Blue Velvet

The visceral in “Blue Velvet”

“David’s films are more of a sensation than a story. They are not psychological or anthropological researches into character. They are surreal impressions”
(Isabella Rosellini)

Many film critics have occupied themselves with analyzing the psychoanalytical dimensions of David Lynch’s films. Through this essay I pretend to analyze the visceral in the narrative of one of Lynch’s paramount works; Blue Velvet. I will analyze the text away from the psychoanalytical speculations that presume a cathartic relationship between the auteur and the text and an oedipal complex represented on the plot; instead I will focus on how the syuzhet, the use of space and time, the mise-en-escene, shot composition, and characters create a diegetic world, which beyond attempting to construct a fabula and instead aims to horrify reach the guts and of the audience offering a fully sensual experience.

Blue Velvet cannot be categorized strictly as a horror film. It wouldn’t be fair to obviate the importance of its social analysis on the American culture, or the clear film noir influence in the text, yet the film manages to horrify its audience at a sensual level as effectively or perhaps more than a conventional horror film. The question that bewilders me is, why?

How does the text reach our guts and keep us in a state of unexplainable fear in many of its scenes?

My Thesis: Blue Velvet uses narrative conventions of the horror genre such as stating a clear distinction between good and evil to raise visceral emotions on the viewer. This juxtaposition between good and evil is symbolized by the characters, Frank, the monster who embodies evil, and Jeffrey, the naïve hero who personifies the good; and by stylistic devices like the mise-en-scene, editing and sound. The film also goes beyond these conventions and host moments of purely sensual horror while representing evil.

The effect of fear caused on the audience by Blue Velvet is not due to the oedipal complex or psychological perturbation originated by the viewer’s or Lynch’s  psychological state, but it is an effect caused by the syuzhet and style of the text.

I will analyze in detail a scene that has remained dancing between my subconscious and my guts since I first saw the film on 2001: the sequence where Frank Booth is introduced. In this scene, Jeffrey breaks into Dorothy’s apartment in order to investigate her relationship to an ear he has found laying on the ground. His girlfriend, the stereotypical blond homecoming queen, who was waiting to alert him if Dorothy came, has forgotten to do so. As Jeffrey hears Dorothy coming into her apartment, he decides to hide in a closet. Dorothy receives a call and we learn that someone has her husband and son hostage yet she is subdued to this someone. Moments later Frank Booth arrives, he symbolizes the monster who inebriated by an unexplained sexual psychosis goes into a frenetic state while looking at Dorothy’s vagina.

In this scene we identify the clear distinction between good and evil which positions us on the verge of pure fear.

First of all the mise-en-escene at Dorothy’s apartment, represents a clear obscure world.

The characterization portrays a clear juxtaposition between the evil monster, represented by Frank’s character, and the naïve hero embodied by Jeffrey.

The cross cut editing between Jeffrey hiding in the closet and Frank being possessed while looking at Dorothy’s vagina enhances our fear.  As an audience we are aware of our voyeuristic observation since we are looking at the scene from inside a closet. The editing makes us feel like we are hiding in the closet with Jeffrey, thus we are standing on the naïve hero’s feet fearing to be discovered by the irrational monster, yet taking pleasure of the observational ritual.

The almost inaudible but very effective soundtrack enhances the mood of the oniric horror.

After identifying the motifs of the horror genre used by the film to impact the audience. I will explore how Blue Velvet goes beyond the conventions of the horror genre in order to surprise the viewer at an even more visceral state. There are moments of surreal horror which don’t aid the plot or explain character motivations. We cannot predict Frank Booth’s behavior based on  his motivations in the scene where he inhales the amyl nitrate. He embodies an evil beyond his character of the monster that is not explained by the plot or character motivations, but which represents the  pure evil, and attacks us with intrinsic fear since we cannot understand it yet we recognize the plausibility of its existence in our real world.

When the motivations of the characters remain unclear we as an audience are left with a vacuum for constant surprise and fear since we cannot perfectly understand their behavior yet it still scares us.  The moment when Frank Booth inhales amyl nitrate and is possessed by an inexplicable psychotic violence repeating “daddy is coming home”  while amidst a delirious interaction with Dorothy’s vagina, is not explained later or before in the film,  it does not contribute to advance the plot. It aids Frank Booth’s characterization and establishes the relationship among characters, but even then it hosts an unexplained evil  embodied by Frank Booth which goes beyond the plot and attacks the viewer emotionally.

