Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Dir. Lars von Trier

Written by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge

Breaking the Waves is one of the films in my collection that I have watched the least. I picked the film up on Bluray a few years ago during one of Barnes and Nobles’s periodic half price Criterion Collection sales. I have been following the career of Lars von Trier since seeing Dancer in the Dark shortly after it was released, but to that point I had never seen Breaking the Waves, one of his most celebrated films, so I decided to take a chance on the purchase. I watched the movie shortly after buying it, and I was very impressed by its emotionally affective morality fable, and by Emily Watson’s heartbreaking performance as Bess, a naïve young woman who sacrifices everything in an attempt to please and heal her ailing husband. Since that initial viewing, I have only watched Breaking the Waves one other time before watching it for this project, simply because, like many of von Trier’s films, it is an incredibly difficult watch. The film’s beauty and artistic merit are without question, but its subject matter and emotional brutality make for an uncomfortable viewing experience.

Set in a small village on the northern coast of Scotland in the early 1970s, Breaking the Waves begins with the wedding of Bess (Watson) and Jan (Skarsgård). The Calvinist elders of the village don’t approve of this marriage as they are distrustful of outsiders, and Jan, a Scandinavian who has come to their village to work on an oil rig, is certainly an outsider. The tall, hard-drinking Jan, and Bess, who is devoutly religious and meek, make for an odd couple, but their marriage seems genuinely happy. Bess matches her religious devotion with a new-found devotion to her husband, and begins to find herself in a new context through Jan’s introduction of a previously forbidden sexuality into her life. When their honeymoon phase comes to an end and Jan has to go back to work on the rig, Bess comforts herself in prayer, giving voice to her own wants and concerns as well as God’s responses. While at sea, Jan suffers a head injury and is returned to Bess immobilized and confined to a hospital bed. Possessing of a childlike faith, Bess believes that her prayers for Jan’s early return from the oil rig are the cause of his injury, and, feeling guilty, she seeks a way that she might be able to heal him. Bess also begins to believe that she and Jan have a metaphysical connection, through both action and prayer. Jan suggests that Bess take another lover and then describe their sexual encounters to him, telling her that if she does this, it will help him to get better. Bess secretly begins prostituting herself, hoping in vain that through her debasement, the man she loves will be healed. Though her friends and family, including her sister-in-law (Cartlidge) who is also Jan’s nurse, caution her against her actions, insisting that she is being used by Jan, Bess persists, hoping that she can bring about a miracle.

breaking the waves 5

Von Trier often groups his films into sets and trilogies, and Breaking the Waves is the first film in what he calls his “Golden Heart” trilogy. It is followed by The Idiots, which I haven’t seen, and Dancer in the Dark, which I will be writing about for this project in time. These films are all influenced by a fairytale that von Trier read as a child in which a little girl is lost in the woods and gives away everything she owns to those who are needier than she is, and they all explore themes of exploitation, martyrdom, and absolution. Though he experienced critical success throughout Europe from the beginning of his career, Breaking the Waves marks von Trier’s first crossover success, with the film receiving near-unanimous praise from critics, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, as well as garnering an Academy Award nomination for its star. The film also marks the genesis of the criticism of von Trier for perceived misogyny and exploitation of his female leads. Though von Trier has countered these criticisms, claiming that his female protagonists are representations of his own feminine side, there is certainly an argument to be made that the female protagonists of von Trier’s films are unfairly and sadistically treated, particularly in the “Golden Heart” trilogy. I’m not sure exactly whether I think that von Trier is a sadist or a misogynist, or if he is simply interested in documenting some of the baser, crueler aspects of human relations as a reflection of his own mental anguish. Watching his films often makes me uncomfortable, which is absolutely his intention as a filmmaker. He has often stated that his intention is to create films that are a “stone in your shoe,” that are provocative in both style and subject matter, and that lead the audience to consider positions or truths that may be unsettling. Breaking the Waves is certainly successful in this respect, and as uncomfortable as it might be to watch, it is often a beautiful and profound film.

breaking the waves 3

Arriving just over a year after von Trier’s announcement of the Dogme 95 manifesto, a set of rules announcing a new experimental cinema movement that aimed to return filmmaking to a focus on core values of story, performance, and theme, Breaking the Waves shares many stylistic similarities to later Dogme films, but it is not considered a true Dogme film. One goal of Dogme filmmaking was to better connect with the audience by stripping away the artifice of special effects and slick post-production, and though he doesn’t strictly adhere to the filmmaking tenets laid out in the manifesto in Breaking the Waves, the desired effect of audience engagement and delivery of cinematic truth is achieved through von Trier’s beginning to experiment with a more minimalist and naturalistic style. The film was shot entirely with handheld cameras, with von Trier often framing his leads in extreme close ups. The audience is granted an unusual intimacy to Bess and Jan, with von Trier explicitly and frankly filming them having sex, lying in bed, dancing. The camera engages in a sort of dance, as well, with the freedom of movement provided by handheld allowing von Trier to film his subjects from unusual angles. In post-production, von Trier chose to transfer the images from film to video and back to film again, resulting in a slightly grainy, occasionally out of focus image that is reminiscent of a home movie. Although both of these unusual stylistic choices could be seen as disruptive or distracting, used for their distancing effect on the audience, I think that they enhance my own personal identification with the film and the characters, as well as lending the film a sort of cinéma-vérité quality. Sometimes devout realism can rob a film of some of its emotional impact, but in this case I think it helps to create poignancy.

breaking the waves 7.jpg

Of course the real emotional engine of the film is Watson in her performance as Bess. The film requires her to portray the full scope of human emotions, from the joy that Bess experiences when she and Jan are first married to the utter anguish that she feels when she realizes she may have been somehow at fault for his accident. Her performance ranges from performative, histrionic fits of despair to quiet moments of prayer and internal reflection. Despite her devotion to Jan, Watson plays Bess as primarily internally focused, and she incorporates subtleties into the character that hint at her mental illness and her stunted emotional development. There are several scenes that feature Bess praying, and in them she utters her prayers out loud and also vocalizes what she believes to be God’s personal responses to her. Watson’s subtle change of inflection in these scenes, a conversation of one, demonstrate the sadly rich internal world that Bess inhabits, and the extreme religious faith to which she clings. Watson’s Bess is a, literal, wide-eyed innocent, von Trier often framing her face in extreme close up and highlighting her eyes, which seem to be constantly searching. As the film progresses, we see more and more pain enter into those eyes as Bess continues to put herself through emotional and physical punishment. The performance was lauded by critics and Watson earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Astonishingly, Breaking the Waves was her debut feature but she carries the film entirely, imbuing her character with heartbreaking pathos.

