Sulud projekt. Muzički i filmski teoretičar (A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982; Cinema in the Digital Age) i književnik Nicholas Rombes tijekom 12 mjeseci, tri puta tjedno analizirao je sličice Lynchova filma Plavi baršun: zaustavio bi film svake 47. sekunde te sličicu koja bi se pojavila komentirao u kontekstu samog filma i tražeći izvanfilmske korespondencije, aluzije, asocijacije, konotacije i značenja. Filmska analiza nikad nije bila toliko minuciozna, kirurški precizna. Primjerice, plakat Montgomeryja Clifta na zidu u jednoj sceni nije slučajan, jer ukazuje na veze Plavog baršuna i filma Mjesto pod suncem (iz 1951.) u kojem glumi Clift. Itd. Nevjerojatno!
“Blue Velvet Project” Creator Nicholas Rombes
One year ago, Nicholas Rombes proposed “The Blue Velvet Project” to me at Filmmaker. For 12 months, three times a week, he would scrutinize a single frame from David Lynch’s modern classic, looking both inside and outside of its aspect ratio for correspondences, allusions and meanings. For Rombes, it would be another in his “time-based” critical film essays — appropriately so, for it was because of another of these columns, 10/40/70 at The Rumpus, that I discovered his writing in the first place. (In fact, I interviewed him previously about this other fascinating project.) Nick had contributed to Filmmaker before — I particularly liked his “Into the Splice” columns, which examined a film by way of its viewing circumstances — but through its severe focus and long-term commitment (152 posts!), “The Blue Velvet Project” would be on a whole other level.
I will confess to saying “yes” to this project while harboring a smidgen of skepticism. As someone who sometimes struggles to come up with thoughts for my weekly newsletter, I wondered if Rombes would find that much to say about Lynch’s film, if he could sustain such a pace and see the project to its conclusion. But in short order, these concerns vanished. Rombes’ entries have been wonderfully written and wildly allusive. Drawing from poetry, art, photography, politics and theory, Rombes engaged deeply with not only the meanings of Blue Velvet but its legacy. For me, the project soon became something outside of my job as Editor here at Filmmaker. Indeed, the highest compliment I can pay these sublimely thoughtful and pleasurable posts is that they transformed me from that Editor into, simply, a reader, a fan. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday I’d look forward to Rombes’s pieces, enjoy tweeting about them, and would, many times, delve myself into the references he expertly uncovered in each one.
I’m sad the project is over — its final post is today — but happy that Nick took a few moments to discuss it in our interview below. We talk about the project’s influences, why Blue Velvet is an important film for him, how he physically wrote the posts, and the various other film critics exploring similar avenues. And now that the project is over, why not read it all the way through? Here’s a new link that orders the posts in sequence.
Filmmaker: Is the Blue Velvet of August 2012 the same Blue Velvet it was to you in August 2011, when you started this project?
Rombes: No, I would say not really. One of the things I had hoped would happen did happen: the random stopping of the film every 47 seconds made important whatever was stopped on. You had to write about it, had to think about it and look for connections. And sometimes those were the spots in the film that, as a viewer, you tended to forget or suppress because they’re really not part of the narrative drive of the film. So it’s a different film in the sense that I appreciate much more deeply those “transitional moments”—those beautiful down-times that all good films have that are really important to making the up-times stand out. [Those moments] are really prominent in my mind when I think about the film, whereas they weren’t before.
Filmmaker: Before you started the project, did you think of certain influences or references that would echo throughout the series, or was it, as you just said, all spontaneous?
Rombes: There were a few grounding things. I was inspired by and definitely knew I would use Laura Mulvey because I was very interested in the whole idea of the gaze. She has a book that’s a few years old, Death 24x a Second, which is also about freezing and looking at frames. I needed a few anchor points so that [the project] would not be completely random, and she was one. [Roland] Barthes was another one, of course, with “The Third Meaning,” that great essay of his where he slows down The Battleship Potemkin and looks at the stills. You take a still out of a film and freeze it, and it’s not a part of a film and it’s not a photo; it’s a third thing, which is very elusive. That was really important in my thinking, and I knew I wanted to return to him. So those were the two main [influences] I knew I would quote, but I didn’t know I would go into the poets. I had no plan from the beginning of bringing in Brigit Pegeen Kelly or Roberto Bolano or those sorts of folks. In the beginning, I thought [the series] would be mostly theoretical, but I found that a lot of the fiction and poetry I was reading was sort of what we would call “theoretical” in a way. It was offering a theory of the world, of reality and how we fit memory into it. So those sort of morphed in, in real time, whereas Mulvey and Barthes where definitely there from the beginning.
Filmmaker: There is film theory and literature in the project, but also politics and psychoanalytic criticism.
Rombes: Yeah, and I should definitely mention Reagan. It was such a formative time for me personally when I first saw the film that I was very curious to see what Reagan was saying [at the time of its release]. What was the tone of the country, officially, at that moment? So I knew I would bring that in too.
Filmmaker: What was your process for actually doing the column each day? Did you pull all the screen grabs at the beginning of the project and just open up the next one on your list? Or did you advance your DVD for each post and pause after 47 seconds?
Rombes: There wasn’t really a method other than the fact that at the beginning of the project, my wife, who’s a math teacher, did this algorithm where she broke down exactly every 47 seconds, and what that second would be in the film. They were on an Excel spreadsheet so I would know exactly where to go for the next 47 seconds. Although I would generally just watch until that point.
Filmmaker: Did you write the entries one by one, or several at a stretch?
Rombes: Sometimes I would bank them up. I would do, at most, two or three in advance, though I would always go back and edit them. More often than not, I would do them a day or two before, and, on occasion, the day of. Sometimes those turned out to be the best ones — the ones that I didn’t think a lot about and wrote completely intuitively and under that deadline. But I don’t think I ever did more than two or three in advance. I think when I proposed the project to you I thought I would get a good month’s head-start. I just never did, so it was a little more spontaneous. I think that allowed me to pull in what I reading and other movies I was watching at the time. So it kind of reflected almost a real-time [sensibility]. When [an entry] was posted was very close — within a day or two — to when it written.
Filmmaker: What about this project viewed within the context of all of your different projects involving film criticism and different ideas of film time? Someone might find these various time-based critical pieces very similar, but it seems to me that they vary greatly depending on the specific duration of time you choose for each one.
Rombes: So much great film criticism from the pre-digital era is based on memory. Bazin and others would say, “I saw this film two years ago and I’m going to write about it as best I can.” I’ve been really interested in the way that digital technology gives us absolute control the same way we have always had over a book, in that you can go back to it over and over again. Maybe it’s something I never got over as someone who started teaching film when you needed a projector and it was so difficult to get the actual films. When DVDs came out, and streaming video, and the ability to own films and freeze them, that really opened up a new way of looking at film, and it changed our relationship to film time. We have taken back control. So that’s something that I think runs through all the projects—exploiting to its maximum potential the ability to seize back film and not be, in a sort of Marxist way, “under its spell.” Or, to break its spell without breaking our love for it. To even love it more. That’s really, for me, the common thread: using this technology and exploring what else we can do besides putting extras on a DVD. What else can we do in terms of film theory or scholarship to seize back the film?
Then, on the other hand, is the countervailing measure, Sontag’s notion of “against interpretation,” this very anarchic view of the interpreter as the one who is sort of the fascist, imposing his or her view on the film. I love the fact that the randomization that runs through the 10/40/70’s and Blue Velvet Project in a sense breaks that, because you don’t know what you’re going to get. You’re still interpreting but you are no longer the authority; you are beholden to the film. So at the same time you have more control over the images and the technology, and you master it, you are also beholden to it in a way because it’s showing you something unexpected. And maybe those are the two views that really excite me when I think about this new form of writing that not only me, but many other people are working on as well.
Filmmaker: Who are some of the people that you view as colleagues in this approach?
Rombes: There is Chuck Tryon down in Fayetteville, who is doing some interesting things with this. I think a lot of [critics] — David Bordwell and some of the big names — do this in a different way. I admire them deeply and have learned so much from them. But they seem to have appropriated the technology to perpetuate the old ways. They use the availability of cinema in order to forward theses I think they already had. It’s like, “Great, we have more evidence.” But there’s another group that’s on the margins— Adrian Martin and Girish Shambu and Dan North. They’re almost more in the blogosphere. Catherine Grant, who hosts “Film Studies for Free,” does a lot of this herself, which is to let the film itself direct you without giving up the critical distance, without letting yourself become just a fan. So it’s almost a split in the way that the technology is used in terms of theorizing film.
Filmmaker: There is a big difference between this project and 10/40/70. In 10/40/70, the great majority of the film is not able to be referenced. Whereas in this project, which pulls from every 47 seconds, probably every scene in the film is cited.
Rombes: Right. There’s a certain point where you are either a creator of creative content—and I’m speaking academically, I guess—or you are a critic of it. I think 10/40/70 and Blue Velvet, but especially 10/40/70, almost tip into the realm of “you now are a creator.” Especially with 10/40/70, there is nothing objective about that; it’s completely random. What you’re going to reveal about the film almost verges into a creative piece rather than a critical piece. I think we’re still stuck with using those terms, in some ways, because we both know that creative work can be critical and vice versa. What I really like about this new movement to give up authority is that you end up allowing for the creative. In my experience, in graduate school, you were really taught to suppress and to keep underground the creative. So I really like that idea of, what is it that you are doing? Are you doing film criticism or are you doing poetics that relies on the film to create something that is really not criticism but could hopefully stand on its own with its own assemblages and connections.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the commitment you made to do the project. In retrospect, it seems like a huge commitment to write at this level three times a week for a year. Were there ever times you were ruing the day you pitched this?
Rombes: Maybe once or twice, sure, when life intrudes, as it does, and mixes it up. But I will say two things: one is that if I had written it for another place, I don’t know that I would’ve continued. What I think is unique about Filmmaker is that it ranges from director interviews to very technical interviews about funding to really interesting theoretical takes on things. I always perform better under pressure and the expectations of an audience, and I felt a pressure. Part of it was not wanting to disappoint you or anybody at Filmmaker by having it fall flat. It was, this is Filmmaker and I have an opportunity to write for Filmmaker and I’m going to do the best I can do. That was one part, but the other was that there was something almost selfishly therapeutic about it. The steady dose of deadlines, three times a week, no matter what — they were unchanging in a life that has constant changes. So it was a mix of those two things that made me never really question my commitment to the project. And some of the pieces I would spend hours after I had written them editing and changing to get the tone that I had wanted right.
Filmmaker: That is really great of you to say. And likewise, I’m not sure what I expected at the beginning of the project, but as it went on I was just stunned at how great the posts were, day after day. I’ve seen other people make long-form commitments to online projects and have watched those commitments evaporate when they’ve lost interest or gotten overwhelmed by other work.