There is an element of unresolved horror characteristic to Lynch’s Blue Velvet, an element of purely surreal horror constructed by the syuzhet and stylistic choices which are based on conventions of the horror genre but which also go beyond them by violating us at a corporal level since they don’t aid the construction of the fabula.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atkinson, Michael. Blue Velvet. London: British Film Institute, 1997.

Carrol, Noël. The philosophy of Horror. New York: Routlede, 1990.

Davisson, Annette. The Cinema of David Lynch. Great Britain: Wallflower Press,, 2004.

Laccino, James. Psychological Reflections on Cinematic Terror.  London: Praeger, 1994.

Mcgowan, Todd. The impossible David Lynch. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Powell, Anna. Deluxe and Horror Films. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Rodley, Chris. Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.

Spadoni, Robert. Uncanny Bodies. Los Angeles: University California Press,2007.

Ursini, James. Horror Film Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, 2000.

Wells, Paul. The Horor Genre. Great Britain: Wallflower Publishing Limited, 2000.

Gags and Growls

Two more ideas came to mind when I asked my self the simple questions- When is a comedy effective in making us laugh, and when does a horror film really get us scared. Which films have made me laugh?

Well I am afraid that I have to refer to the master of gags: Charles Chaplin in the comedy genre. I will be interested in analyzing his film The Circus, and Easy Street in order to explore which techniques did the master of masters used to make us laugh still today.

In the horror genre, I will be interested in researchingt one of my favorites and in fact the precursor of the Zombie genre: Night of the living dead. This movie is not only effective at scaring but also it contains strong political and racial discourses. Let us consider for a minute that the protagonist is black, and that the U.S. had just gone through Vietnam. The narrating conventions used in order to do both, conveying a scary plot that stands by itself an incorporating inter-textual discourse are remarkable.

I have a second candidate for the horror or if we were to get picky with classifications with the suspense genre. Lynch’s Blue Velvet is perhaps one of the most scary movies, since it keeps the spectator in a continuous limbo of suspense. I will like to analyze how Lynch achives that.

First idea

The first idea for this paper stroke my mind as I was watching The three Little Pigs. I remembered a completely different experience of watching this film at a younger age. And how not, if then I could not understand the text in between each blow of the big bad wolf. I will like to research how children films are narrated and how they mange to incorporate reference for adults. I will like to focus on cartoons which were banned in the   1930’s like some episodes of Betty boob
e.g http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9Tb4TMibk0

Private Snafu and Coal Black and the sebben dwarfs would also  be interesting  examples to lookat. I will paste the description bellow:

Private SNAFU
The Private SNAFU cartoons were a series of army training films produced during WW2 and used to warn soldiers against potential strategic or hygienic hazards. (“SNAFU” was military slang for “SITUATION NORMAL: ALL F***ED UP.”) Produced by the Warner Brothers cartoon unit, these shorts were intended for viewing by the military only, so an unsuspecting animation fan will be taken aback to hear “hell” and “damn” frequently on the soundtrack, to say nothing of the references to female anatomy. Booby Traps (accent on booby) Spies, Operation Snafu, and Snafuperman also contain less-than-flattering interpretations of German and Japanese enemy agents.

Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943)
A mammy tells her Honeychile the story of a very sexy So White and her Prince Chawmin, who has two dice for front teeth. The Prince courts So White, and they boogie by moonlight. The queen is upset, and calls Murder Incorporated to “black out So White”. They advertise that they rub out anyone for a dollar, midgets 50 cents, and “Japs” for free. The thugs kidnap So White, but drop her off unharmed, after being plastered with kisses. So White finds her way to a cave, encountering de Sebben Dwarfs. The dwarfs are all in the army now, and So White becomes the cook for the whole army camp. The queen disguises herself and gives So White a poisoned apple, then is dispatched by a shell fired by the dwarfs. Prince Chawmin’s kiss is unable to revive So White, but the “Dopey” dwarf succeeds. How? “Dat’s a military secret!”

Film is movement is space is time

Let me introduce one of the films I admire the most for it’s use of time and space.