Although it is a bleak film, Breaking the Waves isn’t an entirely grim affair. It does have moments of levity and some astonishingly beautiful compositions. The film’s opening scenes at Bess and Jan’s wedding begin the film on a light hearted note. There is music and dancing, and despite the misgivings of Bess’s family and the village Elders, everyone generally seems happy for her. The cultural differences between Jan’s coworkers and the chaste villagers is largely played for laughs, although there is a sinister undertone to an exchange between Jan’s friend, Terry (Jean-Marc Barr), and Bess’s grandfather (Phil McCall), in which the latter smashes a glass with his bare hand in response to the former crushing his beer can in an aggressive manner. Largely, though, the scene sets up what will be a fairly quaint setting for the beginning of the film, before Jan’s accident triggers the film’s darker portions. Von Trier’s film depicts the Scottish countryside as rugged and cold, but beautiful, and the intertitle shots that introduce the seven chapters that he has chosen to break his film up into are stunning, possessing a painterly aesthetic. These intertitles are jarring, made up of landscapes so vibrant they appear to be tinted, the static long shots are soundtracked by 1970s British rock classics, and they stand in stark contrast with the aesthetic of the rest of the film. Their beauty is almost transcendent and its radical departure from the established visual aesthetic of the film indicates that for von Trier, perhaps, there is little place for traditional beauty in the real world of his film. These intertitles could also be seen as a sort of fantasy informed by the influence of Jan on Bess’s life and mental state, as she quickly mentions music as being one of the noteworthy contributions of outsiders like Jan to life in the village when she is being interrogated by the village Elders prior to her wedding. Even when working somewhat within the framework of a restrictive code of filmic ethics such as Dogme filmmaking, von Trier can’t help but include some of the beautiful, set compositions that would become more prevalent in his post-2000 work.

breaking the waves 1

Von Trier also pulls his punches somewhat by including a quasi-happy ending to the film. While I won’t go into depth on the specifics of the film’s ending, because I think that its final shot is a thing of true beauty and needs to be seen to truly be understood, it does offer some absolution and redemption for Bess. Von Trier’s later films would abandon this sentiment, and often find their heroines left in a much more precarious or pessimistic position at film’s end, but I think that Breaking the Waves is a better film for allowing some light to permeate its darkness. Many seem to think that this film is von Trier’s finest work, but I think that I prefer Dancer in the Dark, perhaps just because I saw it so much earlier in life than I saw Breaking the Waves. Watching it this time, though, I was struck by the film in a way that I hadn’t necessarily been in my first two viewings. It’s easy to get caught up in the film’s bleakness, as its long running time compounds the experience of watching Bess’s prolonged suffering, but the moments of true beauty are certainly there in the film. It’s a more complex film than I had previously realized, and it bears many thematic resemblances to one of my favorite films, Au Hasard Balthazar. Just like that film always does, the ending of Breaking the Waves brought me to tears. Experiencing a Lars von Trier film can be an emotionally exhausting experience, and, to be honest, I don’t know that all of his films are worth the amount of trauma that they can inflict upon a viewer, but Breaking the Waves is a piece of high art. It probably isn’t the best introduction to the cinema of von Trier, but it is a film that’s not to be missed.

Boyz N The Hood

Boyz N The Hood (1991)

Dir. John Singleton

Written by: John Singleton

Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Morris Chestnut


Boyz N The Hood arrived in the summer of 1991, the debut feature from John Singleton who was fresh out of film school at USC. The film was both a box office and critical success, and Singleton would eventually be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards. He was the youngest person to ever be nominated for the award, and the first African-American filmmaker to ever be nominated for the award. The film likely stands as the high water mark for a career that has seen Singleton chart an interesting course, veering from his socially conscious early films to high profile gigs at the helm of Hollywood action blockbusters and franchise films. Through all of his creative divergences, Singleton has established a persistent thematic interest that ties his filmography together. Many of Singleton’s films serve as meditations on inner city violence and the systemic forces in America that contribute to the proliferation of violence and inequality in the African-American community, but never has he explored these issues as presciently or as urgently as in Boyz N The Hood.

Singleton began to develop the script that would become Boyz N The Hood while he was still a teen, basing much of the film on his own experience growing up in South Central L.A. The film begins with young Tre Styles (played first by Desi Arnaz Hines II, but later by Gooding, Jr.) being suspended from his school in Watts, and subsequently being shipped off to live with his father, Furious (Fishburne), in Crenshaw. As Tre grows, his father tries to give him advice and encourages him to avoid the temptations of crime and drugs that are so abundant in their neighborhood, and that could lead him down a path to destruction. Tre’s best friends, brothers Ricky (Chestnut) and Dough Boy (Ice Cube), choose radically divergent paths, with Ricky choosing football as an escape route from South Central, while Dough Boy graduates from petty crime as a child to more violent and reckless behavior as a teen, sinking deeper into the gangster lifestyle. Despite their differences, the three remain close friends and try to navigate coming of age amidst the turmoil of the constant violence that surrounds them. Ricky receives a scholarship offer from USC, and he and Tre sit for the SAT together, with the hopes that going to college will be their ticket out of Crenshaw. However, a chance encounter with a gang member pulls them both back into the violent realities of life for young African-American men growing up in South Central.

boyz n the hood 3

The film benefits from Singleton’s lived experience, as well as from the performances of its incredibly young cast. Besides Angela Bassett, who plays Tre’s mother, no one in the principal cast of the film was over the age of 30 when it was released, and many of the actors were barely in their 20s. Sometimes I think it takes a younger voice to really connect to the reality that inspires a film, and Boyz N The Hood is definitely the product of a young filmmaker willing to take chances and make bold statements. Singleton was protective of his script when it was being shopped to studios, insisting that he direct the film himself in spite of his lack of feature experience. He knew that someone from outside of the community represented in the film wouldn’t be able to connect to the story in a meaningful way, and the end result of his tenacity is a brave, emotional passion project. Boyz N The Hood explores the root causes of racial inequality in 1990s Los Angeles from a position of informed authenticity. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting graphic gun violence, but it never glamorizes violence, or hold it up as a spectacle, in the way that it often is in traditional Hollywood films. Instead, the film shows us violence as a cyclical phenomenon that has real and devastating consequences on the people and communities that it is acted out upon. Other films of the period that explore inner city crime and violence feel, at best, moralizing and stilted, and, at worst, exploitative. Boyz N The Hood feels like a dispatch from the real world, announcing the struggle of a real community that was heretofore largely underrepresented.

