Christopher Miller on Blue Velvet



Christopher Miller watches films so that you don't have to.


Film critics. How should we approach them? With the mental equivalent of tongs, I would suggest. When I disagree with an established film critic it can feel like something of an existential crisis. Have I been somehow watching in the wrong way? In which case, what is the right way and why won't they tell me? Next time, I'm going to explain why I disagree with just about everyone on the subject of McCabe and Mrs Miller, but let's start with Blue Velvet and David Thompson. This, by Adam Mars Jones, is a perfect summary of the film's central section:


"The arrival of the terrifying Frank is somehow linked to the collapse and hospitalisation of Jeffrey's gentle father. Frank is pure id, both brutally adult and infantile, insisting on playing the role of Dorothy's baby while he rapes her. Jeffrey watches from a hiding place in her wardrobe, but the hallowed theme of voyeurism is given a perverse twist, since she knows he is there. Her husband and son are being held hostage, so she must submit to Frank's assaults and also keep Jeffrey's existence secret. When this young man becomes her lover, she insists on a continuation of maltreatment. At first he resists then responds."

You're deep in the murk here, and the rape scene is made even worse by its wilful perversity. It's extremely shocking, which, aesthetically, is how it should be. But here, you see, right here, is the heart of what I think of as the critical dilemma. David Thompson writes that "I believe [the film] is... an allegory on sexual awakening, about innocence and peril, family ties and adulthood, such as no American film has achieved". If he's saying that it's very different, then, um, yes, quite. But if he's inferring that it's more successful then I think that's cobblers. How do you go from this particular scene to what Thompson wants the film to be about? I mean, you could; I can see how you could. But Mars-Jones is right. He says:

"Synthesis has no part to play in David Lynch's cosmos, and even this, his most tightly constructed screenplay, offers no resolution... The mutual attraction of innocence and damage seemed to be written deeply into the plot of the film, but it has evaporated before the final credits."


In other words, it can't meaningfully be about sexual awakening and all the rest of it because each section is essentially distinct. Not in terms of plot: everything has mingled quite alarmingly by the end. But, in terms of the lives shown here, nothing has a deep affect on anything else. The scenes of Jeffrey and his high school sweetheart are dopey and dorky and the scenes with Rosselini are dark and highly charged. But the dopiness and the dorkiness aren't affected. They seem to become more pronounced, if anything. Jeffrey has sloughed off his own experiences; he isn't implicated in any way. This is how a child sees: one thing and then another and then another; all sequence and no cause. In which case, it can't, surely, be an exploration of the things that Thompson talks about. So, yes, a great film. Intensely imagined. Brilliantly performed. But a callow one, I think. Perhaps worse than callow because the rape and mutilation are so very thoroughly imagined rather than felt.


Meanwhile, The Guardian says: "What Thompson does not know or feel about films is not worth knowing or feeling." It's a tough one, and I experience this dysjunction not only with Thompson but also with Roger Ebert and even with Pauline Kael. (You have to imagine me genuflecting here.) Is everything just a matter of taste? That seems to me to be defeatist nonsense. We all know, surely, that Blue Velvet is a better film than Dirty Dancing but why can't we agree on how it is? Thompson says that it "kept surrealism, hallucination, and "experiment" in perfect balance with Americana" and I think he's almost right. But I think the Americana that we're presented with is itself a form of hallucination. Nothing is, quite, natural. A fire truck in slow motion is just a fire truck. But it's also, in Lynch's hands, a form of hyper-real expression. The young people in this film talk like they're reciting song lyrics. There's a profound lack of affect, and while that doesn't make it any the less a work of art it does preclude, I think, the emotions that Thompson seems to want to feel. I disagree with him. It makes me anxious, but I do. And here's where I think I've got to: his Blue Velvet is better than mine. But that's OK, because my Easy Rider is way better than his.



Christopher Miller is a teacher of film studies and a movie bore.