Entr'acte

Entr’’acte. This film is not about a plot but about mocking the norms of space, time and continuity. Through a seemingly continuous editing but discontinuous space the characters move through a filmic space, which, when analyzed breaks with any idea of a fictional world. Shot counter shot, which is suppose to create relation between spaces next to each other, creates connection between distant places. Or between a locale in the fictional world to that of a realm that we can only address as existing in the filmic spac, like when Picabia appears as a ballerina.  Characters pass through a place twice, while they are supposedly walking on a straight line…. More over events that happen in the “present” aren’t chronologically coherent since in the coherent fabula they should have happened before.  This film has a plot but its main intention is not to narrate it but to narrate how film can create space and play with time’s chronology at it’s own will without disturbing the plot.

Let me introduce you to my second favorite.

Last Year in Marienbad Last year in Marienbad. This film constructs a psychological space. There is no time in this film, but instead it holds the viewer in a timeless purgatory. As viewers we want to realize what happens whether she will escape with her lover, whether the husband will find them. But eventually we realize that the woman is in no space but in her own mind. As viewers we give up constructing hypotheses and live in the perpetual stagnant time of the film and hear her thoughts. This is linked with the lacanian theory that traumatic memories are buried and cannot be accessed; they are in the unconscious never to be discovered. Once again we are not concerned with the plot but our focus is on the time and space that the film creates.

These films are different than a film like Memento. Memento contrary to what J.J Murphy says uses time in the film to aid the fictional world. We are experiencing the narrative from the protagonist’s perspective. Thus, our relationship with the character changes due to the handling of time in the film.  The plot is about his distorted sense of time thus our experience of it is serving the fictional world even if it is from a subjective point of view. The film is not making a statement of time beyond the plot.

These types of films which focus on creating their own time and space, and go beyond trying to create a space that doesn’t serve the plot and don’t lead us to draw hypothesis . These films that make clear that time and space is not an objective concept, that film is not about making an impression of the real world but to create it’s own spatiotemporal realm, these films really exploit the medium of film.

I had a nightmare with Fabula and Syuzhet

Our friend Bordwell and his extensive theoretical ramblings gets to me. It is very hard for me to follow his infinite list of terms. Now , I can breath and proceed with my post.

Einstein discovered to our happiness and disgrace the relativity of time and space, and film is the most effective medium to portray this. We can get an objective or/and subjective depiction of space. We can also experience the same event and space in different ways depending on how it is presented.   Sometimes like in Elephant or Sleep the space gives us nothing about the characters but confronts us with the fictional world and obliges us to observe it.

But how is this handling of time in film different to that of literature? What makes film a unique medium?

Let us not consider all films as film. Many films use space and time exactly like literature does. Bordwell points out righteously the difference between art cinema and Hollywood narrative. He states that Hollywood use of space usually cues the viewer to construct a fictional world. This is linked to what literature does. Like Bridgeman explains novel uses space to depict the perception of a character, this gives us an insight in the fictional world as perceived by the character. We contruct the fictional world according to the character’s or an objective PV, but we construct a fictional world with a set space and time. On the other hand, art cinema disappoints the viewer’s expectations and many times distorts space and time, until the viewer cannot create a fictional world. The element of surprise can be there in Hollywood narrative and in literature too, when we encounter unreliable narrators who give misleading information about the fictional world. However when space depicts the perspective of a character is still linked to the fictional world.

Different from literature, film gives birth to a completely new realm of space and time beyond that of the fictional world. In his analysis of The Spider’s Stratagem, Bordwell sketches how confused the viewer can be by the discontinuity of space and actions in the sequence where the woman is arranging the flowers. Let us not get him wrong this continuity is not discontiguity. But it is a continuity, which makes the viewer unsure of how to construct the fictional world. Is it a revelation of the charaters’ psyche? Bordwell argues no, it can’t be if we analyze camera angles. It is a portrayal of the relativity of space and time beyond the fabula.  This is what makes film a special medium. Film creates it’s own space and time without needing to reference the fabula, the fictional world, or the syuzhet

Obviously Bordwell gives more emphasis to distortions of space like that in Sunrise, when he describes the walking sequence. Here he argues that the self-conscious creation of space serves the narration.

I consider that the soul of film is its faculty to manipulate time and space beyond the fabula, with no intention of being subservient to the plot or the syuzhet but creating a statement about time and space in itself. Film is about movement and not necessarily about telling a story.

The Singing Detective

What can I say….. I really enjoyed the first episode. I engaged figuring out what was going on in the mind of our singing detective. I was dazzle by the different layers of the detective’s psyche. I searched actively what were the links between the fantastic worlds and his persona. I found the syzueth very engaging, it left me actively wondering about the fabula. Furthermore, the events inside the hospital were funny and the musical quality to it worked very well.

