No Happiness Outlasts Hunger
THOROUGHLY POSTMODERN PORNOGRAPHY: DAVID LYNCH’S BLUE VELVET
It seems we’re living in a perfectly postmodern world. (Even my ironic alliteration, and my need to comment upon it, help prove my point.) Art has escaped its slumber of unselfconsciousness, and now I must see myself seeing, feel myself feeling. The issue reminds me of the Stanley Plumly sonnet called “Sonnet” with lines such as, “Freud says every fuck is a foursome,” a line prepared for by the sonnet calling itself a sonnet, and thereby critiquing an entire lyric, love poem tradition. This poem talks to history, to itself, to us. Plumly isn’t lumped in with LANGUAGE poets, even; he’s a lover of Keats. Yet this poem seems emblematic of much late 20th Century art, in every field.
Irony--the word even sounds strong. At heart it’s merely the ability to contextualize, to see the whole picture: If I spill milk on myself and say, “It’s a great day,” you can’t just hear my words, you also must see my stained pants. Films work this way, too. Blue Velvet (1986) is an incredible example, a picture that makes no sense unless we know how to “read” it. Which may be why
so many people find it repellent; they can’t step back to see the film’s stained pants.
I chose this image advisedly, because it suggests something other than spilled milk. If the O.E.D. can be trusted, pornography is a late-blooming word. The first examples of its use occur in the 1850s, although the first example given sends the word back to drawings in Pompeii. I wouldn’t want to argue that an idea only exists with a word to express it, but that a term like pornography seemed needed at this time does seem striking. That period was also marked by the rise of mass entertainments--novels, circulating libraries, etc.--the kinds of things that would (in a nearly post-modern way) get Emma Bovary in trouble in Madame Bovary, and Madame Bovary in trouble in France. Pornography--the word--also came into vogue with the rise of Industrialism and what was then a 7 to 7 day, now the despised 9 to 5. It’s almost as if the more people pushed pleasure out of their lives, the more pleasures became forbidden and taboo. Which, of course, made them marketable, even if the market had to be black.
Blue Velvet is a bundle of black markets--sex, S & M, drugs, murder, prostitution, rock and roll. It chooses to begin with none of them, and instead shows us the too normal, the all too real. The camera takes us about Lumberton, past flowers so brightly colored they look like Kodak ads, past a fire truck complete with a tail-snapping Dalmatian and hand-waving firemen. And it’s funny. No world is really like this, quite literally picture-perfect. It’s as if we had walked into a glossy ad in a magazine, cheered by a life we sell ourselves but never own.
Things turn strange quickly. A man waters his lawn, an astrobrite green glowing like the opening’s flowers. But the hose he trails gets caught, and the soundtrack focuses on its thumping, as if the house’s heart is heaving. He smacks at his neck, and we can only assume he’s been stung by a bee--nature gets the best of him. Figuratively it seems as if he couldn’t find a better place place to die, surrounded by the comfort of his nearly transfigured white, white house and the blue, blue sky. After he falls, he still clutches the hose, crotch-high, and a nearby dog comes over to drink from the errant spray. To telegraph the moment home, director David Lynch slows the film down--that moment of selfconsciousness--as a way of laughing with us at the preposterousness.
But Lynch goes one step more. Suddenly the camera is burrowing underground, past dirt and grass roots. It seems to be predatory, aggressive. It comes to stop at ants voraciously attacking some other insect, swarming and fighting. It doesn’t take much to read this sub-text (quite literally) as a hint that all isn’t as peachy as it seems in Lumberton. Sickness and death are the ways of nature, too--bees and ants. Some blemishes can never be airbrushed away.
Most people who go to see Blue Velvet go for the sickness and death, the chance to see something “strange.” It’s why I brought up the issue of pornography, because it seems to be a notion Lynch directly confronts and threatens. That’s why it’s funny his hero, Jeffrey (a name close to L.B. Jeffries, another imperiled viewer in Alfred Hitchcock’s touchstone film on voyeurism, Rear Window), is so airbrushed and straitlaced. Jeffrey tends to be like the average film-goer; he even fits the proper demographic age bracket. He’s a curious kid who is bored having to be at home. He longs for adventure; it’s as if he knows well enough a teen’s need for a codified rite-of-passage, as if he has seen plenty of coming-of-age films. When Jeffrey discovers a severed ear in a field, he brings it to the police, good citizen that he is, only to find out they won’t tell him anything, won’t let him in on the mystery, and what better representatives for the cabal of knowing adults than the police.
He finds his own way in to the mystery by meeting the police detective’s daughter, Sandy, wholesome as he is, summoned whole-cloth out of his desire--she literally emerges from the dark, nearly his projection. Sandy is what goodness is, luscious in a way having nothing to do with sex. She’s the American Dream pie, he her vanilla a la mode. They are the human equivalents of the opening, stunning flowers--too much to be believed. Merely caricatures of real teens, they are sweet kids any tv sitcom family would love to include. We have to laugh at them, separate ourselves from their naïve goodness. These kids know no irony, are only the brunt of it. The distance between Jeffrey and Sandy and the audience is perhaps most acute in a scene when Jeffrey asks, with a church organ’s music for background accompaniment, “Why is there so much trouble in the world?” His sincerity is painfully funny, and lets us be perfectly postmodern. Not that our laughter answers his question at all.
