twenty years.

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Because the universe where the film is set is an amalgam of 1950s/early 1960s and 1980s elements, some writers interpreted this stylistic choice as a witty satire on the similarities between the conservative Eisenhower and Reagan eras (just as contemporaneous time-travel fantasies like Back To The Future and Peggy Sue Got Married explored the differences for more nostalgic ends).

Yet a writer like Cineaste’s Karen Jaehne saw the film as an explicitly reactionary fantasy, a warning “against temptations to pursue knowledge.” In interviews Lynch is loath to assign meaning to his work, which ensures further interpretations (political and otherwise) are bound to emerge.

As original as Blue Velvet was, there were a few cinematic antecedents. Critics have often drawn comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, Rear Window and Psycho, as well as to Charles Laughton’s lone directorial effort, The Night Of The Hunter (a lyrical tale of horror presented from a child’s perspective). Less often mentioned is Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964), a pulpy noir favorite championed by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and John Waters, which similarly explores sleaze and perversity lurking beneath a tranquil suburban setting.

Lynch’s ironic usage of pop music is a technique pioneered in Kenneth Anger’s influential short film Scorpio Rising (1964), which even utilized the song Blue Velvet in particular. Additionally, Lynch’s film could be included among the number of quirky, hyper-stylized contemporary film noir thrillers that followed in the wake of the Coen Brothers’ debut, Blood Simple (1984).

A few of the actors from Blue Velvet had prior screen credits (Smooth Talk, the forgotten Brad Dourif vehicle Istanbul, and especially Dennis Hopper’s cult sleeper Out Of the Blue) that contain sexually disturbing scenes that strongly echo those found in Lynch’s film. Most of the numerous The Wizard Of Oz references found in earlier drafts on the screenplay were excised and later injected into Wild At Heart, but Dorothy Vallens’ name (not to mention her red shoes) survived.

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Although a hard sell to the traditional movie going public, the heavy critical buzz helped propel the picture into a moderate hit at the box office. It earned over 8 million domestically, less than The Elephant Man or Dune, but a modest return due to its low budget. The film scored numerous year-end critics prizes, including being voted best film by the National Society of Film Critics (beating out such celebrated hits as Platoon and Hannah and Her Sisters).  It even garnered Lynch his second Oscar nomination for Best Director (he scored a previous nod for The Elephant Man).

Filmmakers have always been among the films’ most vocal supporters. Woody Allen rated the film to be the best of 1986. Salon.com quoted Peter Greenaway declaring “I pay it the highest compliment by saying I wish I’d made it myself.” Guy Maddin, whose own Saddest Music In The World gave Isabella Rossellini what may be her best role since playing Dorothy Vallens, wrote in The Village Voice: “I’m sure directors throughout the film world felt the earth move beneath their feet and couldn’t sleep the night of their first encounter with it.”

Blue Velvet can be seen informing films as diverse as My Own Private Idaho (Udo Kier’s bizarre musical interlude), Clerks (Jason Mewes’ declaration to “fuck anything that moves”), Tarnation (which presents Lynch’s film as a high school musical) and even Reservoir Dogs (sadism scored to ironic, cheerful music; ear removal). It was most recently referenced in the Oscar-nominated indie feature The Squid and the Whale, which is set during the period when Blue Velvet came out. 

Blue Velvet’s reputation has only grown stronger over the last twenty years. The film made #5 on a 2002 Sight & Sound poll of the top 10 films of the past quarter-century. It has been the subject of multiple books and countless articles. It’s had a very healthy second life on home video and DVD. And it continues to draw crowds whenever revival houses bring it back to the big screen, where a great film always works the best.

Because it has so few ties to the popular culture of the era in which it was produced, it hasn’t really dated. There’s a primal quality that the film contains which hasn’t diminished despite the numerous films and television that have borrowed from it. It just may be America’s strangest film classic.

40 november 2008

Bootleg 40, November 2008, cover art Kinga

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