IN CONVERSATION: "Blue Velvet" dir., David Lynch, 1986

This is the first installment of a series called "In Conversation," a series of critical back-and-forths that attempt to capture the best aspects of film talk and written analysis.  I begin this project with one of my favorite interlocuters on the subject of film, Nathaniel Drake Carlson.  Nathaniel is a writer of fiction, film criticism and screenplays. He was a feature film critic for Fever Pitch magazine (check out the Pitch piece chronicling his journey to find Everett Lewis's "lost" film Ambush of Ghosts here), contributed a number of pieces to the new collection 501 Movie Directors, which includes essays on Manoel de Oliveira, Alexander Sokurov and Lucrecia Martel, and has been published in Cineaste online and PopMatters.  Most importantly for me, Nathaniel is the person with whom I most enjoy talking about film.  I hope you enjoy our attempt to translate and augment the spirit of a conversation we have been having for nearly 20 years to Ecstatic.  We have an intriguing list of films lined up for this segment that either continue to emerge in our ongoing conversations, or we feel have fallen away from the larger conversation about film, and perhaps deserve another look.  Please let us know what you think, and feel free to add your insight to the message boards.
Jason Hedrick:  When you suggested that we develop some critical pieces that use our voices in conversation, addressing films that we would mutually decide on as the proper fit for that treatment, I have to say that I thought of everything and nothing all at once, and failed to land on any good choices.  Then, you sent me a list of films that brought it into focus for me.  Without giving away where we are going to go next, I am up for "talking over" every entry on your list, and then some.  I'm sure I'll come up with ideas for entries as we go, and I suspect our conversations will lead us to some films that we can't foresee at this early stage in the experiment.
It is probably important to note a couple of things before we begin, particularly that you and I have been in conversation about film since we first met at a small college in Dixon, IL in the early 90's, and even though you have traveled to a number of different home bases over the years, we have always managed to pick up where we left off, mostly by phone, as a way to continue a conversation that, not to get too lofty about it, I have always seen as an ongoing work of art, meanderings and imperfections included.  Having taught Speech Communications for twelve years, I have often referred to our ongoing talks as an example of how putting the arts into conversation is a way of not only maintaining and marking those works of cultural significance--each critical pass like a vote for that particular, expression, moment, scene, idea, or film--but also of developing a deeper sense of memory and insight, as we then carry on and refine our conversations with others.  Also, though we have both had our associations with film and literature within academic and other creative realms, these conversations come forth with no other intent than shedding what will hopefully be a brighter critical light on these works as a product of combining our analytic voices.  I know I speak for both of us in saying that we truly love engaging with film critically, and although I think our tastes are probably more similar than not, we both cover a pretty vast expanse of cinematic territory, and I am curious to find out where we diverge in our read of what we encounter, particularly in relation to a film like the one we have lined up for our first installment:  David Lynch's 1986 film, Blue Velvet.

Once again, this film was your suggestion, Nathaniel, and, after committing to reviewing the film for this purpose, it is hard to imagine a more perfect place to start.  But...where to start?  Lynch has been examined through so many different critical lenses that it seems difficult to entertain the notion of approaching a work as influential as this one completely anew.  I can't imagine that you would want to talk about Blue Velvet through a Freudian framework, as many understandably have, or through a lens that only addresses it's qualities as a work of modern art, as simply a painting to be picked apart in terms of it's use of color and light, a direction Lynch seems to lead us toward quite often in conversation about his work  Or, maybe you do!--as I said, I think we trust each other enough to follow one another down any path of consideration. 

Even before I began to review Blue Velvet, which I have seen only a handful of times, I had to acknowledge a few facts about when it was made.  In personal reflection, some of those facts were a bit embarrassing...but, I was a mere freshman in high school when Blue Velvet was released, and the miracle of VHS repeatability led me to obsess over a number of films in a way that not only seems foreign to me now, but a huge waste of time.  1986 found me rewinding again and again films that, on the one hand, I still have a certain fondness for--Scorsese's The Color of Money, Cronenberg's The Fly, Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, and Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast--and, on the other hand, films I'm embarrassed to have watched as often as I did--CobraThe HitcherHouseBack to School, and, in dreams of guitar-god abilities, the face-melting guitar wank finale to the Walter Hill directed Ralph Macchio vehicle Crossroads.  I cannot remember the degree to which Blue Velvet was on my radar, but given that I had just recently convinced my mother that it would be alright for me to watch most R-rated features, it may have presented itself as one of those video store pics that was "too risky."  If I had a sense of it, I believe it was as one of those odd pics reviewed on a Sunday night installment of "Siskel and Ebert:  At the Movies" (a show on the verge of dying as I write this, and a show that was a truly great point of access for kids like us to find out about film we may never have heard about otherwise).  In terms of reflecting on 80's cinema, I guess I realized that '86 may not be as representative of what I've come to regard as one of the most artistically bankrupt decades in cinema's history as, say, the years that preceded it.  In one of the first film series that I programmed as an instructor at my former college, entitled "Decade Defining Films," Blue Velvet was my choice for the representative of the 1980's.  At the time, I was thinking of the ways in which the film has been read as an exploration of the bright cultural surfaces, leftover from the 1950's, that the culture was so desperately trying to cling to in the 80's, while just below the surface (or, just across town, as it were) the ugliness of the Reagan era was festering, transparent and accessible to anyone with the eyes of a Jeffery Beaumont.