However, Lynch doesn’t let us off the hook, by introducing the second half of his Good/Bad equation. If Sandy and Jeffrey can only be laughed at, be distanced from, it’s even harder to sidle up to the world of Dorothy and Frank. As Jeffrey learns. Convinced by Sandy’s clues that Dorothy Vallens is at the heart of the mystery, he searches her apartment, not even sure what he should find to be pleased. Sandy waits outside, alert at the car horn to sound a warning. But Jeffrey’s body does him in, he must urinate, and the toilet’s noisy flushing obscures the horn honk announcing Dorothy’s return. He has time enough to hide in a slatted closet, where he becomes another viewer. Dorothy unwittingly gives him a show, begins to undress. Of course, she must go to the closet. Her hand plunging in seems to plunge off the screen. I, for one, am no different than Jeffrey; maybe worse--I watch practically a movie a night in an effort at entertainment. It’s a life lived off others. And yes, to see beautiful bodies is one reason I go. Luckily, I never have to deal with the people I watch firsthand.
Jeffrey does. At knife-point, Dorothy makes Jeffrey undress, asking: “What did you see?” That question might be the question of all pornography; not what is there to see, but what one--any particular one--sees is the question. It’s worthwhile to note that the Greek root of “pornography” is the same as the root for “interpret.” Those at Blue Velvet for kicks get them at this point, as Dorothy rapes Jeffrey, kissing down his naked body with the knife always at hand. All the implications of watching are taken to the full; the fantasy of making love to the seen is made real, and made terrifying. Pleasure and pain seem sides of a coin still high in the air.
The coin lands pain when Frank arrives. Jeffrey gets to watch with us, back in the closet. Frank’s an id-man, attacking Dorothy with a sickening gusto, getting beyond the Oedipal Complex by childishly whining, “Baby wants to fuck.” He fills his head with ether only to be so much more earthbound, he stuffs his mouth with blue velvet only to be more aggressive. Our worst impulses are Frank, a pun Lynch probably intended. The film opens up two poles with a gaping hole in the middle--must Goodness be so saccharine, Evil so cancerous? Where is there a place for us? All we are left with is watching, and the film challenges us to identify with anyone, anything. Blue Velvet makes film-going very lonely. It challenges us to find everything in ourselves by playing out our desires we’d never admit to desiring. It’s primordial--pure pornography.
The film continues this way, letting Goodness build its house only to have Big Bad Frank come blow it down. Frank’s world even gets to attack love, as Sandy, the last innocent, gets to learn. Sandy, saved from so much, still gets to float in Jeffrey’s arms in a dream dance where the whole world falls away, even their own selves fall away, till there’s nothing but love swaying to some simple tune, a place they get to be where their eyes meet in-between, belonging to neither, beyond belonging, beyond this suburban cellar, untouched by girls’ talk, above the bruise or two that prove Jeffrey was beaten a few nights before in some similar embrace with an all-together different intent, but maybe just as much to do with love, if love is no more than forgetting the world so that there are no lines between oneself and the other.
Yet Blue Velvet is a film of lines, of creating encampments. I refuse to be Jeffrey. I refuse to be Frank. I refuse to be Sandy or Dorothy. Everyone in the film has a desire that throws the rest of his or her life out-of-kilter. Each can be mocked by the perfectly postmodern: We can see though Sandy’s dream of romantic love (we’ve read Plumly), we can see through Jeffrey’s dream of excitement (we’ve seen Frank), we can see through Frank’s dream sung by Roy Orbison, “In Dreams” itself (no one can be duped by a pop song). Frank can’t even bear to hear the whole song--the gap between its reality and his is too yawning. None of the characters can see the world whole, and by seeing them, we learn we don’t either, for they have their lessons.
The collapse of Sandy’s innocence is the film’s last straw. After being beaten by Frank, a naked Dorothy stumbles across Jeffrey’s yard and into Jeffrey’s arms. Sandy doesn’t know what to do, she only knows that an outside world does exist, one that makes the notion of a couple above the fray meaningless. Her mouth goes plastic-wide in anguish, she’s left gasping for air after her birth into a new world. The film resolves quite conventionally, with Jeffrey in the closet, once again, this time coming out firing, blowing away the Frank he could once only watch. Yet imagine a world, suddenly, with only vanilla ice cream. We’d have to wonder what we’d lost.
The film doesn’t; it leaves us safe with our irony, rolling the fire truck serenely by us yet again. Jeffrey and Sandy seem safe, almost unaltered. Sandy’s dream of light seems true, particularly when one of the vanguards of that light, a robin, lands on the window sill. In the audience it’s easier to tell why the robin of joy must clench hard on a bug: no happiness outlasts hunger.
The danger of irony is it prevents anything from meaning just once. I’m always thinking and rethinking, attacked by others with the phrase, “I just go and watch a movie.” Blue Velvet warns us that we just can’t watch. It takes everything simple and comfortable away, even the Norman Rockwell rock and roll it features. Songs like “In Dreams” and “Blue Velvet” are rock stripped clean, washed with synthesizers and strings. It’s rock closer to Sandy’s dream of love, which is accompanied by Julee Cruise’s Abba-ish chorus of angels, than one might imagine, and it’s the link between Sandy and Frank. Both have been duped by music. The songs in Blue Velvet are scary because they aren’t, anymore; they are about as far from anarchic four-four full of stopped-up sex and voodoo news as noise can get. They’re like empty buildings I must pass on a darkened street, with all my urban fears at the top of my spine, all my adrenalin aswim at the bottom. Someone like Frank hides inside, somewhere, and I walk faster, look tougher, maybe whistle a simple tune, the high notes breaking, frail. There’s a corner to turn. As I do, one dusted window, maybe the only one left in its pane on the block, gives me to myself enough to make me jump. It is and is not just a reflection.
(24 of 31 in the drive to 2500)