The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
Revolting Yet Conserved: Family "Noir" in Blue Velvet


[8]       It is too easy to tick off the noir elements in David
     Lynch's art-film hit "Blue Velvet" (1986).  The
     investigative male protagonist (Kyle McLachan) caught
     between dangerous dark-haired Dorothy Valens (Isabella
     Rossellini) and bland blond Sandy (Laura Dern); the far-
     reaching nature of the evil McLachan's Jeffrey uncovers and
     the entanglements of the police themselves in its web; the
     homoerotic dimension of the relationship between Jeffrey and
     the film's arch-villain Frank (Dennis Hopper): any college
     sophomore with Intro Film Studies under his or her belt can
     make the idents, just as anyone who's ever taken Intro to
     Psych can pick up on the Oedipal stuff hiding in plain
     sight, beginning of course with the collapse of Jeffrey's
     father and ending with his restoration.  Michael Moon, in
     one of the best commentaries on the film, summarizes quite
     nicely the familiar story of how it goes in between:
          a young man must negotiate what is represented as being
          the treacherous path between an older, ostensibly
          exotic, sexually 'perverse' woman and a younger,
          racially 'whiter,' sexually 'normal' one, and he must
          at the same time and as part of the same process
          negotiate an even more perilous series of interactions
          with the older woman's violent and murderous criminal
          lover and the younger woman's protective police-
          detective father.  This heterosexual plot resolves
          itself in classic oedipal fashion: the young man,
          Jeffrey, destroys the demonic criminal 'father' and
          rival, Frank; rescues the older woman, Dorothy, from
          Frank's sadistic clutches; and then relinquishes her to
          her fate and marries the perky young daughter of the
          good cop.4
[9]       Such a blatant evocation, or perhaps more accurately,
     acting out, of the standard image repertoires of generic
     noir and psychoanalytic truism will, it is worth noting,
     not be obvious to everyone–only to those who, thanks to
     college or some other equivalent educational circuitry, have
     the cultural capital to recognize the codes at work.
     Assuming such an audience, though, the point is to consider
     such paint-by-number material not as finished product, but
     as starting point and second-order raw material for the
     film's subsequent elaborations.  If it would be a mistake to
     accept such generic material at face value, in other words,
     it would be just as wrong to write it off and look for what
     else is "really" going on instead.
[10]      Our first job, then, is rather to consider
     *obviousness* in "Blue Velvet" as a subject and production
     in its own right, and with its own multiple, complex
     effects.  But to take this subject up in turn is to notice
     immediately just how many ways Lynch "shoves it in our
     faces" as well as how many things "it" in that last phrase
     comes to be, so often and so many that a certain kind of
     "ominous-obvious" may fairly be said to constitute both the
     film's thematic subject and its formal method alike.  An
     exhaustive reading of "Blue Velvet" along these lines could
     in fact begin with the film's very first image, the rippling
     blue velvet against which its opening titles appear, shot in
     such extreme, quasi-magnified close-up that, as Barbara
     Creed points out, its smooth soft surface appears mottled
     and rough as bark (100).  But I would rather concentrate
     instead on the image-flow that follows those credits, a sort
     of music video to the Bobby Vinton oldie of the film's
     title, falling in between (in both a chronological and a
     stylistic sense) the credits and the story-line that picks
     up at its end.  Here is a list of the shots that compose the
     film's dreamy opening montage:
          1.   Tilt down from perfectly blue sky to red roses in
               medium close-up against white fence.  DISSOLVE to
          2.   Long shot: fire truck passing by slowly on tree-
               shaded small-town street, with fireman on it
               waving in slow motion.  DISSOLVE to
          3.   Yellow tulips against white fence, close-up as at
               the end of shot 1.  DISSOLVE to
          4.   Long shot, small-town residential street: traffic
               guard beckoning for schoolchildren to cross, again
               in slow motion.  DISSOLVE to
          5.   Long shot: white Cape Cod house and yard.  CUT to
          6.   Medium shot: Middle-aged man with hose, watering
               yard.  CUT to
          7.   Long shot, interior: Middle-aged woman inside,
               sitting with cup of coffee on couch, watching tv,
               which displays black-and-white shot of man
               crossing screen, gun in hand, and from which
               issues sinister noirish music.  CUT to
          8.   Close-up of hand holding gun on TV screen.  CUT to
          9.   Man with hose, as in shot 6, but now off-center at
               screen left.
     Actually, the sequence at this point has already begun to
     speed up somewhat, moving from shots of approximately five
     seconds apiece (shots 1-4) to an average of three (5-8).