Growing up in the 1990s, I was aware that people of color had a vastly different experience of life in America than did White people like myself. From a young age I followed the news and current events, and I can remember seeing footage of Rodney King beaten on the side of the road by officers of the LAPD. I remember thinking that King’s skin color had something to do with the way that the officers felt they could savagely assault him. In my head, I tied these images to the ones I had seen in books of civil rights protestors being sprayed with hoses and attacked by police dogs, and I started to understand the concept of an institutional sort of racism that persists over generations and is less about individual acts of racial hatred, and more about an overarching denial of basic humanity and an attempt to maintain a repressive status quo. Of course, I didn’t come to all of these conclusions all at once, and certainly not at the young age of seven or eight years old, which I was when I started to consider some of these questions during the time of the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots, and the O.J. Simpson trial. It took time and life experience to understand the complicated issue of race in America, and watching Boyz N The Hood helped to put some of the final pieces into place. I’ve written before about using films as a way to explore other cultures or other experiences different than my own, and Boyz N The Hood was an early example of that in my life. I watched it for the first time when I was in high school, about the same age as the film’s protagonists, and while it didn’t open my eyes to a reality that I was blind to, it did present its central problems in ways that I had never considered them before.

boyz n the hood 5

I’m referring to the scene in the middle of the film in which Furious takes Tre and Ricky to Compton and shows them a billboard advertising cash for homes. He introduces them to the concept of gentrification. This scene was also my first introduction to the concept of gentrification and to the economic ramifications of institutionalized racism. In under two minutes, Furious outlines the attempts to marginalize African-American communities through flooding them with drugs and guns, and by so doing to undermine and devalue African-American lives. He hits on the media’s ignorance of the societal problems of the African-American community, until those problems begin to cross over into suburbia or the “heartland,” at which point they are deemed “epidemics.” The violence of the film is a symptom of the larger disease of institutionalized racism, a centuries’ long campaign on the part of governments and corporations to delegitimize non-White communities. Keeping people fighting amongst themselves is a great strategy to maintain existing power structures, and agents of the State such as the police and the media exist to help foment that infighting, and to uphold the yoke of official power that is exacted over repressed communities. Hearing these sorts of ideas expressed explicitly in the film, coupled with a burgeoning interest in Socialism, helped to influence my worldview as a young man. Though I was a White man, I understood that I could stand in solidarity with minorities by trying to resist the influence of these power structures and exposing the fallacy of race as a factor of contention between people. The scene isn’t the most successful one in the film cinematically, as Furious’s sermonizing on the street corner to a magically arriving crowd of listeners simply feels a bit forced and inorganic, however, it is the most ideologically important moment in the film, because it helps to unpack the complicated gnarl of roots behind the pervasive violence shown in the film.

This scene likely sticks out as feeling somewhat inauthentic simply because the rest of the film is so naturalistic. As I’ve mentioned several times now, Boyz N The Hood is simply an authentic movie. The performances are nuanced, naturalistic, and emotionally resonant, and in many cases the performances belie the actors’ lack of professional experience. At the time known only as a rapper, Ice Cube steals the movie with his powerhouse portrayal of Dough Boy. He is both menacing and charming at the same time, displaying the charisma and onscreen presence that would lead him to a crossover career in films. In the early 1990s, Ice Cube was one of the unflinching faces of West Coast gangsta rap, but in Boyz N The Hood, he displays an emotional range not exhibited on his solo albums or with N.W.A. The scene where he and Tre carry Ricky’s lifeless body into his house after he is gunned down by a local gangster whom he had disrespected never fails to make me tear up. The loss of Ricky’s life is senseless, but something about the desperation in Dough Boy’s pleas that he be allowed to take Ricky’s infant son out of the room is the hardest part of the scene for me to watch. “He doesn’t need to see this,” he insists repeatedly, and there seems to be an underlying knowledge that this early trauma could lead the boy down a path towards the same vicious cycle of violence that Dough Boy himself is caught up in. That knowledge is certainly apparent in the single tear that Dough Boy sheds immediately before he pulls the trigger, exacting his revenge on Ricky’s killers. The bullet won’t bring Ricky back, and it will likely serve as a death sentence for Dough Boy, as well.

boyz n the hood 4

Cuba Gooding, Jr. also turns in an emotionally affective performance, portraying Tre as a young man attempting to claim his own masculinity in a world that is set up to undermine it at every step of the way. Though his friends are caught up in gang activity, Tre eschews violence and is generally a law-abiding young man. He takes his father’s lessons to heart, and even though he goes above and beyond to walk the straight and narrow, Tre sometimes still finds himself on the wrong side of forces of oppression. This is most obvious in the scene where Tre and Ricky are pulled over, profiled for “driving while Black,” and Tre is threatened by a racist African-American cop. During the traffic stop, both men are pulled out of the car, and Tre is forced up against the hood. “I hate little motherfuckers like you,” the cop says as he presses his gun into Tre’s chin, threatening to kill him. The police receive a call of a possible murder and let Tre and Ricky go, but the damage has already been done, as Tre realizes the truth in the cop’s words: “I could blow your head off and you couldn’t do shit.” This lack of power in the face of racist, State-sanctioned authority is at the heart of Tre’s crisis of masculinity. How can an individual reclaim agency in a system that is designed to deny him of his basic human dignity?

This is the question at the center of Boyz N The Hood, a film in which its characters are struggling to define personal success as something greater than simply surviving the day. Singleton begins the film with statistics about the homicide rate in the African-American community and ends it with a title imploring its audience to “increase the peace.” In between he paints a vivid picture of a generation rapidly being lost to drugs and violence, turning to nihilism in the face of oppressive powers often too vast to easily comprehend. He paints a picture of a community in crisis. I imagine Boyz N The Hood must have felt like a bomb dropping for audiences who saw it for the first time in 1991. I know that it felt that way for me when I first saw it some ten years later, and it still feels that way today over a quarter century after its release. Ricky’s death left me as emotionally raw watching the film a few days ago as it did the first time I saw it, and its questions of race, identity, and masculinity feel even more relevant today. The film drops knowledge but it also helps to foster empathy, and I think those are two of the highest purposes of any work of art.

Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights (1997)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly


It didn’t take long for Paul Thomas Anderson to gain recognition as one of America’s most promising young filmmakers. To date, he’s released seven features, and the opening of a new Paul Thomas Anderson film has become one of the biggest events in contemporary cinema. Later films such as There Will Be Blood and The Master have cemented his spot in the pantheon of great 21st century filmmakers, but I find a lot of pleasure in watching his first few features, as well. It’s interesting to watch a great talent struggle to find himself and develop a unique style and voice. Anderson’s 90s films are marked by his perfect mimicry of the style of some of his great influences, but there are also some early indicators of the distinctive visual and narrative style that he would begin to develop after the turn of the century. I’ll be writing about all of Anderson’s films in depth for this project, minus his most recent release, Inherent Vice, which I never picked up despite enjoying a lot. I think it’s fitting, though, to start off with Boogie Nights, even though it isn’t his debut feature, nor was it my first experience with the director. I think it’s fitting to start here, because Boogie Nights is the first, if not best, example of the director’s blend of artful homage and innovative storytelling that would eventually develop into his own directorial signature. I think that it is also Anderson’s most accessible and easy to enjoy film.