Rombes: Another thing is that I could do them rather than submit them. The access you gave me [to the CMS], saying, “Here’s the password, come on in,” was a great incentive. It seems like a small thing, but it is huge if you are a writer. I could basically lay them out and design them. [Managing Editor] Nick Dawson, who was very nice, would only a very few times email me and say nicely, “Oh, hi, I think you have this sentence incorrect.” I was very grateful when he did that. But other than that, it was very pure. The fact that I didn’t have to submit them and wait and have someone say, “Well, we’re off this week…” I loved the design and block quoting and figuring out the image size — even though the graphic and web design part of it was very minimal, I’d always look forward to that part of it as much as the writing.
Filmmaker: So a final, obvious question: Why Blue Velvet for this 47-seconds approach?
Rombes: It’s so personal. A college professor recommended it to me. I was really naïve and I hadn’t seen much. I was from the Midwest and I did not grow up in an “art” or “avant-garde” environment. I grew up in the “blockbuster” environment. We all have those films that we see at the right moment. I saw Blue Velvet first on VHS, and it stuck with me as many years went by. I think it was because it was very difficult to detect the tone of the film. Was it ironic? A parody? How sincere was it? Whose worldview in the film are you supposed to attach yourself to? What are you supposed to do with the radical shifts in tone from humor to violence? Even though years went by before I saw it a second or third time, it really rattled around. So it was the film I wanted to go back to, to try to answer those old questions for myself. What is the basic worldview of this film? What is its sort of ideological stake in the world? I suppose that, more than anything else, is why I went back to it.
Filmmaker: For me, Eraserhead was almost that. I remember seeing it two weeks into my freshman year at Columbia in a midnight screening on the Upper West Side. But you didn’t see Blue Velvet initially in the theater?
Rombes: Yeah, this was just when video stores were opening in the Bowling Green area. I had missed it on the big screen but in ’87 it was out on VHS. And the professor who introduced it to us, he just stopped in class one day and said, “I broke up with my girlfriend. She was the love of my life and a week before I knew it was going to happen. I went out to a barn on her farm in the middle of the night to find her, because that was where we met. And when I opened the door, by a gaslight there was her father butchering a pig. He looked at me as he was taking out the heart of the pig. He looked at me in the flickering light, our eyes met, he didn’t say anything but he put the heart down and continued butchering the animal on the table.” And then he said to the class, really dramatically, “That was my heart. That was my heart. That was the heart and I knew I would never see his daughter again.” And then he said, “Oh, and you have to see Blue Velvet.” So he set up this mystique right away, and that was so much a part of the context — I can never think of the movie apart from that. So much of our memories of these films are associated with specific moments. The trick is to write about them without nostalgia but also without losing the beautiful humanity that comes with these personal memories and to somehow speak to others who have had a radically different experience with a film. It is interesting how those are the motivators often — not just the film but the moments that happen around the film.
Second #7144, 119:04
[Final post. Thank you to Scott Macaulay for taking a chance with this.]
The blue curtain, creating the conditions for its own strange, vertical, blue-noise static.
45,000 = total words in projectRobin Wood, from his classic 1979 essay “An Introduction to the American Horror Film”:
2 = frames that feature Dorothy, Jeffrey, and Sandy together
3 = frames including Aunt Barbara
17 = frames in which no human being appears
20 = frames featuring Jeffrey and Dorothy
23 = frames featuring Jeffrey and Sandy
Some version of the Other [include, simply] other people. It is logical and probable that under capitalism all human relations will be characterized by power, dominance, possessiveness, manipulation: the extension into relationships of the property principle.Wood was something of an unreconstructed Marxist, criticized even in his heyday for being overly deterministic, but he was a great populist, unafraid to write like an academic when those were the tools he needed to unpack a film and, alternately, to write like a confessionalist when that suited his purposes. Most of all, though, as someone who despised abusive power he nevertheless recognized the beauty of such power as expressed in art. In Blue Velvet, Frank is the ultimate Other, and the film’s conservative, even reactionary impulse is to destroy him. And yet he is given such free, dynamic reign that his death at the end hardly erases him from the film. Like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost (“Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell; / And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threatning to devour me opens wide”), Frank’s narrative engine overtakes the narrative engine of the narrative he’s in. He overrides the intentions of the text and becomes a figure of such fascination that whether or not he’s punished at the end, and order is restored, seems beside the point.
The blue curtains in this final frame of the project represent not so much a closure as an intermission. The curtain will rise again, and the story will continue, except not in this film. It’s impossible to kill somebody like Frank. He’ll just rise again, behind the curtain, and wait for the second act. And then the third. And so on. Frank is a fascist of the heart, a suburban war machine. His vision governs Blue Velvet in the way that all monsters govern all monster films. The blue velvet curtain filling the entire frame at the beginning and end of the film suggests the contours of his narrative, his fantasy.
In your nightmares, Blue Velvet was not a narrative film, but a documentary. Frank was real. And Dorothy. And Ben. And Aunt Barbara, with her vampire smile. David Lynch had no truck with stories or dreams because he knew that reality was far, far worse than imagination. He filmed things as they were, not as they were imagined, and the result was documentary, and fuck Mr. Sigmund Freud, because what, after all, is still repressed these days anyway? If modernity didn’t liberate the id from the ego postmodernity did, with its hypervisible modes of confessionalism, its YouTube snuff beheadings and executions, its pornographies of sensation.
Of what use is a film like Blue Velvet, other than as an instance of organized desire? Of what culture-use are dramatic depictions of horror when horror is right there in the mediated experience of the everyday? At the end of his 1935 zombie essay (zombie because it has never died) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin warned that “mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”
Is Blue Velvet a zombie film? A harbinger of our permanent-State-war? (“I don’t wanna live in a big old tomb on Grand Street?”) If we could only be so Puritan. The blue curtain. The blue key. The blue sky. Once, in myth, it would have taken so much more than a bullet to the brain to bring down a Frank. A Beowulf sort of monster. A thousand swords. Frank: an army of bad intentions embodied in one man.
Sweep all that aside.
There is a young woman in a theater. A violent storm rages outside. She can hear it through the vents. She is 19, maybe 20, and is ridiculously alive to what is happening on the screen. She sits alone, near the back of the theater. She has seen Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, and knows of Isabella Rossellini only as the model-daughter of Ingrid Bergman, and Casablanca is her favorite film, although with the new ironic crowd she’s been hanging with lately she would never admit this. She understands that Blue Velvet is not a movie she should like. it is not a movie for her. After all, which character is there for her to identify with? Sandy, crying all the time? Dorothy, the all-too willing, objectified victim? Is she supposed to cross gender lines, and see things from Jeffrey’s point of view? But Jeffrey is too naïve and, except for that moment alone in is room when he cries, she doesn’t trust his actions as authentic.
In fact, it’s Frank with whom she identifies, and this terrifies her. She will keep it secret. It’s just a small thing, after all, just a film, and she’s watching in the dark, so who can see her? Who can see into her soul? What small ear, pressed against her chest, could possibly catch the sound of her desires?
Blue Velvet has reached the end. The storm outside has quieted. The credits are about to roll. The theater is bathed in blue light. An enormous blue curtain fills the screen, so real it feels somehow more than real. Years later, when she thinks back on this moment, she will recall it as the happiest, freest time of her life.
The Blue Velvet Project, #151
(Note: the final post in the project goes up Friday.)
A confession, of a different sort, about how a movie saved a young man. Can a scene from a movie detour your life, turn you in a new direction? I think it can, in the same way that a book read and just the right age can, or a band can by the sheer force of its ideas turned sonic. (One of the self-imposed rules for this project was to avoid the personal, the anecdotal, but figuring this is the second-to-last post . . .)
Blue Velvet was recommended to a creative non-fiction class I was in during college by a professor who, in retrospect, I’d say was in the midst of something like a nervous breakdown. (A week before the incident below he had hurled a baseball at what he thought was an open classroom window to illustrate a point about the importance of taking risks in writing. I suspect he knew the window was closed.) This was in 1987, and Blue Velvet had just been released on VHS by Karl-Lorimar and was available for rental (I also had to rent the VHS machine) at Real Video in Bowling Green, Ohio.
The semester was winding down, and the professor—in the guise of trying to make a point about the importance of the small moment in writing—began to tell a story that quickly overtook him. I don’t remember how it began, but it ended with him gripping the back of the chair he stood behind, trying to hold it together, working so hard to hold back tears that the room itself became hyper-charged, charged enough that a few of us decided right then to become writers no matter what, as if the professor was transmitting some secret signal instructing us to do just that, and as if the whole semester had tended toward this final performance.
His story involved a broken romance, something that had clearly killed a part of him. The part I remember was the end: he sensed something was wrong between the girl and him, and he drove through the night deep into the country where she lived, on a farm. The house was empty and dark, but there was a light from the barn. He walked through tall, wet grass. He also said something about the cricket noises sounding unreal, as if they weren’t coming from crickets, but something else, something not natural to this world. In the barn there was the girl’s father, shirtless, slaughtering an animal beneath some powerful lights he had rigged up. He held up the animal’s heart to my professor and in that moment he took that act to be symbolic: this is your fucking, bloody heart, ripped out of your chest by my daughter.
That was it. That was the story. But it wasn’t quite the end, because it was then that the professor mentioned Blue Velvet, as if that was the coda to the story. I don’t remember if I had heard of the film before that, but I do remember I rented it that afternoon, and watched it that night, and that in the following weeks the scenes leaked and bled together in my mind. But it was the last scene, as the soundtrack transitions from “Mysteries of Love” to “Blue Velvet” sung by Dorothy herself as she and her son Donny embrace, in slow motion—it was this scene that worked on me like a transfusion, replacing a part of my old self with something new.
Those moments saved me from a vague, spreading darkness that had been collecting in the stray moments of my thoughts. I don’t know if it’s possible—in a sort of Cronenbergian way—for a moment from a film to actually become part of you in a real, visceral, biological sense. Can a few moments of sounds and images and colors become literally sequenced into our DNA, making the leap from art into life? Is it possible to speak of a movie as a biological species, a movie as an organism, a living thing, whose codes aren’t analogue or binary but genetic?
And by its life, a movie that can save you?
The Blue Velvet Project, #150
It’s as if the movie has gone back in time; Jeffrey and Sandy look so young. “I don’t see how they could do that,” Aunt Barbara (Frances Bay) says, looking at the robin on the windowsill with the live bug (perhaps one of the black beetles from the beginning of the film) in its beak, “I could never eat a bug.” She speaks these words just before inserting something black into her mouth.
In The Plague of Fantasies, Slavoj Žižek suggests that
fantasy does not simply realize a desire in a hallucinatory way: rather, its function is similar to that of Kantian ‘transcendental schematism’: a fantasy constitutes our desire, provides its co-ordinates; that is, it literally teaches us how to desire.How does Blue Velvet teach us how to desire? By punishing Frank, the one whose desires are forbidden. And by punishing Dorothy, who has internalized Frank’s abusive, murderous desires and turned them on herself, as when she commands Jeffrey to hit her during sex. This chain of desire has to stop somewhere, and it’s the robin—and the idea of the robins—that puts an end to it. The mechanized robin is not from our world (“in the dream there was our world, and the world was dark because there weren’t any robins”) but from a movie world: a prop that helps, as Žižek would say, “coordinate our desires.” Maybe it’s not surprising that the film’s answer to the “trouble” of this world and people like Frank is, in fact, otherworldly, transcendental.