     From shot 9 on, moreover, the sequence will quicken and warp
     still further, as an increasingly rapid montage of
     increasingly close-up shots of kinked hose/sputtering
     tap/vexed man, joined with a sound-track in which the
     diegetic sound of water fizzing under pressure is combined
     with a gradually rising and apparently non-diegetic buzz or
     roar, towards the man's collapse, the hose's anarchic
     rearing upward, a slow-mo shot of a dog drinking from the
     hose beside the fallen man, the sound of the dog barking, a
     baby crying, a rushing wind combined with a mechanical
     rustling noise, as we go down through the lawn in a process-
     shot pretending to be an unbroken zoom-in to a horde of
     swarming, warring black insects whose organic-mechanical
     noise-plus-wind now swells up to an overwhelming roar....
[11]      What is one to make of such an opening?  Or rather,
     what *do* we make of it?  Given our previous training in how
     to watch feature films, or, more specifically, in how to
     read their spatio-temporally orienting shots and narrative
     cues, it seems to me that with part of our minds we struggle
     to do the usual with this image-flow: to read it
     narratively, place ourselves in it, "follow" it out.  And,
     of course our efforts and presumptions in this regard are
     not entirely in vain.  Okay, we say, it's a small-town, and
     here's a particular family inside it, a Dad and Mom, and
     look, something's happening to the Dad so things are off-
     balance now, not right, gee what happens next?  But all that
     is only with part of the mind, and against a kind of semic
     counter-logic or inertial drag instigated by the very same
     shots, at least or especially shots 1-4 and the slow-motion
     and extreme close-ups that close off the sequence (as other
     such shot combinations will serve as the disjunctive
     ligatures between one section of the film's narrative and
     the next): in the degree to which all these shots overshoot
     their narrative or, in Barthesian terms, proairetic
     function, and force attention on themselves in some purely
     imagistic way instead, Bobbie Vinton, blue sky and red roses
     at one end, roaring wind, mechanical rustling and ravening
     black insects on the other.
[12]      If, moreover, such a difference from the opening moves
     of conventional film falls somewhere short of effecting a
     total break with the prevailing model of filmic narrative,
     its relative distance from that model is nonetheless made
     all the more apparent by the lurch that follows back toward
     typicality.  Like a second beginning, the shot-sequence that
     follows the one we have just rehearsed opens with a set of
     establishing long-shots of the town of Lumberton,
     simultaneously named as such by the local radio station on
     the soundtrack, after which we are shown Jeffrey the film's
     protagonist for the first time, pausing on his way to visit
     his hospitalized father in order to throw a stone in the
     field where he will soon find the severed ear of Dorothy
     Valens' husband and thereby set the film's noirish plot
     into full motion.  So now, in effect, we are invited to take
     a deep breath and relax and enjoy, i.e., do a conventional
     reading of, the film: only once again, not quite.  For this
     sequence will no less settle into assured conventionality
     than the last completely broke from it.  So the d.j.'s radio
     patter is slightly, well, *skewed*–"It's a sunny day," he
     chirps, "so get those chainsaws out!"–as, on a visual
     level, is the sequence of images itself, in which the
     aforementioned shot of Jeffrey in the field is followed by
     two brief red-herring long-shots of downtown, one in which
     an unknown car pulls onto the town's main street, the other
     of an unknown man standing spinning what might be a ring of
     keys in his hand as he stands out in front of a darkened
     store, before the sequence slips back into gear with a
     close-up of Jeffrey's father in his hospital bed as
     Jeffrey's visiting presence is announced.
[13]      From its outset, then, "Blue Velvet" is characterized
     by the *partial and irresolute* opposition of two distinct
     kinds and pleasures of narrative: one characterized by the
     relative dominance of what, following Barthesian narrative
     theory, I have called the *semic*, and the other by the
     equally relative dominance of the establishing, fixing and
     plotting functions of the *proairetic*.  Less pretentiously,
     of course, we could speak of the predominance of *image*
     versus that of *story-line*, and avoid French post-
     structuralist theory altogether, were it not for the real
     yet perverse relevance of Barthes' terms, and the
     psychopolitical valences attached to them, for this
     particular film.  To discern this relevance, we need only
     recall, first of all, that within that theory the placing,
     naming, and motivating functions of the proairetic, and its
     predominance in conventional narrative, are held to be
     defining symptoms of the constitutive *oedipality* of such
     narrative energies and desires, or perhaps more precisely of
     the binding, sublimation and containment of such desire;
     just as the atemporal and never-fully-repressible bursts and
     upwellings of the semic are identified with the
     carnivalesque freedom of the unregulated, post-, pre-, or
     even anti-Oedipal social and individual body.  Then all we
     have to do is notice how insofar as such definitions and
     categories do hold water for us, "Blue Velvet" gets them–
     though once again, only sort of–wrong from the get-go,
     observing this oppositional distinction and flouting it at
     the same time by reversing what one might have thought was
     their "natural" order: for what kind of narrative text is
     it, after all, in which the fall of the father is *preceded*
     by an image-flow predominantly semic in nature, but
     *followed* by one that more or less falls obediently into
     story-plotting line?
