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Blue Velvet

The Face no. 82, February 87
with many thanks to Dominic

No film in recent memory has so divided public opinion subjecting Isabella Rossellini to harrowing scenes of sexual degradation, Blue Velvet arrives here in March as the most controversial movie in years... and some say the sickest. Director David Lynch remains defiant.

AT LAST OCTOBER'S NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL, amidst the cosmopolitan cacophony of the luxurious mock-Renaissance hotel horror which served as unofficial film biz HQ for the week, I stopped abruptly by one of the city's leading agents.

"You absolutely must see Blue Velvet, " she hissed, red talons sinking into my forearm for emphasis. "Everybody's talking about it. It's the most controversial movie in years." She darted off backwards, no doubt to take another meeting and sign another million dollar deal.

No film in modern memory has so divided American opinion as David Lynch's low-budget surprise-hit thriller. At every screening of this lurid tale of murder, violence and sadomasochism set in bucolic small-town America, at least a handful of the audience walk out in the middle of the film.

Others love it. According to Newsweek, a heart-attack victim in Chicago fainted while watching Blue Velvet, was rushed to hospital to have his pacemaker adjusted - and then rushed back to the cinema to catch the end of the film. Critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who do a sort of Mutt-and-jeff movie reviewing act on American TV's Tonight show, had their bitterest-ever disagreement. Ebert labelled Blue Velvet "one of the sickest movies ever made", while Siskel called it one of the year's ten best.

Blue Velvet is a coming-of-age movie. It is the story of a young man's discovery of the forces and emotions lying just below the surface among his family, his friends, and his neighbours. In writer-director David Lynch's view, those forces include love, hatred, murder, perversion, corruption, and degradation. Blue Velvet is a kind of journey inwards to the land of Original Sin.

It is a film of extremes. In the timberfelling town of Lumberton (a real town in North Carolina), the birds always chirp, the white picket fences glow like summer clouds, and the neighbours are so genial and friendly they might have walked in off Petticoat junction. Yet the criminals are so evil and vicious, the degradation so intense, ,that the movie evokes a kind of primordial fear in the viewer. The fear would be almost unbearable at times, if not for the chunks of wacky college-boy burnout interspersed throughout. Like The Exorcist - to my mind the most genuinely frightening horror film of the 1970s - the fear Blue Velvet inspires is not an external fear - of a monster or a murderer - but internal fear - of the evil within our own minds and souls.

"It kind of strips you to the bone," said a friend of mine, who loved it. He added that two of the four people he went to see it with walked out halfway through.
For many Americans, the most controversial aspect of Blue Velvet is the character of Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), a down on her luck nightclub singer forced to submit to violent, sadistic sex by the terrifying pervert Frank (Dennis Hopper).

That's the good news. The bad news is that Dorothy enjoys it. She gets turned on by being beaten and degraded. When she seduces Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), she implores him to beat her. He complies. The Dorothy character has been denounced as an embodiment of the worst of male fantasies, a denial of the last twenty years of feminist progress, an incitement to rape, and so on.

"THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN BEING TALKED about is not being talked about," said dear old Oscar. David Lynch apparently does not agree. The 40-year-old director has been so unnerved by the torrent of criticism his film has provoked that he has become exceedingly cautious in discussing it. Which is a shame, because Blue Velvet is very much a personal creation. Part of its strength is that it is not a product of the usual Hollywood committee with the usual checklist (Hero, Villain, Love Interest, Plot Line, Resolution, etc), but of an individual with a vision so powerfully all-embracing that it convinces by its very intensity. The fact that certain plot details are sketchy or unclear hardly matters in the context of the eviscerating story Lynch wants to tell.

"The only thing to say about all the controversy," says Lynch, opening up at last to my prodding, "is did I make all that up, or are there examples like that in real life? And there are countless examples like that in real life. So why do they get so upset when you put something like this in a film?"

With a shock of lustrous brown hair falling over his forehead, round inquisitive eyes, a white shirt buttoned primly up to his neck, and a twangy golly-gee-whillikers style of speaking, Lynch is very much the all-American boy. You have only to watch him for 30 seconds to see that the film's young protagonist - earnest, curious, intelligent college student Jeffrey - is very much an autobiographical creation.

He stands by his most controversial character, the sado-masochistic Dorothy. "People get into all sorts of strange situations, and you can't believe they're enjoying it, but they are. And they could get out of it, but they don't. And there are lots of reasons for it. It gets you into psychiatry."

Dennis Hopper's portrayal of Frank gives us one of the most chilling, terrifying, homicidal maniacs the screen has seen. After years of internal exile in Hollywood as a "drinker-drugger" (his own phrase), Hopper is back, with a performance destined to go down in cinematic history alongside Tony Perkins' Norman Bates.

"Dennis Hopper called me up one day," says Lynch, "after reading the script. He said, 'David, you have to let me play Frank, because I am Frank'.
"That scared the hell out of me."

On the subject of Frank, we get a hint of what probably lies behind Lynch's motivations in making Blue Velvet.
"Frank, to me, is a guy Americans know very well," he says. "I'm sure most everybody growing up has met someone like Frank. They might not have shook his hand and gone out for a drink with him, but all you've got to do is exchange eye contact with someone like that and you know that you've met him."

