Identity

Identity (2003)

Dir. James Mangold

Written by: Michael Cooney

Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes

 

Identity has been quietly resting on my shelf for a decade, unwatched. It’s a disc that got mixed into my collection from a previous roommate at some point, and I have never had the urge to watch it. I saw Identity in the theater, with this same eventual roommate, no less, and I can remember both of us being wholly unimpressed with the movie, and with its prominent plot twist. In the years following up the success of The Sixth Sense and M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent couple of movies, it seemed like the game-changing plot twist was the flavor of the month for Hollywood studio thrillers, and I think that some fatigue from the overwhelmingness of the trend led to my total dismissal of Identity. I largely forgot about the movie until discovering it in a box of DVDs when I moved into the house that I’ve been living in for the last six years, and in the time between then and my decision to start this project, I only thought of Identity, cursorily, as a real-life version of “The Three,” Donald Kaufman’s asinine screenplay from Adaptation. in which all three principal characters are revealed to be the same person. Since starting this project, however, Identity has loomed large in the back of my mind as a movie that I was both anticipating and dreading screening and writing about. I fully anticipated Identity to be, at best, a generic and predictable thriller not worthy of the collected talent that it assembles, and, at worst, a derivative and implausible B-movie driven by a third act plot twist it doesn’t earn. Maybe it was the low bar that I had going in, but I was pleasantly surprised by Identity, and I found most of my remembrances of it from 15 years ago to be incorrect.

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Identity begins by introducing Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an inmate set to be executed for several brutal murders. Rivers’s legal team and psychologist, Dr. Malick (Alfred Molina), file a midnight appeal for a stay of execution, arguing a legal defense of insanity citing new evidence that has come to light in the form of a diary. The midnight hearing is assembled during a tremendous storm, and begins without Malick, who is being transported from prison. At the same time, a group of ten strangers become stranded at a roadside motel, forced to bed down for the night due to the storm. They include a former cop, Ed (Cusack), who is now working as a limousine driver, a Nevada state trooper, Rhodes (Liotta), who is transporting a convicted murderer, a prostitute on her way to a new life in Florida, Paris (Peet), and the hotel’s manager, Larry (Hawkes). The group have come together in spectacularly coincidental fashion, which is shown in a flashback, involving a family getting a flat tire from striking a loose high heel that flew out of one of Paris’s suitcases. The mother, Alice (Leila Kenzle), is struck by Ed’s limousine when he is distracted by his passenger, the actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca de Mornay). Ed brings the injured woman to the motel in search of a working phone, and while he is trying to get help for her, the rest of the group assembles at the motel. As they realize they are stranded for the night and begin to bed down, a killer starts to pick them off one by one, leaving motel keys with the bodies, counting down from 10 to 1. The group begins a paranoid hunt for the killer, and the bodies continue to pile up in rapid fashion, while at the same time the survivors begin to discover more inexplicable coincidences, such as the fact that they all share a birthday. Meanwhile, as the competency hearing continues, and Rivers arrives, the extent of his multiple personality disorder is revealed, and it becomes apparent that the events at the motel are the representation of the psychic trauma of Rivers’s multiple identities being dragged to the surface and vying for primacy in his mind. Dr. Malick makes contact with the Ed personality and urges him to save Rivers’s life by eliminating the personality that drove him to commit the murders, and the action returns to the motel for the film’s climax.

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While Identity certainly owes a massive artistic debt to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, even going so far as to obliquely reference one of the novel’s many film adaptations, it still managed to feel relatively fresh to me. While the film’s revelation that all of the characters at the motel only exist inside of Rivers’s mind is a little bit predictable, Identity still managed to largely keep me interested and on my toes. The movie brings in the twist a little too early, but it leads up to it with a series of McGuffins and red herrings that I actually found to be pretty satisfying. It’s a movie that strives towards prestige, and though it doesn’t quite achieve the level of a top thriller, it’s a workmanlike effort that I found to be much more enjoyable than I ever would have imagined. Mangold turns the desert motel into a disorienting funhouse maze, utilizing canted angles, tight shot framings around corners and down narrow hallways between the buildings, and the persistent rain and gloom, to disrupt the audience’s sense of visual continuity of space. While the mystery isn’t particularly compelling after it’s revealed that the characters are all psychic projections, up to that point, the film’s visual style and a few well-timed surprise killings had me heavily invested in discovering the killer’s identity. I had the knowledge that Ed, Rhodes, Paris, and the others are all just manifestations of Rivers’s psyche tucked away in the back of my mind, but the taut editing and brisk storytelling of the first segment at the motel all but made me forget that the reveal was coming.

