This seems as good a place as any to note that, upon re-watching Inland Empire, my opinion of the film has shifted considerably towards seeing it as a masterpiece – albeit an aggressively weird one. But I’m here to talk about two earlier, more well known flicks: Blue Velvet and Eraserhead.
My attempt to revisit the man’s films has surprised me in that I was half expecting to find myself disappointed: a lot has changed in mt attitudes and beliefs since my early enthusiasms for film and literature, which has seen previous loves become quite faded. There was a time, for instance, that I would have without hesitation described James Joyce as my favourite novelist; but nowadays his books strike me as an incredible command of the English language put to some of the most banal uses. So it wouldn’t have surprised me to find that Lynch, who is predominantly pegged as being a pointlessly weird and dark filmmaker, had lost whatever spell he had over me.
But I’ve been discovering the opposite, in that I feel more oddly in tune with his aesthetic sensibilities as an adult Catholic then as a teenaged agnostic. Which is something that I can’t say for a lot of other beloved filmmakers: I love Kubrick and Cronenberg, but their pessimistic, ultra-rationalist views of human nature are foreign to me. In any event, the last time I was this involved in watching movies was when I was revisiting some classic Disney and Miyazaki movies a couple years back.
This brings me to Blue Velvet (1986), a film which wants to take an unflinching look at human depravity. Typically movies which do this fall into one of two traps: the first is that the darkness proves too seductive, and it becomes an exercise in mean-spirited nihilism. The second is that it comes from a place of self-righteousness and self-congratulation; you, the audience, get to feel smug in your easy condemnation of what unfolds upon the screen.
But, as I said in my Inland Empire post, Lynch’s surrealistic canvases tend to become the setting of a very dramatic conflict between good and evil, and in Blue Velvet this is extremely stark, and the audience isn’t allowed to escape from recognizing themselves in the middle of it all.
Anyway, the plot of Blue Velvet goes like this: college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton to visit his hospitalized father. On his way home from the hospital, he stumbles upon a severed ear which he hands over to police detective John Williams (George Dickerson). His curiosity about the discovery quickly gets the better of him, and he quickly teams up with Williams’ daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) to do some amateur detective work. This leads to Jeffrey sneaking into the apartment of Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rosselini), a nightclub singer who may be implicated in the case. It turns out that Dorothy is being victimized by the drug addicted psychopath Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) who is holding her family hostage and abusing her sexually. Jeffrey, meanwhile, is discovering that there is a voyeuristic side to his snooping, and becomes increasingly insinuated into the sordid affair.
From just looking over what I’ve typed the whole thing seems pretty unappealing. In a lesser film such psychosexual material would devolve into pornography, and Blue Velvet threatens to go over that precipice in its more risque and disturbing moments.
But the movie handles its content in unusual, yet deft ways. I’ve seen a lot of critics read Blue Velvet as an American Beauty style expose of the moral rot and hypocrisy of Reagan era America and I have to wonder if we’re even watching the same movie. The town of Lumberton is, yes, something of a caricature, a strange mishmash of nostalgic Americana which never feels like a real place. But it’s a very heartfelt and loving caricature, with the dark underbelly that Jeffrey discovers being an infection threatening the town, rather than its true face. The proximity of evil suggests, not that the good is a lie, but rather that the human heart is capable of corrupting even paradise.
Which leads me to Blue Velvet’s protagonist. Jeffrey is perhaps the best example of how to do a morally ambiguous hero. He’s a conflicted man whose genuine desire to help is mingled with less than pure intentions that he gradually becomes aware of. The external conflict is mirrored in his own heart. And the audience is always made to identify with Jeffrey, and hence with that struggle. Frank is, indeed, a monster, perhaps one of the most terrifying movie villains ever, but the movie underlines that the difference between Jeffrey and Frank isn’t the difference between an innately good and an innately evil person, but rather a difference in moral choices: Jeffrey could become the sort of person Frank is through his own actions. And in recognizing that fact about Jeffrey we recognize it about us, which is a disturbing but necessary moral truth.
See how more dramatically engaging that is than “isn’t it edgy that the rebel guy in Rogue One pointlessly murdered that guy?”
Then there’s the dream that Sandy recounts in the middle of the movie:
“I had a dream. In fact, it was on the night I met you. In the dream, there was our world, and the world was dark because there weren’t any robins and the robins represented love. And for the longest time, there was this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed that love would make any difference, and it did. So, I guess it means that there is trouble until the robins come.”