After viewing Blue Velvet last night, I realize that it may exist best in that historical context, as it has lost some of it's charm for me over the years.  Added to that, we are now looking at it through some of the most celebrated works of Lynch's career--films, I assume, we both love dearly (correct me if I'm wrong), particularly, Twin Peaks:  Fire Walk With MeLost HighwayThe Straight StoryMulholland Drive, and Inland Empire.  As I consider Blue Velvet with those films in mind, I realize that my true awakening to Lynch, a director who has few equals in my critical esteem, was with his 1999 film, Lost Highway.  I consider Lost Highway to be so much richer in terms of creating that quality of "mystery" that Jeffery is so rapt by as he talks to Sandy over coffee at Arlene's, and that Lynch would explore with a greater sense of abandon, and in much less commercial, genre-bound ways, in the years after Blue Velvet.  In this respect, Blue Velvet, while still holding the capacity to incite shock, laughter, and surprise in equal measure, seems like a bit of a warm up to what would come in the 90's and beyond.  Am I giving the film short shrift here, or do you see it as succeeding for, perhaps, those very same reasons?

Lost Highway

Nathaniel Drake Carlson: First of all, Jason, thank you for the kind words of introduction. I very much appreciate and look forward to the opportunity of developing our conversation here on this film and, hopefully, many more to come.

I can relate to much of what you have said in respect to my own relationship to movies at a formative age and, for me, Blue Velvet was one of the foremost among them. I came to it rather late, when I was about 16 in early 1990. What inspired me to seek it out at that time was preparation for the premiere of Lynch's TV classic, Twin Peaks. I had been very much caught up in the media thrall surrounding that one and the ultimate resonance and effects the series left upon me in terms of impact was pretty well unparalleled in my cultural development. Peaks was and still remains hugely important to me and influential upon me. I had had exposure to Lynch's work before then, primarily through the The Elephant Man, a prestige project familiar in outline but far more bold in its commitment, and the commercial disaster of Dune, a movie I continue however to have tremendous affection for (it may be the Lynch film I have seen the most and even cherish the most for various complicated, contradictory and perhaps not even altogether coherent reasons). Blue Velvet, meanwhile, was known to me only by its reputation, as an object of heated controversy and one which I sensed that I may be too young to be exposed to--it resonated as an "adult" product in every way and was consistently understood as such. I remember being stunned by it upon my first encounter with it, the first of many more to come over the years.

Having said all that, I did return to the film now with some trepidation, partly for the reasons you mentioned. What else needs be or can be said about a film so thoroughly discussed? How well would it hold up in the face of Lynch's later, arguably more developed work? Also, how could it hold up to my memories of it? I discounted any fears regarding the first question as we know well that any worthwhile film or cultural object will reveal itself as such by how much more can be said about it, how much more can be mined from it. There are always ways remaining to approach or respond to great work, some having to do with the very discrepancy of cultural history and vantage point made available by the passage of time. As for the other concerns, I too had the experience, perhaps because of the then awesome novelty of VHS, of rewatching favored pictures over and over again. But it has been years since I've seen most of those movies. My neglect has nothing in particular to do with any assumptions of quality. It's just that the novelty has worn off and very few films at present exert that kind of very specific pull to compel me to seriously engage with them repeatedly. But it is no exaggeration to say that I know Blue Velvet backwards and forwards, even now--every shot, cut, sound cue, the pacing and delivery of dialogue--for whatever reason, permanently etched in my memory. There is a sense with stuff like that that there is no need to return to it. I've fully internalized these films and am versed in them the way others are with scripture.

So, it had been a period of at least five years or more since I last viewed Blue Velvet. This time I got to screen the new Blu-Ray which certainly had to give the experience an added benefit as the new transfer is sharp and pristine (I still retain memories of watching it initially on an atrocious pan-n-scan VHS; it's no small tribute to this film, and for that matter Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, that it managed to make such an indelible impression despite this condition). I was struck by how well I remembered all those details of the experience of seeing it. I expected that but was, nevertheless, rather bemused by it. Part of the enduring nature of this film, I think, is in the way Lynch somehow or other, through "accident" or "design", managed to wrangle so smoothly together in one piece countless individual elements that interact to enhance the possible meanings of the work, the impications of it. The sheer amount of stuff in here that allows for so many different possible readings or methods of approach boggles the mind. It does remind one of all the spirited conversations post-Titanic as to how to parse out and isolate the successful (in this case meaning popular) elements in order to put them in winning combination again. If that is done cynically, however, or with the intent alone as an end unto itself the final product reveals itself readily enough as such. The fact that Lynch accomplished this successful fusion of a multitude of potent signifiers in, as you say, a more commercially oriented venture is what makes it remarkable. If he manages it in Inland Empire (some would say he does, I'm not so sure) it's less impressive because accommodating so many such ideas in a work definable by its open, experimental nature seems de rigueur. I was equally struck, though, by how very well Blue Velvet did hold up for me personally. I was quite pleased to find it just as strong, captivating and profound as I always used to.

And this gets to the heart of your earlier question. As much as I love all of Lynch's work to one degree or another, for me his peak period of artistic success was between 1984 and 1992. It's this period during which he most fully lays out and explicates the dimensions of his artistic project; the boundary lines implicit here and the projects containing them all abet that. His later work is certainly an evolution and one marked by the abandon that you mention but I have long harbored a suspicion as to the relative merits of that approach to what he does so well. Lynch benefits tremendously from the concrete and "real", some sort of foundation of identifiable and recognizable grounded reality, purely for the sake of clarity and orientation; abstraction does not always serve him. But he also benefits from the confinements and limitations of genre exercises and more restricted narrative. I will always remember reading a piece of criticism which said that Blue Velvet only seemed more accessible than Eraserhead. I agree fully. For me BV remains, because of its plethora of charged detail as well as the very specific controlled structure of its self-contained linear narrative, the ultimate ur-text of his canon.