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The film’s cast, which is surprisingly stacked for a movie of this sort, also does a lot of heavy lifting in making Identity a more successful film than it otherwise might have been. I don’t think that either Cusack or Liotta, who are the leads of this deep ensemble, are particularly inspired in their performances. Both of them are as solid as they typically are, but neither really brings much new to the table, either. The supporting cast, however, comes on strongly, with Peet doing a nice job of maximizing her role as the film’s third lead. She’s steely and resilient, managing to give some depth to a character that is probably a bit underwritten. We don’t get many specific details about Paris’s back story, but Peet’s performance gives hints towards the type of life that she’s running from. John Hawkes, who I had completely forgotten was in the movie, is the real gem in the supporting cast, though. While his character seems at first to be relegated to a comic relief role, his story is fleshed out and given a surprisingly dark makeover halfway through the film, and the shift in how the audience perceives his character from that point is a testament to Hawks’s versatility as an actor. He goes from being agitated and put-upon to eluding a quiet menace after it’s revealed that he isn’t actually the hotel manager, but that he found the manager dead one day and assumed his responsibilities while hiding his body in the freezer. All the while, though, he imbues Larry with the sympathy-evoking beaten dog qualities that are so common in Hawkes’s characters. The strong assemblage of veteran character actors that round out the cast, and the A-list stars in the film, help lift it above genre material and convincingly sell a movie that might otherwise have collapsed under the weight of a less-than-novel structure and narrative contrivance.

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I was actually really satisfied that I found myself to be a bigger fan of Identity that I had expected. I’ve written before that I don’t particularly enjoy writing about movies that I don’t like and that I find it difficult to produce quality writing about films that I don’t think are of a very high quality. I was totally psyched up to write about how much I hated Identity, but, luckily, I was able to avoid that and instead write about what a pleasant surprise it was that this movie wasn’t total trash. Of course the movie has its faults. It really is fairly predictable, with its major twist being telegraphed from the beginning, but it packs in enough genuine surprises along the way that it makes up for the larger lack of mystery surrounding its central narrative. I don’t see myself returning to Identity anytime soon, and I wouldn’t really recommend that anyone go out of their way to see it, because it really is a pretty paint-by-numbers example of a thriller, but it’s a decent enough diversion. It’s the sort of movie that if I caught it on basic cable in another decade I would probably have forgotten about all over again, but I guess that could make the rediscovery that much more satisfying. There’s not anything being offered here that hasn’t been done before, and probably done better, as well, but the cast is solid and the atmospherics are actually quite well done. Identity isn’t the sort of twist movie that requires a lot of active thinking or reflection on the part of its audience, but it’s an entertaining enough ride if you want to turn your brain off for a while.

Brick

Brick (2005)

Dir. Rian Johnson

Written by: Rian Johnson

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

 

Around the time that Brick was released, I really wasn’t watching a whole lot of contemporary movies. In 2006, I was just starting to settle into my life in Pittsburgh, having moved here permanently that fall. I was gearing up for my final few semesters of college, and most of my movie watching was done for classes. At that time, I was watching mostly classics and genre films in school, but I still kept my Netflix account for newer movies. Although I wasn’t using it nearly as frequently as I had been in the first couple of years of college, I still made the time squeeze in movies for pleasure, watching them late at night on a laptop, often with a buzz on. This is how I first experienced Brick: receiving a disc in a little red envelope, watching it somewhat distractedly, and sending it back quickly. It didn’t make a huge impression on me that first time, but I did appreciate its transition of a classic noir narrative to the seemingly more benign setting of a high school. I thought it was a good movie, but I didn’t quite agree with the universal fawning over the film that I had read on most of the film and pop culture websites I was following at the time. However, it stuck around in the back of my head long enough that I eventually picked up a used copy of it at the Exchange a few years later. I’m glad I did because Brick is the sort of movie that rewards close watching and gets better with repeated viewings.