Boogie Nights charts the rise and fall of both Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg) and the adult film industry through the late 1970s and into the 80s. Loosely based on real-life porn actor John Holmes, Dirk is discovered by Jack Horner (Reynolds), an auteur of pornography, who aims to bring a touch of class and storytelling to the medium. Dirk is added to Horner’s stable of actors, but it doesn’t take long for him to separate himself from the pack and become one of the industry’s shining stars. Horner’s crew forms a sort of surrogate family, with Dirk in the middle as the golden child, around whom all the other performers are orbiting. The crew lets the good times roll throughout the 1970s, with the film reveling in its depictions of bacchanalia, giving the audience an inside look at the seedy, yet somehow still glamorous world of high-end pornography. However, as the calendar turns and as public tastes prove fickle, no one is prepared for the realities that begin to set in in the 1980s. Too much cocaine and too much hubris precipitate Dirk’s ejection from Horner’s troupe, and the rise of video sees the porn industry, in general, facing great changes. Fame is a roller coaster ride, and the dizzying heights must be matched by plummeting depths, and the film’s third act sees all parties finding rock bottom before they can hope to experience any redemption.

boogie nights 5

Growing up in a show biz household, surrounded by films, Anderson began experimenting with filmmaking at an early age. By his teens, he was shooting videos and editing them on a VCR, and, in fact, the inspiration for Boogie Nights comes from an early short from this period. When he was 18, Anderson shot a 30-minute mockumentary called The Dirk Diggler Story, which would go on to become Boogie Nights a decade later, with some of the scenes being recreated nearly verbatim, and the mockumentary itself being referenced in an abridged version as the film that Amber Waves (Moore) shoots about Dirk halfway through Boogie Nights. After a decade of development, the final cut of Boogie Nights bears little similarity to its earlier, truncated counterpart. Anderson’s directorial choices reveal a devotion to the New Wave of American Cinema, particularly to the style of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. Anderson leans on these pillars of American filmmaking throughout Boogie Nights, evoking their unique filming styles, as well as some of the thematic concerns on display in their filmographies, particularly Altman’s. Though the film wears its influences on its sleeve, to me it doesn’t feel plagiaristic as much as celebratory. Anderson announces his intentions immediately with the film’s opening shot, a three-minute tracking shot that follows Jack and Amber through Maurice’s (Luis Guzman) nightclub. The shot is showy and virtuosic, calling to mind the opening shot of The Player or, perhaps even more immediately due to the nightclub setting, Goodfellas. The camera winds through the club, tilting, spinning, and panning, pausing to light on the faces of the film’s main characters as they catch Jack’s watchful eye. It finally settles on Dirk, then known as Eddie, a busboy at the club who takes the bus in from Torrance just to be close to the action. More than just introducing the principal cast, this opening shot also introduces the world of the film as highly stylized and glamorous, but still slightly seedy. The costumes and sets feel authentic and they pop off the screen, matched by the stylish, attention grabbing camera work of Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit. The film is full of these types of long takes and carefully plotted out tracking shots, and though it may be somewhat derivative, Anderson has clearly set his artistic bar very high as a young filmmaker, and there are few other filmmakers who would be able to deliver this level of homage to acknowledged masters of the medium like Altman and Scorsese.

boogie nights 3

Of course there is much more to Boogie Nights than simply period authenticity and fan service to some great American filmmakers. The film marks the first major indication that Anderson is a great director of actors, and a great crafter of nuanced, lived-in characters. The performances in his debut, Hard Eight, are stellar top to bottom, but the scope of what he attempts and manages to pull off in Boogie Nights is on a completely different level. The film has over two dozen speaking roles, and the primary supporting cast around Wahlberg numbers around a dozen, and is made up of veteran character actors and up-and-coming stars. All of the film’s secondary and tertiary characters feel authentic and fleshed out, their side plots unraveling alongside and intertwined with the tale of Dirk’s rise and fall. Anderson’s Academy-Award-nominated screenplay gives these characters detailed backstories that are revealed subtly through overheard pieces of conversation or carefully observed actions, but much of the life is breathed into the characters through the cast’s overall great performances. The film’s supporting cast is deep and diverse, and they are all asked to shed light on different aspects of the tapestry that makes up the world of Boogie Nights through their performances.

Heather Graham delivers a star making turn as the memorable Rollergirl, one of Horner’s actresses. Her performance balances the bubbly, vivacious personality presented by her porn persona with the tragic reality of the girl who had to drop out of high school when her peers found out she was making pornographic films. She shares a scene with Julianne Moore, when she asks Moore’s Amber Waves to be her mother that cuts to the bone, and reveals the shattered little girl that Rollergirl obviously still is, despite her existence in this very adult world. John C. Reilly adds his goofily likable charm to the character of Reed Rothschild, Dirk’s friend and sidekick, while providing much of the film’s humor, along with Guzman. He’s a reassuringly normal oasis in this world of hurt, twisted people. Philip Baker Hall and Robert Ridgely appear as porn producers, and lend a suitable level of sleaze to the otherwise light, glamorous proceedings. Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a powerful early performance as Scotty J., Horner’s in-house boom operator, who is closeted and in love with Dirk. Hoffman makes Scotty’s shame palpable in the awkward scene where he tries to kiss Dirk, only to be rebuffed, left alone with the car that he bought to impress Dirk. These types of performances would become the norm for Hoffman, and he would go on to bigger and better things, both with and without Anderson, but his sad performance as Scotty has always stood out as one of his best to me. Ditto for Don Cheadle’s performance as Buck Swope, Horner’s token black porn star. Buck spends most of the film caught between worlds, unable to rectify his own perception of himself with the world’s expectations of him as a man. Buck’s dream is to open up a stereo shop, aided by the fame he has garnered through his career in porn, but his ambitions are thwarted at every turn. There is a scene midway through the film where Buck is alone at a party wearing a Rick James-style dreadlock wig, and Cheadle’s still, quietly pained expression tells volumes about Buck’s experience of the world. The wig is patently absurd and humorous, but that humor is covering up a well of pain. All of the characters in Boogie Nights are either running from something or desperately trying to get to something.

boogie nights 1

No one in the film personifies this as much as Amber Waves. Moore plays Amber as a matronly figure to the entire production crew, but particularly to Dirk. It’s revealed early in the film that she has lost custody of and contact with her own son, so she uses Dirk as a surrogate. Throughout the film, Moore is asked to portray cocaine-induced mania alongside gut wrenching despair, sometimes even blending the two in the same scene, and she delivers with aplomb. Wahlberg might be the central axis on which the film swings, but Moore’s performance gives it both its heart and its backbone. Anderson offers more direct glimpses into Amber’s backstory than most of the other characters’, but even without the custody hearing scene, the steeliness of Moore’s performance as Amber would be enough to hint at the pain that she has been working for years to heal, or at least numb. Julianne Moore has long been one of my favorite actresses, and her performance in Boogie Nights earned her her first Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress. She has turned in many powerful performances since, but her work in this film still stand out to me as some of her best.