JH:   Although I don't agree that Lynch's artistic peak was between '84 and '92 (an argument I'll save for later in the conversation, perhaps), the details of your analysis have already made me rethink my feelings about the film (which I anticipated, and one of the reasons I was anxious to start these conversations!)  I am captivated by your analysis of how we "internalize" films, a reflection that reminded me of Geoffrey O'Brien's piece on the 50 year anniversary of Godard's Breathless for Film Comment.  His description for me was a revelation in how to understand Breathless, a picture, not unlike Blue Velvet for me, that seems to change each time I return to it, always somehow wriggling away from my complete grasp.  I don't think I really had a similar love affair to yours with Blue Velvet, but I understand it in the context of other films.  As O'Brien notes in his recollection of Breathless, those love affairs can get right down to the scratches on the film, in the same way one recognizes the beautiful marks of imperfection on a lover's skin.  A film with imagery as potent as Blue Velvet gets etched on your brain, like a cinematic engram.  In this respect, it makes sense that Lynch has been treated as a "Midnight Movie" phenomenon, which seems to rely on the consistently repeatable nature of a movie (although it's interesting that much of his work after Blue Velvet would probably not meet the classic criteria of the Midnight Movie experience).  I think that our "intimacy" with films is a valid jumping off point for valuable critique, especially when dealing with a film like Blue Velvet.  As you said, we tend to consume those works so wholly that we "put them away," both literally and metaphorically (I think we do this with greater ease as we grow older;  I don't think, for example, I had a category in 1986 for films that I thought were brilliant, but never needed to see again).  So, as I take Blue Velvet down off the shelf this time around, I have to say that the film does seem more familiar, but also more vast in what it contains--as you were getting at, one of the marks of great cinema.  In writing about what makes a work of film art canonical, Paul Schrader called this aspect "Repeatability," and as I was starting to open up in my last comments, I think I am wondering to what extent Blue Velvet succeeds as a repeatable artifact 25 years later.         

In response to the "sheer amount of stuff" you mentioned, and perhaps you can add to this unpacking of elements as we go, here are two aspects that jumped out to me this time around:

1)  Blue Velvet as Film Noir:  The most unexpected surprise for me this time around lies in one of the most conventionally satisfying narrative moments of the film, which has never stuck with me in previous viewings (and is typically the kind of thing that doesn't stick with me when it comes to film).  The tone, imagery, and extremity in the dialogue are what tend to linger with this film, so I was very surprised by Lynch's employment of a Film Noir twist that would make Edgar G. Ulmer blush, namely the scene late in the film with the radio that Jeffery uses to misdirect Frank in his pursuit of him into Dorothy Vallens apartment.  This "twist" was so fresh for me, and in light of this I began to tie together the Noir elements in ways that hadn't come together quite as fully before.  Of course, those include the spied moments of black-and-white suspense on the television of Mrs. Beaumont and Aunt Barbara, which provide a meta-cinematic element, perhaps foreshadowing Twin Peaks' "Invitation to Love";  the stark contrast of colors, light and shadow, which I think constitute the most effective attempt to bring Film Noir into the world of color film making (even more so than Bladerunner);  Jeffery Beaumont as rogue detective, and Dorothy Vallens as femme fatale, each askew takes on their archetypal figures, possessed by an almost paranormal touch of dementia that pushed Noir altogether into a new place.

2)  Blue Velvet as a Queer Text:   As with the Noir aspects, I was aware of the relationship between Frank and Jeffery as one rife with sexual tension, but this time around Frank's lipstick kisses and calls of "Pri-ty, pri-ty!" really struck me as one of most interesting and delicately drawn character touches in the film.  On one level, their tension is also perhaps about class, as evidenced in what might be the most popularly quoted line in the film:  "Heineken?!  Fuck that shit!  Pabst Blue RIBBON!"  But, when you add in Franks relationship to Ben, a character played with frightening precision by Dean Stockwell, complimenting and mirroring Frank's sexual and violent tendencies in a strikingly complex performance (talk about getting the most out of one scene!), the madness that Hopper exhibits in the scenes with Ben intensifies the sexual desire he has for Jeffery.  Hoppers finest moments in the film are contained for me in the way in which he deals with Ben,  the maddening churn of confusion that builds behind Hopper's eyes until he can't take it anymore, cutting off Ben's lip-sync rendition of "In Dreams," itself reminiscent of a drag queen scene.  Frank then exclaims, "I'll fuck anything that moves!"  This may be true, but it is surely not evidenced in his relationship with his prisoner Dorothy, who Frank relates to first as an aggressor in scenes that invoke the Roughie/Nudie pictures of the 50's and 60's (the inverse of the squeaky clean 50's diners that Lynch so loves), then as her "baby," dry humping her vigorously while keeping the fabric associated with her femininity firmly rooted in his mouth, the blue velvet.  There is more to get at in this same vein, and I'm sure that Jeffery hiding "in the closet" has already been referenced in a number of more astute queer readings, but this viewing left me considering in a different light what Frank was going to do to Jeffery once he found him there in the climax of the film.  

I'm curious if these are aspects that stood out for you, or rather, what aspects stood out with more prominence this time around, or maybe even presented themselves anew?