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Brick’s convoluted plot is a classic noir detective story, inspired by the work of Dashiell Hammett, and featuring the classic tropes of the gumshoe, the damsel in distress, the femme fatale, and the shadowy underworld figures. Johnson chooses to resituate these familiar elements in a new setting, however, placing his mystery in the sunny setting of a southern California high school. Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) is investigating the disappearance of his former girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), who he fears has gotten mixed up in some trouble involving a local drug ring. Brendan is a loner, modeled on the classic noir detective, but he is assisted in his investigation by his friend, the Brain (Matt O’Leary), who helps Brendan track down loose threads and connect the dots in the search for Emily. Brendan is able to arrange a meeting with Emily where she tells him that he has to let her go, and to stop trying to save her, but of course he can’t. Brendan steals a note of Emily’s which leads him to a drainage ditch near the high school where he finds her dead body, and he takes it upon himself to find her murderer. Along the way, he meets Laura (Nora Zehetner), a high school socialite who was friends with Emily and who takes in interest in Brendan, though she may be playing both sides. Laura is also friendly with The Pin (Lukas Haas), a local heroin dealer who Brendan believes may have been involved in Emily’s murder. Brendan is able to infiltrate the Pin’s gang and after doing so he’s able to unravel the mystery of Emily’s murder, but the film forms a tightly wound knot that he must unwind to do so. Brick ends like so many classic noir films, with its detective standing alone, having tracked down the answers he wanted, only to be confronted with whole new questions and problems.

One of the most memorable and immediately conspicuous elements of Brick is its script. The film’s dialogue is anachronistically hard boiled, with its teenaged protagonists spouting rapid-fire line after line of tough talk. At first, the wordiness and odd phrasing of the dialogue can be a little tough to adjust to, but it quickly develops into beautiful, florid prose. Johnson wrote the script (originally conceived of as a novella) as a tribute to the work of Hammett, and he captures that authorial voice perfectly. Inserting period dialogue into a modern setting could have come off as a gimmick or a crutch, but the performances of the young cast sell it as authentic. In fact, the dialogue helps to define and create a unique sense of place in the film, creating a sort of fantasy world that these characters are inhabiting. Although it is very clearly set in the real world and its tone and subject matter are dark, Brick also has the feeling of a teenage fantasy, where the adults have vacated and left the children to their own devices. The dialogue enhances this sense of fantasy, giving the impression that Brendan is playing detective, mimicking his favorite films and pulp novels.

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The other thing that helps make Johnson’s unusual dialogue choices work is Gordon-Levitt’s strong performance as Brendan. He appears in every scene of the movie, and he carries the movie admirably in a breakthrough performance. Aside from just embracing the period dialogue, Gordon-Levitt embodies the noir detective in other ways. He does a good job of portraying Brendan’s mental processes in a physical, observable way. The viewer can see the wheels turning in his head as he and the Brain meet up behind the school to discuss the details of their case. Although Brick uses a flashback structure, the audience is asked to unravel much of the mystery at the same time as Brendan, and watching Gordon-Levitt portray that discovery is part of the film’s appeal. Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan as doggedly persistent, hell-bent in his pursuit of the truth about Emily’s murder. His performance is equal parts verbal, playing the role of both the conman and the wise guy, and physical, though he isn’t necessarily a man of action. His physicality comes more in his ability to portray a kid who can take a beating. As the movie goes on, Gordon-Levitt often adopts a hobbled gait as Brendan’s frequent encounters with school bullies and lowlifes leaves him on the wrong end of a lot of punishment. Johnson often chooses to focus on his feet as he creates a sort of shambolic ballet, seemingly out of control but all the while possessing a dancer’s grace.

