Friday, May 26, 2017

Gateway Lynch - BLUE VELVET

To celebrate the return of Twin Peaks after a twenty-five year hiatus, I wanted to dip into the exotic, surreal pool of David Lynch films.  Obviously, the most appropriate film for the occasion would be TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, but that might be a little too on the nose.  Also, it only came to me just now as I was writing this, and I already made a bunch of notes about a different movie, so I’m sticking with that one.  It turns out that might be an even more appropriate choice, though, because Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece BLUE VELVET could be thought of as his proto-Twin Peaks

The Capsule:
When Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his quaint hometown of Lumberton due to a family emergency, the discovery of a human ear in a field sends him on a dark and increasingly dangerous journey into the corruption hiding just underneath the town’s friendly surface.  His desire to help a desperate and alluring singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), sets the innocent young man on a collision course with the abusive, explosively psychotic hoodlum Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).  Sandy (Laura Dern), the sweet, innocent police detective’s daughter, becomes Jeffrey’s only connection to the light, and the one person who can save him from disappearing completely into the town’s seedy underworld. 

BLUE VELVET wasn’t my first introduction to David Lynch.  That would be DUNE, the doomed sci-fi epic that I saw too young to understand but fell completely in love with none the less.  I had also seen his more traditional drama THE ELEPHANT MAN, which had far fewer spaceships and giant worms, but still captivated me.  As much as I liked those movies, they did not prepare me for BLUE VELVET.  It was like nothing I had ever seen, both beautiful and transgressive.  Like many people developing their taste for strange, BLUE VELVET was the perfect gateway drug.

I’ve seen the movie at least a dozen times, but this was the first time I completely keyed in to how much it could be considered a dry run for Twin Peaks (or Twin Peaks as an extension of BLUE VELVET; however you want to say it).  Lumberton does not look particularly Northwestern (the movie was filmed in North Carolina), but it shares the same heavy lumber town motif central to Twin Peaks.  They also share a quality of being stuck in time, specifically the ‘50s, even though they take place in the present day.  Both towns cover their dark secrets under a layer of bright, law abiding hospitality.  They have matching diners (Arlene’s in BLUE VELVET, The Double R in Twin Peaks) where the kids meet for exposition and devising plans.  Each one has a smoky bar where an enchanting torch singer performs.

Many of the hallmark touches Lynch would use in Twin Peaks are on display here.  There are the hallucinatory dreams, the moments of melodrama, the quirky humor.  No dancing dwarves, but someone does use a very unconvincing disguise.  Not as unconvincing as Piper Laurie pretending to be an Asian man, but it's a start.

BLUE VELVET’s characters have their Twin Peaks correlations as well.  Jeffrey Beaumont has the makings of a Junior Agent Dale Cooper.  Once he catches hold of the mystery, he will not let it go, regardless of the personal risk.  He has Cooper’s earnestness and curiosity.  And while Cooper is a seasoned professional, they both share the same excitement at uncovering secrets.  When Jeffrey is explaining to Sandy what he had learned while staking out Frank Booth, he proudly uses nicknames for suspects like The Yellow Man, or The Well Dressed Man, exactly the way Agent Cooper would.

Jeffrey’s first real encounter with the dark side brilliantly twists the tone of the movie, going from innocent to uncomfortable to completely fucked up within the space of a few minutes.  He is still playing Hardy Boys when he sneaks into Dorothy’s apartment looking for unspecific clues in the Case of the Severed Ear.  When the mysterious singer unexpectedly returns home, Jeffrey hides in the closet.  He watches her through the slats of the door as she undresses, which is not very Boy Scout of him, in my opinion.  Dorothy seems to agree, as she grabs a butcher knife and pulls him from the closet.  The situation becomes more and more squirm inducing as she goes from angrily interrogating him, to ordering him to strip, to practically raping him at knife point.  Things only get worse once Frank shows up.  Dorothy shoves Jeffrey back into the closet where he has to watch Dennis Hopper give one of the most disturbingly effective explosion of psychotic acting ever filmed. 

Frank Booth is a live wire of menace.  He is already on edge when he enters the room because the meticulous script he imposes on Dorothy was not performed to the letter (“Where’s my fucking bourbon?”).  The light has to be just so, she can’t say anything to him or touch him, and for god’s sake, DO NOT LOOK AT HIM.  Frank is totally unhinged, and that is before he starts huffing from a canister of amyl nitrite.  Then all of Frank’s unhealthy mommy issues come out.

Even though she is at no point dead and wrapped in plastic, Dorothy mirrors the tragic face of Twin Peaks', Laura Palmer.  Like Sheryl Lee’s character, Dorothy is a victim of hideous forces beyond her control.  Both women internalize all the abuse, sending them farther down a twisted, self-destructive path.  After Booth’s assault, Jeffrey tries to help Dorothy, but she has no interest in being helped.  Instead, she goes right back to seducing him as if nothing had happened.  Her behavior vacillates between Booth’s aggressive style and her own masochistic feelings of worthlessness.  Jeffrey, being a fresh faced young horndog, is happy to go along until she whispers “hit me” in his ear.  At first Jeffrey reacts to this total boner killing moment appropriately, but she keeps pressing the issue until he gives in.

Jeffrey's attraction to the dark side puts him at odds with Agent Cooper’s unbending morals, and makes it harder to match him to any one person in Twin Peaks.  Most of the younger characters dabble in being bad to various degrees (Bobby, James, Audrey, Donna), but none perfectly capture both Jeffrey’s weakness to temptation and his tortured guilt at being unable to resist.   He keeps going back to Dorothy, not to help get her out of her situation, but for sex.  She is obviously not in a rational state of mind, saying things like “I have your disease in me now,” as if were romantic rather than batshit crazy, but he keeps coming back.  