NDC: I have to confess that I was viewing the movie this time with an intention to see something new in it. That may not always be a sound strategy but in this case it made sense to me for many of the reasons we've already outlined. I feel so familiar with Lynch as an artist and a cultural presence, and a shaper of culture for that matter, that it just seemed necessary to engage this seminal piece in a more active and searching fashion than usual.  While his work, as with someone like Kiarostami, demands active participation, an audience willing to "complete" the text, unlike Kiarostami it also privileges enough of a dream like sensibility to compel a relinquishment of willful engagement. In fact, I think that's crucial to Lynch's project and his whole point. He wants us to consciously impose ourselves less (this borne out in the ultraironic image of Princess Irulan invoking an undeclared perogative to have herself authoritatively imposed over the starfield at the beginning of Dune). In screening the film this time I strove for a balance between willful seeking of new terrain, new possibilities for access, and maintaining the Lynch preferred openness to inspiration. So I was in a position to be receptive to fresh ideas and means of acquiring them.

Lately I have developed more of an interest in structural dynamics, not only in terms of the construction of fiction but also in terms of the implicit potentialities of structural choices as such. This emphasis was profoundly important for my own appreciation of Tree of Life, for instance, finding what I perceive as the key to that film as well as a way into it that had been neglected or mostly unexplored. I brought that perspective into my experience with Blue Velvet this time around and found it equally productive. I want to get into this in more depth but for now I want to leave you with the question of how you react to the film on that kind of fundamental, foundational level. Do you find yourself accessing this film, or any of Lynch's work for that matter, initially through a purely cinematic, experiential lens or do you find yourself more engaged with specific elements--performance style, say?

I do want to come back to this structural element as a focus on that provided my means of reading the film this time but at present I want to turn my attention to the aspects you identified.

1) What you're getting at here in your response to the Noir tropes Lynch employs is tied in pretty firmly to my own response to the performative and artificial nature of the presentation as a whole. Once again, this relates strongly to my comprehension of what Lynch is doing structurally with this picture, but here I'll try and isolate some particular elements that may have relevance. Certainly it's fair to say that the characters can be said to be archetypal for the form of Film Noir in just the manner you suggest. But I think this is intentionally a kind of surface misdirection by Lynch, a generality that he wants us to recognize, be alert to and even critique.
Lynch's exploitation of this whole idea of genre and this film form as relatable reality speaks to his larger intent and structural process. The glimpse of Noir style footage you rightly mention that we see on the television is an early indicator of what is to come and the aesthetic prism through which the whole film can be viewed and must be understood. We always only ever see glimpses--half-witnessed shots, motives, reality itself--and the uneasy comprehension of that informs our entire experience. That strategy, so successfully set into motion, is why and how Lynch manages to transcend genre boundaries and what distinguishes his effort here from the sort of facile, self-satisfied gestures Todd Haynes relies on in Far From Heaven. The sounds we hear during the scene with the Noir movie footage begin before we see it, as Jeffrey descends the stairs, and continue after he has ventured forth from the house, blurring any comfortable certainty as to its diegetic origins. Lynch's agenda with regard to this artifice and his overall aesthetic is the same as with his structural intent: to mystify common experience appropriately, to highlight its all too overlooked hidden depths.

So much in Blue Velvet depends on hearing (ironically enough, given the disembodied ear that functions as the film's initial "clue to a mystery"). Sandy's supposedly innocent picking up of "bits and pieces" in her room above her father's office is what sets all possibilities in motion. Her first entrance, too, is scored with a sweeping orchestral arrangement that would seem to either belie or parody her rather prosaic appearance. But this is never just some glib irony. Music and songs are used to emphasize theatricality, artifice and performative space and the allowances provided by specific presentations (note how the Ketty Lester "Love Letters" track is instigated by entrance to a specific space, cutting off as soon as Jeffrey exits and closes the door). The justly famous sound design by Alan Splet enhances the total effect. Frank's territory is marked by relentless industrial noise, recalling a similar inhuman or de-humanized signification for the Harkonnens in Dune. And Dorothy's apartment building is replete with ceaseless white noise of its own in the hallways and stairwells, the hum of secret power informing all the many charged spaces.

Everything from the beginning has a presentational quality that calls into question the very nature of reliable and adequate comprehension. The early scenes at Detective Williams' office and at the coroner's office, even Jeffrey's initial arrival at the Williams house, are defined by a kind of tense hesitancy or trepidation, a genuine sense that this is a shimmering skin stretched taut and only tenuously maintained over some indeterminate abyss; civilization itself, perhaps, is that fragile and certainly that aesthetic. So then these scenes function in a similar manner as the later, more garish or flamboyant ones, and that is such because of the emphasis on their inherent aesthetic quality or nature. It is for just that reason that a scene like the confrontation between the beaten, naked Dorothy and Sandy the jilted girlfriend can evoke so complex a response. This would seem to be a case of the truly damaged vs. the superficially wounded but all is equally emotionally vulnerable and that is the aesthetic reality that matters, that has impact. There is no qualitative distinction.

2) I was really amazed this time around at just how truly terrifying Frank is. More on that later but right now let me address your point as to the film's barely contained undercurrent of homoerotic tensions. To be frank (uh oh) I think that it's more an issue of tension and release, period; the fact that Frank is profoundly dangerous because, uncontained and unconstrained, he is a force of dangerous aggression and rage, wildly out of control and purely destructive. This sets him apart from Ben, whose evil is potentially more diabolical because it is likely more rationally managed, more channeled; in this "mature form" Ben reflects as analogue for Jeffrey's own version of same, Detective Williiams (once again, I'll speak more to this later). It may also be a matter of Frank's own specific, deep seated and unknowable reasons. Everyone here plays out psychodramas they don't acknowledge, even to themselves. Michael Atkinson, in his excellent book on Blue Velvet, speaks directly to the moment you refer to: "Jeffrey is kissed repeatedly by a lipstick-smeared Frank, who is muttering 'Pretty, pretty, pretty...', still another uneasy suggestion of parental violations in Frank's past." The fact that Jeffrey is like Frank, at least in some nascent form, as Frank himself intuits, also suggests a vague sympathy for Frank on Lynch's part, perhaps the same type of sympathy he more clearly expressed for Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks.

