I was seventeen the first time I saw Blue Velvet. If I had known the work of Salvador Dali, I would have described David Lynch’s work as Dali film. The first five minutes of Blue Velvet looks like a painting. The colors are sharp and white and the edges starched. You can almost smell the burning of fabric under a steam iron. There is an underlying discomfort that is not yet tangible. Lynch creates tension by showing us perfection and then tearing it away. The human part of us will always look behind the obvious and David Lynch knows this. He takes us into a dark room and develops his characters under a microscope. The beginning of the film starts with the song Blue Velvet backdropping eerily, as a man watering his lawn gets his throat slit by a garden hose that broke away after he yanked it from the wall.The song stops and the camera quickly switches to a magnified shot of flourescent green grass as bugs crawl through the blades. The sound is exaggerated by a microphone so that we can hear the scream of crawling insects. It is the first time I feel comfort taken from my hands. The next scene is Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan) walking through the field of small town Lumberton where he finds a severed ear. This is the second time and from here, there is no going back to the 50’s. As much as I know there is a plot, I see mostly erotic images that I find both disturbing and provacative. Dorothy Vallens (played by Isabella Rossellini) on her knees kissing Jeffrey Beaumont’s cock– one hand on his ass and the other around a knife. Frank (played by Dennis Hopper) holding a nitrous oxide mask over his mouth as he tells Dorothy to spread her legs and show “it” to him. Then he falls into the role of a baby who goes between whimpering and telling Dorothy that “baby wants to fuck”, to screaming at her not to fucking look at him. Minutes later he’s shoving a pair of scissors inside of her and trying to get off. Roy Orbison sings Dreams as Ben (played by Dean Stockwell) lip synchs and Frank creepily mumbles the lyrics and cries. All of these images create internal conflict, which is what every artist aspires to achieve. It is the mark of genius. We are turned on and off by what we see and that makes us question our own perversions. David Lynch develops his characters just enough to make us feel something for them but not enough to make us care about them. He creates this distance to keep our focus on the images and to make it possible for us to watch human beings in distress. We remain uncomfortable but not uncomfortable enough to leave. Blue Velvet drifts in and out of lucidity without ever telling us where we are or how long we are going to stay. I still believe it is Lynch’s Mona Lisa. Not only because it is his finest film but because it pulls the veil from the smile of every small town in America. Maybe I appreciate this because I grew up in a small town and I heard about the 50’s like they were some kind of Eden. But there hasn’t been an Eden since Eden so no one is fooled into believing that. I could have started with Eraserhead or the Elephant Man but I didn’t. I started with Blue Velvet. It was the first time I saw art in film and it changed the way I perceived cinema. I was only seventeen so I was just beginning to identify myself as an artist. This was my sharp left turn and I have David Lynch to thank for taking me into myself by taking me away from myself.
The next Lynch film I saw was Wild at Heart. I admit watching it because Nicolas Cage still had that pre-Con Air quirkiness and it was the closest thing to my kind of porn. Nicolas Cage, who plays Sailor Ripley, is an outlaw with Southern accent and an obsession with Elvis. Lula Pace (played by Laura Dern), is Sailor’s sweetly sexual girlfriend. They spend most of the movie running from gangsters hired by Lula’s mother Marietta Fortune (played by Diana Ladd) to kill Sailor. Of course this would not be a Lynch film without that erotic darkness and Bobby Peru, played by Willem Defoe is the Frank (Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet) of Wild At Heart. During the road trip, Sailor and Lula stop at a cheap motel where they meet Bobby Peru. He is the type of guy that would put his mouth on anything and never wash it out. In one of the most sexually charged scenes, Bobby corners Lula in her motel room and slides his hand between her legs. When he smiles that criminally perverted grin, you see a face full of rotted, broken teeth. This small detail should repulse us more than it does but just like Lula, we are both turned on and terrified. Once again, David shows us our own perverted demons. In one of my favorite scenes, Sailor gets the hell beat out of him after telling a gang of rogues to “bring it on faggots”. He lies in the middle of the street and has a vision of the good witch from the Wizard of Oz. I’ve always felt a little Wizard of Oz atmosphere in Lynch’s films, so when I saw this scene I was not surprised. Although the film did hit cult status like Blue Velvet, it is still one of my favorite Lynch films. Lynch is the master of the blockbuster b-movie. If you don’t watch Wild at Heart for any other reason, watch it to see Nick Cage play his true self for the last time.
And now, Mulholland Drive– the film that takes us back to Blue Velvet with all of its neo noir and surrealism. I wonder if this isn’t when David Lynch started getting deeper into transcendental meditation. Many artists use this type of meditation to connect to a higher, almost unreachable universe in the mind. Originally pitched as a pilot but later rejected, David Lynch finished Mulholland Drive as a film. The truth is that it feels like a pilot and a film. In her breakout role, Naomi Watts plays Betty Elms a fresh off of the bus actress in LA who befriends Rita (played by Laura Harring) who has lost her memory after a car accident. Betty starts out bright and optimistic but soon transforms into something else. I could explain the rest of the film, but it wouldn’t explain anything. Mulholland Drive is organized chaos and it leaves perception up to us. It’s a series of films within a film and only David seems to hold the key. Seen as one of Lynch’s finest pieces of work, it is a cleaner Blue Velvet. Some even say, it is the reincarnated continuation of Blue Velvet. The plot seems interchangeable and the characters lack the darkness of his earlier work. But it is still Lynch.
David Lynch’s impact on the film industry cannot be denied. Just like great music compositions, you can name a Lynch film in the first three seconds. He has a signature in a city full of names and that is the mark of a gifted artist. Selling out was never something that Lynch fans had to worry about. Even in Hollywood, everyone loves a person who doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. Lynch once said that no one has figured out what his films are about. I’m going to take a stab in the dark and say that they are cinematic interpretations of greats works of art. They are dreams and dreams will always be open for interpretation. And sometimes the dreamer can’t even understand his own dreams. Just ask Salvador Dali.