And yet that transcendental vision—the robin—is created with and filmed by the material objects and technologies of this world. In this frame at second #7050 Jeffrey’s gaze is directed at his skeptical Aunt Barbara rather than the robin, as if he too shares in her distrust of this bird that Sandy has pinned her hopes on as a symbol of goodness. Jeffrey’s secret affinity with his Aunt Barbara is one of the great dark wrinkles in the film, a fact that no matter how you try to smooth out stays stubbornly present, a gap or fissure in the film’s ideology. Aunt Barbara recognizes the robin for what it is, but what the film cannot say it is. For sometimes a film’s meanings escape the boundaries of the film itself, and it’s almost miraculous when this happens.
That’s where transcendence lies: not in what the robin is supposed to signify, but in the failure of that very signification.
The Blue Velvet Project, #149
The camera pulls back, low like in the beginning when it entered the lawn grass, to reveal Jeffrey, lounging, Sandy just having told him that “lunch is ready.” A concrete angel looks over him as he suns himself in his black pants and heavy black shoes. Order has been restored, but something has changed, something is different. You can feel it in the framing of the shot, in the oddly canted way that Sandy and the house bend inward, towards the center.
In his recent book In the Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker questions the assumption that human thought “is always determined within the framework of the human point of view.” The answer seems obvious: of course human thought is human. What else could it be? Thacker proposes a radical alternative:
Scientists estimate that ninety percent of the cells in the human body belong to non-human organisms (bacteria, fungi, and a whole bestiary of other organisms). Why shouldn’t this also be the case for human thought as well? In a sense, this book is an exploration of that idea—that thought is not human.Earlier posts have suggested that Frank is evil in a supernatural sense, as evident in moments such as his “I’ll fuck anything that moves” disappearing scene at Ben’s place, which are imbued with a sort of dark magic. The strange thing about this frame, at second 7003, is that despite the destruction of Frank, and the waking of Jeffrey into the restored world, something is still amiss, as if trace remnants of the earlier, darker parts of the film had somehow been dragged into the present of this frame. Perhaps the question should be: is Jeffrey still Jeffrey? The figure of the protagonist in a lounge chair is echoed in Lynch’s Lost Highway, and the appearance of Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a white picket fence in the background of both frames.
What if the horror that Blue Velvet hints at is not local (Lumberton) but cosmic? Jeffrey—who is staring up at a robin in a tree at this moment, as revealed in the previous shot—senses something, and so do we. Perhaps the robin is actually, as Sandy hinted at earlier, not from this planet, but from out there somewhere (an escapee from Eraserhead’s “Man in the Planet”?), a feathered signal that has managed to cross into our world, perceptible to Sandy and Jeffrey and, by extension, to us.
The Blue Velvet Project, #148
(Note: there are six posts remaining in the project, which will conclude with #154 on August 24.)
1. The seconds preceding this frame show Sandy and Jeffrey in the hallway outside Dorothy’s apartment, embracing, kissing, the shot slowly blowing out to blinding white before fading back into this shot, a close-up of Jeffrey’s ear as he lays dozing (dreaming?) on a lounge chair in his parents’ back yard.
2. The black frame, from earlier, as balance.
3. Is Jeffrey emerging from the dream that has been the film? When Jeffrey awakes in his lawn chair in his back yard, for instance, his recovered father seems to be played no longer by Jack Harvey, but Jack Nance instead (Paul, from Frank’s gang) who even wears a hat that resembles Paul’s. It’s difficult to tell, from the distance of Jeffrey’s perspective, although in addition to the hat the voice sounds like Nance’s.
But it doesn’t really matter, because we remember him as being Jeffrey’s father from earlier, and even if he’s not—even the fact that the father is played by one actor in Jeffrey’s extended dream and another actor when he wakes—this doesn’t change anything at all about what happens in the film. The film itself is a fiction, an illusion (except when it’s not; i.e., it’s a documentary in the sense that all live-action films involve the documentation of the on-set reality, the actors, the props, etc.) so that the whole “dream within the film” is already part of the dream-logic of the framing film.
4. The white light brings Jeffrey back into the mythic Reagan era. Family. Generational bonding. Green lawns. Dinnertime. Custom. Tradition. Courtship. Daylight. Order.
5. In his State of the Union Address in February 1986—seven months before Blue Velvet’s U.S. release—Ronald Reagan said:
And despite the pressures of our modern world, family and community remain the moral core of our society, guardians of our values and hopes for the future. Family and community are the costars of this great American comeback. They are why we say tonight: Private values must be at the heart of public policies.6. As Jeffrey wakes up in the frame at second #6909 he seems confused at first, as if remembering, as if trying to place just where and when he is. What he remembers of the events will be partial, fragmentary, distorted, much in the same way that our own memories of Blue Velvet are imperfect weeks, months, or years after we’ve seen it. In his remarkable 1899 essay “Screen Memories” (remarkable in part because he introduces a concept we now call ‘false memory syndrome’) Freud writes (in an imagined dialog with a patient) that
there’s no guarantee whatever for what our memory tells us. But I’ll gladly concede that the scene [the childhood memory in question] is genuine. . . . Such a memory, whose value consists in the fact that it represents thoughts and impressions from a later period and that its content is connected with these by links of a symbolic or similar nature, is what I would call a screen memory.The term “screen” from the title works in two ways, referring both to memories that are screened or covered (and in fact the German term Freud uses, Deckerinnerungen, can also be translated as “cover memories” according to translator David McLintock) as well as to memories that we project onto a mental screen. The essay was published in 1899, four years after the Lumière brothers first projected their films on a screen.
7. Up close like this, Jeffrey’s ear could be anything, any landscape bathed in sun, and in frames like this it’s as if the real detective in the film is the camera itself, getting so close to reality with its lens that it becomes, as it must be and shall remain, a mystery.
The Blue Velvet Project, #147
Detective Williams arrives, too late. Everyone dead is dead. Jeffrey is alive, but not because of the Law. Sandy, behind her father, behind the gun, swoons, electrified and ready to be taken by Jeffrey. This post is as good a post as any to suggest that, just beneath its surface, Blue Velvet is a “trash” film. It’s so overloaded with references to Hollywood’s traditions that always threatens to implode in on itself, perhaps nowhere else more poignantly than in this frame, which evokes everything from noir to the “woman’s picture” to the classic crime film. In Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies, Scott MacDonald writes about avant-garde “trash” films of the 60s and 70s:
The films designated by the term [“trash”] develop recognizable narratives, with characters, sets, costumes—all the fundamental elements of Hollywood movie-making; but either because the filmmakers lack the economic means for achieving industry-level production values, or because of their decision to use their limited resources to affront conventional expectations by painstakingly constructing a trashy look, viewers of trash films are continually aware of the gaps between this rendition of a story and the way a story would be handled by an industry director.But Blue Velvet is not a trash film in the usual sense. It’s always seemed to me completely non-ironic, though I know that for many, it’s impossible to watch without laughing at Sandy’s weepy innocence, or Detective Williams’s “detectivey” qualities, or even Frank’s super-villain villainy. But assuming that Blue Velvet is as sincere as Jeffrey—who does, after all, seem to represent the film’s basic world-view—then it’s a trash film not because of any overt parody or mockery of Hollywood’s genres, but because, in the words of MacDonald, its “recognizable narratives, with characters, sets, costumes” trigger in the viewer an uneasy sense that we’ve seen this before, and that in seeing it again, recycled but for different emotional purposes, we are being manipulated in ways that we can detect but can’t quite define.
If trash films as MacDonald describes them deliberately foreground their recycled Hollywood elements, Blue Velvet seems to obscure its intentions on that score, and the result is a film that wrests a weird range of emotional responses from the audience. The frame at second #6909 is a good example. It comes at a moment of such high drama that the absurd fact that Sandy is actually there trailing along with her dad on such a dangerous mission is easily forgotten later. And yet there she is, in her dress, at night, in Dorothy’s apartment, the blood and brains of three murdered men soaking into the carpeting. Oh Sandy, Sandy. There is no robin anywhere, in this world or another, that could put an end to people like Frank.
The Blue Velvet Project, #146
In an unnervingly comic touch Frank approaches the closet where Jeffrey hides loaded up with his props, which include Dorothy’s blue velvet gown and his gas mask. He is the exterminator now, inhaling his chemicals, approaching Jeffrey and, ominously, the camera. For Frank has seen us, now. The invisible camera has been called out, hailed, interpolated. Frank stares back at us, returning our gaze, just as the bandit, gun in hand, did in Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film The Great Train Robbery:
Out of the shadows he comes, Dorothy’s tortured, neck and wrist bound husband at his side like a soft wax museum figure from an imaginary film lightning-bolted from black-and-white into anamorphic Technicolor. In your dream, Frank is successful; he dispenses with Jeffrey, and then hunts down Detective Williams and Mrs. Williams (sparing Sandy), and, upon returning to Ben’s place, reloads his gun, stuffs his duffel bag with early Orbison-era cassette tapes and magic pills. He burns it to the ground, hops in his Charger, breaks Dorothy out of the hospital, cutting with scissors (the same scissors he used to snip off her husband’s ear) the IV tubes of some of the patients. He forces Dorothy to watch as he kills little Donny, the red sky above them exhausting itself with color, fusing into Dorothy’s mind as fixed idea, not blue but red, the United States of America spread out before them neither feminine nor masculine, unsexed, rising and falling against the blank horizon, her ear pressed against the inside window of the Charger as it speeds down the blacktop, her thoughts trailing out the cracked open window until there is nothing left for Frank to hurt.
The Blue Velvet Project: Confession
With just 9 posts to go, I herein and forthwith offer my final confession.
As author of The Blue Velvet Project—which owes a moral debt to the Dogme 95 movement, whose practice of constraint was an inspiration—I feel obligated to make this public statement of confession regarding the rigors of the project. This is done in the spirit of Thomas Vinterberg’s confession regarding his film The Celebration.
In post #143, I confess to knowing well in advance that I would not write much at all about the frame in question. I had been saving the William James quote for months, and used it in post #143 simply to clear it from my desk.
In post #139 I referred once again to the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly, despite the fact that I had promised Mr. Macaulay that I would refrain from further mentioning her, as he felt—and he was adamant on this point—that she had been “overexposed” in these columns, and that readers had grown “weary” of references to her, and that “certain actions” would be taken were I to persist along “these lines,” actions that would result in “no small uncomfort” to me not unlike the feeling described, in fact, in one of Kelly’s own poems, which, to my surprise, Mr. Macaulay quoted to me (“not the murderous fanfare of the mosquitoes, a visible / derangement, multiplying over the pond’s shallow water,” from the poem “The Sparrow’s Gate” in Kelly’s collection The Orchard), and that he had a duty, “after all,” to take “immediate, unswerving measures” when and if needed, especially because, he said, my head had obviously become “too full of blue,” which I took as a reference to Blue Velvet itself.