In her own superb book on Lynch, Martha Nochimson talks about Ben as "the reduction of the feminine to a masculine performance of softness and receptivity, admired by Frank as much as he loathes not only women but what is humanly open and sympathetic...Ben is the object of Frank's affections precisely because there is nothing really feminine--or open--about him." I agree with this, except for the fact that we get a privileged glimpse of Frank being moved to tears rather than rage by Dorothy's performance. We know he can be reached and touched but perhaps only by self-acknowledged performance (is there some meaning in the "self-acknowledged" part?) in a world dominated by aesthetics and in that may lie the real inescapable tragedy.

Twin Peaks

JHThat one can never really return to that pure, experiential lens is the frustrating bind of doing this kind of appreciation/criticism, I guess.  I feel as if my response to Blue Velvet existed very much in that mode for years, and given that Lynch's response to this kind of critical engagement with his films would be, mostly, to circumvent it, I have to wonder if that less-than-intellectualized space isn't a more desirable place to be. Of course, I try not to cave-in to the popular notion that there is a split between the "critical" brain and the "escapist entertainment" brain, and as a teacher I would never let one of my students get away with making that distinction as an excuse to just not think critically about anything, be it Blue Velvet or The Dukes of Hazzard movie.  Once, around 6 years ago, I took a few select students and friends to a conference on "Consciousness, Creativity, and the Brain" at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, which featured Lynch, physicist John Hagelin, and pop singer Donovan.  Fortunately, as one of the few collegiate groups in attendance, we were able to spend a short afternoon in conversation with Lynch (truly, a gift, and one of my fondest memories).  What I will always remember from that conference though is the overly academic, overly-prepped, two-part question that one of the conference attendees laid on Lynch, which I think was mostly in reference to Blue Velvet, and, if I'm honest, probably read like an excerpt from one of our more heady attempts at unpacking Lynch's work.  When the fellow was finished delivering his proclamation/question, nearly breathless from the sheer physical act of having gotten through his question, Lynch's famous undulating fingers and hand went into action over a long pause.  After a moment, Lynch said:  "Well...I like to watch people walk out of the dark..."  Pause.  A bit of laughter.  Next question. 

L-R, Jeanette Mendoza, Brianne Pruitt, Jon Zellar, Jennifer Salamone,
David Lynch, and me - 2006
What you get at here is a great question (if I can re-situate it a bit):  what particular type of engagement is Lynch leading us toward?  Can an overly analytic lens spoil an artist's intent?  You take us back to that wonderful image of Princess Irulan in Dune, but I want to trip even farther back in the filmography, lest we forge that Lynch's work as a "film" maker dates back to the late 60's (interesting that Lynch is rarely discussed in the context of "Hollywood Renaissance" film makers of the late 60's, early 70's).  A visual artist working with painting and sculpture in the late 60's, Lynch's first attempts at film making come from an impulse that recalls the Dada-ist and Surrealist catalyst of simply wanting to see his paintings move, when he created Six Men Getting Sick in 1966 (not exactly in line with the more subtle preoccupation with sound you were previously unpacking).  Once we get to The Alphabet in '68, we are already being queued to Lynch's preoccupation with dreams and his roots in Surrealist technique.  An even closer look at his early shorts will reveal a similarly surrealist film, The Grandmother (1970), which may even foreshadow the sexual curiosity of Jeffery in it's central character, a dark haired little boy who "investigates" his grandmother's bedroom.  I think I am probably more of a fan of pure surrealism than you, as I am confident in my experiential connection to the early works of Bunuel, Dali, and Rene Clair, happily dreaming with with my eyes wide open.  Even though I have read text after text on a film like Un Chien Andalou, screened it multiple times for students, and even staged improvisational live performance in front of it, I am still hesitant to unpack it intellectually.  Frankly, to even admit this makes me cringe a bit, as I would never want to suggest that we avoid intellectual engagement with these works (amplified, perhaps, by the anti-intellectual, anti-arts trend in education perpetuated through the Bush years), but ultimately I see the goal of Surrealism, from Bunuel/Dali to The Alphabet, to be one of intellectual and perceptual liberation and expansion;  a goal that Lynch has continued to pursue through his preoccupation with transcendental mediation.

The Alphabet
So, in answer to your question, I like to think I can still be "drawn into" Blue Velvet in the way Lynch often describes as the ideal mode of immersion for his audiences, but this is, of course, an impossibility--but, by no means cause for lament.  To return to the line between critical/entertainment modes of viewing, regardless of the quality or suggested cultural value of the thing, I think we do often draw those lines as an excuse to be lazy with our cultural engagement, when, in fact, as I believe you would agree, critical engagement only deepens entertainment value.  Popularly, I think the opposite is too often assumed.  Added to that, when dealing with something as complex as the wellspring of imagery, symbolism, and sheer structural craft that we associate with Lynch's body of work, it's an insult to great art to simply dismiss it, on the one hand, as trippy midnight movie fare, or, on the other, as poorly executed, 80's-style, acid-washed Noir.  Maybe certain die-hard sects of our generation will get particularly defensive about dismissing Lynch in this way, as we understand first hand what an influential "shaper of culture" Lynch was, and is.  As I reflected on your last comments, I was reminded how referring to film, and life, for that matter, as "Lynchian" was so seamlessly integrated into our vocabularies;  previously un-named experiences that were truly novel in their strangeness were now tagged with the description of creating the feeling of "being in a David Lynch movie."  

