Some Blue Velvet Morning: A Two-Person Roundtable
Two guys who actually saw David Lynch's 1986 masterpiece in theatres reminisce
It's been 30 years since David Lynch's film Blue Velvet shocked us all senseless. One of the first films to unveil the hidden sensuality and oblique horror of the small town America, Lynch was nominated for a "Best Director" award at the Oscars for his staggering, violent, psychosexual neo-noir. Introducing the world to Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, composer Angelo Badalamenti and getting them all re-acquainted with Isabella Rosselini, Dennis Hopper and Roy Orbinson, the film was a rare blend of twisted satire and freakish love. It also set the gold standard for all things Lynchian to come.
To celebrate TIFF's brand new digital restortation of the film, which starts screening Friday, July 1, Toronto cinéastes Chris Cummings, a musician who goes by the name of Marker Starling and a longtime employee of TIFF and Jesse Hawken, contributor for Torontoist, talk about Blue Velvet's legacy, the experience of seeing it for the first time in a basement theatre at the Sheraton Centre and the film's supreme beauty.
In dreams... I walk with you... In dreams... I talk to you...
CHRIS CUMMINGS: Let’s set the scene a little. When Blue Velvet was released in September 1986, the last the world had heard from David Lynch was the failed Dune adaptation. Eraserhead had been the only “pure” iteration of the Lynchian universe thus far — there was no Twin Peaks, no Wild at Heart, no Mulholland Drive. Few American films had tread this ground before. It was thrust upon a largely unsuspecting world. Funny, profane, dark, disturbing, richly strange, in many ways, it opened the door to what would soon become the “alt” culture of the early 1990s. '70s Hollywood had happened and wasn’t much talked about at that point. What else was going on in mid-'80s culture that laid the path for Blue Velvet?
JESSE HAWKEN: When Blue Velvet was released, there weren't too many practitioners of camp in modern American movies. Even John Waters hadn't tried to go mainstream yet, that came a year after Blue Velvet with Hairspray. The film was was a rare experience at the time, a modern melodrama that was pitched to hysterical levels. Right from the start, with a view of bucolic Americana giving way to physical collapse and decay with warring insects below the surface and the discovery of a decomposing severed ear, the audience is plunged into a world of surreal mystery, told with complete assurance. We hadn’t gotten very much of this in the '80s.
What we think of now as “Lynchian” was really forged with Blue Velvet — the billowing stage curtains, the deconstruction of the noir genre, the use of kitschy '50s pop to underscore depictions of depravity...
It was not a box office hit by any means, but a film that made a big, social impact. As a kid, I always wondered why the movies that were supposed to be financial disappointments (Blue Velvet, Blade Runner) were the movies that everyone I knew had seen.
And years before Tarantino's movies resuscitated careers that were considered dead, Blue Velvet redefined at least three famous faces. Isabella Rossellini (at that time, more known for modelling than acting), Dennis Hopper (a career-defining performance after years of inactivity that even gave him the clout to restart his directing career) and even Roy Orbison (the use of his music in this film sparked his late-life comeback). Chris, did we see this together? I know I went to see it in theatres religiously when it came out, at the late, lamented cinema in the basement of the Sheraton Centre hotel!
CHRIS: I was there! I believe we saw it three times, all at the Sheraton. I remember it as a kind of grey, non-descript movie theatre, but they showed a lot of the more “arty” releases before closing sometime in the '90s. (The last movie I saw there was Face/Off.) The week before Blue Velvet came out, I think I saw David Cronenberg’s The Fly. I thought The Fly was cool, but Blue Velvet kind of blew all prior notions of what was cool out of the water!
On the resuscitation of careers, yes. For me, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper and Roy Orbison were all people who went from “no idea of who they are,” to “I’m following every aspect of their careers from now on.” I was amazed that I had already seen Hopper in Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now and Rumble Fish and not put it together that this was all the same person. We should also mention Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif and Jack “I’m Paul” Nance.
Jay Scott gave the film a glowing review in the Globe and Mail under a headline that was something like, “Lynch Film Transcends Hitchcock,” which made me want to see it immediately. Suspense, a sense of acute unease, a feeling that all is not right with the world — '80s North American culture was ripe for someone to take those trademark Hitchcock elements and put them into a modern setting. Of course, Brian De Palma had already done so with aplomb, but this was some years later.
JESSE: It's worth pointing out that no Hollywood studio wanted to make this film, despite Lynch's status as a serious American filmmaker. He had worked in the studio system with The Elephant Man and Dune. (The latter not well-received by audiences, but Lynch had emerged with his reputation intact.) Producer Dino De Laurentiis wound up starting a distribution company called DEG, partly to handle the release of Blue Velvet. He gave Lynch final cut in exchange for a budget slashed in half. The DEG studio collapsed about two years later, with little to brag about, except for Blue Velvet and another one of their 1986 releases, Michael Mann's Manhunter.
The film was shot at the De Laurentiis studio lot in Wilmington, North Carolina (where a year earlier, Michael Cimino and Dino had built the fake New York Chinatown sets for Year of the Dragon). Blue Velvet takes place in the fictionalized town of Lumberton, where the local radio station is obsessed with logging. Trucks loaded with cut trees drive through the foreground of establishing shots.
I just loved the contrast in this film between this relentlessly square, small town and the very sordid criminal underworld, the world of Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth. In his review at the time, Roger Ebert legendarily dissed Blue Velvet for these tonal shifts. He thought the film was mocking its depravity and sexual violence by contrasting it with this corny portrayal of small town Americana where even a cute robin perched by the window is clearly artificial. (And you can see a wriggling insect in its mouth.) I thought it was strange that Ebert disapproved of this mixture of camp and sordid melodrama, considering that he co-wrote Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls!
