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Pain Songs
Richard Maxwell

Written and directed by David Lynch, whose previous pictures include Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Dune, Blue Velvet has received nearly unanimous acclaim. It is probably the best-reviewed movie of the last year-and-a-half, uniting such grey eminences as Stanley Kauffman and Pauline Kael with younger critics like Steve Vineberg and a host of TV sages.1

To have pleased so many people of such different sensibilities is quite an accomplishment. However, while Blue Velvet is a wonderful anthology of praiseable bits and pieces, the question of how it works as a whole has not been faced, not yet. I want to suggest that this film is more vacuous, more regressive in its way than the standard studio products to which it is being favorably compared. Blue Velvet is not so much an escape from the Eighties as a summation of this decade's stupidest impulses.

One of the best moments in the film—a moment that suggests its potential strengths—occurs almost immediately. We see a middle-aged man watering the lawn; knees buckling, he collapses awkwardly onto a bursting, spurting hose which not only suggests the stroke or hemorrhage he has just had but begins defining that mixed realm of sex and death which will prove to be Lynch's subject.

The stroke victim turns out to be the father of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a college-age boy who returns home to take over the family hardware business while dad is in the hospital. Though not by any means alone—he has a bevy of female relatives whose twittering sympathy is played for laughs—Jeffrey finds himself at something of a loss; paternal authority eliminated, or at least offstage, he will stumble into a new and frightening family. His father's collapse is visualized so that it serves as a bridge: in a dream-like way it sets the tone for Jeffrey's descent into the underworld of this picturesque little town.

Soon his descent begins in earnest. Walking through a field he discovers a human ear. He drops off the ear at the local police station, where a detective takes a calm but steady interest in it; later Jeffrey runs into the detective's daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) and persuades her to help him investigate a singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) who may have some connection with the developing mystery.

While Sandy waits outside in a car, Jeffrey explores Dorothy's flat (she lives in the aptly-named Deep River apartment building); peeking out from a closet where he has taken refuge, he sees her enter and undress. Realizing that Jeffrey is watching, Dorothy drives him out of the closet and forces him to strip at knife point; they are interrupted by the arrival of Frank (Dennis Hopper), the biggest pervert in town. Jeffrey is getting in deep.

Up to about this point Blue Velvet had me. Everything is off-key, just slightly, but the flat dialogue, the over-saturated colors, and the faux-naif presentation of small-town life work together beautifully: in his odd staggering swings between horror and the everyday, Lynch is getting somewhere strange very fast.

The first serious problem is Den­nis Hopper's performance as Frank. Hopper has thrived of late: playing against an inflatable doll in the disastrous River's Edge and against a champion basketball team in Hoosiers, he has managed to chew up more scenery than the av­erage stagehog gets to consume in a lifetime. Lynch has Hopper do his standard weird-guy number; it doesn't suffice. The ravaged, sexy Rossellini is so convincing as Dorothy, the exploited masochist, that Hopper's brutal clowning palls; he's not committed enough—I want to say not good enough—to be the personification of evil, the snake in the garden. He's an actor enjoying his own hamminess rather than a sadist enjoying the pain he inflicts on Dorothy and others.

"Why are there people like Frank?" Jeffrey asks Sandy; he speaks in a quavering voice, appropriate for one who has recently discovered the importance of theodicies, but the movie is seri­ously out of joint in having him formulate this query: he might as well be asking, "Why are there people like Bozo?" for all the resonance his question possesses.

I should note that Frank never does live up to his evil potential, at least within the central action of Blue Velvet; during a crucial scene midway through the film he is allowed a motive and a chance to inflict some sort of major erotic humiliation on Jeffrey. Lynch's imagination suddenly goes blank: all he can come up with is a pathetic little kiss ritual, as if he too realized that Frank, as interpreted by Hopper, is all bark and no bite. (I am reminded of Ron Moody's lovable Fagin from the film musical Oliver; however, Moody was at least a genuinely seductive devil.)

If Lynch has serious difficulties with the representation of evil, so does he with the representation of good. Sandy, the gorgeous, golden virgin, is supposed to embody a kind of moral strength founded on innocence and idealism. Laura Bern is winning in this part but Lynch does some odd things with her. Sandy's big scene is a conver­sation she has with Jeffrey, while they sit in a car parked in front of a church. Behind them: glowing stained glass windows. Behind them: subdued organ music. Against these accompaniments, visual and aural, Sandy explains to her panic-stricken friend that the world will be saved by the arrival of a thousand robins, scattering love through all the world.

People who like this film are gen­erally anxious to explain, or ex­plain away, this sequence. It's clearly not "camp," to use the Sixties term; Lynch is not constructing a piece of ironically-intended schlock which we then enjoy in a condescending way (less for content than for style). What's going on here then? Steve Vineberg writes: "as Laura Bern reads the lines, the cliche is so intensified that it becomes joyful, and the emotional color almost blinding." If we believe Vineberg, Lynch, the intuitive emotional filmmaker, is feeling his way into cliches, discovering the truth that still lies nestled at their heart despite the linguistic abuse of centuries.

Pauline Kael would perhaps agree with this—she refers to Lynch as a Frank Capra of dream logic—but she adds a slightly different twist to her discussion of the robin scene. When Sandy babbles on so ingenuously, the point is that she has seen "too many daytime soaps." The conversation in the car is intended to expose her illusions. Kael clinches her point by remind­ing us that Blue Velvet ends (happily, it would seem) with a robin arriving on a windowsill, a big juicy worm in its mouth. Nature is cruel, tooth and claw, etc.—not the be­nign presence our golden girl finds it.