Though the film’s industry setting and expansive ensemble cast recall classic Altman and Anderson’s storytelling structure and shooting style are reminiscent of Scorsese, Boogie Nights has elements of a unique style beginning to bubble up at moments in the film. These impulses wouldn’t crystallize immediately, but there are glimpses here of the voice that would emerge in There Will Be Blood. The most impactful example of Anderson experimenting and developing is in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which Dirk, Reed, and Todd (Thomas Jane) attempt to rob Rahad (Alfred Molina), an unpredictable, violent cocaine dealer. The scene comes near the very end of the film, long after Dirk has descended into a spiral of addiction and desperation that has alienated him from Jack and the rest of the crew. He spends his time exclusively with Reed and Todd, who comes up with a scheme to help them score plenty of coke and the cash they need to support their habits. Anderson masterfully orchestrates the scene, combining masterful shot and framing choices, his actors’ performances, and a perfect soundtrack of 80s classics into a palpably tense, unforgettable moment. While the scene isn’t wholly original, its eccentricity and audacity set it apart from any of Scorsese’s memorable musical sequences. It’s a slow burn of a scene, with the trio of Dirk, Reed, and Todd becoming increasingly more agitated as they realize they’re in over their heads at the sight of Rahad’s bodyguard’s gun, the tension ratcheting higher and higher as Rahad gets increasingly more manic, and Night Rider’s “Sister Christian” builds to a crescendo in the background. There is a persistent weirdness to the scene, with a young Asian man in Rick Springfield T-shirt wordlessly lighting firecrackers and tossing them around the room. Everyone but Rahad flinches at each tiny explosion, while Rahad, dressed in a silk robe and briefs, rants and raves, smoking crack, showing off his gun, and pontificating on his mixtape skills, seemingly unfazed by the incessant pops. The tension in the scene builds to a head when Rahad’s mixing skills are shown to falter and “Sister Christian” cuts off mid-chorus, leaving Rahad stunned and angry. The silence is quickly broken by an exploding firecracker, and Rahad seems to snap out of his temporary, wordless rage, taking another hit off of his crack pipe as the opening riff of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” fills the soundtrack and side two of the mixtape starts up.

boogie nights 7

Other filmmakers might use this opportunity to cut straight to the action, but Anderson is content to let the tension continue to build, as he films Molina dancing and singing along to the song. He reverses the shot to a close-up of Dirk’s face, wearing a blank expression as the gravity of the situation washes over him and over the audience. He holds that static close-up for nearly a full minute, an unusually long and uncomfortable shot duration, with Wahlberg’s expression remaining largely unchanged. It’s a microcosm of the scene as a whole, a slow build that is allowed to play out at its own pace and celebrate its own weirdness. When the bullets finally do start flying, the counterpoint of the bright, familiar guitar riff of Springfield’s biggest hit ramp up in the background on the soundtrack, a pairing of music and image that is more ironic than anything Anderson could have borrowed from Scorsese’s catalog. This scene is one of the first times that I think Anderson really starts to emerge as a filmmaker who is in dialogue with his influences, appropriating bits of their style and reimagining them in new and original ways. There would still be refinements and additions that would lead to Anderson becoming one of America’s most original and artistically successful filmmakers, but the evidence is all there in this bold scene.

I don’t watch Boogie Nights all that often. In fact, I’ve probably seen it a half a dozen times or less in my life, despite being a big fan of it as a movie. This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that in spite of what a good film it really is, Boogie Nights pales in comparison to the quality of Anderson’s later output. It’s probably also due to the fact that the film is so instantly memorable. Its characters and set pieces are big and bold, and its stylish camera work comes to mind easily. It may not quite rank up among Anderson’s very best work, but Boogie Nights is an accomplishment in any right, and may be Anderson’s most fun film. It’s a big film that is easy to get immersed in, and its world is genuinely enticing, with even the film’s darker third act containing moments of levity and humor. Initially, the film sees its director trying on the clothes of his greatest influences and finding that they are, in fact, a good fit for him, but by the end, it proves to be a crucial link in the chain of Anderson’s development as an auteur. It isn’t quite original enough to earn the masterpiece title that will be bestowed on some of his other films, but it is a perfectly fun and engaging film, enjoyable on several different levels, and a good indication of big things to come.

The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers (1980)

Dir. John Landis

Written by: John Landis and Dan Akroyd

Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Fisher, Cab Calloway


When I was very young, I often felt like I was out of step with my peers. My interests didn’t line up with theirs and I rarely participated in the fashions and trends that the other kids at my elementary school were obsessed with. My mother made most of my clothes and she cut my hair in a Lennon-esque shaggy bowl cut until I was about 10 or 11 years old. When other kids my age were getting into sports, I was reading tomes about the history of the Civil War and writing my own short stories on my family’s ancient word processor. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have plenty of commonalities with my classmates; I was as into Cool Runnings and The Mighty Ducks as any American kid was in 1993, and I was an avid video gamer, cherishing the Super Nintendo that my sister and I received as a Christmas gift in 1992, even though we originally played it on a black-and-white television. I did have friends, and good ones, at that, but even amongst friends, I felt that some of my interests were outside of the norm. While my friends started getting into contemporary pop culture, borrowing rap albums from older siblings or sneaking into the room to watch the ending of a scary movie, my tastes stayed decidedly retro. Until the time her turntable broke in 1993 or 1994, my main source of music came from my mother’s record collection. My sister and I had kids’ tapes that we’d listen to in the car, but we weren’t allowed to watch MTV until a little later, so our only source of “adult music” was from these three dozen or so records kept on a shelf, collected from the late 1960s into the 80s. We listened to Rubber Soul and Dylan’s Greatest Hits, but it was the copy of Briefcase Full of Blues, the debut album by The Blues Brothers that most intrigued me.

blues brothers 5

I don’t remember the exact first time I put that record on the turntable, and dropped the needle to hear the walking bassline of “I Can’t Turn You Loose” played by Donald Duck Dunne and the tight but raucous horn stabs from “Blue” Lou Marini and “Bones” Malone, but I do remember the impact that the record had on me. This was something far afield from the folk music I was most familiar with from her collection. This was party music. It was loud and celebratory, but it also had an edge that made it feel dangerous. There was something mysterious to me about the image of the Blues Brothers on the cover; their black hats and suits, and matching dark Ray Bans were the epitome of cool to nine-year-old me. I knew that the group was something of a novelty act, music being performed by comedians, but it didn’t matter. I knew Aykroyd well from having seen Ghostbusters roughly 100 times to that point, and I was aware that there was a movie called The Blues Brothers, but I was introduced to the group first through the music. To me, the Blues Brothers were a band, not characters from a sketch or a film, and they were the coolest people in the world. Seeing the movie around the time I was 12, long after the turntable was kaput and I was no longer able to hear the music, did nothing to diminish that image in my mind. On the contrary, it cemented their status as cool guy role models for a young kid who was still a couple years away from discovering punk rock.