In the spirit of preserving the integrity of this project—and to salvage whatever remains of what is, admittedly, nothing more than the most distant, cautious, and exceedingly formal and ritualized relationship with the Editor-in-Chief of Filmmaker Magazine—I hereby vow to endeavor to refrain from mentioning the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly in the remaining posts, and to restore the Blue Velvet Project (which, according to Mr. Macaulay, “peaked” way back at post #7) to its former glory.
Pleading for absolution, I remain,
The Blue Velvet Project, #145
Jeffrey, taking the gun from the Yellow Man’s jacket pocket, as Frank is in the bedroom, shooting. In addition to Jeffrey and the Yellow Man, there is the camera, or at least its presence, invisible in accordance with classical cinema’s codes, which, even after the deconstructive storms of postmodernism, are themselves invisible, having been absorbed into the very technologies that make film possible. In Blue Velvet, for the most part, the camera does not call attention to itself; most of its movement is motivated, aligned with, and justified by corresponding movements in the film’s narrative. And yet sometimes there are moments when the presence of the camera is suddenly and unexpectedly felt, moments when you feel the camera there even though the film doesn’t ask you to.
In “Clip 4,” a recent story within a story by Mark Danielewski, a young man tracks down a person who appeared in a mysterious clip of film/video, only to confront him with the fact that there was no camera to record the incident:
There, where it should have stood, had to have stood, to record your ‘Clip 4,’ to do all that panning and zooming, close-upping and such, there, right there, there never stood no one, and there sure never was no camera.There is a similar moment in Gabriella Giandelli’s quiet, spooky, graphic novel Interiorae, a sudden surge the perspective into one of the panels suddenly seems impossible, breaking with the traditional formula of one panel = one captured frame of time. In the panel below, the character exists in unfolding time not in separate spaces, but the same space all at once.
As in film, there’s always a distinct visual perspective in the panels of comics and graphic novels, even though, when they are running with narrative throttles full open, we tend not to notice. There’s no reason to detect the presence of the camera at second #6862, nothing too striking about its composition, nothing meta- about it, and yet there it is, a moment when ideology cracks and we have a chance to rescue ourselves from the black grip of the film.
The Blue Velvet Project, #144
1. Frank’s back to the camera.
2. Dorothy’s apartment stretched out in horizontal like a widescreen nightmare.
3. The vintage fridge, solid.
4. The black circle mirror above the bathroom pedestal sink. (If Roberto Bolaño had done the set design for Blue Velvet, the mirror would have been inscrutably evil.)
5. The silencer, attached.
6. The sconce on the wall above the couch, looking at first glance, in its isolated away, like the screaming mouth on Jeffrey’s wall.
7. The sadness of Dorothy’s husband’s dead paunch.
8. Frank’s death in under two minutes, uncertain at this point because Jeffrey, hiding in the closet, has not yet taken the loaded revolver from the Yellow Man’s jacket pocket.
9. The virus is Frank. Jeffrey—the “bug man” as Dorothy calls him—will exterminate him.
10. From the play Bug, by Tracy Letts:
PETER: Think.11. The film frame as a relative of the animation cel and the comics panel:
AGNES: You brought the bugs . . . you have the bugs in your body, the egg sacs in your body.
PETER: I brought the bugs.
AGNES: And R.C. brought you. You brought the bugs, and R.C. brought you. R.C. brought the bugs.
Frozen movement. In the frame at second #6768, there are implied quadrants suggested by vertical lines (strong shadows or angles created by the room’s layout) that alternate—reading from frame left to right—between light and dark.
12. These moments of chiaroscuro hint at Blue Velvet’s undercurrent of film noir’s expressionistic roots: the femme fatale lures the boy with sex to murder the source of her unhappiness.
13. In other words, Frank has no chance, not against tradition.
The Blue Velvet Project, #143
In an essay from 1929, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension,” Sergei Eisenstein wrote about the impossibility of “the single-meaningness” of the film frame, which “can never be an inflexible letter of the alphabet, but must always remain a multiple-meaning ideogram.” And part of the frame’s meaning lies outside of the frame itself, in the implied off-screen space that surrounds it, accumulated in fragments from places the film has already taken us. In the frame above, Jeffrey is in Dorothy’s bedroom, laying his trap for Frank, whom he knows is listening as he reveals his false location to Detective Williams. Just as a good stereo image on a sound recording can help us locate ourselves in the implied depth and space of the music, so too a film image suggests so much more than the boundaries of the image itself. Rather, we map out, intuitively and perhaps even unconsciously, the implied spaces outside the frame, creating a blurred off-screen narrative simultaneous with the narrative on the screen.
In the instance of the frame at second #6721, we know that Frank is somewhere close, about ready to enter the apartment, and that Detective Williams is on his way, even though none of these events are depicted on the screen. “’Things’ do exist, even when we do not see them,” William James wrote in Pragmatism, and perhaps the movies which endure, which somehow stick in the mind, are those which create the conditions for the sort of imaginative speculation that allows for the rich cultivation of the implied off-screen space.
In any case, here, below, is a highly subjective schemata of Blue Velvet’s visual stereo image at the point of second #6721, as signified by the film frame at the center (click to enlarge).
The map, concocted in a clockwise flow, suggests some of the places outside of the frame itself, and the way they float and move and rearrange themselves, never remaining static, always in flux, blinking in and out of awareness but always present, at the margins, waiting
The Blue Velvet Project, #142
The seemingly insignificant, glimpsed, unremembered moments of a film revealed in the details of a random frame. In this case, Jeffrey’s watch, fleetingly illuminated as he retraces his steps back up to Dorothy’s apartment, in flight from the Well-Dressed Man. The importance of the watch may be the very fact of its unimportance—it has no significance in terms of the plot. And yet, it is a part of the film; it constitutes an element of Blue Velvet’s image-archive.
The frames come from a compressed sequence made up of 17 shots that, in less than a minute of screen time, depict a revolution in Jeffrey’s thinking. Rather than leaving the nightmare behind, he returns to Dorothy’s apartment to confront it. The images below are the lead frames from each of the 17 shots, offering a slowed-down glimpse of Blue Velvet‘s narrative speed at this point. In “An Aesthetic of Reality,” André Bazin—who favored the long take and deep focus as opposed to editing or montage as cinematic tools to capture the magic of reality—praised such techniques in Citizen Kane:
Orson Welles restored to cinematographic illusion a fundamental quality of reality — its continuity. Classical editing, deriving from Griffith, separated reality into successive shots which were just a series of either logical or subjective points of view of an event. . . . The construction thus introduces an obviously abstract element into reality. Because we are so used to such abstractions, we no longer sense them.And yet, we remember films—which are after all are not representations of reality but rather instances of reality itself—differently from how we experience them at the moment of watching them. The act of memory transforms them, so that we may, for instance, recall the arrival of the Well-Dressed Man in Blue Velvet as constituting four or five shots rather than 17. Bazin’s insight that “we no longer sense” successive shots because we have grown accustomed to the fact that cinema uses these to convey the flow of time and reality remains as radical and disarming today as it did in 1948, when the possibility of a feature-length film with no cuts (such as Russian Ark) remained outside the reach of technology.
And so: 17 shots, happily misremembered:
The Blue Velvet Project, #141
In one of Blue Velvet’s most unsettling moments, Jeffrey, on his way out of Dorothy’s carnaged apartment, sees the Well-Dressed Man coming towards the building in the night. Like some figure from a dream, he approaches, his police radio crackling. At this point, neither Jeffrey nor the audience knows, at least with any certainty, that the Well-Dressed Man is in fact Frank. In his essay “The Uncanny” (1919) Freud wrote that
it is only this factor of involuntary repetition which surrounds with an uncanny atmosphere what would otherwise be innocent enough, and forces upon us the idea of something fateful and inescapable where otherwise we would have spoken of ‘chance’ only.For it is not the simple presence (a chance encounter; a crossing of paths) of the Well-Dressed Man that’s so disturbing, but rather that the final, fatal meeting between he and Jeffrey seems, as Freud would say, fateful and inescapable. In the dark, in the night, here he comes, a monster disguised as a human being. In a few moments he will tear off his fake moustache, just as Dorothy pulled off her wig earlier. In truth, Frank’s disguise is a double illusion: Dennis Hopper playing the part of Frank, and Frank playing the part of the Well-Dressed Man. When he takes off his costume in Dorothy’s apartment, where Jeffrey will be hiding, he does so only to reveal another costume, the one that Hopper wears to play Frank. This is the way of Hollywood, the dream factory, of which Blue Velvet is a part.
And in this sense, at this moment, what’s uncanny is not so much the fateful recurrence of the Well-Dressed Man but rather our own sense that we’ve seen this before, actors playing parts in movies and, sometimes, playing parts within parts, just as Frank “plays” the part of the Well-Dressed Man, just as we ourselves play the part of the implied audience. That is, when we watch a movie we watch it in a double way: as ourselves and simultaneously as ourselves as movie watchers. Perhaps this is why it’s so easy for us to identify with actors on the screen whose job it is, to put it bluntly, to “fake” it, and often the better the faking the better the performance. For we are faking it to, buying into the drama, of whatever genre it may be and this subtle game between audience and film is made even more pleasurable when the film itself, in this case Blue Velvet, widens the imaginative field on which this game of roles and images is played.
The Blue Velvet Project, #140
You want me to explain Love Letters to you. [...] The truth about Love Letters, as I see it, is this: it is essentially a very silly and meaningless story–by the mere fact that it revolves around so unnatural a thing as somebody’s amnesia. No, it has no moral lesson to teach, nor any kind of lesson whatever. So, if you look at it from the standpoint of content–it has none. But it has one valuable point as a story–a dramatic situation involving a conflict. This permits the creation of suspense. If the basic premise–amnesia–doesn’t interest you, then of course the rest of the story won’t interest you. A basic premise in a story is always like an axiom–you take it or you don’t. If you accept the premise, the rest will hold your interest. As for me, I accept the premise out of sheer curiosity–nothing more deep or important than that. That is, granting such a setup–let’s see what can be made of it. My only interest in that picture was purely technical–how to create a good construction that would be dramatic and suspenseful, out of practically nothing.In Blue Velvet, the song’s lyrics—“Love letters straight from your heart”—coincide with the montage that depicts the police shoot-out at Frank’s place, which presumably occurs as Jeffrey stands in Dorothy’s apartment. They echo Frank’s earlier, hyper-sexed threat to Jeffrey:
Don’t be a good neighbor to her or I’m gonna send you a love letter. Straight from my heart, fucker. You know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet. Straight from my gun, fucker. Once you get a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever.The grace and beauty of that song, the soft piano, the sentiment of eternal love and yearning.
And yet, still: fucked forever.