According to Lynch, Frank is not so much evil as twisted. "Frank is totally in love. He just doesn't know how to show it. He may have gotten into some strange things (like sadistic sex with incestuous role-playing, murder, dismemberment, helium inhalation, drug-dealing, and latent homosexuality, to name a few), but he's still motivated by positive things. "Blue Velvet is a love story."

DAVID LYNCH LOVES TO TELL THE STORY OF HIS first meeting with Isabella Rossellini. He was introduced to her at a restaurant by a mutual friend when he was in the process of casting Blue Velvet. Struck by her serene European beauty, he told her, "You could be Ingrid Bergman's daughter." " 'You idiot,' my friend said to me," Lynch recalls, 'she is Ingrid Bergman's daughter!'

Lynch claims he was not aiming to provoke a furore with Blue Velvet. Rossellini was chosen for the part of Dorothy because she projected the sense of sophistication and mystery, along with vulnerability and helplessness, that Lynch was looking for. But if Lynch was after controversy, he could not have done better than Isabella Rossellini.

As the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and "the face" of Lancome cosmetics, she is in the highest constellation of American stars those who, like the Royal Family in Britain, are "nationalised" by press and TV to become the property of the public. Before the fearless invigilators of People magazine and their imitators, every visit to the supermart by these celebrities becomes public property. With Isabella Rossellini playing the sexually perverted Dorothy, Blue Velvet was instantly transformed from a minor art movie from an avowedly weird director into a major attack on American morality.

In person, in an almost frumpy black cardigan and minimal make-up, Rossellini wears her superstardom with quiet dignity. As we sat down to lunch at Sam's Cafe, a moderately pretentious (by New York standards) media hangout, Isabella wondered if the film company had chosen Sam's Cafe because of its resemblance to Rick's Cafe "in my mother's movie Casablanca", and David. Lynch began enthusing over the coffee cups, "the biggest I've ever seen - don't they make you kinda feel like you're shrinking?" I began to despair, in the thought that the two of them had been rehearsing their roles, superstar's daughter and art school product, in front of the mirror prior to the interview.

But when I offered the opinion that Isabella's mother was, according to a very great authority on 1940s Hollywood (namely my mother), the most beautiful woman in all of Hollywood in that decade, Isabella reacted ("Oh, thank you very much") with a sweet and genuine gratitude, even a hint of surprise, so spontaneous I was touched.

Moving adroitly from the sublime to the slime, I said, "Isabella, critic Rex Reed said that your mother would turn in her grave if she saw the part you played in Blue Velvet."
"I don't want to comment on that," she replied quietly. "My parents are dead. It's hard enough for me to live without them, so I leave it to others. I think it must be morbid people who say these things because they make good copy. It's not up to me to stir up the tombs.

"I don't know whether they would have liked the film or not," she continued determinedly. "They aren't here to see it. All I do know is that mother loved Elephant Man (directed by Lynch) and father liked David very much when he met him."

For those readers just returned from a 40-year vacation on another planet, Ingrid Bergman created an international scandal in 1949 when she left her first husband in Hollywood for Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, by whom she was pregnant. Hollywood, reacting as if Ingrid Bergman had invented adultery, banned her from the American picture industry for more than a decade. Rossellini, a genius of a film director but no saint where women were concerned, left Ingrid when Isabella was a small child.

I ask Isabella if she was aware as a child that her father was a genius. "As a little child," she says, "I thought he was God. Then as I got older I had to come down a little bit, and say he was a genius.
"My mother, too, was a goddess, but I was always closer to my father. I was a daddy's girl."

For most of her childhood, Isabella lived in Rome with her father, often visiting her mother in Paris. In 1972 she moved to New York, where she worked first as a television journalist for Italian state TV and then as a fashion model. She signed a five-year contract, renewed last year, with Lancome cosmetics, for two million dollars, making her one of the highest-paid models in the world. Thirty-four is rather old for any fashion model, let alone one so successful.

"Once you become the image of a company, it's very hard for the company to change its image, so they keep you for a long time," Isabella explains with unmodel-like modesty.

In taking the part of Dorothy, Isabella knew exactly what she was letting herself in for. Like Lynch, she feels the character is realistic and interestingly complex. She has little time for the one-dimensional careerwoman characters currently fashionable in Hollywood. "I see Dorothy very much as a victim and as someone who is suffering," she says. "Yes, she does get herself into this situation, and yes, she does enjoy being beaten, but she was probably totally twisted and totally crazy and sad. And she does begin to come out of it as the film ends.

"The film is basically a search into the unknown. In a search, you find something. You begin to understand something, whether it's good or bad, about yourself, and the world and that you have choices. It's a process of knowledge, and experience."
"I tried to portray not just a character, but a character development." In her independence and her commitment to acting, she is very much her mother's daughter. Not to mention that when she smiles that familiar warm radiant smile, you want to pull your trilby low over one eye and drawl out of the corner of your mouth something about the cares of two people not amounting to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Since Blue Velvet, Rossellini has had several small acting parts ("I hate waiting around doing nothing"), and one major role, opposite Ryan O'Neal in Norman Mailer's film of his book, Tough Guys Don't Dance. Impressed by her performance in Blue Velvet, Mailer rewrote the part specifically for her. She was less than overwhelmed by Mailer, and does not expect great things from the just-completed film.

