Violence breeds fascination. I stumbled on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet while flipping through the cable channels during a visit to my parents' house a summer night two decades ago. Lazily on the couch I watched — what? Something I didn't entirely recognize, as I was participating in something — some world — I didn’t recognize. Lynch’s bizarre suburbia reflected my own terrain out the rec-room window only in surface details; the lurid underneaths, unforgettable to anyone who’s seen the film, slowly percolated up to the surface as the minutes passed. As in Van Gogh’s Night Cafe, the room tilted asymmetrically, the television light intensified, colors got gruesome. And I found myself unable to look away from the screen, from the violence.
This macabre desire is what the movie’s about: the yearning to watch (from the safety of our closets) others’ bizarre tumbling into bad language; untranslated, these others remain isolated, frozen, somehow satisfying us by their proximity.
(Once, in a museum in Washington, D.C. I literally bumped into the actor Gene Hackman, who was in the midst of a whirlwind visit to the gallery. I shuddered when I recognized him, inches away: not out of star-struck awe, but because I had watched him act so menacingly in No Way Out the prior evening; I wanted to get the hell out of there).
Blue Velvet has lost a bit of its edge for me, partially because Lynch in his subsequent tv and film work turned in on himself a bit, repeating much of what made the movie so fascinating cinematically, thus reveling his game. Though what we take for granted can eventually loom up in a violent metamorphosis, when we take extreme violence for granted—if, as artists, each image we nurture balances precariously atop fury—we tend to numb, lured back to placid fields by their promise of serenity and ballast.
I was a credulous viewer, not a studious critic: I don’t mull over what was troubling with the film on an artistic or aesthetic level, but that it simply troubled my sense of personal safety and moral certainty. I remember the textures in myself, rubbed the wrong way, more then I recall the textures of the film. Specific scenes continue to goad, however: the infamous closet incident; Dean Stockwell crooning Roy Orbison, a cad singing to his rubber sex-toy doll; the decomposing ear in the field; the final, Darwin-perfected image of the postcard songbird masticating the insect against the backdrop of suburbia. What I remember most is my violently beating heart, the capricious fear that someone might walk into the room while I was watching and I’d feel compelled to quickly switch to another station.
It felt like discovering porn when I was younger: but the dirty magazine stuffed giddily behind a tree in the woods becomes the family TV nestled in the comfort of one’s home. Camille Paglia argues that the television set has become the modern-day hearth fire: gather around and let Katie Couric’s shadows flick across your face in the new eternity. That which we tuck safely away in the dark of woods becomes exposed in the harsh glare of the room of recreation. Welcome to the Twenty-first century.
Image of David Lynch courtesy of _tiki and Flickr Creative Commons