The Blue Velvet Project, #139
1. Jeffrey’s reaction to the violence that has happened in Dorothy’s apartment shifts gradually in the moments that follow this shot from numbed horror to sorrow, as if what he sees before him (Dorothy’s husband and the Yellow Man, tortured and dead or dying) is in some sense the awful answer to his curiosity.
2. From Charles Musser’s The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907:
Sex and violence figured prominently in American motion pictures from the outset. In fact, such subjects were consistent with the individualized, peephole nature of the viewing experience: they showed amusements that often offended polite and/or religious Americans.3. Jeffrey’s skinny white tie, the fact of it there, an empty signifier or a New Wave signifier?
4. From Theodore Cateforis’s Are We Not New Wave?
As contemporary as ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ [aired on MTV in 1981] undoubtedly was in its time, on second glance what’s so striking is how much of its modern visual and musical style is pilfered from a previous era’s version of modernity. Downes and Horn [the Buggles], who are both pictured at their instruments wearing skinny ties and matching synthetic blazers, represent a direct throwback to the mid-1960s.5. The scene of the crime has always been sweet-bruised Dorothy’s apartment.
6. From Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem “Blessed is the Field”:
. . . Do you hear? The bird
I have never seen is back. Each day this time
He takes up his ominous clucking, fretting like a baby,
Lonely sweetling. It is hard to know the right way
In or out. But look, the goldenrod is the color
Of beaten skin. Say: Blessed are those who stand still
In their confusion. Blessed is the field as it burns.
The Blue Velvet Project, #138
Inside Dorothy’s apartment Jeffrey surveys the carnage. The television set, its screen cracked. Detective Gordon, the Man in Yellow, somewhere in between dead and alive, and perhaps, at the outer edges of possibility, hooked up to the television. Lynch has talked about his desire to make a painting that “would really be able to move” as a motivation for making his first films, and during the apartment scene the screen does indeed become like a canvas, its objects staged and still, with occasional movement, some fevered dream of an automated wax-museum.
Is Blue Velvet an avant-garde film? Was it ever?
In his classic study Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies (1993) Scott MacDonald wrote that
The mainstream cinema (and its sibling television) is so fundamental a part of our public and private experiences, that even when filmmakers produce and exhibit alternative cinematic forms, the dominant cinema is implied by the alternatives. If one considers what has come to be called avant-garde film from the point of view of the audience, one confronts an obvious face. No one—or certainly, almost no one—sees avant-garde films without first having seen mass-market commercial films. In fact, by the time most people see their first avant-garde film, they have already seen hundreds of films in commercial theaters and on television, and their sense of what a movie is has been almost indelibly imprinted in their conscious and unconscious minds.Rather than mutually exclusive, mainstream cinema and avant-garde cinema are, and seem always to have been, dependent on each other. As MacDonald suggests, even in alternative cinema—in films that break all sorts of conventions—the dominant cinema (whatever that may be in any given era) is implied by the very breaking of these rules. Blue Velvet pushes at the outer edges of mainstream cinema not in any overt technical or stylistic way, nor in the ways in which it was financed or produced, and it is certainly not a part of any self-conscious movement. Instead, there is something about the elusive way that the camera inhabits the film’s spaces. Part of it has to do with the duration of the shots, which often last for several beats longer than we expect them to. And the sound during these shots (there’s almost always sound in Blue Velvet, even if it’s just a faint, deep growl, as if the characters are separated from the hell beneath them by nothing more than an unsteady membrane) is so much a part of the disorienting quality of the film, creating a sort of depth of field that takes us, somehow, through the screen and into the film itself.
Blue Velvet was of that generation of films released during the rapid ascendency of home video, and this has something to do with its fluidity as both an avant-garde and mainstream film. According to Frederick Wasser in Veni, Vidi, Video: The Hollywood Empire and the VCR, by 1987 (the year Blue Velvet was released on VHS in the U.S.) VCRs as a percentage of U.S. TV households was around 52%, as compared to only 3% in 1980.
In a 1987 issue of Billboard, Blue Velvet is listed as one of the top videodisk sellers, up there with Lady and the Tramp and Lethal Weapon. Taken together, the nine films listed above make up an unexpected, perhaps even Lynchian, playlist.
The Blue Velvet Project, #137
Jeffrey is about to enter Dorothy’s apartment where he’ll find a hellish scene of Frank’s human butchery. The frame captures his vulnerability, his exposed back to the implied danger of the frame’s open space. The red light at the end of the hall, the sharp-edged shadow across the far door, the tar-pit black hallway floor, and the faint ringing noise on the soundtrack, like something deeply broken in the building itself, all conspire to create a feeling that verges on existential terror. In the pan and scan 1987 VHS version (the photo below is of the film on my television) the image is cropped to delete the red light, which might be a more significant object in the frame than Jeffrey, an object that suggests the final terror about to unfold.
And yet despite its apparent limitations, there’s an aura of fascination surrounding the analogue image. Part of it stems from nostalgia and a desire for the warmer, grungier image and its aura of authenticity (perhaps because these images somehow correlate to the way we visualize our memories) in our era of HD clarity. Analogue (in image, in sound) asserts a human presence in the face of smooth, invisible digital data, a sort of human signature: the signature of imperfection. In his essay “The Grain of the Voice,” Roland Barthes wrote that “the ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” In HD, the grain of the image all but disappears. As we enter into the era of 48 frames per second, image imperfection will either disappear or be redefined in ways that we don’t yet understand.
“When the world, or reality, finds its artificial equivalent in the virtual, it becomes useless,” Jean Baudrillard wrote in Impossible Exchange:
When everything can be encoded digitally, language becomes a useless functions. . . . When artificial memories reign supreme, our organic memories become superfluous (they are, in fact, gradually disappearing). When everything takes place between the interactive terminals on the communication screen, the Other had become a useless function.Baudrillard was not a reactionary, lamenting the loss of our embodied selves, but rather a chronicler of a moment in time. And although his argument may seem remote from the Blue Velvet frames in question here, we see in these frames not just evidence of image display advancements, but more poignantly evidence of our current ideological imperative; the drive to perfection, for instance, that gives rise to the assessment industry that shapes educational policy. In this environment, it makes sense that cinematic spectacle today has everything to do with the hyper-realistic impulse of our images, to get them closer to the so-called real, to make them more perfect, until there are no gaps left between lived, organic experience and represented experience.
Which is to say: the Jeffrey from the 1987 VHS frame and the Jeffrey from the 2002 DVD frame are from two radically different versions of Blue Velvet, both artifacts of an ideological moment.
The Blue Velvet Project, #136
If you’re of a certain age, you first saw Blue Velvet on VHS (Karl-Lorimar Video) in 1987, in its over-saturated, pan and scan version, which eliminated nearly 40% of the framed image (below).
This is Sandy in her father’s home office, on the phone to the police station, trying desperately to reach her father to safeguard Jeffrey, who is on his way to Dorothy’s apartment. “We don’t know his whereabouts at this time,” the voice tells her from the other end of the line. In the VHS version, Sandy is psychedelic, illuminating the screen with her desire. In her analog, 300×480 resolution, she is somehow more real than her digital, DVD version, which cools off the psycho-drama of the Blue Velvet’s roots in American soap operas.
What’s missing in the VHS pan and scan is the wide-screen darkness that engulfs Sandy. The space around her is empty and dark, and although we might say that each digital iteration (including the latest Blu-ray version, which boasts “a transfer and color correction by Lynch himself”) brings us closer to the true Blue Velvet, what are we truly coming closer to other than ourselves? “The past exists,” Slavoj Žižek has written in The Sublime Object of Ideology, “as it enters into the synchronous net of the signifier—that is, as it is symbolized in the texture of the historical memory—and that is why we are all the time ‘rewriting history’, retroactively giving the elements their symbolic weight by including them in new textures.”
The textures of Blue Velvet—its image resolutions, aspect ratios, pixilations—are, in a sense, the textures of our memories.
The Blue Velvet Project, #135
Sandy, in her room, on the phone with Jeffrey after the naked, bruised, Dorothy has just revealed—in front of Jeffrey, Sandy, and Mrs. Williams—that Jeffrey “put his disease” in her. This frame comes from a shot that lasts just under one minute and that is so completely and dramatically sincere as to give lie to the notion that Blue Velvet is somehow a parody or an instance of postmodern Camp. Sandy’s question to herself when she gets off the phone with Jeffrey—“Where is my dream?”—offers a momentary gap in the film. For if most of the time we are with Jeffrey, experiencing the unfolding narrative largely from his perspective, in this shot we find ourselves alone with Sandy, who is free from Jeffrey’s totalitarian desires.
On the wall behind her is a poster—which appears near the beginning of the shot—of Montgomery Clift,
whose tormented roles in A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953) offer one model for Jeffrey. George’s courtship of the factory girl Alice (Shelley Winters) in A Place in the Sun features a scene that would be echoed near the beginning of Blue Velvet, as they walk down the sidewalk on Alice’s street at night, talking and flirting, the disaster that looms in front of both of them still a distant star in the narrative, a star whose light has not yet reached this moment.
The image of Montgomery Clift in Blue Velvet is actually a reflection in Sandy’s mirror, a reversed image, a man not of Sandy’s era but an earlier one, imagined in black and white, the steady, controlled face of an actor whose most famous roles involved secrets and disguised desires. In the frame from second 6345, Sandy’s head actually touches Montgomery Clift’s chest, near his heart, lending yet another level of meaning to her question “Where is my dream?”
The Blue Velvet Project, #134
1. This one from a montage that’s as expressionistic and compressed as anything in any of Lynch’s films. Having been strapped into the gurney and loaded into the circa 1960s ambulance in all its hallucinatory, candy apple red, hearse-like terror, Dorothy struggles against her bindings, screaming, “Hold me! I’m falling! I’m falling.” The frame captures Dorothy’s dream-terror as it slowly dissolves into a shot of the ambulance siren, a moment that is both horrifying and deadpan, as the dull wail of the siren lends a sort of flat, matter-of-factness to sequence.
2. From Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company, University of California Press, 1991.
Two multishot films made early in 1901 are significant for yet another reason: they made use of a dissolve. In The Finish of Bridget McKeen, [Edwin S.] Porter dissolved between the main narrative gag in the kitchen and the tombstone gag. . . . The dissolve, a common screen technique developed in the mid nineteenth century, was executed by exhibitors during the course of projecting slides. It was considered a particularly elegant way to move from one image to the next, preventing sudden jumps when scenes changed.3. The dissolve also allows for two spatial dimensions to exist on the screen simultaneously, something that’s difficult to achieve in other narrative arts, such as fiction, where if objects or events occur at the same time, our eyes can’t read both texts simultaneously, as in Mark Danielewski’s experimental novel Only Revolutions, whose narratives alternate
between Sam and Hailey, their stories told on each page, one reading from top to bottom, the other reading in upside down text (requiring that the book be turned upside down) from bottom to top.