Focusing on characters’ feet is just one of the bold stylistic choices that Johnson makes throughout the film. If the film’s script is totally indebted to hardboiled fiction, its visual aesthetic is something far afield from the typical noir aesthetic. For the most part, Johnson trades in the chiaroscuro and cramped interiors of the classic noir for sunny, wide open exteriors. He frequently chooses to frame his subjects in cutaways, focusing on shoes or eyes, but he returns often to long master shots that dwarf the characters against their environment, be it a parking lot, a drainage ditch, or the startlingly empty high school. If the typical noir used its visual aesthetic to present a world closing in on its protagonists, Brick presents us with a world that is wide open, but rather than representing a freeing experience for the film’s characters, that wide open space seems like a challenge too daunting to overcome. Overall, the film has a kinetic visual style, often employing smash cuts and quick zooms and pans to imply violence or narrative action. The decision to tie narrative point-of-view so directly to Brendan also helps to drive tension, as the audience is left in the dark and has to take the ride along with him. There are several zigs and zags along the way to the discovery of Emily’s killer, and many of the film’s revelations are truly shocking, including its pseudo-twist ending.

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If I had any complaint with Brick, it would probably be that, aside from Gordon-Levitt, the rest of the cast isn’t given enough to work with. Obviously, the film is highly tied to Brendan’s point-of-view and his experience of the world, but that is at the detriment of fleshing out the supporting cast. Haas does give a somewhat interesting performance as the Pin, playing the character with a quiet intensity. However, costuming decisions with the character (he wears a cape and has one leg that is significantly shorter than the other) may be more subtly interesting than anything Haas does with the performance. Emilie de Ravin just isn’t in the film very much. She has an early scene with Brendan where she tries to convince him to forget about her, but otherwise she mostly appears in dream sequences as a silent, reanimated corpse. She was doing good work on LOST as a damsel in distress type of character around the same time that Brick was made, but she simply doesn’t get the opportunities in the film to fully flesh out the role. Nora Zehetner’s Laura should be the most interesting supporting character, as she is ostensibly the film’s femme fatale, and her motives are possibly duplicitous from the start, but she is often reduced to pretty screen filler. She helps Brendan with his investigation and hints that she may be doing so because she’s always had her eye on him, but she rarely rises above the trope of the popular girl who wants to manipulate the class oddball. Ultimately, that’s the biggest weakness of the film. Johnson has created a complicated, nuanced character in Brendan, and that character is brought to life by Gordon-Levitt, but the rest of the cast rarely rise above the standard teen movie tropes of the popular girl, the burnout, the jock, etc. It’s a shame because the film offers up a wholly original take on both the teen movie and the noir, only to be largely peopled with cardboard cutouts.

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Overall, though, Brick is a winner. It’s a movie about teens that doesn’t dumb itself down to its audience, instead offering a glimpse into high school life that is artful and fantastical. If you remove the murder from the film, it becomes about a young man trying to come to terms with his girlfriend dumping him and his inability to move on. That’s a relatable subtext for any young person, and it serves as the film’s emotional heart. The bones around that heart are the complex murder mystery that Johnson weaves, and then dresses in the trappings of the film noir. There are a lot of constituent components to Brick, but they ultimately combine to form a film that embraces and elevates its influences. It’s full of subtle allusions to classic films, but it is never derivative thanks to Johnson’s kinetic visual style. The director’s continued stylistic evolution, genre experiments, and knack for storytelling and world building has now landed him a spot helming the next film in the Star Wars saga, but his debut is still probably my favorite film of his. Despite its small budget and relatively unknown cast, Brick had all the indications that its director and star would be on to bigger things very soon.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

 

I wrote a good bit about how much I enjoy the Coen Brothers in general when I was writing about Barton Fink last month, so I’ll keep this post more limited directly to The Big Lebowski. However, I will say that the movie’s immense mainstream popularity undercuts the fact that it’s one of the brothers’ deepest dives into filmic nostalgia. Lebowski is a celebration of old Hollywood, a deconstruction of the detective genre and film noir mode of storytelling, with shout outs to classical Hollywood pictures throughout. The nuances of the film are probably overshadowed for a lot of audiences by the story of what has become one of the classic characters in all of cinema. The Big Lebowski is a film that is equally as quotable as it is esoteric, a film with many layers, and standing tall above them all is Jeff Daniels’s iconic portrayal of Jeffrey Lebowski, the Dude, an armchair philosopher and hero for the slacker generation, one of God’s own prototypes, too weird to live and too rare to die, out there taking it easy for all us sinners.