For a filmmaker who is often accused of being willfully obtuse, this is a pretty blatant telegraphing of the movie’s sudden happy turn towards the end, even going so far as to explain the symbolism in its denouement.
It’s all a little ham-fisted, but it works because the film always feels a bit like fantasy. As I suggested, Lumberton has a bit of a dreamlike quality to it, accentuated by the film’s bright, saturated colours (note to filmmakers and video game developers: just because you want to tell a dark and gritty story you don’t necessarily have to use an aesthetic that’s completely drab). The unreal setting and exaggerated characters give the story the quality of a fable rather than a Real Thing that Happened to Real People.
All that said, it is a disturbing movie with some extreme content that doesn’t quite escape the charge of hitting below the belt. It goes some places that I’m not always willing to go.
Oddly enough, I found myself more at home with Lynch’s far more consistently nightmarish debut film, Eraserhead, which slides in for an easy second place behind Inland Empire. Or perhaps not so oddly, given that both films feel sui generis and unusually primal in a way that is unique even among his other films.
Eraserhead was Lynch’s big project as an art student, and one would expect to find in rough the kind of creative spark that would later be honed and perfected by actual studio work. Yet the movie is just this nearly perfect masterpiece which never gives a hint of its troubled and protracted production. It actually seems a bit fitting that it appeared in the same year as Star Wars; for just as that movie is the seminal popcorn flick, so does Eraserhead feel like the seminal underground cult flick.
The “plot” of Eraserhead is simple to boil down: Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) has accidentally gotten his girlfriend pregnant and is now the proud father of a….er…uh…just what is that thing? A domestic horror story of sorts unfolds. But attempting to wrest a literal sequence of events out of the whole affair ignores the fact that this is a film where that distinction of “literal” doesn’t really obtain. It’s 88 minutes of dense symbolism and pungent atmosphere without even a cursory nod to genre expectations (although often pegged as a horror film, even that feels more like a default categorization for lack of anything better). As a result the film often gets compared to Luis Bunuel’s early surrealist films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’or, and if we’re going to go that route I’d say that Lynch’s film is by far the better. Bunuel’s early stuff really is a pretentious middle finger (largely pointed in the direction of the Church and the bourgeoisie) while Eraserhead is a man’s anxieties about fatherhood and the world in general and I’m just far more sympathetic to that; not to mention, there’s a humanism and earnestness of sorts here that softens the trip down the void.
At an even further remove from reality than Lumberton is the strange, industrial wasteland that Eraserhead is set in. It’s not a place that you’d want to live in, or even visit. But it’s shot in some of the most incredibly beautiful stark black and white cinematography ever. This is, for lack of a better word, a very painterly film that never looks cheap in spite of its frequently nonexistent budget. Everything feels composed and laboured over to an extent that feels unusual in Lynch’s films, and it’s emphasized by the extremely sparse dialogue. This is almost a silent film, and certainly the actors are performing in a manner that is closer to the exaggerated pantomime of early cinema than to anything approaching naturalistic. Long pauses and long, drawn out actions force you to drink in all the ambiance.
It’s perhaps the most tactile movie ever made, with surfaces and textures feeling so vivid that you could just reach out and touch them. It certainly makes some of the more gross-out moments feel even more unsettling, but it also bestows a poetic beauty on its world, like how the darkness almost feels less like the absence of light and more like an ethereal substance enveloping the characters (I’ve had this sensation walking through pitch-black corridors before, and so it feels neat to see it replicated here).
The result is a very intense film, but of a rather unusual pitch. One of the benefits of storytelling that is more grounded in fantasy than reality is that it enables us to go some places that we otherwise wouldn’t go. You could easily re-imagine Eraserhead as a low-key domestic drama, but I’d probably find it a little too real to be bearable (especially if you were to literalize the movie’s ending) and also a little too banal. The movie’s fantasy has a softening effect, even as it exaggerates. It also doesn’t hurt that there’s a good undercurrent of dark comedy that keeps things from becoming miserable.
Another key point is sound design. This, Blue Velvet and Inland Empire all have phenomenal use of sound and music and have helped me appreciate just how important it is. Eraserhead is the most naked example of the bunch in that it is completely lacking in any traditional score or soundtrack, relying instead on ambient noise to set the mood throughout. It’s all electrical drones, factory noise and the like, and it’s all as composed as the visuals.
In a way, writing about Eraserhead is a little bit pointless. It’s too outre to be easily described, and has enough of a reputation that you likely already know if you’re the sort of person to watch it or not. But it’s fun to do so, nonetheless.