4. In “The Age of Light,” Man Ray wrote that from “the first gesture of a child pointing to an object and simply naming it, but with a world of intended meaning, to the developed mind that creates an image whose strangeness and reality stirs our subconscious to its inmost depths, the awakening of desire is the first step to participation and experience.” That combination of strangeness and realism is at the heart of this frame, grounded as it is in familiar images of the real world (an ambulance siren; a woman in a gurney) that are somehow made strange and unfamiliar by superimposition and the narrative context of Dorothy’s fit of madness. “The awakening of desire” not in Dorothy, but us.
The Blue Velvet Project, #133
1. “He put his disease in me.” (Dorothy to Sandy, around three seconds before this frame.)
2. Blue Velvet’s sound designer was the late Alan Splet, who had worked with Lynch beginning with his short film The Grandmother, in 1970.
3. In the distance, growing louder, the wail of an ambulance siren, which will arrive immediately after this shot for Dorothy.
4. The sound of Sandy crying, gradually drowned out by the wail of the siren.
5. What if the siren is, secretly, Sandy’s red thoughts at this moment, an outward auditory expression of her inner turmoil? Sergei Eisenstein, from “A Course in Treatment,” 1932:
How fascinating to listen to one’s own train of thought, particularly in an excited state, in order to catch yourself looking at and listening to your mind. How you talk ‘to yourself’ as distinct from ‘out of yourself.’ The syntax of inner speech as distinct from outer speech. The quivering inner words that correspond with the visual images.6. The sound of Sandy’s thoughts in the screaming of a siren. The anguish on her face. Her arm across her chest, a shield.
7. “When I work on the sound, I want it to support the film and the emotions, but also, if possible, to reach something at a higher level.” David Lynch, 1990.
8. This interview with sound designer Ann Kroeber (who was Alan Splet’s partner and who worked with him on The Elephant Man and Dune) offers an excellent glimpse into the sound process on Lynch’s films.
The Blue Velvet Project, #132
Fragments. Frames. Pieces of a puzzle:
1. “Sandy please. Sandy.”
2. Dorothy naked, but still wearing her wig. A performer.
3. Her performance before Sandy and Mrs. Williams.
4. The lamp in the corner. The trapped bird.
5. The flesh of Dorothy’s arm.
6. “Nothing can be achieved in the art of film until its form is understood to be the product of a completely unique complex: the exercise of an instrument which can function, simultaneously, both in terms of discovery and invention. . . . The camera provides the elements of the form, and, although it does not always do so, can either discover or create them, or discover and create them simultaneously.” Maya Deren, from “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film,” 1946.
7. The blank familiarity of the suburban home.
8. “We did Blue Velvet in total freedom.” Isabella Rossellini, 2008.
9. “The power of cinematic language juxtaposes spaces and images which disturb the familiar with strangeness and the uneasy intimations of fear and desire.” Laura Mulvey, from Fetishism and Curiosity, 1996.
10. The stairs as the zero point of the Williams home.
11. “Here, however, lies the task of any philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and process, even if they are catastrophic. . . . Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking.” Jean Baudrillard, from The Vital Illusion, 2000.
12. That bird again. And those stairs. Blue Velvet is tainted with the residual subconscious muck of Psycho, except the psycho in Blue Velvet calls the maternal figure “mommy” rather than “mother.”
13. Jeffrey, at this moment, thinking himself out of a maze.
14. “Desire is always in excess, even if it simply the desire to desire.” Mary Ann Doane, from The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s, 1987.
15. Earlier, Detective Williams, in response to Jeffrey’s desire to know more about Dorothy’s case, said that he couldn’t reveal any more information, and that “that’s the way it has to be.” And yet Jeffrey does not obey, and the result is perhaps the film’s most subversive moment, as Jeffrey delivers the naked object of his desire right into the Detective’s house, the symbolic heart of the Law.
The Blue Velvet Project, #131
“Mom . . . is Dad home?” Sandy asks. If Blue Velvet were a comedy (and it approaches one at moments like this) there might be canned laughter following this line. After all, Sandy has just entered the house with the local nightclub singer, naked, bruised, and clinging to Sandy’s new boyfriend Jeffrey.
Jeffrey in the realm of women: Dorothy (the bad one), Sandy (the good one), and Mrs. Williams (the dutiful wife and mother). What we’re looking at here is pure, raw, sex, unrestrained by custom, duty, or conventional notions of morality. Sandy knows it; it shows in the thrill that registers in her splayed fingers. Mrs. Williams knows it too, and wants to cover it up. (“I’ll get a coat to put on her,” she’ll say in a few moments.) She is played by Hope Lange, whose portrayal in Peyton Place (1957) of Selena Cross, who is raped by her stepfather, creates a weird echo in Blue Velvet, which in many ways is an updated version of Peyton Place.
For both Peyton Place and Blue Velvet are about small towns pulled apart not by some outside force but from the internal lapsing of the codes and signals of repression. In this frame at second #6157, Hope Lange’s appearance as the calm matriarch puts her fully on the side of the Law: her calm demeanor suggests that Order soon will be restored.
And in some respects, Order is restored more firmly and completely in Reagan-era Blue Velvet than in Eisenhower-era Peyton Place. While no film can ever seal completely the ideological gaps it opens, Blue Velvet seals them as tightly as possible, with the destruction of Frank, the partial restoration of Dorothy’s life (who fully assumes the role of a mother by the film’s end), and the implied re-balancing, normalization, and continuation of the romance between Jeffrey and Sandy. And yet, while the sordid disruptions in Peyton Place were coded as sociological (“caused” by conditions that could be understood) the evil of Frank in Blue Velvet transcends rational explanation. It’s not so much that Order is restored at the end of Blue Velvet, but that its destruction proved so easy, and so outside the control of human agency. In this sense, Blue Velvet is a fantasy.
The Blue Velvet Project, #130
1. Jeffrey has his hands full. There is Mike (who, in one of Blue Velvet’s weird tonal shifts, has suddenly become apologetic and even Jeffrey’s ally), and there is Sandy helping the naked Dorothy into the backseat of Jeffrey’s car which will take them to Sandy’s house, where, stark naked in the living room, Dorothy will call Jeffrey “my secret lover” in front of Sandy and her mother, and where she will tell Sandy that Jeffrey “put his disease in me.”
2. The shot is so heavily coded with cinema’s past that it’s as if fragments of a frame from Rebel Without a Cause had somehow slipped
into the future and found their way into Blue Velvet. The saturated colors act as a sort of warning, a warning that time is collapsing in on itself. The tail lamps on Mike’s car reference the past, but also, impossibly, the red stop lights of the future in Twin Peaks, which was still four years off.
3. What if this shot appeared near the beginning of the film rather than the end? The rearranging of a film’s given scenes in alternative sequences is part of cinema’s history. In The Emergence of Cinema, Charles Musser suggests that it was common in the 1890’s for the film exhibitor to play the reels in different orders, depending on the audience at hand and the number of reels. Surviving program notes from this era suggest that variety, rather than continuity, guided the sequence of short films, which “encouraged spectators mentally to reorder scenes so as to form” their own connections.
4. In a sense, all films are not only about the stories they tell (plot, events) but also about the stories that slip through the film’s gaps, that escape the tyranny of meaning and interpretation. These stories resist the film’s own commands. The story of Dorothy and Sandy at the backseat of Jeffrey’s car might be one such untold story. The moment happens so quickly, while our attention is directed towards Mike and Jeffrey. We almost forget that it was Sandy who helped Dorothy into the car, and that it was Sandy who comforted her. Sandy’s relationship with Dorothy is never directly explored in the film but it is always there, just out of sight, until this frame.
The Blue Velvet Project, #129
Layered with unfolding narrative information, this frame depicts the brief confrontation with Mike, who threatens to kick Jeffrey’s ass “right in front of your own stupid house.” With the vintage cars, Mike’s friends looking on, the fight over the girl, and the classical-era wide framing, this could be a scene straight of Rebel Without a Cause. Except that there, having just emerged in the background and unnoticed by everyone at this point, is the completely naked and bruised Dorothy, who appears on Jeffrey’s porch just behind Mike’s friends. In a few seconds Mike will be the first to notice her and will taunt Jeffrey: “Who’s that? Is that your mother?”
There is an element of classic horror to the scene, as Dorothy emerges with her arms held away from her body, like a white zombie. She is an untouchable, and yet Jeffrey will rush to her and enfold her with love in a blanket. Upon a first viewing, we may not understand what’s happening at this moment, even though the long take allows us to see Dorothy before any of the on-screen characters do. We see her emerge from the darkness just as Sandy emerged from the dark on the sidewalk early in the film to ask Jeffrey, “Are you the one that found the ear?” The decision to film Dorothy’s arrival—an arrival that blasts apart the guts of the film—with such subtlety makes her entrance even more jarring.
In Larissa Szporluk’s book of poetry The Wind, Master Cherry, The Wind, there are these lines:
What would I beWhat was Jeffrey before Frank? In the world of the film, he barely existed. If Jeffrey conjured Frank (“In Dreams”) then he did so in order to bring himself into being.
if I hadn’t been pitted against you?
My soul would have no furniture
to burn on a night like this
The Blue Velvet Project, #’s 126, 127, 128
Second #5922, 98:42
Second # 5969, 99:29
Second # 6016, 100:16
In honor of Andrew Sarris, who passed away yesterday, three frames from Blue Velvet. Although Sarris’s essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” (which appeared in the Winter 1962-63 issue of Film Culture) is best-known for its argument that “over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurring characteristics of style, which serve as his signature,” the essay also grapples with a more difficult, elusive, less discussed aspect of the auteur theory, what Sarris called a film’s “interior meaning”:
The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. . . . It is ambiguous, in a literary sense, because part of it is imbedded in the stuff of the cinema and cannot be rendered in noncinematic terms. . . . In one sequence of La Règle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game], Renoir gallops up the stairs, turns to his right with a lurching movement, stops in hop-like uncertainty when his name is called by a coquettish maid, and, then, with marvelous postreflex continuity, resumes his bearishly shambling journey to the heroine’s boudoir. If I could describe the musical grace note of that momentary suspension, and I can’t, I might be able to provide a more precise definition of the auteur theory.Roland Barthes proposes something similar in his 1970 essay “The Third Meaning,” where he suggests that
the third meaning structures the film differently without . . . subverting the story and for this reason, perhaps, it is at the level of the third meaning, and at that level alone, that the ‘filmic’ finally emerges. The filmic is that in the film which cannot be represented. The filmic only begins where language and metalanguage end.I have always thought of these as the small, in-between moments of a film, the ones that don’t necessarily advance the story in any crucial way, but that nonetheless linger in the mind. They are a film’s obscured images, the ones that escape from the torrent of a film’s narrative information flow. In Blue Velvet, the frame from second #5969 (which comes between the slow-dance frame and the Mike-in-pursuit-of-Jeffrey car-chase frame) might just be one instance of this interior or third meaning. How to put into words, how to describe in language, the mysterious power of this image? It has something to do not only with the yellow house (appearing so soon after the Man in Yellow in Sandy’s house) but also the porch light, the drawn curtains, the lone hanging plant basket, the way that Sandy holds Jeffrey’s arm, the fact of his tie and its New Wave connotations.