The Blues Brothers expanded on the sense of raucous fun I got from listening to the record, and it gave the titular group a back story and an insane world in which to live. For the uninitiated, the plot is very simple. The film opens with “Joliet” Jake Blues (Belushi) being released from prison. His brother, Elwood (Aykroyd), picks him up in a decommissioned police cruiser that he bought after trading in the “Bluesmobile” for a microphone. Soon after, they visit the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised and find out that the orphanage owes $5,000 for a tax assessment or it will be closed. The Blues Brothers take it as their “mission from God” to raise the $5,000 and save the orphanage. They have to figure out a legitimate way to raise the money, so they decide to reassemble their backing band for a big performance that will help them raise the money. They meet some initial resistance, but they ultimately get everyone to agree to the gig, however, there are other roadblocks in their way as they are being pursued by Jake’s jilted ex-lover (Fisher), the Illinois Nazi party, a rival country band, and a cadre of law enforcement, up to and including the United States Army. The Blues Brothers is the rare musical comedy that succeeds in providing both great musical set pieces and genuinely funny scenes. It enlists a who’s who of Blues and R&B legends to join with The Blues Brothers for unforgettable musical cameos, as well as cameos by established and up-and-coming comedic actors. The Blues Brothers is a big, exciting blockbuster of a comedy and it ranks up as one of my favorites in the genre and potentially my very favorite musical.

blues brothers 1

Much of the movie’s comedic success comes from the natural chemistry between Aykroyd and Belushi, and their combined charisma as performers. After years of performing together on SNL and after having taken their Blues Brothers act on the road, the two had honed their onstage personae to a razor sharp point. Their characters are perfect foils for one another. Belushi’s Jake is the larger than life, bellicose frontman of the band, while Aykroyd’s Elwood is the more stoically reserved sidekick. Their interplay is perfect and they bounce off of one another with aplomb, each one filling in the gaps of the other’s personality. Elwood doesn’t have a tremendous amount of dialogue in the film, but Aykroyd’s line delivery never fails to crack me up. He has a clipped, Joe Friday delivery that implies a level of simplicity belied by the mechanical ingenuity that Elwood often shows throughout the film. Aykroyd embodies Elwood with a sense of natural cool. He doesn’t say much because he doesn’t have to; he lets his persona do the talking for him. However, as good as Aykroyd’s performance is, it can’t match the scene-stealing force that is John Belushi as “Joliet” Jake Blues.

The Blues Brothers is Belushi at his unhinged best, dancing, jiving, and shouting his way through the film with no shame. If he gained mega-stardom through his portrayal of the dumb brute Bluto in Animal House, he showed off his full range in The Blues Brothers, using his physicality in both predictable and surprising ways. Belushi is a force of nature in the film, staggering and swaggering, but also unexpectedly lithe and graceful, showing off a great deal of athleticism as he dances and cartwheels his way through the performance scenes. Unlike Bluto, Jake is the brains of the operation, and as such, Belushi is given a great deal more dialogue to work with. Jake is lecherous and scheming, but he’s also good-hearted and devoted to his brother and their surrogate father from the orphanage, Clarence (Calloway). Belushi’s passionate performance in The Blues Brothers makes me wonder what he would have gone on to do had he lived just a little bit longer and made a few more films. This film was his first big opportunity to showcase his range as a performer, and, sadly, he would be dead less than two years after its release.

blues brothers 2

While the stars of the film do a good bit of the heavy comedic lifting, their task is lessened by the hilarious odd ball world that Aykroyd and Landis’s script envisions for them to inhabit. The Blues Brothers is absolutely a celebration of the city of Chicago, but its version of Chicago is viewed through a fun house mirror. Like a handful of the other comedies that I’ve written about here, The Blues Brothers feels like it’s taking place in a world that is just adjacent to our own. This probably shouldn’t be surprising as more than most other genres, musicals require audiences to totally suspend their disbelief to accept a world in which the characters will break out in song in public at the drop of a hat, giving even the most “realistic” musicals a sense of artificiality. The world of The Blues Brothers is madcap and wacky, involving high speed car chases that employ impossible physics in their cinematic ballet of destruction, vengeful white supremacists and country groups, and a bazooka wielding ex. Jake and Elwood are repeatedly wrecked, blown up, and shot at in the film, and manage to take it all in stride and come out on the other side with nary a scratch. But beyond its larger scale weirdness, The Blues Brothers is simply packed with small, memorable moments that are patently absurd that form its distinctive comedic tone. From the brothers’ standard lunch order (four whole friend chickens and a Coke for Jake, dry white toast for Elwood), to the repeated impetus of their quest (“We’re on a mission from God”), Jake and Elwood have a magical, charmed quality about them that informs the whole film with a sense of lightheartedness. The weird, goofiness of the world of the movie underscores the absurdity of its stone-faced protagonists.

Fleshing out this strange world are a cast of characters comprised of some of the period’s best rising comedic stars. Carrie Fisher’s role as Jake’s unnamed jilted bride, who is hell bent on hunting he and Elwood down and killing them, leveling whole buildings in the process, is the only other role that I ever picture her in besides Princess Leia. She is a mysterious figure until near the film’s end, but her largely unexplained back story is hinted at by the glimpses that we get into her life. John Candy shows up as one of the detectives hunting down the Blues Brothers, and his ad-libbed “Orange whip” bit is one of my favorite lines from the whole film. Frank Oz has a brief cameo as the prison guard who returns Jake’s possessions to him when he is released from prison at the beginning of the film. But of course, the supporting roles that steal the show are the musicians who make cameos throughout the film. James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker all make appearances, alongside other famous blues and R&B musicians of the 1950s and 60s. Aretha’s performance of “Think” in the soul food restaurant is my favorite in the film, but the scene featuring James Brown’s portrayal of Rev. Cleophus James never fails to illicit a smile with its over-the-top choreography. Ray Charles’s performance of “Shake a Tail Feather” along with the Blues Brothers Band is the film’s central showpiece. The film’s final performance is great, but it doesn’t match the energy of the band really getting into a great dance number, alongside one of the greatest pianists of all time, with hundreds of extras dancing in the Chicago streets.

blues brothers 3

Obviously, I have little but kind words for The Blues Brothers, but it does have a few technical shortcomings, some of which are glaring, such as “Blue” Lou’s saxophone solo during “Think.” The moment that Lou struts down the counter of the soul food restaurant during his solo should be his shining moment in the film, but unfortunately, he is framed from the neck down with his face not appearing in the shot. Landis isn’t the most visually innovative filmmaker, and I can forgive some of his more minor technical mistakes, simply because most of the film is shot very well. The car chase scenes are big and exciting, and, at the time, the film set a record for most automobiles destroyed during filming (a record that would later be broken by its sequel). Landis is able to balance these bigger scenes of spectacle with the smaller moments that provide the film its humor, and he successfully creates the rare musical comedy that nails both the performative, spectacular elements of the musical and the subtlety of perfect comedy. At the time of its filming, The Blues Brothers was one of the most expensive comedies ever filmed, and the pressure was on Landis and the film’s stars to deliver a hit. The film was a box office success, more than recouping its budget and actually grossing slightly higher box office in foreign markets than in the U.S., which was a rarity at the time. Although it wasn’t a smash hit, the film would go on to grow long legs in the emerging home video and cable television markets, earning itself new fans into perpetuity.

blues brothers 6

I’ve seen The Blues Brothers so many times over the years that I can anticipate the jokes before they arrive, and I watch it with a permanent smile across my face, ready to break into a full laugh when the punch line hits. I think Belushi’s death shortly after the film’s release paints it in a slightly different light, but even if he had gone on to lead a long life and enjoy a storied career, I think that Jake Blues would still be remembered as his iconic performance. I do wonder how younger audiences respond to The Blues Brothers, without a more direct connection to its inspirations and its featured performers. Of its principal cast, only Aykroyd is still alive, and Aretha Franklin is the only living featured performer left. The film’s iconic Chicago setting is somewhat unfamiliar after 35 years of urban development. However, I think that the things that made me connect to the film and the music early on in life are universal. There’s inherent humor and cool in the line, “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses. Hit it.” The joy and beauty expressed in the film’s musical scenes ring true to any audience, and tap into a primal desire to dance, sing, and enjoy life. I think I love The Blues Brothers so much because it’s a celebration of so many of the things that I have come to love about life: humor, music, goofy black suits, stupid dance moves. It might look a little bit retro now, but for me, The Blues Brothers has never gone out of style, just like a black suit.

Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet (1986)

Dir. David Lynch

Written by: David Lynch

Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper


The camera descends from a cloudless, blue sky, settling on vibrant, red roses highlighted against a white picket fence. A shot of a firetruck slowly crossfades in, a firefighter riding alongside, casually waving at the camera. Children cross a street with the aid of a crossing guard. An unidentified man in a hat is watering his lawn, struggling with a kink in the hose. As an ominous hum fades in on the soundtrack, the man drops to his knees and then falls, grabbing his neck, the hose remains in his grip as he writhes painfully, spraying water into the air. A dog comes along barking and nipping at the water as it sprays from the hose wildly, and the film briefly shifts into slow motion, focusing on the snapping jaws of the little dog, giving his playful nips a sinister undertone. The camera cuts to the lawn and begins a slow zoom, turning the blades of grass into a topiary, under which a teeming nest of beetles writhes, crawling over one another. We are then greeted by a bright sign, featuring a beautiful woman waving and welcoming us to Lumberton. We are in suburbia, but something seems slightly off about this glimpse into the heart of Americana. No time is wasted in showing the audience the rotten core underlying the myth of small town tranquility. The opening sequence of Blue Velvet is seared onto my brain, representing something primal, seminal, and profound. It was my first brush with the perfect oddity of the cinema of David Lynch, who would go on to become my favorite filmmaker.

blue velvet 6

I’m really not sure how or why I decided to pick up Blue Velvet. As I mentioned, it was my first experience with David Lynch and I do remember purchasing the DVD without having seen the movie before. I must have seen something about it online, on a list of movies, or maybe I had heard about David Lynch in the commentary of some other movie I’d seen, although I don’t know what that would have been. Regardless, for some reason I picked up a copy of Blue Velvet at my local Circuit City, likely sometime in 2003. When I watched the movie for the first time, I really wasn’t sure what to make of a film like this. Though it doesn’t traffic in the same overt surrealism and narrative disjointedness that have become Lynchian calling cards, Blue Velvet is a perfect introductory film for those looking to get into David Lynch. Leaving The Straight Story aside, Blue Velvet is one of Lynch’s most straightforward and least narratively complex films, but there is plenty of weirdness and mystery creeping around the edges. Like its opening montage, the film seeks to take a look behind the idyllic white picket fences of Middle America and reveal the rot and decay hiding therein.

blue velvet 1

The film stars Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey Beaumont, who is returning to Lumberton from his first year of college after his father collapsed while watering the lawn. While returning home from visiting his father in the hospital, Jeffrey finds a severed human ear in an abandoned lot. He inspects the ear, which appears to have mold on it, and takes it to a detective who he knows from the neighborhood. Det. Williams (George Dickerson) thanks Jeffrey for providing him with the piece of evidence and suggests that he not concern himself in the investigation any further. However, after a chance meeting with Williams’s daughter, Sandy (Dern), Jeffrey’s curiosity is once again stoked, and the two decide to continue looking into the mysterious ear themselves. Information gleaned from Sandy eavesdropping on her father’s phone calls leads the junior detectives to the apartment of lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini), who has recently been under police surveillance and who may have something to do with the ear. Sandy agrees to help Jeffrey break into Dorothy’s apartment, against her better judgment. Using a key that he had stolen earlier, Jeffrey sneaks into the apartment one night while Dorothy is performing. He’s nearly caught when she returns, but is able to hide in a closet where he spies on Dorothy taking a phone call from a man named Frank (Hopper), who has kidnapped her husband and child, and who is using them to blackmail and coerce her. Dorothy discovers Jeffrey and forces him out of the closet, making him strip off his clothes at knifepoint. Her initial desire is to humiliate Jeffrey, who she takes for a peeping Tom, but then she begins to kiss him. They’re interrupted when there’s a knock at the door, and Frank arrives at the apartment. Jeffrey is again forced to watch from the closet as the sadistic Frank shouts at and assaults Dorothy. All the while, he’s huffing amyl nitrate and practically foaming at the mouth with rage and desire. After Frank leaves, Jeffrey tries to comfort Dorothy. They end up having sex and she asks him to hit her, which he initially refuses, though he will eventually, reluctantly, do it. After their encounter, Jeffrey seems disturbed by what he’s seen and experienced, but also feels a responsibility to help Dorothy, so he continues his investigation into Frank and his crime syndicate, despite Sandy’s protestations. Jeffrey becomes caught between two worlds: one bright and promising, represented by the blonde, youthful Sandy, the other dark and sinister, represented by the seductive Dorothy. He risks getting in too deep with Frank and his dangerous friends, but by the time he realizes just how dangerous they may be, it’s too late. The sickness and malice that Frank represents have begun to infect Jeffrey’s formerly benign day-to-day life in the small town paradise of Lumberton.

blue velvet 5

I mentioned being somewhat perplexed by the film after my first viewing, and that certainly isn’t due to any lack of narrative clarity. I had understood the film fine, but I was left unsettled. I don’t remember if I watched it again in quick succession, or if I let myself stew on the film for a while, but the weirdness of Blue Velvet was lingering around in my head for days. Bugs crawling out of the ear, Isabella Rossellini singing “Blue Velvet” bathed in an ocean of blue light, the savagery of a dog’s jaws opening and closing in slow motion. The images from the film were persistent and strange, and they suggested a certain sort of world view that was maybe a bit skewed. I watched Blue Velvet again and again, becoming more comfortable with its tone and appreciating more and more Lynch’s cynical, surreal take on small town Americana. Growing up in a small town myself, although one that was more urban and was certainly a bit more populous than Lumberton, I had first-hand knowledge that the mythos of the pristine, Middle American, small town experience was often belied by what happened after dark when the shades were drawn.