Yes, Lynch's films do present this strange aesthetic "film" stretched tightly, precariously, and dangerously over a world of unrelenting, insect impulses (for some reason, Catherine Hellman's plastic surgery demo in Brazil comes to mind!).  In Blue Velvet, that aesthetic layer contains many components of bygone Americana, mostly rooted in 50's iconography, but reaching all the way back to Norman Rockwell, and The Wizard of Oz, a favorite reference point of Lynch's, who may just be trying to remind us that one of the most wholesome American movies in history is really one of the masterworks of Surrealism.  And, even though I think we do associate Lynch with a novel strangeness, the effect he achieves relies upon our familiarity with those references, the character types, and the small town spaces they inhabit.  One of Lynch's truly brilliant aesthetic moves, though we may tend to forget it given our familiarity with his world, is the way in which he estranges those characters and settings, often by juxtaposing the familiar with slightly off-kilter spaces, like the "Slow Club"--an impossible mix of redneck bar and lounge act chic (a set design mash-up we would see Lynch recreate around Julee Cruise a few years later inTwin Peaks).  These spaces often serve as a sort of mystic portal, and often center around the aspect of the "theatrical" or "framed" experience.  Your observation that Frank's most vulnerable moment is during Dorothy's number at the Slow Club is significant to reading across Lynch's films, as we approach these cathartic portals again and again in his work, perhaps most recognizably in the "Club Silencio" scene from Mullholland Drive, but nearly all of his characters are affected by a filmic or theatrical device in this way, from Sailor and Lulu tossing their hair at a Powermad show in Wild at Heart to the video spectres of Bowie in Fire Walk With Me, or Robert Blake's "Mystery Man" in Lost Highway.  The exploration of dreams that inspired a young Lynch to make The Alphabet has expanded and oozed into the world of all that is framed, constructed, or performative as part of that dream life, a progression that makes sense given the media timeline Lynch's work has traveled.

And, yes, I do think the performance style that Lynch is able to manifest in his actors is key in creating this unstable, Lynchian reality.  We have come to expect a kind of non-realism in acting when it comes to works of Surrealism, Expressionism, Absurdism, etc., the history of which goes all the way back to the theatrical proclamations of Bertolt Brecht.  But, where many viewers dismiss Lynch's actors as simply wooden, even "cheesy,"  I think that style is terribly germane to creating that aspect of artifice you refer to, always lined with the sounds of a world beneath, or hidden (factory noises being a Lynch favorite), and always creating a sense that the sinister realities it barely contains might bust through at any moment, as in a scene you referenced previously, perhaps my favorite in the film, where we see a naked Dorothy emerge from the darkness onto the Williams's lawn.  The moment she interrupts, the confrontation between the boys from Sandy's high school and Jeffery, is another one of those familiar scenes, straight out of any number of high school flicks from the 80's, directed with intentional, cheesy glee by Lynch, only to be obliterated by the most stark, uncomfortable nudity ever captured on film.  Lynch sets us up for the horror of this break in the artifice in so many interesting ways throughout the film, from the visual journey beneath the ground upon the initial discovery of the ear to Jeffery's first conversation with another recurring Lynch character, the slightly out-of-time Dragnet-esque authority figure Det. Williams.  In one instance, Lynch literally stretches the film thin in a dream image of Jeffery's hospitalized father.

As I hand the conversation back to you now, I have to return to my comments about the value of film criticism and say that putting this film in conversation with you has achieved for me what I find most exciting about good film criticism:  the ability to create renewed enthusiasm and new insight for films that we might not have total access to, or maybe even lost interest in.  In short, I think I am liking Blue Velvet a lot more than when we started this conversation a couple of weeks ago!

NDC: The structural element just seems so critical to me. It's what provides for the emergence of all the distinct spaces and places and the emphasis upon distinction itself. There are a litany of these places, of course: room 221 ("up the stairs through that door"), "there behind Vista", Lincoln Street, Meadow Lane, Deep River Apartments: seventh floor, and the indelible "This Is It". The emphasis on the specific, detailed particularity of it all becomes a peculiarity. What are we to make of this? It seems almost a fetish and one that extends far beyond any obvious narrative need, other than a self-acknowledgment of how individual component parts function to restrict but also guide and enable process. In a larger sense, though, Lynch may be using this same kind of method to indicate the importance of isolating areas and recognizing them for their primary functions, what they enable or make possible, whether it be a pure pragmatism or something more expansive. Dorothy's apartment is certainly one such place, one of Lynch's "infinite spaces" like his later Red Room in Twin Peaks, though here made much more deceptively commonplace. It is both concrete and abstract, a space for revelation of heretofore unacknowledged aspects of reality. This is what gives it its own unique distinctiveness, and that revelatory quality can't be reduced to just being the theater for enactment of Frank's pacification ritual (complete with the required props of wig, robe and candles). It also provides a space for Jeffrey's own transformative coming-of-age and the museum installation like spectacle of Don and The Yellow Man on display as evidence of violent crime. And so on. The artifice of much of this, the dramatic spectacle, gives away the self-limitations of the acts, their ultimately reductive character, within a space that allows for so much more and can be reconfigured to accommodate all.

We are told early on those spaces of possibly dangerous potentiality and those of domestic stability co-exist next to one another--Sandy does, after all, specify that Dorothy lives "real close" to Jeffrey's house: not her house, notice, though they walk to Dorothy's building from there. This geographic grounding is a way to establish the significance of the literal within the abstract as well as the proximity of the dangerous to the banal (despite much discussion of how Lumberton's civilized world "covers up" its dark underbelly I think it's more profitable to say that they exist in tandem, inextricably intertwined and even co-dependent--that's surely what the film's ending is all about). For me, this is also why I prefer Blue Velvet to Lost Highway. The latter is purely abstract, a dream or nightmare as idea expressed; whereas the former is the abstract infused into the concrete, spilling over its self-prescribed edges.