There is also a sadness to this moment, the sadness that comes from perfect, momentary contentment. A picture of the world as it should be, not as it is, and the understanding of how fleeting this is, lasting no longer than a walk down a path from a glowing, lamp-lit house to a car in the summer at night. If we pay attention to such moments and struggle to find the right words to capture how they make us feel, it is in no small part because Andrew Sarris made it possible and acceptable to write this way about film in 1962.
The Blue Velvet Project, #125
André Bazin once wrote, in “The Life and Death of Superimposition” (1946), that
the fantastic in the cinema is possible only because of the irresistible realism of the photographic image. It is the image that can bring us face to face with the unreal, that can introduce the unreal into the world of the visible.By this point in Blue Velvet, with only around 20 minutes left in the film, we might feel justified in thinking that we have figured out the geographic parameters of its narrative world. The hardware store. The hospital room. Jeffrey’s car. Jeffrey’s home. Dorothy’s apartment. Ben’s place. Arlene’s Diner. The Williams house. The police station. And now, the basement. One reading of the film suggests that it has all been Jeffrey’s dream: when Jeffrey wakes up in his lawn chair in his back yard, for instance, his recovered father seems to be played by Jack Nance (Paul, from Frank’s gang) who even wears a hat that resembles Paul’s.
In a sense it doesn’t matter whether or not Jeffrey dreamed up the entire adventure, because he experienced it as we experienced the movie: by losing himself in it. The basement scene offers a small reenactment of Blue Velvet’s book-ended transition from Jeffrey’s conscious life to his subconscious one. When he and Sandy first descend the stairs, the basement music seems to be coming from a “real” source in the basement; everyone there can hear it. But as they begin to dance, “Mysteries of Love” seems so out of place in that setting, so perfect, so idiosyncratic, so of-another-planet that it must be Jeffrey’s and Jeffrey’s alone, a dream within a dream within the dream that all films are.
Bazin’s notion that the image “can introduce the unreal into the world of the visible” is especially true of this frame, at second #5875, a classic two shot, depicting Sandy and Jeffrey from the impossible perspective (if we believe that he is dreaming right now) of Jeffrey himself.
The Blue Velvet Project, #124
At the basement party, Sandy has just assured her friends that it’s okay that she’s there with Jeffrey, not Mike. “It’s all taken care of,” she’ll tell Jeffrey in a few seconds, as “Mysteries of Love” is about to begin.
They were asking a lot of money for the [“Song to the Siren” by This Mortal Coil] track, and we didn’t have any money. At one point Fred Caruso said, ‘David, you’re always writing little things. They could be called lyrics. Why don’t you write something and send it to Angelo and he will write you a song?’ . . . So Angelo wrote ‘Mysteries of Love.’ At first it wasn’t what it is now: same melody, same words, but it had a completely different feel. So I talked to him, and then I started falling in love with this thing. And he got this friend of his—Julee Cruise—to come in and sing it in a different way. And I said, ‘Angelo, why don’t you score this picture?’ I wrote the script listening to Shostakovich, so I told Angelo about that, and Angelo starts going to work. (From Lynch on Lynch, by Chris Rodley)In March 1985, Ronald Reagan said during a question and answer session with the Magazine Publishers Association of America that “I’ve been accused, I know, of being a believer in Norman Rockwell’s America; and that’s one charge that, as a small town boy and a reader of the old Saturday Evening Post, I’ve always willingly pled guilty to that charge.”
There is the fact, in this frame, of ladies done-up in their hair.
There is no hint yet of grunge, which would begin to creep into the national consciousness with the Deep Six compilation album (featuring Soundgarden, The Melvins, and others) in March 1986, around six months prior to Blue Velvet’s release in the U.S. when flannel shirts, as in this 1987 Sears ad featuring Cheryl Tiegs, would begin assume a coded, detoured meaning.
And there is also this from the Blue Velvet era, from another basement on the other side of the country:
The Blue Velvet Project, #123
Sandy and Jeffrey, on their way to the dance in the basement of a house.
Jeffrey tends to arrive and depart the Williams house at night.
The car creaks as it moves.
What space does the car drive though? The space of streets at night, the insides of stores illuminated like enormous aquariums behind Sandy.
But also the space of a mind, the mind of the film, with its own series of codes that reference other films, other images.
The collective unconscious—so far as we can say anything about it at all—appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious . . .David Lynch:
Everybody has a subconscious and they put a lid on it. There’s things in there. And then along comes something, and something bobs up. I don’t know if that’s good. (from a 1977 interview)
Making films is a subconscious thing. Words get in the way. Rational thinking gets in the way. It can really stop you cold. But when it comes out in a pure sort of stream, from some other place, film has a great way of giving shape to the subconscious. It’s just a great language for that.Film theorist Laura Mulvey writes about the “essential stillness” of cinema. A different Laura here, stilled, holding Jeffrey in her gaze.
(from a 1995 interview)
How does a film think? Is it aware—beyond the intentions of its makers—of the associations it generates in the minds of its viewers? Could Blue Velvet possibly know that a young reader—let’s call her Evelyn—in the year 2012 was given the graphic novel King of the Flies 2: The Origin of the World, by Mezzo and Pirus (Fantagraphics Books, 2011)
and that on page five of that very book there is a panel that captures what should have happened in the moments after the Blue Velvet frame at second #5781? If at some terrible point in the future, Evelyn is cut-off from images, perhaps she will remember The King of the Flies panel as being an actual frame from Blue Velvet, a missing frame, that would have ended the film right there, in a kiss, in a car, before the terrible events that are about to happen, the blood that is to be spilled, the brains that are to be splattered, and in those brains (the brains of the Yellow Man) human thought, stuck to walls and fallen onto carpeting, and the brains of Frank, blown out into Dorothy’s apartment, and earlier Dorothy with Jeffrey’s seed in her, naked in the street, and the way the Sandy’s boyfriend Mike will recoil in horror, assuming the thankless role of the audience, and Jeffrey’s evil Aunt Barbara at the end, disgusted at the robin that Sandy has staked her salvation on, and Evelyn still in withdrawal from images, coiling her thoughts tightly around the last two images that she can remember, one from a film and one from a graphic novel separated by decades but telling, essentially, the same story of goodness in a doomed world.
The Blue Velvet Project, #122
There is a look of pity on Detective Williams’s face as he delivers his warning to Jeffrey not to “blow it.” At this point, it’s not entirely clear whose side the Detective is on; is his Hollywood stock detective outfit for real, or is he—like the “well-dressed man”—wearing a disguise? His warning to Jeffrey, as he takes him by the arms and looks into his eyes, is like a secret communication, a signal to Jeffrey not to rush things, not dig too deeply because what he might find at the terrible, rotten core of things is not Frank, but Detective Williams himself.
This narrative possibility remains open at this moment, a moment that is among the film’s most terrifyingly ambiguous. Is the Detective—like Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks four years later—a monster disguised as a Man of Order? It is during scenes like this that Blue Velvet most closely echoes another film that deconstructed the idyllic myth of small-town America: Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), whose Uncle Charlie operates as an earlier incarnation of Frank Booth, barely restrained by Hollywood’s Production Code. Of that film, Robert B. Ray, in A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980, has written:
‘You live in a dream world,’ Uncle Charlie told his niece, ‘and I have brought you nightmares,’ a lesson that the film’s conclusion, despite its formal closure, could not completely contain. It was no answer to hear from the detective that the world was fundamentally sound, that ‘It just has to be carefully watched.’ By filming this speech in front of a church, and over the background sound of a minister’s glowing eulogy of Uncle Charlie, Hitchcock suggested that such reconciliations rested on hypocrisy.Jeffrey also lives in a dream world, which he exchanges briefly for a nightmare world. In any case, neither of them is true. The world is not a binary of innocence (Sandy) and evil (Frank), but rather both of these—and everything in between—at once. Blue Velvet, like Shadow of a Doubt, recognizes this, and in doing so creates an ending that establishes a false Restoration of Order. Until then, we are left with this image at second #5734 as Detective Williams warns Jeffrey not to “blow it,” not to rush the ending, but to let the rest of the film unfold, to await the return of the mechanical, false robins.
The Blue Velvet Project: Detour Into a Dissolve
A frame from between posts 120 and 121.
By the 1830s, he [Henry Langdon Childe] had developed and perfected the [magic lantern] technique of ‘dissolving views,’ in which one picture faded out as the next one faded in. The images were aligned on the screen and the light remained a constant intensity, creating a smooth, gradual transition. This permitted a wide variety of effects that had not previously been possible. (From The Emergence of Cinema, by Charles Musser, University of California Press, 1990.)
A dissolve is the superimposition of a fade-out onto a fade-in, achieved by reversing and them re-filming using film that has already been used once. [George] Méliès first used this technique, which originated in magic lantern displays, in the late 1899 Cendrillon (Cinderella), and then frequently thereafter to link scenes in multiple-shot films. From the beginning, the dissolve was usually not used for trick effect, but rather to create a smooth transition from one scene to the next . . .The dissolve in Blue Velvet from the hospital room where Jeffrey’s father is confined and the close-up of the police car siren light lasts only around one second, barely enough time for us to register that it is Jeffrey’s Aunt Barbara whose face is preserved (like some prehistoric insect in trapped and preserved in blue amber). There are facts, theories, hunches. Here are frames from pre-dissolve, dissolve, post-dissolve:
Méliès’s use of dissolves from 1899 seems to have been, to a certain extent, a reaction to this practice, a way of gaining more authorial control. [Richard] Abel points out that ‘the dissolve seems to have had an important secondary function for Méliès—to restrict exhibitors from making alterations in the length and order of shots in the prints they purchased from him. (From Georges Méliès, by Elizabeth Ezra, Manchester University Press, 2000.)
1. The multiple shades of blue in Blue Velvet, meshing at this moment.
2. Aunt Barbara (Frances Bay, who plays a figure of mystery and terror in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) emerges in this frame as the true “blue lady.”
3. Jeffrey’s father’s face occupies, like some weird, doll-like figure of terror, the small oval illuminated in the left quadrant of the frame.
4. The overlapping temporalities of the dissolve present an impossibility, as both the present and the future exist momentarily at the same time. Jeffrey is–simultaneously–in the hospital room and in his car approaching Sandy’s house.
5. The dissolve hearkens back to cinema’s origin in magic and its time-bending power to depict multiple levels of reality at the same time. It seems fitting that physicists are now beginning to probe even deeper into the fabric and flow of time which, according to Brian Greene and others, may be an illusion, a seduction, a perpetual magic-lantern trick.
The Blue Velvet Project, #121
Jeffrey approaches Sandy’s house, to pick her up for a date.
He wears a black shirt and a white tie.
Neither he nor the audience, at this point, know the meaning of the police car.
The lens flare cuts the screen in half horizontally.
