Free essay from our new issue: Kara Vanderbijl on Blue Velvet (1986)
I am five years old. Crisp white paper crinkles underneath me as I shift on the table. It is very cold and bright in the room, but I am sweaty. My palms stick together. I look at my mom and at the big jar of red, yellow, and green lollipops. Then I look at the nurse, who is holding a syringe up to the light. Clear drops of fluid spritz off its sharp end.
“Now,” she advises, pointing the needle at the meat of my upper arm. “Look away.”
But I can’t. The needle moves closer and closer.
Some images are too powerful to forget. Wherever and whenever they appear, they poke at dark things that lie just beyond the reach of our consciousness. They sear our brains. Whether we seek them out or stumble upon them, they reel through our minds like a refrain, unbridling fear and obsession.
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is full of such images. I was fourteen when I saw it for the first time, on a class trip, and I was not ready for it. I walked out of the theatre that day, its violent, sexually charged scenes filling my mind, cues for brand new nightmares.
In the film’s iconic opening sequence, the peace of a quiet neighborhood in Lumberton, North Carolina is shattered when a man collapses on his lawn. Inside the house, his wife watches a mystery program. A dog drinks from the man’s hose, which he still holds in a viselike grip. Nearby, children laugh as they cross the street and flowers in deeply saturated colors play against a bright blue sky. Bobby Vinton croons “Blue Velvet” in the background.
This could be Anywhere, America. But the man’s stroke has taken away its anonymity. Violence is particular: it peels open what’s expected, to reveal what’s curious underneath. Below this man’s immaculate lawn, thousands of bugs gnash at the soil and at one another, eroding the idyllic afternoon with each bite.
My mother is watering flowers in the backyard. When she steps away from a pot full of bright purple petunias, my brother and I see that a rust-colored rattlesnake is coiled next to it, almost the same color as the planter.
It flicks its tongue. We scream and pound on the window.
The man’s son, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns home to Lumberton from college to visit his father in the hospital. While cutting through a vacant lot on the way home, he finds a severed ear. It buzzes like a radio between stations, as if Jeffrey must turn it to the right frequency to understand its hidden message. Jeffrey bags and pockets it like a key, opening the door to an enigmatic, frightening world that’s been lying just under the surface of his sleepy hometown.
With his open face, sensitive eyes, and strong jaw, MacLachlan is a Romantic hero, a physical embodiment of trustworthiness and virtue. Lynch once said of him, “Kyle plays innocents who are interested in the mysteries of life. He’s the person you trust enough to go into a strange world with.” This is especially true for Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the local detective’s daughter, who catches wind of Jeffrey’s discovery and other details of the case by eavesdropping on her father’s telephone conversations. In a local diner, Jeffrey and Sandy make plans to find the connection between the ear and the police’s current person of interest—a club singer named Dorothy Vallens—by breaking into her apartment.
My father cracks open the lid of the electric breaker on the back wall of the house. Inside, a huge spider stretches across the switches. Her spindly legs gather together as the sun hits her. She hisses.
My father slams the breaker shut.
It’s within Dorothy’s flat that Lynch’s noir undertones take full flesh. We’d heard echoes of it in Angelo Badalamenti’s score, an orchestral track calling to mind deeply-dipped fedoras, slinky cocktail dresses, and smoking guns. Now, in a setting worthy of Hitchcock, Lynch’s femme fatale, played by the inimitable Isabella Rossellini, catches Jeffrey red-handed as he rifles through her apartment looking for clues. She holds a butcher knife up to his throat. She demands that he remove his clothes.
You can’t look away from Dorothy. Dark-haired and pale, she drapes a blue velvet robe around her shoulders and examines herself in the mirror. She leans against walls, folds in despair to the floor, and looks up through half-lidded eyes. With her bright red lips and bruise-blue eye shadow, she’s the picture of open, violent passion, the antidote to Sandy’s pink-and-white bloom. She is the smoking gun. She is the afternoon mystery program that the women of Lumberton turn on to forget the suds in their sinks. She is so alluring that a man named Frank kidnapped her husband and young son in order to make her his sexual slave.
