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24 Frames per Second

24fps@NYPL - Blue Velvet

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Welcome to 24 Frames per Second, a New York Public Library blog tagline devoted to film. By following the 24fps@NYPL tag you’ll easily be able to read film reviews and suggestions from Library staff systemwide which will hopefully lead to many lively and insightful comments and discussions. You will also be able to find information here about film screenings at local branches. Hopefully the posts here will expose you to some films you may not have seen or encourage you to possibly revisit or reconsider some of those films you haven’t seen in a long time. And of course, all the films discussed here are available in the branches of The New York Public Library.

So, let us get things under way...

Some say David Lynch is an uncompromising artistic genius. Others say he is self-indulgent and obsessive. Regardless of whether or not you like his films there is no denying his creative vision, as you would be hard-pressed to find another contemporary director whose work is as instantly recognizable. His name is often used as an adjective to describe something darkly surreal. When something is Lynchian you know what to expect.

Blue Velvet is arguably the best representation of Lynch’s artistic vision. A number of recurring themes appear throughout the work of David Lynch and Blue Velvet is the perfect example of the use of these motifs. In the film the character Jeffrey Beaumont says, “I'm seeing something that was always hidden. I'm in the middle of a mystery and it is all secret.” This line could just as easily have appeared in any of Lynch’s film or television work. From the opening montage of picture-perfect Americana to the discovery of its dark and secret underside, Blue Velvet contains many of the visual and thematic ideas that Lynch continues to revisit to this day.

Rather than give a traditional review of Blue Velvet I just want to highlight a few points of interest to watch out for in future viewings and mention some other related films, music, and books. The influence of some of these works on Lynch will be apparent while the influence of Lynch and his work will be apparent in the others.

Blue Velvet marks the first collaboration between Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti who subsequently went on to work on all of Lynch’s films. Lynch listened to Dmitri Shostakovich's 15th Symphony while writing the script and told Badalamenti he wanted something similarly dark yet beautiful. Badalamenti made direct quotes from the symphony and created, according to Entertainment Weekly, one of the 100 greatest film soundtracks of all time. The 1950s American pop mirrored with the dark orchestral score definitely reinforces the main themes of the film. Personally, I can no longer listen to Roy Orbison’s In Dreams without thinking of that lip-syncing scene. Incidentally, Badalamenti appears in the film at the piano in the Slow Club scene. Julee Cruise, who later released two albums of Lynch/Badalamenti material and appeared in Twin Peaks, also provides vocals to the song heard as the film comes to an end.

Another unique scene involving music is when the Lincoln Street sign is shown accompanied by an orchestral swell. Compare that to the scene in the classic western High Noon when the three villains ride into town up to the Marshal sign. It is definitely a “wink” of sorts from David Lynch, a kind of cinematic homage if you will. The Wachowski brothers provided their own similar street-sign homage to Lynch in Bound. It’s hard to miss the Lynch references in that film.

One of Blue Velvet’s most memorable scenes is the discovery of the severed ear. In early drafts of the script an ear was also left in Dorothy Vallens’ bathroom. Watch carefully at the end of the scene when Frank Booth makes his first appearance. Dorothy is crying at her sink and the words “Look Down” can be seen written on the mirror in soap. It’s a filmed reference from an early draft of the script that wasn’t caught in editing.

The Squid and the Whale takes place in Park Slope in 1986, the year Blue Velvet was released in theaters. In the film the characters go to a screening of Blue Velvet while the young son Frank stays home, drinks cheap beer, and eerily echoes lines from the film while staring in a mirror. The brief scene can only be described as Lynchian.

Another source of interest is the essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by the late David Foster Wallace. The essay originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of Premier Magazine and is collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Wallace had behind-the-scenes access during the filming of Lost Highway and in his footnoted and comically verbose fashion Wallace offered a unique view on Lynch and his films, in particular Blue Velvet.

If you are a fan of David Lynch’s work I’d be interested in hearing about some of your favorite scenes. If you are not familiar with his films, Blue Velvet is a great starting point. Twin Peaks is equally accessible and deals with the same main theme: a small town with secrets, but on the epic scale of a two-season 29-episode television series as opposed to a two-hour feature film. If you are really feeling adventurous, try the psychogenic fugue trilogy of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire.

Some upcoming posts at 24fps@NYPL will include discussions about Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (showing at Jefferson Market Monday, May 18 at 6 p.m.!), the films of Jacques Tati, and films shot in 70mm. Stay tuned!