Friday, September 09, 2005

"What the HELL are you watching?"

This was Mrs. M.'s out-of-the-room query a few nights ago as I watched Blue Velvet for the first time. The immediate context for her question was Frank's (Dennis Hopper's) second scene, when he "invites" Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) on a "joyride." If you have seen the film, you know what she heard. Mrs. M. was listening through the wall: an aural voyeurism. I seriously doubt her question would have been much different, had she actually been in the room with me. Indeed, the question has haunted me ever since that night and, I get the feeling, will continue to do so for some time.

I still don't know what the HELL I watched.

Caveat lector: Those of you looking here for fresh, insightful commentary about this film might as well move along. From what I've read, I'm about as much at sea as the reviewers regarding this film.

One thing I'm not at all in doubt of: Dennis Hopper's performance is, to me, reminiscent of Marlon Brando's in A Streetcar Named Desire or Robert Mitchum's in the original Cape Fear: brutal, riveting, nothing withheld and thus vulnerable as well; the sort of performance that makes most acting, even "good" acting, seem positively cowardly by comparison.

But. As I was telling my colleague and movie-addict, Larry, the next day when he asked me if I "liked" it, I'd never seen a film quite like this before and, thus, it's hard to say whether I liked or didn't like it. One (other) thing that IS certain: seeing Blue Velvet is not a passive experience (which, it occurs to me now, seems oxymoronic (see below)). It's easy to mock the vaguely-50's-ish outward sterility of Lumberton, its utter lack of sophistication (whatever that means, in a world where, now, you can pay $3 for coffee just about anywhere in America, thanks to Starbucks). But through Jeffrey's--and Sandy's (Laura Dern's)--tendency toward white-bread voyeurism and eavesdropping--something we ALL do--we too are implicated when Frank, on the "joyride," turns toward the backseat and addresses the viewer as well as Jeffrey when he says, "You're just like me." (hat-tip to David Foster Wallace's essay, "David Lynch keeps his head," in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.)

Most often, film seeks to flatter its audience in some way, whether the film be something like Dude, Where's My Car? or the recent The Constant Gardener. We are, let us hope, considerably smarter than Ashton Kutcher; we are, let us hope, considerably less callous than the drug companies dumping out-of-date and poorly-tested drugs on African peoples teetering on the brink of inconceivable pandemics. Blue Velvet, though, indicts all its viewers on grounds of giving in to a tendency so inescapably "normal" in all of us that it is at the root of Original Sin: the desire to know (of) something we shouldn't know. It is a (considerably) less-happy Rear Window: James Stewart (curiously, named Jeff in the film), through his voyeurism, seeks to right a (perceived) wrong and remains outside of, judgmental of, the wrong he perceives; Jeffrey Beaumont, though, becomes drawn into what he witnesses under the guise of protecting(?) Dorothy.

You see what I mean? In most films, a character's motives are easy to discern and we watch and we applaud the heroes and jeer at the villains. Blue Velvet gives its viewers a rather different task, and an unpleasant one.

I think I will watch it again. Sometime. And then I might have a better handle on just what the HELL I saw.

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Raminagrobis said...

I love Blue Velvet.

Best line in the film:


I've censored the above because it just adds to the comedy value.

fearful_syzygy said...

I first watched Blue Velvet when I was about thirteen. I kind of wished I hadn't...