Blue Velvet launched my obsession with the work of David Lynch. Even though his feature output isn’t necessarily as large as some other filmmakers, Lynch is undoubtedly an auteur, having developed an unmistakable style, sonically, visually, thematically, and in his choices of subject matter. I went next to Mulholland Dr., at the time Lynch’s most recent film, and I was shocked and often terrified by the strange film. If Blue Velvet had left me vexed, then Mulholland Dr. had me flat-out stupefied. I couldn’t put the film together coherently in a narrative or thematic sense, and I really had no idea how to process what I’d just seen. I wanted more, but I couldn’t find copies of Eraserhead or The Elephant Man or anything else Lynch, so I just watched Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. repeatedly over the last two years of high school. After I came to college, I had access to so many more movies, and I would start to work my way through Lynch’s filmography. I remember well a bus trip to the Regent Theater to see INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch’s most recent film, in 2006. When I had the opportunity to take a class on the films of both Lynch and Luis Bunuel (which I mentioned when writing about Belle de Jour), I jumped at the opportunity and my fandom was cemented. I filled in most of the gaps in the Lynch filmography through this class and I relished the opportunity to write at length about Mulholland Dr. which had become my favorite of his films, and try to work out some of the questions that I still had about the film. After college, I had less and less time to watch films as I’ve mentioned many times before, but I always came back to Lynch. Every five years or so, I take another deep dive into his work. In 2012, it was sparked by a rewatch of Twin Peaks on Netflix with a roommate. In 2017, it was another rewatch of Twin Peaks in anticipation of the release of the currently airing Twin Peaks: The Return. Lynch has been on my mind quite a bit lately, and rewatching Blue Velvet reminds me of where it all started.

blue velvet 3

Lynch’s original cut of the film was rumored to have run nearly four hours before he cut the runtime in half. Nearly an hour of that excised footage has been recovered and was included on the Bluray rerelease of the film. I don’t have that edition and I haven’t seen the footage, but from what I’ve read, it hints that Lynch’s original version of Blue Velvet was to be a much darker and stranger film, more in line with his later style. Though I would be interested to see some of these deleted scenes, I think that Blue Velvet works best just the way it is. Keeping the Lynchian surrealism to a minimum makes the film’s dark undertones seem all the more sinister. Unlike the later fictional town of Twin Peaks, Lumberton feels like a real place that could exist, indicating that the evil contained there is linked to the evil that exists in our own world. The final cut includes a (seemingly) happy ending that sees Frank defeated, Jeffrey and Sandy united as a couple, and order seemingly restored to Lumberton. The film’s final shot is of a robin crunching on one of the beetles from the film’s beginning, a callback to an earlier line by Sandy where she describes a dream in which there was no love in the world, only darkness, until thousands of robins were released, symbolizing the return of love to the world. However, I think that this happy ending is somewhat facile, because even though the robin eating the beetle might signify the return of natural order and the triumph of love and goodness over evil, it just serves to remind me that there can never be enough robins to do away with all the beetles. Digging deep into the soil of any town will turn up a nest of vile creatures. Lynch films tend to want to expose the teeming underbelly of their worlds, forcing the viewer to confront ugly truths, although often in a distorted, surreal manner.

Even after excising some of the film’s stranger elements, Blue Velvet retains many of the key elements that would come to define Lynch’s cinema over the years. Not only does the film explore themes of hidden darkness and the depths of depravity, it also engages in a light/dark dichotomy that becomes central to Lynch’s symbolism. Lynch loves doubling and doppelgangers and in Blue Velvet, the light/dark dichotomy is very literal, pairing Sandy and Dorothy, whose contrasting hair colors are symbolically representative of their moral standing. The symbolic use of night and day in this film and throughout the Lynch filmography is another example of this light/dark dichotomy. The film additionally features many actors who have come to make up something of a stock cast for Lynch, appearing in multiple films, often playing roles that share some similarities from film to film. Kyle MacLachlan has worked with Lynch frequently, most notably here and in Twin Peaks, while Laura Dern would go on to star in Lynch’s follow up to Blue VelvetWild At Heart. Jack Nance, who plays Paul, a member of Frank’s gang, was a close friend of Lynch’s and the star of his debut feature, EraserheadBlue Velvet also features many of Lynch’s iconic visual motifs, such as lounge singers and night clubs, highly staged and stylized interiors, and overtly performative acting style. The scene where Ben (Dean Stockwell), an associate of Frank’s, lip syncs to “Candy Colored Clown”  is the best example of this type of performative style, and is a decidedly Lynchian set piece. Though the film doesn’t go over the top with its strangeness, its core is rooted in Lynch’s avant-garde, surrealist style.

I think there is a temptation, particularly among those who are maybe not as acquainted with the entire corpus of Lynch’s work but I have even seen it in academic writing, to lump discussion of Blue Velvet in with its obvious influence of Lynch’s television series, Twin Peaks. There are many similarities between the two, and Lynch has even admitted that the idea for Twin Peaks began germinating while he was directing MacLachlan in Blue Velvet, but I think it’s important to point out a major difference between the two texts. There is no hint of supernatural or metaphysical forces at play in Blue Velvet. While both works explore the duality of human nature and the darkness that can be revealed when the veneer of polite society is stripped away, Twin Peaks attributes the evil in its universe to malevolent beings who live in an interdimensional space called the Black Lodge, the entrance to which happens to be in the woods near the town of Twin Peaks. In Blue Velvet, the evil infesting Lumberton is inherently a part of the town. It is represented by a figure of pure destruction in Frank Booth, one who is not being controlled by any forces other than his own desire to hurt others. Frank is an unrestrained id, manifestly evil, but he is real, and represents the terrifying reality that anyone could potentially break bad like this. That realization fuels Jeffrey’s nightmare and anguish the morning after he hits Dorothy during sex. He doesn’t know why or how Frank’s psychosexual fury developed, but he fears that he may have taken the first steps down that same path. I think this insistence on reality makes Blue Velvet a more successful and compelling work of art than the later television show. I love Twin Peaks, but one of my only criticisms of the show is that its insistence on an intentional artificiality makes its darker themes seem less serious, particularly in its troubled second season. I think that Lynch took steps to resolve that in the harrowing prequel film Fire Walk With Me, which he released after the show was canceled, and which marks one of Lynch’s most overt forays into out-and-out horror filmmaking.

blue velvet 7

When I do go back and watch Lynch films, all of which I’ve seen more than a few times now, excepting The Straight Story, I sometimes pass over Blue Velvet. Probably because I’ve seen it so many other times earlier in life, I’ve felt like my time is better spent familiarizing myself with Lynch’s 90’s works, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, both of which are incredibly interesting, but neither of which work nearly as well as a film as Blue Velvet. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to love about Blue Velvet in this post, from Angelo Badalementi’s gauzy score, to the actors’ strange, exciting performances, to Lynch’s subtle attempts to drop surrealist tropes into a more straightforward narrative. Blue Velvet is packed with information and symbolism; Freudian critics can have a field day with this film, and with the dreamscapes that Lynch creates, in general. While I don’t subscribe to that line of critical thinking, I do find myself finding new ways to arrange the tapestry of signs that make up Blue Velvet, even after 15 years and more than 15 viewings. The film still feels fresh and transgressive after all this time, and I think that makes it the perfect introduction to the cinema of David Lynch. It provides a strong enough narrative foothold to give viewers a sense of security while still introducing the darker elements of Lynch’s visual style and his thematic obsessions. Form and content match up well in the film with its traditional mystery narrative masking Lynch’s more subversive content, which mirrors the idea in the film that there are hidden evils coursing just below the surface of Lumberton. If you’ve been wanting to get on the Lynch bandwagon after hearing about the Twin Peaks revival but don’t know where to start, this would be the perfect place.