Not that his illicit affair keeps him from also making time with Sandy.  The counter point to Dorothy, Sandy is introduced emerging from darkness like a beam of light.   She is the clear prototype for Lara Flynn Boyle’s Donna in Twin Peaks, sweet, pure, and trusting.  They even both have meathead football player boyfriends named Mike.  

Jeffrey does his best to keep his two worlds separate, but they collide in a spectacularly messy scene.  While taking Sandy back from a party, Jeffrey is chased home by a speeding car.  Jeffrey is relieved when it turns out to be a drunk and jealous Mike intent on kicking his ass rather than Frank Booth come to kill him, so much so that he completely throws Mike off his game.  He gets even more confused when Dorothy, naked and beaten up, staggers into Jeffrey’s yard.  He crudely asks Jeffrey “is that your mom,” but shuts up once he realizes the woman is hurt.  All he can do is apologize as Jeffrey and Sandy cover up Dorothy and get her into the car.  I love that one of Mike’s moron friends breaks the somber mood by complaining “I thought you were going to kill that guy.” 

It really gets awkward when they get Dorothy back to Sandy’s house.  Dorothy keeps clutching onto Jeffrey, calling him her secret lover and proudly telling Sandy and her mom, “I have his disease in me,” as if it meant they were engaged or something.  Understandably, Sandy doesn’t take it so well, but later she forgives Jeffrey over the phone and tells him she loves him.  Man, she should have twisted his balls a little before taking him back.  This is more than being stood up at the dance, Sandy.   Make him grovel for pulling some shit like that.

Dennis Hopper makes Frank such a singular and unique creation it’s hard to compare to anyone else, ever.  Frank Booth is the King Fuck of Psychos.  If you had to match him to a Twin Peaks counterpart, he’s most like a combination of Eric DaRe’s abusive lowlife criminal Leo and the chaotic malevolence of Bob (Frank Silva).  Not even a body hopping demon can hold a candle to Frank Booth, though.  He’s the type of guy you never want to be noticed by.  I get a pit in my stomach the moment he locks his eyes on Jeffrey coming out of Dorothy’s apartment.  It’s like being spotted by a tiger, but one that wants to fuck with you for a few hours before biting your head off.  With no way to refuse, Jeffrey gets dragged into one of the most intensely nerve-wracking road trips in history.

One place you never, ever want to be is stuffed in a muscle car between Raymond (Brad Dourif!) and Paul (Jack Nance, Pete from Twin Peaks in a very different role), with Frank Booth at the wheel.  It is a tense experience.  Frank's toadies don't get many lines, but with faces like theirs, they don't need them.

Their first stop takes a turn towards the surreal when they meet up with Ben (Dean Stockwell in his best role ever) a delicately suave heroin junkie who runs the most depressing brothel ever.  There's nobody quite like Ben in Twin Peaks. Ben is just Ben.  At first he seems like he could be sympathetic to Jeffrey’s dilemma since he appears to only be placating Frank for his own safety, but he turns out to be just another willing denizen of Frank’s strange world.  He sucker punches Jeffrey in the stomach, just because he can.  Then, in one of the most bizarre musical numbers ever, he entertains Frank by lip syncing a Roy Orbison song into a work lamp until Frank’s mood swings and sends his entourage back on the road.

Things come to a head when Jeffrey, unable to stomach Frank sexually abusing Dorothy (while driving AND huffing gas), suddenly punches the lunatic in the face.  Everything screeches to a halt and the cronies pull Jeffrey out of the car and hold him in front of Frank, who is literally delirious with rage.  Thanks to Hopper’s performance, the scene transcends from simply suspenseful to full out nightmare.  The crossed wires in Frank’s brain keep mixing up violence with attraction.  One second he is threatening to shoot Jeffrey in the head, the next he is smearing on lipstick and kissing the terrified kid over and over on the mouth.  Realistically we know the hero won’t die in the middle of the movie, but aside from death (maybe?), all bets are off.

Right in the middle of all this we get a beautifully Lynchian moment.  While Dorothy is in the car screaming for Frank not to hurt Jeffrey, Frank demands someone put on the Roy Orbison music again.  As soon as the song starts playing, the random hooker who tagged along from Ben’s place wordlessly gets out of the car, climbs onto the roof and starts go-go dancing.  No one acknowledges that this is happening.  It is wonderful.

Jeffrey only winds up having the shit beat out of him, which is the most he could have hoped for.  Especially since—as rumor has it—the original script had him waking up in a field with his pants around his ankles.

Their final confrontation occurs in the place where they first crossed paths.  [Spoiler for a 31 year old movie] For all his unrestrained brutality, Frank still gets outplayed by Jeffrey's quick thinking at the end.  The look of shock on Frank’s face when he realizes Jeffrey has the drop on him—the second before the kid puts a bullet through his head—is priceless.  Frank Booth’s exit is just as sudden and violent as his entrance into the movie.

The final shot of the film is a symbolic image of good triumphing (or eating) evil.  Everything is set right and life in the sun can continue.  The happy ending extended to Lynch as well.  The movie’s success allowed the director to bring us darker, stranger material, including expanding BLUE VELVET’s premise into an entire television series, one which very much subverted its predecessor’s tidy ending.  Lynch learned that just like Jeffrey, his audience had a fascination with the dangerous, sordid world lying just under the cheerful surface.  We should thank him for allowing us to safely dig in.

As Frank would say (by way of Ben’s toast), “Here’s to your fuck.”

C Chaka  

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