In the fantasy, science fiction dimension of the film, the blue light is a laser beam, aimed at Jeffrey.
The car is Detective Gordon’s, the Man in Yellow.
He will enter the house, and will spook Jeffrey.
In response, Detective Williams will take him by the shoulders and tell him: “Easy does it, Jeffrey. Behave yourself. Don’t blow it.”
In a different context, he could be warning Jeffrey—who has just told Sandy that she “looks great”—to watch his behavior with her on their date.
What is Jeffrey a detective of, now?
“The idea was to eradicate it, not figure it out.” (from the novel Death Sentences, by Kawamata Chiaki)
Jeffrey has decided to eradicate Frank.
The frame at second #5687 comes amidst a sequence of short shots that convey an enormous amount of narrative information. To slow this down, I’ve taken the first frame from each shot (with the exception of the dissolve shots) and presented them, below. The dissolves between shots 2 and 3 are strange and surreal and offer a story within a story that will be the subject of Wednesday’s post.
The Blue Velvet Project, #120
The space behind Detective Williams — his accusatory gaze upon Sandy moments after Jeffrey has left — is unexplored in the film. He stands with his back to the darkness, his hand against the wall. There is the possibility of a fist.
In a 2003 interview, filmmaker Chris Marker said that
DVD technology is obviously superb, but it isn’t always cinema. Godard nailed it once and for all: at the cinema, you raise your eyes to the screen; in front of the television, you lower them. Then there is the role of the shutter. Out of the two hours you spend in a movie theater, you spend one of them in the dark. It’s this nocturnal portion that stays with us, that fixes our memory of a film in a different way than the same film seen on television or on a monitor.Those small spaces between film frames persist as some sort of excess or remainder. They are what is left over, and indeed their darkness remains with us even though we don’t know it. Digital cinema has its own remainders, as well, its own lost spaces in the slivers of time between its 0’s and 1’s. At some point in the not-so-distant future, Blue Velvet will cease to exist in 35mm analog format, except as a specimen copy in an archive. As a film like Blue Velvet persists and evolves across mediums and formats—acetate, VHS, DVD, and stored in a perpetual holding pattern somewhere in the cloud—it leaves behind traces of itself. But it also accumulates small details of its new technological embodiment becoming, as Marshall McLuhan might have said, a conveyor of meaning about its medium.
At second #5640, Detective Williams is framed within the frame in a reversal of the image in the previous post, where the blank wall space occupied the space in the right hand portion of the screen. And by cutting back and forth between Jeffrey and her father during this scene, it becomes clear how they occupy opposing spaces on the screen, not just across from each other, but literally different sides of the screen. And yet they are both linked, fascinated and terrified by what Sandy describes as this “strange world.”
The Blue Velvet Project, #119
Blue Velvet nears its final act, and still the relationship between Jeffrey and Sandy remains obscured in mystery. “Is Friday still on?” he asks her, loudly enough for her father to hear, in an effort to keep up the façade that their relationship is as innocent as something out of the Andy Hardy films.
There are the facts of Sandy, and the beauty of her hands and fingers and knuckles, and her exposed ear (“I hear things…”), and the force of her father Detective Williams invisible for now, but present in the off-screen space implied on this side of the camera, and the tension-filled blank space between Jeffrey and Sandy, a space that begs for her to step forward and kiss him on the mouth.
At moments such as this, Blue Velvet becomes a small-town romance film, a sort of gothic soap opera, but one where the stakes are not just the romantic fates of the characters, but the status of their very souls. Upon first viewing the film, perhaps this scene with Jeffrey and Sandy at the bottom of the stairs struck you as an odd moment of calm before the narrative kicked in again. But now, years later, everything about the scene conspires to suggest it is among the film’s most powerfully quiet, humming with its own weird electricity. In his short book The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes wrote that
Everyone can testify that the pleasure of the text is not certain: nothing says that this same text will please us a second time; it is a friable pleasure, split by mood, habit, circumstance, a precarious pleasure.It’s not that Blue Velvet — or any film, any text — has changed upon our revisiting it, but that we have, shot-through by circumstances that are unknowable to the screen, which replays the same images over and over again. This time, the bottom-of-the-stairs scene strikes you with its split-atom power, so potent that Sandy must reach into the blank part of the screen to steady herself.
The Blue Velvet Project: Confession Redux
The Blue Velvet Project will resume with post #119 on May 30th. In the meantime, this is a re-post of the April 23 confession, with a new confessional update at the bottom of the post.
As author of The Blue Velvet Project—which owes a moral debt to the Dogme 95 movement, whose practice of constraint was an inspiration—I feel obligated to make this public statement of confessions regarding the rigors of the project. This is done in the spirit of Thomas Vinterberg’s confession regarding his film The Celebration.
Despite the fact that I promised Mr. Macaulay, Filmmaker Editor-in-Chief, that I would compose each entry “well ahead of time,” I confess that the following posts were composed the day of posting:
I confess to posting—out of unreasonable affection for the frame in question—on the same frame twice, concocting the flimsy ruse of “part 2” as a means to justify this selfish act.
I confess to the desire to “step frame” the DVD forward to avoid Jeffrey’s eyes being closed in post #73. However, I resisted this temptation.
I confess to knowing well ahead of time that I would use the Comolli and Narboni quote in post #25. In fact, no matter what frame post #25 would have revealed, I was prepared to use that quote, thereby jeopardizing the spirit of surprise and spontaneity that characterize the project.
I hereby declare that all previous Blue Velvet Project entries up to this point have been created following both the letter and the spirit of the agreement between myself and Mr. Macaulay, and that I will endeavor to remain faithful to this agreement for the remainder of the project.
Pleading for absolution, I remain
UPDATE, May 28: Backslider and deeply flawed person that I am, I have failed to remain faithful to the agreement. In fact, in the very post that followed my confession–post #106 on April 25–I quoted again from two authors I have over-used in this project, Brian Evenson and Haruki Murakami. I did this with full knowledge that, at the very beginning of the Blue Velvet Project in August 2011, I had promised its sponsor, Mr. Macaulay, that I would not quote from, cite, or reference the same author “more than three times.”
Knowing that Mr. Macaulay’s patience has its limits–and that those limits have been sorely tested–I accept full responsibility for this breach and vow not to mention Evenson/Murakami for the duration of this project. Furthermore, I accept the conditions of the letter I received (below; click to enlarge) from the Editorial Offices at Jay Street in Brooklyn, New York (as usual, on vintage stationery from the Hotel Nacional de Cuba) forbidding me from the use of certain letters of the alphabet in post #131, which will likely appear in July.
The Blue Velvet Project, #118
1. Seconds after this shot, Sandy’s father, Detective Williams, will ask Jeffrey: “Is Sandy part of this?” It’s more along the lines of a warning than a question. Sandy, in the diagonally split screen, longs so deeply not just for Jeffrey but for the knowledge/power suggested by the office of her father.
Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. –Michel Foucault3.
Whenever the movie screen holds a particularly effective image of terror, little boys and grown men make it a point of honor to look, while little girls and grown women cover their eyes or hide behind the shoulders of their dates. There are excellent reasons for this refusal of the woman to look, not the least of which is that she is often asked to bear witness to her own powerlessness in the face of rape, mutilation and murder. Another excellent reason for the refusal to look is the fact that women are given so little to identify with on the screen. –Linda Williams, from “When the Woman Looks”4. The frame invites us to gaze at Sandy gazing. She listens, she looks, but she does not, cannot, speak.
The Blue Velvet Project, #117
This look—this sharp, suspicious, and accusatory look—is passed between Detective Williams and Jeffrey just moments after Jeffrey describes Frank as “a sick and dangerous man.” In the temporal flow of the film, the moment of this gaze passes very quickly, as the narrative draws our attention to what Jeffrey (who has brought along his black and white surveillance photographs) tells Detective Williams about Frank and his dark goings-on. And yet, when the film is frozen and this frame from second #5499 is de-linked from linear chronology, the Detective’s look takes on a new shade of meaning, one that suggests that perhaps Jeffrey, as well as Frank, is a “sick and dangerous man.” There is something in that look, those eyes, that suggests that Detective Williams sees the dark folds in Jeffrey’s soul that are hidden to others, and that in this look at this moment he signals to Jeffrey that he knows.
In his classic 1970 text Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser (who strangled to death his wife and so knows, ahem, a thing or two about “apparatuses”) wrote this:
I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’For Althusser, this “hailing” was a metaphor for how the State constitutes and marks its subjects, or citizens. For to be called, to be hailed, to be named is to become, in that moment, bound. Bound to the gaze that demands that you respond, or at least acknowledge that you have been hailed.
Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. And yet it is a strange phenomenon, and one which cannot be explained solely by ‘guilt feelings’, despite the large numbers who ‘have something on their consciences.’
And this is what Detective Williams (who is, after all, the figure of The Law, the figure of The Father) does at this moment: he hails Jeffrey, bringing him into the fold of Order. The Detective’s vision and ideology constitutes the ideology of the film. By the end, as everything returns to “normal” Jeffrey will be, once again, the dutiful subject, thanks, in no small part, to the seemingly small gesture of the Detective’s authoritarian gaze at this moment.
The Blue Velvet Project, #116
In Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes wrote about the studium (the cultural and political meanings of a photograph) and the punctum (the piercing of the photograph into the realm of personal meaning):
Now, confronting millions of photographs . . . I sense no blind field: everything which happens within the frame dies absolutely once this frame is passed beyond. When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies. Yet once there is a punctum, a blind field is created . . .The frame—dislodged from the flow of context in the film—becomes two things now: an interruption of 24 frames per second, and a stand alone unit of meaning. In the flow of Blue Velvet, this frame comes at the moment Jeffrey arrives at the Williams’s to share photographs and information about Frank with Detective Williams, who here is captured entering from frame right to answer the door. Within a few seconds, Jeffrey will enter from the left, and Sandy will come down the stairs.
And yet the image here exists on its own terms, independent of the film. In fact, liberated from the tyranny of narrative, the image opens itself to the possibilities of meaning that extend far beyond David Lynch’s (or Blue Velvet’s, in our post death of the author age) intentions. There are so many possibilities in the “fastened down” image, so many questions. All we need to know is that this is an image from a Lynch film, nothing more. Once we know that, the figures and objects in the frame become double-coded, imbued with a second meaning of terrifying significance. The man becomes The Man. The stairs become The Stairs. Even the plants become The Plants, specters in their own right.
It’s as if the “blind field” that Barthes writes about becomes—in a weird twist that could only happen in the movies—a blindness that liberates rather than limits. For in the frozen, detached film frame—blind to the film’s narrative—we can write our own story. This is the tragic possibility of our time. The ability to detour, to re-mix, to decontextualize and Make It New. The aporia of the digital.
In this new world, Detective Williams is forever nine stairwell balusters away from reaching the front door.
And the small black rectangle on the wall behind the volute is not, nor has ever been nor ever shall be, a simple light switch.
itd. prema početku filma.