As I've looked at the film now these last couple weeks I've also come to be resolved to the notion that it may in fact actually be a perfect film. This is not an appellation I apply easily but is borne out through rigorous examination of detail and surfaces. The long sequence extending from Jeffrey and Sandy's visit to the Slow-Club through their ride back to stake out Dorothy's apartment exemplifies this. Examined closely, that sequence reveals itself as an extraordinary model of economy and in that sense perfect. We get (here as elsewhere) just what we need and no more, with no extraneous material. It puts the lie to the claim some make that Lynch isn't attentive to such things. See, for instance, how we get the barest sense of Jeffrey's immediate intrigue with Dorothy (and notably Dorothy as performer again)--barest sense, but quite enough. Then, once that point is made, we transition back to the car as the music shifts effortlessly into more brooding mode and Sandy confronts Jeffrey with her concerns about the sudden, undeniable reality of the situation. This is all cut in steady medium close ups until Lynch inserts one extreme close up of Sandy for emotional effect and punctuation. If only all films were made with such sensitive attention to rhythm and detail. Later, in a much more distinctively "Lynchian" example, note that same level of attention in the seemingly innocuous cut from Jeffrey and Dorothy in her living room to the darkened, empty stairwell exterior. Of course this cut portends the imminent emergence of viable threat, in the form of Frank, but it is cued by Dorothy's own internal disturbance, her eyes shifting to the hallway; it seems not insignificant to also note that this moment occurs immediately after Jeffrey's capitulation to Dorothy's desire for violence (his own capitulation and sudden complicity with Frank is distinguished by his more willful second slap). This cut functions perfectly then on both the surface level, accenting the thriller plot, and on a deeper thematic level, preserving that perpetual balance which is no small matter to maintain.

It's more possible to speak about a perfection of form in the case of Blue Velvet rather than Lynch's later work because the nature of its implict form as a recognizably distinctive linear thriller allows for that determination to be made much easier. How would one go about arguing for the "perfection" of Inland Empire? Maybe that's a designation Lynch has moved beyond but that doesn't change its applicability here.

This same kind of perfectible detail is present in what is probably the film's most derided sequence: Sandy's ecstatic description of her dream of robins returning to save the world from darkness. This scene is not so much derided, I suppose, as it is assumed by many to be derisory on Lynch's own part; that the way he has staged it and, most importantly, backgrounded it with church organ music would indicate beyond a doubt his intention to frame this as a sarcastic parody or lampoon. But that doesn't give him nearly enough credit and it foists an unjustifiable cynicism upon his intentions that cannot be proven but only assumed and is then more revelatory of the one making the assumption than of Lynch himself. The scene's brilliance is in the fact that what it does resonate with is Lynch's confidence. It allows for a cynical reading because, in order to function also as genuine and sincere, it must. In other words, the church music is appropriate if Lynch's sympathy with Sandy's dream is sincere and there is just as much reason to assume it is as that it is not.

There is a profitable ambiguity that informs all the characters here, of course, most especially Jeffrey, the one we think we understand and can relate to the most. He is introduced to us as someone eager to cast away the banality of the everyday (he dismisses Sandy's more prosaic questions in order to delve into what she knows about the mystery). But his own invested interests cannot be deduced or, once again, assumed so easily. He does not have simple, pure motives that's for sure but, in fact, does not have any clearly established motives at all. When he first proposes his investigative plan to Sandy he doesn't present it with legible moral justification but rather as an opportunity "for gaining knowledge and experience". He adds that "someone could learn a lot" by breaking into Dorothy's apartment (a lot about what?) and later he toasts at the Slow-Club to "an interesting experience". He also admits that he doesn't have any purposive goal for the evidence he procures (empirical evidence gathering as pretext?). Some more literal minded viewers may think that maybe he just needs more to do, like increasing his hours at the hardware store. But this vagueness, blankness even, is what marks him as a quintessential Lynchian seeker or visionary. He pursues an esoteric quest amongst the quotidian details of commonly understood reality and it is one utterly reliant upon his receptivity, or an unwillingness to presume the nature of experience in advance.

His openness, however, also has the effect of enhancing the singular impact of Frank's rage filled presence and making him subject to being shaped by Frank's influence. If Jeffrey reacted more viscerally to Frank's threatening nature it would not just undermine the effectiveness and power of the cinematic moment but also falsely delimit the impact upon Jeffrey himself (he is, finally, both a detective and a pervert). It's a brilliant performance by MacLachlan, one that doesn't get nearly enough credit and one that telegraphs quite properly virtually nothing. By the time we get to the end, his capacity for change and development of character expresses itself in a productive or constructive management of mystery and its attendant possibilities. In this way, we see him as a proto-Detective Williams figure, one still open to engaging with wonder and curiosity and not yet beaten down by an excessive exposure to horror. The ending of the film itself gestures to this in its emphasis on a mature comprehension of the integration of opposites, surfaces and potentialities; that there is a necessary, even inevitable, determination that is made to sculpt out one set at the expense of another. It's not a denial of reality but neither is it a denial that the act of necessary suppression or redirection is itself an act of violent enforcement. It's also perfect analogue for this film form, one guided and directed by the finely tuned restrictions of linear narrative.