Frank (Dennis Hopper) lives up to his name: he is a straightforward brand of evil. Jeffrey, Sandy and Dorothy, their names ending in y, decorate the action of the film like adverbs decorate a verb. But Frank is pure action. He interrupts Dorothy and Jeffrey’s brief interlude by pounding on the door. By the time Dorothy whisks Jeffrey into the closet, he has entered the apartment, his movements brusque, every word punctuated by obscenities. He has come to take what is his. As Jeffrey watches from the closet, Frank subjects Dorothy to a series of humiliating and violent sexual acts. He presses a mask to his mouth and gasps at an unidentified substance. His eyes bug out. But neither his person nor his crimes are as disturbing as Dorothy’s obvious enjoyment of them. At the tail end of a punch, her lips curl into a smile.
I shift uncomfortably in my red velvet theatre seat as Frank finishes dry-humping Dorothy and leaves. She folds her legs up to her chest, a patch of her blue velvet robe missing where Frank cut it. Naked, Jeffrey emerges from the closet. He folds Dorothy into his arms. “Are you okay?” he asks her.
“Hit me,” she whispers.
I am not ready to see this, but I cannot look away.
With Blue Velvet, Lynch satirizes an antiseptic small-town America and creates its antithesis, a terrifying villain—but it is through Dorothy that he makes his most important point. She may love her husband and child, but when they were taken away, she discovered that she loved pain, and humiliation, and degradation, too.
We are almost never ready for the things that end up shaping us the most. Innocence kidnapped, flesh bared, we wait for whatever lurks in the darkness. As viewers, we take Jeffrey’s place in the closet and wonder at Dorothy’s world, where blue velvet symbolizes the complex dichotomy of human desire, at turns soft and rough, dark and light. We are Little Red Riding Hood who, in the original tale, was so fascinated by the wolf that he was able to gobble her whole. We are voyeurs of violent fantasies, rubbing at the hurt until our fear and desire explode.
As Jeffrey deepens his relationship with Sandy, he gets caught up in Dorothy’s world. One moment he shares a tender kiss with Sandy in the local diner, the picture of 1950s high-school innocence, the next he punches Dorothy during sex. Like Dorothy, he has a relationship with two very different people, but he separates his encounters by night and day, location and type, whereas Dorothy links her savior and her captor by desiring violence from both of them.
Fear is brawny. It beats the pulp out of our other feelings until it has left scars on all of them. We turn to it like a bad habit, and no wonder; it’s been with us the longest, longer sometimes than comfort has. It takes us further into the future than love. It carries us to the outer reaches of our character: how fast we can run and how much we can stand. Sometimes it takes us far enough to bring us to what we thought we’d never do.
A young boy and his brother are playing outdoors after dark. From where they play, they can see the rose bushes in their front yard, the bright friendly white of their picket fence.
Suddenly, they hear a thin wail. Walking down the street towards them is a naked woman, arms across her chest, dazed and crying. The young boy’s eyes fill with tears. He is not ready to see this. He cannot look away.
Dorothy’s appearance, naked and battered, in the idyll of Jeffrey and Sandy’s neighborhood, is what marked me the most when I first saw Blue Velvet. Her bruises made sense to me (she had just escaped from Frank, after a particularly horrific event), but the erotic satisfaction with which she spreads her body open did not. How could a woman already so harmed desire to degrade herself further?
The nakedness was an obvious choice. It did not surprise me to learn later on that the scene is actually based on Lynch’s childhood experience. Had the troubled woman in his past also laid herself bare? Doubtless she had been pried further and further open as the image echoed in his mind like a refrain, until, like a symbol, she had no shame, only meaning.
Like humor, violence often occurs in the space between what’s expected and what actually happens. In a society where the two so often remain separated, humor—or violence—becomes a natural reaction. Both are particularly-shaped puzzle pieces that cement the often ill-fitting parts of human desire. If you despise a man, you can laugh at him or kill him. Satire is punishment on a grand scale; violence is punishment on a particular scale. Lynch manages to do both in Blue Velvet.