For those who may have not seen the film yet, The Big Lebowski centers on a case of mistaken identity, in which The Dude (Bridges) is mistaken for the identically-named Jeffrey Lebowski (the titular Big Lebowski, played by David Huddleston) an aging millionaire whose trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), owes money all over town, including to pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) who sends two thugs to beat the money out of The Dude. When The Dude fails to produce any money, pointing out that it’s fairly obvious a millionaire would not live in his tiny one bedroom apartment, one of the thugs proceeds to pee on The Dude’s rug. The Dude seeks out The Big Lebowski hoping for recompense for the soiled rug, which really tied the room together, and this sets the events of the plot into motion. After their initial meeting, The Big Lebowski contacts The Dude, telling him that Bunny has been kidnapped, and he needs The Dude to get her back. In turn, The Dude enlists the help of his buddies Walter Sobchak (Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Buscemi), who are happy to help out in between games of bowling. Along the way, The Dude encounters German nihilists, a militant feminist artist who wants him for his seed, and is forced to abide countless acts of aggression. The film takes a lot of its cues from The Big Sleep, a famously inscrutable noir, and The Big Lebowski certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to weaving a tangled narrative web of deceit and double cross.

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If that narrative seems somewhat complicated, that’s because it is. Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel upon which The Big Sleep is based on, famously said that even he wasn’t sure who committed one of the murders in his book. The Coens take this idea and run with it in Lebowski, creating a stylized, contemporary noir in which the detective is constantly travelling through the world in a fog, unsure of which side of each uneasy alliance he finds himself at any given moment. The film is packed with subtle allusions to the films of the 1940s, containing oblique references to Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, but also to 42nd Street and other Busby Berkeley musicals. As much as they are filmmakers, the Coens are also film historians, with their films often referencing favorite classic filmmakers such as Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. All of their films dabble in this kind of pastiche, using film references as a shorthand language, but Lebowski is probably the most overt. As in Barton Fink, the Coens suture a fantastical version of Hollywood onto an actual time and place, in this case the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. In both films, the real life setting only serves as an anchor, and the action of the film is largely contained in its own world. The characters in the films occasionally reference actual events, but the Coens are largely free to create a universe of their own definition, and in The Big Lebowski, that universe is heavily filtered through the experience of American cinema of the 1940s.

Of course, this being a Coen Brothers film, those influences are scattered throughout The Big Lebowski, but they’re turned on their head, repurposed for a new generation and skewed in the process. The film uses many of the familiar tropes of the noir. It offers up two femmes fatales in Bunny and in The Big Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Moore). It’s Bunny’s disappearance that kickstarts the film, but Maude is certainly the more interesting character. She appears halfway through the film, introducing herself to the dude by having her henchmen knock him out and take the rug that he had chosen to replace his originally soiled rug. She asserts that her interest is in preserving the Lebowski Foundation’s money, one million dollars of which her father has put up as ransom money for his missing wife. However, in classic femme fatale fashion, Maude’s motives are more duplicitous than they might seem on the surface. Her real interest in The Dude is procreative. While most classic femme fatales attempt to ensnare the detective using their sexuality, Maude enlists the Dude to the case before seducing him. After gaining The Dude’s trust, Maude beds him and makes known her desire to have a child with a man who will have no interest in raising it, or in being a partner to her. She’s fingered The Dude as just the deadbeat for the job, interested in him not for his bravado or his cunning, but for his biological ability to help her conceive. While I do think that a lot of classic femmes fatales could be seen as feminist characters, or at least female characters with agency in an era during which there weren’t so many such roles, I think that Maude’s overall character in Lebowski very deliberately marks her as a feminist. The shift in power dynamics marks one of the ways that the Coens are playing with the tropes of the noir mode.