"I am still a beginning actor, and Mailer is a beginning director. I think we were all kind of lost together. It had its problems."
She says she would act full-time "if every film would be like Blue Velvet." Unless and until more opportunities like that arise, she is keeping an open mind on making a full-time commitment to acting.
"My father always encouraged curiosity, and he always found an incredible pleasure in finding out, in knowledge. And for me the best thing in life is to extend yourself, to fulfill your deepest curiosity, not just the gossipy part, but the knowledge. That, to me, is happiness."

IF, IN THE CENTURY OF ITS IMPERIAL ascendancy, the United States has made any original contribution to world culture, it is probably the development of an art form devoted to the examination of surfaces and external images, both in themselves and as clues to underlying meaning. This approach, or sensibility - it might be called the Warholian sensibility - is especially appropriate to modern consumer society, where the products we have to deal with each day become ever more complex, while the packaging and advertising which sell them strive ingeniously to make them appear ever simpler.

David Lynch has brought this sensibility to film making. Here he is describing Henry, the hero of his 1978 cult classic, Eraserhead.- "Henry is very sure that something is happening, but he doesn't understand it at all. He watches things very, very carefully, because he's trying to figure them out. He might study the corner of that pie container, there by your head, just because it's in his line of sight, and he might wonder why he sat where he did to have that be there like that. Everything is new. It might not be frightening to him, but it could be a key to something. Everything should be looked at. There could be clues in it. "

On Blue Velvet:

"There's always the surface of something and something altogether different going on beneath the surface. just like electrons busily moving about, but we can't see them. That's one of the things films do, is show you that conflict."

The key image in Blue Velvet is the severed ear Jeffrey finds lying in a field. When Jeffrey turns it over, it is infested with hundreds of crawling ants. All that follows in the film flows from jeffrey's decision to investigate how the ear came to be there. According to Lynch, the ear is "a ticket to another world".

Lynch spent his childhood years in small towns in America's rugged, wooded Pacific Northwest. His father was a scientist with the US Forest Service.
"I spent a lot of time out in the woods, building fires. "
"Did you like the woods?"
"No. "
"What were you trying to do, burn them down?"
"No, I was trying to cook something."

When a teenager, his family moved to suburban Washington DC. "I got the woods out of my system. Now I like cities. I still like the woods though." After high school, he attended three art schools: the Corcoran 'School of Art, the Boston Museum School, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Art. "I love art and I love painting, and I still do it."

Ask Lynch about art, and the mood suddenly lightens. He becomes cheerful and enthusiastic. It is as if, interviewing Rod Stewart, one suddenly switched the subject from music to football. That was work, this is fun. One of Lynch's favourite encapsulations of Blue Velvet is "Norman Rockwell meets Hieronymous Bosch". I asked him why he liked art so much. "The art life is . . . (pause) . . . it's just another way of saying the great life."

"David," interjected Rossellini, with an almost maternal solicitousness (she is mother of a three year old daughter, Elektra, by former husband Jon Weidemann), "now you're being too enigmatic."

Rossellini seemed worried that Lynch's secretiveness would prevent me from appreciating his talents.
His key influences include filmmakers Stanley Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Jacques Tati, the films Sunset Boulevard, La Strada, and Lolita, and the writer Franz Kafka. When I asked what his single greatest influence was, he did not hesitate for a second.
"You mean because it's horrible?"
"Yes, horrible, but in a very interesting way. There were places there that had been allowed to decay, where there was so much fear and crime that just for a moment there was an opening to another world. It was fear, but it was so strong, and so magical, like a magnet, that your imagination was always sparking in Philadelphia."
"I just have to think of Philadelphia now, and I get ideas, I hear the wind, and I'm off into the darkness somewhere."
Urban renewal, says Lynch, has since cleaned up Philadelphia and destroyed the magic.

He is very happy that Blue Velvet is now into profit on its six million dollar cost. "Nobody ever thought it was going to be commercial. Now that it's made money, it goes down as an exception. It's fantastic when that happens.

The film's success will also help him get his next project, Ronnie Rocket, off the ground.
"I've been writing it for ten years, since I finished Eraserhead. It's an absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence. It's about electricity. "
Of course. Electricity. What else?

FOR SOME MONTHS NOW, THE RUMOUR has been circulating that Isabella Rossellini and David Lynch (both divorced) are romantically involved.
"Isabella, I understand you two are involved?"
"That's none of your business."
"David, if the story of Blue Velvet had continued past the ending, which of the two girls would Jeffrey have ended up with, the blonde all-American, or the dark, mysterious foreign nightclub singer?"
"I've got my ideas, but I think the movie should end there, where it ended. Anyway, it's pretty apparent."
"I'm sorry, we have to go now."

The actress and director smile gently and rise. Both dressed demurely in black, both silent, they file out of the restaurant.

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