If you were to separate the two worlds in the film, you’d find that both have the power of a gut-punch: each one alone is enough to sear you. They dredge up fear and obsession; they demand laughter or horror. But together, they elicit a curious blend of both.
“What kind of movie is this?” my classmate whispers. I am peeking around my fingers as Frank searches Dorothy’s apartment for Jeffrey, gun in his hand. He throws open the closet doors, where Jeffrey has been hiding. Jeffrey puts a bullet in Frank’s brain.
I laugh. My classmates laugh, hysterically.
We are laughing to save our lives.
This essay currently appears in the July 2014 issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room Magazine. To read the rest of the issue, download the Bright Wall/Dark Room app to your iPhone or iPad for free, or subscribe online for just $2 a month and receive full access to the issue online.
On Rewatching Halt and Catch Fire 1-6
Christopher Cantwell, co-creator of Halt and Catch Fire (and long-time Bright Wall/Dark Room contributor), discusses the discussion around his show—its lead, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the difficult decisions that go on in the writer’s room around anti-heroes and “petting the dog”—and makes the case for why people should give the show a chance to tell its full story before rushing to judgement.
(His wife Elizabeth lays out a similar case, elegantly, here).
So let’s discuss Halt and Catch Fire! The seventh episode airs tonight on AMC - are you watching? Have you been watching? If not, WHY AREN’T YOU WATCHING? Let’s keep this thing going!
Since the show’s premiere, I’ve been fairly good about avoiding all discussion about the show. Fairly good. It takes an insane amount of willpower and I fail constantly, and Elizabeth just goes and looks at stuff anyway and then I find out what people are saying for better or worse. There are days where I’ve felt positive, and days where I’ve been so depressed I’ve felt physically ill. It is what it is; it’s my first time on this roller coaster and I’ve found myself ready for neither praising high-fives nor the blindsiding gut-punches that come frequently and often simultaneously.
But I’m very glad Elizabeth saw this post, because Melissa is so right! It was tremendous to read a thoughtful criticism like this (and I’m amazed Melissa actually re-watched the previous five episodes, too).
One particular I was immediately struck by in her writing: “save the cat.” That is the HEART of the issue with Joe MacMillan, and has been from the very beginning. The only difference is, in our writer’s room, we call it “petting the dog.” We really do! And we—along with our fellow writers, our showrunner, our producers, the network, Lee—have been discussing at length for going on three-and-a-half years now precisely when to let Joe MacMillan “pet the dog.”
Joe MacMillan! Man. He is a tough one. Rogers and I created him in a small windowless office in January 2011, admittedly without the forethought or audacity to believe he would ever traverse past a sample pilot episode on paper. But lo and behold, we’ve had the good fortune to be able to tell his longer story.
An admission: there were multiple (multiple) drafts of the pilot developed with the network and Gran Via where we attempted to humanize Joe more from the get-go. Juan Campanella, the director of the pilot, is an ambassador of warmth and beautiful human nature and one reason we brought him in was precisely to help figure out Joe (aside from being a brilliant director, Juan is also a brilliant writer).
But it was exceptionally challenging. Joe’s human underpinnings are so difficult to reveal in the right way. Too much in one direction, the character loses spark and magnetism, all bark, no bite. Too much the other, he risks being cold and opaque and sociopathic. Writing him is a constant tightrope walk.
Another admission: Joe’s stories were ALWAYS the hardest to break in the writers room. Every single time. For the exact reason I stated above. ”Okay, what about Joe?” Dead silence. But because of that struggle, we often found discoveries about him to be all the more rewarding.
Ultimately, we made a choice: we barely refrained from showing that Joe was even remotely capable of petting any dog for the first five episodes. 42 minutes x 5 = WHOA. Half the season! Was it the right move? I don’t know! I know it asks a lot, maybe too much, but I also feel like that’s what makes the reveal he’s human so much more gratifying. If we had immediately cracked through his mask right out of the gate, I just don’t know if it would have had the same impact. The mask would have been flimsy, had no real purpose except to be dropped. Maybe we just couldn’t figure out the right way to do it. But for me, the mask needed to be stronger, needed a sledgehammer to even crack it, which is why the last scene of episode 105 is my favorite of the season, because to me it is The Beginning of Human Joe. It’s an arrival.