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Another modal shift takes place in the film’s style. Though its narrative is decidedly noir-influenced, the film’s visual style rarely quotes from film noir. They had already explored the visual aesthetic of noir in their debut Blood Simple and would return to the genre with a very explicitly noir-influenced aesthetic in The Man Who Wasn’t There, but The Big Lebowski is a much brighter, color-saturated film. Its hallmark visual sequence, the dream sequence that The Dude experiences after being drugged at Jackie Treehorn’s party, is an homage to the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s. The sequence is choreographed just like a Busby Berkeley musical number, with The Dude descending a black-and-white checked staircase to be greeted by a dozen beautiful dancers with tiaras made of bowling pins. He shares a dance with Maude and then floats down a bowling lane through the straddled legs of the dancers. The dream devolves into a nightmare after The Dude crashes through the pins at the end of the lane and cascades into blackness where he meets the three German nihilists, who are wearing red form-fitting suits, and who chase him through the nothingness with oversized scissors, presumably hoping to “cut off his johnson.” While this sequence marks just the most striking departure from the established visual style of noir, the film’s style overall is a bit more dreamy and subjective than a typical noir. That mode established the use of evocative chiaroscuro lighting and adopted the subjectivity of the canted angle, but the Los Angeles of Lebowski is characterized by bright lights, loud noises, and a slow-moving camera that often takes in the world through a gauzy filter.

The biggest departure of the film from a traditional noir detective story, of course, is in the character of The Dude. The prototypical noir detective is personified by Humphrey Bogart: serious, square-jawed, able to take and deliver a punch. The Dude is decidedly none of these things. He is a self-described pacifist who only gets caught up in this whole mess through a case of mistaken identity and a desire to get back a rug that really tied the room together. The Dude trades in Bogart’s ever-present scotch and cigarette for a white russian and a joint. He has reached a level of Zen that Bogart’s restless men of action could never hope to achieve. He treats the whole caper involving Bunny, the nihilists, his missing rug, and his perpetually battered car, as a cosmic inconvenience rather than a case to be solved or a mission to accomplish. The Dude would rather be left alone to listen to his tapes and bowl in the next round robin. If Bogart was the masculine ideal for a post-war generation, then Bridges’s performance as The Dude served as an inspiration and a rallying point for a certain type of counter cultural slacker in the late 90s and early 2000s. He is the Coens most enduring and endearing creation.

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I first watched Lebowski around 1999 or 2000, a couple of years after it was released in theaters. I was instantly taken in by the characters and the dialogue. The film is simply hilarious and Bridges, Goodman, and Buscemi have unbelievable chemistry as The Dude, Walter, and Donny. Their lines are delivered lightning quick, one on top of the other, just like the conversation of real-life friends who know each other intimately. The film is endlessly quotable, with many of its turns of phrase having entered the cultural lexicon, but it is so densely written that it’s also easy to miss off-the-cuff lines on the first couple of viewings. The humor and the characters were what initially drew me into Lebowski. The interplay between Walter and Donny was so funny, and The Dude was one of the coolest characters I’d yet to encounter. Over time and additional viewings, I found new things to enjoy about The Big Lebowski and if you had asked me 15, or even ten years ago, it might have ranked up in my favorite movies of all time. It isn’t up there for me anymore, but it’s still a film that I love and probably one that I watch more frequently than some that might be in my “top ten favorite” films.

Though it started out as a cult film, the influence of Lebowski has spread far into the mainstream. As I mentioned, many of its lines have become instantly recognizable lingo, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone in 2017 who hasn’t seen the film. Bridges’s performance is now iconic, and many people would probably most readily associate Goodman with his portrayal of the bombastic, Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak. Screenings of the film have taken on a Rocky Horror Picture Show sort of tenor, with audiences often attending in costume and bringing props with them. An entire religion has sprung up centered on The Dude as a spiritual figure, with proponents of Dudeism embracing The Dude’s laissez-faire attitude and rebel shrug. Over the last 20 years, The Big Lebowski has graduated from film to full blown cultural phenomenon and while I’m happy that a great film is getting the attention and fanfare that it deserves, I would still rather appreciate it as a film text, devoid of any of the larger cultural trappings that it has come to be associated with. As a progressively-leaning, cannabis-advocating bartender who can often be found wearing a robe until mid-afternoon, and who is trying his hardest to take a “first do no harm” approach to life, I understand that the Dudeist lifestyle is probably perfectly suited to me. However, I still watch The Big Lebowski once or twice a year because it is a film that I really love, not because I hope to emulate its style or glean life wisdom from it. It never fails to make me laugh and pick up my spirits, and every time I watch it I seem to find some new little homage or hear a throwaway line that I had forgotten about. I can understand why someone might choose The Big Lebowski as the cultural artifact upon which they model their personal ethos, but even for those who choose to just enjoy it as a film, it’s an undeniable classic.