I actually enjoyed reading critical pans of Blue Velvet at the time, because I was pretty sure it was a masterpiece at first sight. I was interested to know why critics didn’t like it.
CHRIS: I remember Pauline Kael loving it and describing Isabella Rossellini as having the kind of nostrils that could be drawn as two dots. She and Jay Scott both raved about it in their reviews and that was all that mattered to me then. I was a somewhat clueless kid with no TV, so the printed word mattered to me a great deal. I also recall you telling me how Woody Allen said that it should have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, instead of Hannah And Her Sisters. The only nomination it got was David Lynch for "Best Director."
JESSE: At least Dennis Hopper was nominated for "Best Supporting Actor" that year... for Hoosiers! At the ceremony as they were reading the Best Director nominees, Lynch was sitting in the audience with Isabella Rossellini, clutching a little piece of blue velvet in his hands.
CHRIS: The cinematography was so good. The cinematographer was Frederick Elmes, who worked as a camera assistant on Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night (and also shot Eraserhead, River's Edge, Wild at Heart, The Ice Storm and Synecdoche, New York, among many others). The compositions are particularly fine, and it made me remember how great many movies of this era looked. A couple of films that I watched recently which led to a similar feeling were Let It Ride with Richard Dreyfuss (1989) and Tony Scott's Revenge (1990). Both were kind of schlocky movies that didn't "deserve" to have such good cinematography, but they were both shot in a slightly manic, detail-fixated way.
Between Frederick Elmes' cinematography, Alan Splet's sound design and Patricia Norris's production design, a whole world was created. It was one of the first movies where I noticed how background sound and sound effects were used to create tension and suspense. One particular shot that comes to mind is just an empty hallway, inserted into a scene between Jeffrey and Dorothy in Dorothy's apartment, signalling the imminent arrival of Frank. The sound of that empty hallway was so creepy!
JESSE: Everyone remembers the horrible “joyride” Jeffrey takes with Frank and his gang over to Ben’s, but that other party scene in the movie has aged very weirdly, where Jeffrey goes with Sandy to the teen house party. I guess it’s supposed to be the '80s? But everyone looks like squares from the '60s, except with big '80s hair.
This scene, which becomes a sweepingly romantic moment scored by Julee Cruise’s strange ballad “Mysteries Of Love” (lyrics by David Lynch) segues to a very tense car chase that turns out not to be Frank and his gang attacking Jeffrey, but some local Lumberton boys. (Including, Sandy’s jock boyfriend who says he’s going to beat him up “right in front of your own stupid house.”) The tension is broken when Dorothy emerges from the shrubbery in the wide shot, naked and bruised. One of the jocks says, “Who’s that, your mother?” I read that when they filmed that scene, they had invited locals to come down to watch the shoot. The next day the production lost their remaining public filming permits after all the complaints!
I laughed at this scene as a teenager, as awful as it all was, mostly out of shock at what was happening. The movie had gone off the rails, but somehow, the director was still in control! And, we had one even more deeply insane moment ahead of us: the scene where Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s apartment and finds the dead men fixed in place in that ghastly tableaux. A transfixing image that comes packed with a jolt, set off by the sudden crackle of a police radio. The audience jumped at that moment.
I still often think of some of the elements of Blue Velvet, 30 years later. A few years ago, when all the sordid details of the Mayor Rob Ford saga started to seep out (the rough crowd he ran with, the secret drugged-out life he apparently conducted after hours), it all reminded me of Frank Booth and his gang, especially that leaked video of him ranting about killing someone!
CHRIS: I remember something you’d pointed out to me back then, when Jeffrey recalls Frank saying, “he took those drugs outta there and it was fuckin’ beautiful.” Jeffrey remembers it without the F-bomb, and I thought that was such a great little detail because it was like Jeffrey sanitizing his own memories. Now that I’ve read the story you mentioned (apparently Lynch would point to the screenplay and say “that word”), I’m wondering whether it was more a way of cutting down the amount of swearing. Like, Lynch was so offended or shocked by his own screenplay that he had to clean it up a little bit, wherever he could.
There was also a guy sitting behind us one time at the Sheraton Cinema who, during one of Kyle MacLachlan’s more intense scenes, said out loud: “his chin... bugs me.” This was really the first time we saw the full depth and breadth of MacLachlan's acting ability, chin and all, after a rather stiff debut two years earlier in Dune. His iconic performance in Twin Peaks cemented this quality of bringing “Lynchiness” to life (being the director’s on-screen surrogate). Looking at his filmography, The Doors and Showgirls seem to be his only other high-profile credits in motion pictures. Television is another story, I guess.
JESSE: And he’s awesome in both. Maclachlan played Ray Manzarek in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, and I guess because the production didn’t want to get sued, all of Manzarek’s dialogue in the movie was factual exposition. “Jim, our album is number one in six countries in Europe.” He’s also the mayor of Portlandia, the Lumberton of today.
CHRIS: Was Blue Velvet the best film of the '80s? As far as American cinema goes, it’s pretty high up there. Its arrival was perfectly timed in our lives — we were just the right age for seeing it as a brand new movie in 1986. It’s been nice reminiscing about what moviegoing in '80s Toronto was like, when there were way more theatres, but much less in the way of curated programming, which made Blue Velvet stick out all the more. I also need to mention Jeffrey and Sandy’s nighttime walk, another screamingly weird example of the “normal” side of Lumberton life, featuring Kyle MacLachlan’s chicken walk and the line, “he had the biggest tongue in the world.” I’ll just leave this scene here...