I will say that Lee Pace has definitely informed how this character is written. He is such a thoughtful and powerful human being that I feel there is no way his portrayal of Joe could ever be 100% emotionally dead, even when the character is at his worst. I think there are other actors who would’ve done things Joe did this season and people would’ve gone “FUCK YOU NO!” (I guess people have already done that, but…). With Lee, we knew we could challenge ourselves and see how far we could push the character, because the actor’s humanity would anchor us. Now, I’m not saying we wanted to see what we could get away with, but… I hope we haven’t pushed him too far. Joe is still going to do terrible things. That is part of his makeup. But there is also much more person to be revealed in there. Ideally, I’d love to spend an entire series completely stripping the character down to his essentials. We often talked about how Season 1 in many ways is really about the “reverse engineering” of Joe MacMillan himself. The same is true for all the other lead characters as well.
In fact, THAT is the part of Joe’s character that excites me the most. I don’t think any of us are interested in maintaining an anti-hero for very long, really. For one, we’ve seen that executed very well already, and two, the character (and audience) deserves more.
We want to get to human Joe, we just want to EARN it, and make it HARD for him to get there. It’s tricky, right?
One important distinction, at least in my head, is that Joe isn’t interested necessarily in classic financial gain or absolute power. The thing that I cling to when writing Joe is that he BELIEVES in what he’s doing. Genuinely. He believes he’s right. He wants to do this with all his heart, and he’ll do anything to make his dream a reality. Literally, anything. And it’s made him this train-wreck of a person. And to me, there’s a kind of wonderful innocence in that.
I love the way Lee approaches Joe, because no matter what scenario we throw at him, Lee is able to justify Joe’s actions in his mind as the right and necessary thing to do. He justifies the mask, the suit, the identity, the behavior as a means to an end for his vision. But he could be wrong, and he very well may be proven so.
This coming Sunday’s episode is a good one I believe, but my stomach is already in knots over it. Because I’m already asking myself “did we reveal too much of Joe this time? Is it not enough? Did we pull back? Did we push him over the edge?” The truth is, there’s no real answer. That’s what makes the character fascinating to me. He’s elusive and can’t be pinned down. Too much sunlight and he wilts, too much shadow and he risks being an empty phantom and a caricature.
Anyway. Thank you, Melissa! Today you made me like the internet.
I do love this show and think it’s fascinating, but I also think it has issues and one of them just might be that it is sometimes too subtle for its own good. This becomes especially apparent when you go back and watch all the episodes back-to-back and get a better feel for character arcs than watching one episode a week.
So this is partly about Stuff I Noticed This Time Around and a response to this sweet, impassioned plea from the wife of one of the show’s creators. This is going to be another long one, I suspect. More under the cut.
Summer Movies: The Sandlot (1993)
A CRASH COURSE IN HOW TO STOP BEING AN L-7 WEENIE AND START HAVING THE BEST SUMMER OF YOUR LIFE
by Erika Schmidt
Meet Scottie Smalls.
He’s your classic 1960s grade school nerd. Squeaky clean baby face. Hair slicked and parted on the side. Khaki shorts. Collared shirt tucked in with a belt. Baseball cap with a giant, stiff bill that sticks straight up. Bedroom full of complicated erector set creations. Concerned mom. Distant stepdad.
Scottie’s new in town, and, as his grown-up voiceover tells us at the beginning of The Sandlot, “It was a lousy way to end the fifth grade because I had zip time to make friends before summer. And that’s about where it all started.”
Where it all starts is when Benny Rodriguez (Oh! Benny Rodriguez!) turns up in front of Scottie’s house, rechristens him “Smalls,” and invites him to come play ball. He gently instructs Smalls to toss the cap with the oversized bill into the fireplace. It’s only the first of many valuable lessons The Sandlot offers.