The insistence on Frank's relationship to darkness and its opposition to the emergence into light at film's end may seem unduly schematic but it's really a crucial conceptual conceit. The darkness is overwhelming, an oppression, disallowing the emergence of comprehensible distinctions and, ironically, it's that which equates it with evil. Without the capacity for meaningful distinction there would be no capacity for morality and we could make no determination at all about the nature of Frank's violence as evil. The freedom he seeks to repress is what must be used to repress him. As to the risk for the over determination of such things I can only say that it is always a risk but, yet again, a kind of inevitability. Lynch's film with its infinite spaces and commensurate implications humbles us in the face of what can be done within the frame of a "simple genre piece". As long as our assessments are leavened with the proper amount of irony, modeled upon Lynch's own as so ably demonstrated here, I feel safe and comfortable in making them. 

JH: Although it's debatable what kind of weight we should give to behind-the-scenes tales of production, your analysis of Frank's character and Lynch's larger themes brings to mind two stories:  1) that Lynch's original idea for Frank was that he would be a helium huffer, and 2) the recollection of Rosselini's that the first scene between her and Hopper happened on the day she met Hopper, and that what she remembers most of all is Lynch's laughter after each take.  I bring up these stories to play off of your notion of distinctions.  I can only imagine (as Hopper elaborates to Bob Costas here) the way in which this idea you get at might have been pushed over the edge (for better or worse?) by Frank's insistence on making his voice sound like a cartoon character every time he slipped into a violent rage.  This may have plunged the film into even darker territory, but also, potentially, more humorous territory.  As always with Lynch, this balance between the horrific and hilarious is delicate.  As I read your comments on Frank, I'm reminded that Lynch is, in some ways, the epitome of what we often refer to as "dark" or "black" humor.  But, unlike the current trend of continually pushing racist, sexist, homophobic humor to it's increasingly unfunny, derisive ends as "dark humor," Lynch's sense of humor is much wiser, and cuts way deeper, playing itself out in ways that are truly daring in what they ask of our emotional and intellectual response.  Frank is the perfect example of that.  No one will manage to get more laughs from an audience at a screening of Blue Velvet than Frank, which is as it should be, for the reasons you point out.

Speaking of the Lynch sense of humor, I am glad that you addressed the ending of the film, which I feel could easily be laughed off, both in a critical and commercial sense.  I realized through the process of having this conversation that the ending was the section of the film I felt most hesitant about approaching critically, but your reading of Jeffery opened up what is perhaps not often recognized about the bright, "happy" conclusion of Blue Velvet, which stands in such stark contrast to the climax in Dorothy's apartment, which vaults Jeffery from his voyeuristic perch into the act of murder, on his way to town hero:  that Jeffery is now a darkly transformed part of "Lumberton,"  I think the artificiality of the ending, which has left me frustrated after some viewings, is essential in this sense, given what we now know Jeffery is capable of.  After all, Blue Velvet, as it remains true to it's narrative form, is ultimately Jeffery's story, carefully maintained through the final passages that lead to the climax, which I think are just as adept as the early passages you recalled in your last comments, where even the shootout with the police, which might be pitched at the same level as everything else in lesser director's hands, is instead muted in favor of keeping the film focused just that much more on Jeffery's particular plight.  Lynch is ultimately most interested in the questions raised by Jeffery's choices and experiences, which are complicated to a wonderful degree by the nature of that ending, with it's almost sitcom-like delivery.  In those final passages, we are not waking from a dream, but into a reality that now has Jeffery's disease buried inside of it, punctuated so delicately in a fleeting and disturbed moment of reaction that flashes across Dorothy's face as she embraces her son in the final frames.

Lost Highway
As our conversation comes to a close, if you will allow me to return to our small bout about Lost Highway:  although I believe I get your reasons for preferring Blue Velvet (as well as knowing what is understood between us beneath this conversation, which is that we are always open to the possibility of any of these films striking us as less/more important upon future viewings, and have little interest in any kind of ultimate "ranking" of the Lynch filmography...although I'm sure we've probably both tried to do that),  I still prefer what Lynch was able to accomplish in Lost Highway, very possibly for the reasons you find it inferior.  I don't want to open up a whole new can here, but, for me, Lost Highway was the most exciting of all of his narrative and visual constructions; fraught with the most carefully framed negative space, and ultimately one of the only films I've ever seen that reaches the full potential of meta-cinematic technique without entirely tipping it's hand as meta-cinema.  In that sense, yes, Lynch has released his grasp of some of the concrete trappings of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but I adore the way in which he allows Lost Highway to open up all these questions about how we as audience fill in narrative spaces of indeterminacy.  The deep, dark spaces of "narrative-izing" that Lynch allows us to journey through in that film were unprecedented for me, and I will never forget the feeling I had during the final minutes of my first viewing of the film which had manifested this bizarre, exhilarating, and tense reaction of needing for it to either stop immediately...or continue on for another two hours.  And, now that I am thinking more specifically about the connections between the two films, Blake's "Mystery Man" in Lost Highway is really just a meta-cinematic version of Frank--white faced and yielding a video camera instead of a nitrous tank--perhaps foreshadowed by one of the only cuts in Blue Velvet that draws attention to itself, the jump cut that abruptly removes Frank from Ben's apartment.

Inland Empire
Jump-cutting to Inland Empire...I think we might both consider it a picture that is going to shift in our estimation over time, so I suggest it as a candidate for an "In Conversation" piece circa 2022?  For now, thanks for talking over Blue Velvet with me, Nathaniel--your take on film is always well informed, and always manages to invigorate me in the way it challenges my perceptions.

Can I suggest that we switch gears in our next choice for this segment, perhaps mostly in respect to how we feel about the director's body of work (or at least what we've seen of it), as well as the film itself, which I think we both agree has fallen off the critical map a bit, and look at Mike Figgis's 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas?    

COMING SOON:  "In Conversation" - Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas, starring Nicholas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, and Julian Sands

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