[14]      A postmodern text, of course; the kind of postmodern
     work which, as in Cindy Sherman's first acclaimed photos, is
     concerned both to hybridize and hollow out the cliche.  For
     simultaneously hyper-realizing and de-centering narrative
     and cinematic convention, is from the start what "Blue
     Velvet" is about, both its way of doing business and the
     business itself.  Visually, as Laurie Simmons' description
     of Lynch's style suggests, its techniques and effects are
     most clearly related to those of Pop Art, though more that
     of Rosenquist, say, than Andy Warhol.5  Such perfect
     two-dimensionality–so different, it may be worth noting,
     from the expressionistically crowded and askew deep-spaces
     of classic noir style–simultaneously flattens and
     perfects all its glazed gaze captures, from roses to
     ravening insects, soda fountain booth to severed ear, while
     on the film's soundtrack, the same sense is created and
     reinforced by Badalamenti's score which, here and in "Twin
     Peaks" alike, flaunts its bare-faced imitation of
     %misterioso% a la Hitchcock composer Bernard Hermann one
     minute, gushing romantic strings a la Dmitri Tiomkin the
     next, with some dollops of the kind of insipid finger-
     popping jazz-blues once written for Quinn-Martin tv-
     detective series, soundtrack scores of the first living-room
     %noirs%, thrown in on the side.  Such predigested product
     thus functions as the musical equivalent of the cliched
     dialogue of the script and the two-dimensional visuality of
     the cinematography, each overdetermining the other into an
     aggregate signal of intentional derivativeness and knowing
     banality whose obverse or underside is clearly that moment
     when, aurally and/or visually, that which we take as the
     %ur%-natural (the clicking and mandibular crunching of the
     insects, the robin with the worm in its mouth) becomes
     indistinguishable from sounds of industry, the sight of the
     obviously animatronic–in short, the synthetic
     constructions, material and imaginative, of human beings
     themselves, recognized and felt as such.
[15]      In early-industrial Britain, Keats invited his readers
     to the edge of one sublime mode of hyper-attention, a
     falling into the object's depths so intense the viewer's own
     consciousness browns out ("A drowsy numbness pains/My
     sense").  In the postmodern late-industrial mode of Lynch's
     film, however, the gleaming but off-kilter perfection of
     such %recherche% surfaces as those we have examined
     constitutes its very own warp, and the terrified rapture of
     the romantic swoon away from consciousness is replaced by a
     queasy awareness of anxious affiliation to and
     guilty/paranoid complicity with all that we are so familiar
     with in what we see and hear, as in this scene in which our
     hero Jeffrey has a talk in the den with Lieutenant Williams,
     bland-blonde Sandy's father and police detective, consequent
     to Jeffrey's discovery of the ear:
          Williams: You've found something that is very
               interesting to us.  Very interesting.  I know you
               must be curious to know more.  But I'm afraid I'm
               going to have to ask you not only not to tell
               anybody about the case, but not to tell anybody
               about your find.  One day when it's all sewed up,
               I'll let you know all the details.  Right now,
               though, (glancing sidelong, sneaking a puff on his
               cigarette) I can't.
          Jeffrey: I understand.  I'm just real curious, like you
          Williams: (slightly smiling)  I was the same way myself
               when I was your age.  That's why I went into this
          Jeffrey: (laughs)  Must be great.
          Williams: (freezes, sours smile)  It's horrible too.
               I'm sorry Jeffrey; it just has to be that way.
               Anyway Jeffrey, I know you do understand.
     Each sentence, every phrase, 100% B-movie cliche, and
     delivered as such, with all the wooden earnestness the
     actors can muster.  Yet I hope my transcription also conveys
     something of the extent to which, even as that dialogue
     rattles out, Williams' suspiciously askew reactions and
     expressions move our reactions not so much against the
     direction of the cliches as athwart them.  On the level of
     the story-line, and given our past experience of both
     oedipal narrativity in general and noir in particular,
     they may prompt us to wonder if Father/Detective Williams
     won't turn to be one of the bad guys after all; on the level
     of what we might call the film's enunciation, though, and in
     light of all else we have seen about this film so far, such
     a moment is apt to engender a far more fundamental distrust,
     less the suspicion that we haven't gotten to the bottom of
     this yet than the fullblown paranoia that *there may be no
     bottom here at all*.