Know your baseball -OR- Do not admit ignorance.
If you do not already know who The Great Bambino is, find out. Or you will be ridiculed.
Dress the part.
For those without a Benny Rodriguez to outfit them with a new/old cap, here’s what your ensemble should include: dirty jeans (holes are okay); t-shirt or ¾ sleeve baseball shirt (stains are okay); worn-out cap with a bent bill (you can achieve this bend by wrapping a rubber band around it and leaving it overnight); sneakers (PF Fliers are best).
Know how to hurl an insult. And how to make a s’more.
This double lesson comes courtesy of Hamilton “Ham” Porter, the player most put out by Smalls’ lack of useful skills and knowledge. (You’re KILLING me, Smalls!) Hold nothing back when your team’s honor is at stake. Maintain eye contact and go for the jugular. Toast the mallow. Put the mallow on the graham.
Use any means necessary to make that lady yours.
It is not beneath you to fake your own drowning in order to steal a kiss from your dream woman. Especially if your dream woman is bombshell lifeguard Wendy Peffercorn, and you would otherwise have no chance in hell of ever touching her. Here’s the plan. You will trick her into giving you mouth-to-mouth. You will throw your arms around her neck and kiss her. Your friends will watch in awe. “This Magic Moment” will play. She will slap you and chase you off the premises. You will be banned for life from the pool. But you will also marry Wendy Peffercorn and have eight million babies.
Don’t forget to spit.
Go ahead and steal some Big Chief chewing tobacco. “All the pros do it!” Take it to the carnival. Share it with your friends. But do not: a) neglect to spit, or b) go on the tilt-a-whirl. You will puke all over yourself and everyone in the vicinity. It will be gross. But “Tequila” will be playing, so it will also be kind of delightful.
Stop for fireworks -OR- Leave some room for wonder.
Remember you are playing America’s sport. Play a night game by the light of the fourth of July fireworks. Skid into home and look up. Pretty great, right?
Beware of dog -OR- Respect The Beast.
Do not hit the ball over the fence at the far end of the outfield. You will never get it back. If you want to know why, ask Squints to tell you.
If you meet The Babe in a dream, follow his advice.
Heroes get remembered; legends never die. Follow your heart, kid. You can never go wrong. If your heart tells you to save the day by jumping over the above-mentioned fence, stealing back the ball signed by Babe Ruth, getting chased through town by The Beast, and finally making friends with The Beast and James Earl Jones…well, just make sure you’re wearing a pair of brand new PF Fliers.
Don’t underestimate the power of play.
Once, in sixth grade, my class was standing in line at the water fountain. This kid named Bryan was taking a long time drinking—I mean, he was really gulping it down. It was taking forever.
Someone finally piped up: “Hey, come on! My clothes—” and everyone else in line joined in to yell, “—are goin’ outta style!” It was the first time I experienced a communal movie reference. It felt good.
I don’t remember the first time I saw The Sandlot. I never saw it on the big screen. I just remember it being part of the kid vernacular in my hometown. The classic one liners in The Sandlot are almost all delivered by child actors who seem to have been directed to ham it up as much as possible. Emphasis is important:
If you’da been THINKING, you wouldn’ta THOUGHT that.
And THAT’S how I got us into the BIGGEST PICKLE ANY of us had EVER SEEN.
YOU play ball like a GIRL.
I grew up in Indiana, in a small town on Lake Michigan. I played my fair share of baseball, mostly in empty lots much like that in The Sandlot, but with more trees. We also played a lot of basketball—half court in people’s driveways. Every house had a basketball hoop. The type of friendships that form playing street sports are really special, and sadly lacking in today’s world of overscheduled, overprotected children. The boys in The Sandlot spend all day outside getting dirty, yelling at each other, laughing at each other, and generally taking everything really seriously before leaving it behind at the end of the day. That is what summer should be.
Erika Schmidt grew up in Indiana, lived in Chicago for years, and recently relocated to Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction for her story, “Story About a Family.”