Kael is a bit more convincing than Vineberg; however, that robin at the end is rather obviously mechanical, like a fugitive from the Tiki House at Disneyland. The fact is, Lynch has made so many cute jokes, has demonstrated his knowingness so many different ways, that Sandy's speech, her vision if you will, ends up having no real significance at all: it's idle doodling, what an extremely kind and patient critic might call "experimental."

This wavering and indulgent attitude prevails through most of the film. Many of the later scenes are out-and-out disasters, such as the sequence where Dorothy turns up naked in front of Sandy's house just as Sandy and Jeffrey arrive by car. When Kael and Vineberg insist that Blue Velvet has some great comic scenes, they must be thinking of Jeffrey's difficulties at this moment (among others): how do you explain to your girlfriend's mom what an undressed woman with whom you are on first-name terms is doing in her living-room?2

The problem is that Jeffrey, not to mention Lynch, makes no real attempt to solve this intriguing problem. The actors go through their paces as though they are trying to do an eighteenth-century farce under the influence of sleeping pills. Here, as so often, the effeet is neither witty, weird, nor even . . . experimental. It's just underdeveloped.

There are some good moments in Blue Velvet, even after the main conflict has collapsed. Lynch gets his best performance from Bean Stockwell (the erstwhile child star of Anchors Aweigh). Stockwell plays Frank's friend Ben, a drug dealer who is holding Dorothy's little boy hostage in a sort of No Exit living room populated by stoned fat women. Made up like a vicious Pierrot, Stockwell lip-synchs Roy Orbison's melancholy tune "In Dreams." (Orbison sings about "the candy-colored clown they call the sandman"—good theme song for someone in Ben's profession.)

Lip-synching has long had a role in our culture: think of the old American Bandstand-type shows, where a pop singer would appear in person and then mouth the words to his own hit song while the record played and a passel of teenagers danced. The separation of body from voice is a form of self-alienation with which we're all familiar, if not comfortable. Hearing Orbison's deep, quavery voice while Stockwell mouths his words is a memorable sensation nonetheless: not quite American Bandstand, not quite daemonic possession.

We can learn something from this sequence about the lugubrious parts of Fifties (and early Sixties) teenage lore: Orbison, Presley, James Dean, the whole overripe mess. We can also learn something about that falsest emotion, nostalgia, and its ability to give old idols new life. Lynch encourages us to cross a boundary line, one we may have sensed was there, between Orbison's weepy self-pity and the cold cruelty embodied here by Ben.

Stockwell's cameo delivers what Blue Velvet so often promises: we start with a seemingly innocent surface (the song) and find within it a self-indulgent corruption. The problem is not that this sort of discovery is hackneyed: in the context of 1980s Hollywood it is arguably brave and valuable. Lynch's difficulty is just the opposite. For all we've heard about the no-holds-barred quality of Blue Velvet, the film finally serves as a mechanism of repression, repression, more­over, of a peculiarly mindless sort. Vineberg insists that Lynch wants to keep both idyll and nightmare "in sharp focus, insisting with the passion of a native surrealist that they can co-exist." But—as I've ar­gued—idyll and nightmare are resolutely out of focus, morally if not literally.

A comment from another ad­mirer, David Chute, comes a little closer to the truth. "The picture toys with the notion that happiness is a matter of confining yourself stubbornly to the sunny surface of things, of not probing too deeply into their wormy innards." Chute has a point, although he doesn't follow it through. Lynch prevents himself from imagining fully the nature of good or evil; this self-mystification allows him to work to­wards a happy ending which he mocks and simultaneously wants us to believe, robins and all. He is not a naive surrealist so much as a practitioner of doublethink.

At the end of Blue Velvet we're left with one hero and only one: the detective, Sandy's father, who can work within a corrupt milieu without being touched by it, who becomes—as Jeffrey could not— our protector. It is typical of Blue Velvet that the thoughts, the experience, of our protector remain completely unavailable to us. Father knows best . . . but only so long as he can remain a mysteriously distant, coolly benign figure.

Peter Brooks once constructed a theory of melodrama according to which the absurdities of this form can be traced to confusion and anx­iety about the disappearance of moral absolutes (The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess, Yale, 1976). "We may legitimately claim that melodrama becomes the principal mode for uncovering, demonstrating, and making operative the essential moral universe in a post-sacred era." To put the point another way, in a culture where absolutes seem to have disintegrated, a sense of morality can be restored through the operations of terror. Brooks applies his theory to works by Balzac, Henry James, and others. Melodrama in his sense is a term that includes high as well as low art; James' apparent rejections of melodrama contain themselves a melodramatic component.

To some extent Lynch can be understood as a melodramatist— and in these terms even his worst failures may seem excusable. Of course he can't imagine characters capable of embodying the forces of good and evil he strives to imagine; it is in the very nature of his cultural dilemma that—no matter how hard he strives—his personification will remain inadequate, that the thing he is trying to express will remain partially unsaid. Of course he must revert to dependence on an arbitrary figure. The most desperate, the most excessive of genres, melodrama necessarily works by these equivocal means. I suspect that some such argument lies be­hind a good deal of the critical praise for Blue Velvet.

In one crucial respect, however, the argument is unjustified. Balzac, Dickens, even James, indulged in the silliest of melodramatic conventions but almost always in tandem with other energies. Lynch has reverted to a form of melodrama so pure that it makes thinking impossible. Kael, Chute, and Vineberg either state or imply that Lynch doesn't need to think. Can they say the same of themselves or of the American polity at large?

Notes:

1I  will quote from Kael's review in The New Yorker, September 22, 1986, Vineberg's in The Threepenny Review, Spring 1987, and David Chute's in Film Comment, October 1986.

2For Vineberg, this scene is "the funniest and most reckless emotional apocalypse in any contemporary American movie." Kael affirms Blue Velvet's (partly) comic impact without citing examples.

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