[16]      So, in the closing moments of the film, when Jeffrey
     and Sandy and their families are both completed and combined
     around the exemplary center of their good love, the famous
     moment when that robin shows up with the worm in its mouth
     and Jeffrey's Aunt Barbara, looking over his shoulder and
     munching on a hot dog, says "I could never do that!"
     provokes a complicated laugh from the audience.  On the one
     hand, of course it's about both the ironic relation of that
     amorally predatory robin to the goopy speech Sandy gave
     earlier in the film, in which robins figured in a dream
     she'd had as emblems of pure good, and the reinforcing irony
     of Aunt Barbara's self-righteous disavowal of the very
     appetitiveness she is displaying by stuffing her mouth.  On
     the other, though, given the bird's obvious artificiality,
     the music's cliched goopiness, and the hypercomposed
     flatness and stiffness of the %mise-en-scene%, it's also
     about the anxious and delightful possibility that Aunt
     Barbara–and Jeffrey and Sandy, for that matter–are robots
     too.  And of course they are, in the sense that they are
     constructions of sound and words and light, spaces where
     Lynch & Company's projections meet our own; and in this
     sense so are all the characters in every feature film.  Yet
     if every film in the Hollywood tradition invites its
     audience to recite some version of the Mannoni formula %Je
     sais bien mais quand meme% on its way into and through the
     story-world it offers, "Blue Velvet" is nonetheless
     distinctive for the steady insistence with which it ups the
     volume on its own multiple, hybridized, and hyper-realized
     elements of %retrouvee%, pushing its audience to acknowledge
     its own "I know very well" at least as much as its "but even
     so . . .," and so to taint and complicate a heretofore
     blissfully irresponsible and safely distanced voyeurism with
     its own admissions of familiarity as complicity, anxious
     lack of distance, guilt at home.6  "You put your
     disease inside me!" Dorothy says to Jeffrey, and of him, to
     everyone around her at one point; and so he/we did; but in
     another sense, of course, it was there/here/everywhere all
     along, and we have "it" inside us too.
[17]      It is this "it," this recognition and admission of the
     obvious artifice, that we then carry with us alongside and
     through those obvious elements of noir and of oedipal
     psychopathology which have in and of themselves elicited so
     much critical commentary.  Some writers have concentrated on
     Lynch's blending and blurring of genres (MacLachan's Jeffrey
     as both Philip Marlowe and Dobie Gillis) and generic
     chronotopes (the smokey nightclub in the small-town, the
     naked "dark woman" in the family's living room), while
     others hone in on the sheer mobility of male-hysterical
     fantasy in the film–the dangerous, vertiginous, yet
     perpetual oscillations between sadism/masochism, "Daddy" and
     "Baby," hetero- and homosexual desire, as all these are
     acted out (in both senses of the term) in the film's excess
     of primary scenes (Jeffrey with Dorothy, Frank with Dorothy,
     Jeffrey and Frank with Ben, Jeffrey with Frank).  Yet even
     those who have attempted to consider and synthesize both
     these manifest topical areas have tended to miss, or at
     least underestimate, the full measure, meaning and effect of
     the de-realizing, de-naturalizing formal operations of the
     film, and the extent to which they power the movement toward
     what Michael Moon, examining that psychosexual terrain,
     describes as "the fearful knowledge that what most of us
     consider our deepest and strongest desires are not our own,
     that our dreams and fantasies are only copies, audio- and
     videotapes, of the desires of others and our utterances of
     them lip-synching of these circulating, endlessly reproduced
     and reproducible desires" even before the generic mix is
     evident and the sexual-psychoanalytic heyday/mayhem
     begins.7  What fascinates and appalls in "Blue Velvet",
     what simultaneously underwrites and undermines the mixed
     messages of its generic play and desublimated oedipality, is
     the sense of the fragility of the Symbolic, its
     susceptibility to the metonymic "disease" of constant
     slippage that is always already inside it, a %gynesis% of
     both film and family that irresolves without overthrowing,
     that keeps home un-natural while forcing us to own up to the
     familiarity of all that is officially Other and strange,
     home-making and *and as* dislocating, from blue-sky
     beginning (plenitude or emptiness? true blue or fake void?)
     to blue-sky end.

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