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Guest Writer


The flesh and bone of human nature
'Blue Velvet'
by Amy Nuttbrock

n 1986, Pabst Blue Ribbon became the new King of Beers. Moviegoers spilled from local theatres and plopped onto bar stools, nudging their friends sardonically while self-consciously touching their gooped hairstyles.

Conversations went something like this (voices altered with mock-lunacy):

"What kinda beer you like, kid?"

"Heineken."

"Heineken! Fuck that shit. Pabst Blue Ribbon!"

This is Dennis Hopper's timelessly quotable line, lifted and reenacted like an anti-ad campaign from David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" – a unique film not just about the strangeness lurking beneath a tranquil-looking world, but about the lurid eroticism surrounding that strange and perverse world.

Relative to our modern advertising model, in addition to the number of other works about small-town crime, "Blue Velvet"'s vision remains fiercely persistent. Part of the film's success is that its images work to deconstruct our responses and force us to reevaluate our expectations as consumer and audience member.

Ultimately, "Blue Velvet" is the natural darkness asserting itself against the mass-marketed perfection and synthetic nostalgia that capitalism prescribes to.

Lynch is no stranger to the advertising biz. He's been directing noir-quality commercials for Calvin Klein's Obsession, Clear Blue Easy pregnancy tests and Alka-Seltzer since the late '80s.

Yet, within his films, he seems to mock advertising.

During a 1997 Rolling Stone interview, he describes those '50s ads in magazines where you see an immaculately dressed woman preparing a pie, her face smeared with an incredible smile; or a smiling couple, walking hand in hand up to their neat picket-fenced house.

"Those were strange smiles," Lynch says. "They're the smiles of the way the world should or could be. They really made me dream like crazy. I longed for something out of the ordinary to happen."

"Blue Velvet" is a dream come true.

From the beginning, Lynch draws a deceptive parody of '50s nostalgia. We see red roses against white picket fences, firemen parading through town on shiny red fire engines, ultra-cute kindergartners crossing a tree-lined street. This is quaint, small-town Lumberton, a punctuated version of superficial idealism. There's a static, almost obsessional quality to this image, with its pop-song inflated, supersaturated color palette. This is the stuff that capitalism would love to have us longing for.

But is it realistic?

Enter our curious protagonists, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy Williams (Laura Dern). Both are products of their squeaky-clean environment, with their good-natured spirits and goofy, scripted dialogue. They read like a pair of Norman Rockwell kids, languidly swinging their legs under the soda fountain counter. But, like Lynch, they're suspicious of the smiles. Both ache to experience the other side of the facade.

When Jeffrey finds a severed ear decomposing among the bright shrubs of a neighborhood lot, we're abruptly jarred from dreamy Lumberton. What follows is a daring sequence of events that sends our protagonists tumbling down a rabbit hole of blackmail, kidnapping, sadomasochism, drugs and murder.

The plot plays out like a paperback mystery. Jeffrey takes the ear to the local police detective, whose daughter, Sandy, eavesdrops on the status of the investigation. Jeffrey's curiosity gets the best of him, and he presses Sandy for information on the case. Apparently, a local nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is suspected of criminal entanglement – possibly related to the ear. Jeffrey winds up hiding in her apartment in an adolescent attempt to spy. There, he discovers a rabid gang of characters lead by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), whose wild schemes threaten to overthrow the values of the sleepy little town.

Frank Booth inhabits the film's most memorable scenes. With his quick bursts of violence, omnisexual intensity and gas-huffing mania, he's cinema's most vile bad guy.

Watching him, we think we know what to expect. Then he reveals moments of tenderness and calm. In a sympathetic scene, we see Frank gently rubbing a swatch of blue velvet, his face wet and receptive as he watches Dorothy croon her cover of the title song. Later, he asks Jeffrey to feel his muscles. He also makes us laugh. His compulsive tendencies are amusing, almost cartoonish.

Compared to the upstanding citizens of Lumberton, Frank is the flesh and bone of human nature. His character conjures an emotional variance beyond the limited and very narrow way that advertising assumes we experience sex and life. It's no mistake that Frank would wind up the poster-boy for Pabst Blue Ribbon, if by accident.

Dorothy Vallen's character is equally complex. As Frank's sexual hostage, we see her role deliberately mixed up, reversed and reinvented, so that in the end, tenderness and violence intermingle and destroy the polarization of light and dark.

In a landmark scene, Dorothy discovers Jeffrey in her closet and produces a knife. She orders him to strip, then seduces him while demanding that he not look at her. When Frank arrives, Jeffrey is ushered back into the closet where he watches Frank violate Dorothy while referring to her as Mommy. Once Frank has left, Jeffrey reemerges to comfort Dorothy. She asks if he's a bad boy, then encourages him to hit her.

During this scene, we feel like we've just witnessed a multi-car pile-up – we can't believe what we're watching, yet can't turn away.

Part of Dorothy's appeal is how erotically constructed her character is. She's a moody, heavily lipsticked mystery. Whether she's answering the door or asking to be felt up, Lynch evokes her most carnal, slinky qualities. Her actions are instinctual and reactive as a feline's. She approaches us at a core level and evokes our more off-cue, root responses.

The majority of the film follows Jeffrey and Sandy as they dig deeper and deeper into the weirdness with the stock, wide-eyed expressions of spectators. Along the way, Jeffrey becomes disturbed by the darkness and violence he finds within himself. In an attempt to philosophize, he implores: Why are there people like Frank in the world?

We know there's no simple answer to this, and Lynch doesn't offer one. In the end, we assume that Jeffrey has matured into a thoughtful, more skeptical individual despite the fact that goodness is restored and we're returned to the bright, tacky colors of Lumberton.

Still, "Blue Velvet" is as flirtatious as a Gap Jeans commercial. Lynch ultimately draws on our desires and allows us to accept the murkier parts by not trying to sell us on quick explanations and psychoanalizations.

We're left with the impression that he knows we know how silly it is to pitch a product (be it pie, pair of Nikes or pregnancy test) by pretending that it will make us like those plastic caricatures waving through the neighborhood at the beginning of his film. We already know that underneath the pretty veneer are the darker, more visceral hues of human nature. We're all more or less aware of our own shadowy contradictions and general state of mortality, even when we're constantly ascending.

As Sandy and Jeffrey alternately proclaim: It's a strange world. But at least there's "Blue Velvet" – a film we can still toast a beer to.

"Blue Velvet" shows June 13-19 at Portland's Cinema 21.


E-mail Amy at amynuttbrock@hotmail, and see more of her work in our archives.



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