But what happened with the second episode?
I felt it didn’t bring much to the table. The differentiation between the hospital and the novel is much more clear. This stops making me wonder about his psyche. Instead I understand the narrative like two parallel worlds one of his novel and the other of his reality. I was expecting another layer revealing us details from his unconscious, which would give us clues to understand his character.

This second episode was redundant, besides having that woman visiting him, we didn’t learn much about the main character. Does T.V have to be so slow and redundant? Perhaps one can start drawing parallels between the character in his novel and himself, but I expected a more complex presentation of his psychology and to be closer to him.

Let us see what the third episode will give to us.

Narrators and Narration

Let us talk about Bordwell’s view on narrators. He states that narrative in film should not be understood as being told by a narrator. He argues that it is the organization of a set of cues for the construction of the story. Does it really matter whether we understand narration as being told by a narrator or not? Well, I think if, like Bordwell, we understand that films just provide us with a set of cues with no narrator, an intention on how to interpret the events within the narrative is undermined. If we don’t understand that someone who has a particular point of view is telling the events within the syzueth, we undermine the influence that this point of view has on our understanding of it. If we don’t acknowledge the presence of a narrator or multiple narrators behind film, we undermine the fact that films don’t only tell stories but also want to convey an ideology and morality.

Bordwell would argue that this point of view is not a narrator but a way to give or suppress information subservient to the fabula. However, Bordwell doesn’t mention that this point of view affects how the information is being transmitted and how we receive it.  In Strangers in Paradise the fact that the story is being told from the point of view of immigrants makes us see the events taking place in the syzueth naturally. If that story was told from the point of view of a middle-aged middle class white Caucasian, we would interpret the behavior of the main characters as uncommon. Thus our stand on the fabula differs depending on how it is narrated. How it is narrated is affected by who narrates: the narrator. Thus acknowledging the role of narrator is vital to understand how differently a viewer can experience the same story.

The Narrator sometimes also transmits an ideology alien to the fabula. Borwell argues that the syzueth is strictly used to refer to the fabula. However, he ignores that the narrator many times goes beyond the fabula and convey ideas, which must be interpreted by the viewer. His example of the sequence in October is perfect to understand how the idea of power is built without necessarily giving an input to the fabula. There is a narrator behind that sequence who is asking the viewer to interpret his/her point of view.

Acknowledging the role of the narrator in film is vital to understand how it influences the viewer. As viewers we are not only led to understand a narrative but many times we are guided to have a moral stand on it. This interaction is guided by an omniscient or sometime plural voice, which I call the narrator. Bordwell bases his theory under the expectation that filmmakers work under a set of norms rooted in clear genre’s norms, narrative techniques and stereotypification of characters. He describes the viewer as someone who is used to these conventions and thus comes to watch movies with a set of expectations. ( eg. Expectations about genre, three-act narrative.) Films not always play with genre or narrative expectations and stereotypes; Sometimes films don’t only to cue the viewer to the narrative. Bordwell disregards the existence of films, which want to have a psychological effect on the viewer. In these films the viewer is not only comprehending the narrative but also interpreting it and contextualizing in a broader ideological scope.

Real Theater and Theatrical Life

First of all I must say that I really enjoyed both films with which we started this course. Stranger than Paradise and Delicatessen dig into human nature by using alternative cinematographic motifs to those of mainstream cinema. Hollywood has shown us reality through continuity, fast-paced editing and a conventional  socratic narrative set in a naturalistic world. These type of films wrap us in their story and don’t let us think beyond the plot.

Delicatessen offers us a continuous edition and a conventional narrative, (clear beginning, middle and end, development of characters who have a goal.. etc) yet it creates a diagetic world which make us presence human beings at their rawest. Delicatessen offers a non naturalistic diagetic world and theatrical characterization to portray the subconscious of society.

On the other hand, Stranger than Paradise offers a naturalistic mise-en scene. However, it is edited in a unusual manner. This film uses long takes in order to force the viewer to observe the extreme monotony and forces him/her to evaluate his/her own reality.

Neither film diverges extremely from the conventional narrative structure at a screen play level , yet through cinematographic motifs both films go beyond the plot itself in order to oblige the viewer to interact and explore what hides behind it.

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