The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
Revolting Yet Conserved: Family "Noir" in Blue Velvet


     A somewhat expanded version of this essay will be published
     in "The Dark Side of the Street", edited by Joan Copjec and
     Mike Davis (New York and London: Verso, forthcoming).
     Thanks to Ann Augustine, Gray Cassiday, Michael Sprinker,
     and Ted Swedenburg for their suggestions, assistance and
     support, and to the editors of "Postmodern Culture" for
     their smart editing; and special thanks to the Center for
     the Humanities at Oregon State University for the
     fellowship that enabled me finally to get this piece done.
          1 Gledhill's argument for the subversiveness of the
     films noir of the forties and fifties may be found in
     ""Klute" I: A Contemporary Film Noir and Feminist
     Criticism," in Kaplan's "Women in Film Noir", 6-21.
          2 Here I feel bound to note that my argument
     regarding these "neo-%noirs%" converges on that of Fredric
     Jameson's concerning what he calls "nostalgia" films of the
     '70s and '80s, but with a difference: I am less concerned to
     relate their hollowed-out aesthetic of "pastiche" to any
     larger and more global "cultural logic of Late Capital" than
     to place that aesthetic within the particular commercial and
     institutional context in which it makes its initial sense.
     Cf. Jameson, "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late
     Capitalism", 19-20 and 279-96.
          3 See Gitlin's account of the rise and fall of "Hill
     Street Blues", and his argument that the "recombinant
     aesthetics" of television production are the quintessence of
     late capitalist cultural production, in "Inside Prime Time",
     273-324 and 76-80 respectively.
          4 "A Small Boy and Others: Sexual Disorientation in
     Henry James, Kenneth Anger, and David Lynch," in Spillers,
     ed., "Comparative American Identities", 142.  This is the
     place, moreover, to declare the general debt my reading of
     "Blue Velvet" owes to Moon's insistent exploration of the
     film's sexual-discursive "underside."
          5 "Take something comforting, familiar, essentially
     American," she writes, "and turn up the controls, the visual
     volume.  It's overheated technicolor . . . [e]very detail is
     picture-perfect and it reeks of danger and failure."  Quoted
     from the anthology of responses compiled in "Parkett" 28
     (1991), "(Why) Is David Lynch Important?", 154.
          6 Mannoni's widely-cited formula first appears in his
     "Clefs pour l'Imaginaire, ou L'Autre Scene" (Paris: Editions
     du Seuil, 1969).  For another recent consideration of
     relationship of the circuitry of disavowal and enjoyment it
     describes to postmodernist culture, see Jim Collins,
     "Uncommon Cultures: popular culture and postmodernism" (New
     York: Routledge, 1989), 110 ff..
          7 The full sentence from which this quoted material
     comes is worth quoting in full for the linkage Moon makes,
     and claims the film makes, between the film's
     sadomasochistic homoerotics and the mobile discursivity of
     the desires it displays:
          When Lynch has Frank mouth the words of the song a
          second time [Ben having done so, to Frank's anguished
          pleasure, back at the whorehouse a short time before],
          this time directly to a Jeffrey whom he has ritually
          prepared for a beating by 'kissing' lipstick onto his
          mouth and wiping it off with a piece of blue velvet, it
          is as though Lynch is both daring the viewer to
          recognize the two men's desire for each other that the
          newly discovered sadomasochistic bond induces them to
          feel *and* at the same time to recognize the perhaps
          more fearful knowledge that what most of us consider
          our deepest and strongest desires are not our own, that
          our dreams and fantasies are only copies, audio- and
          videotapes, of the desires of others and our utterances
          of them lip-synchings of these circulating, endlessly
          reproduced and reproducible desires.  (146)
          8 Buttoning or quilting points: borrowed here from
     Lacan through Zizek, who lifts the concept far enough out of
     the bottomless and hopelessly occluded waters of Lacan's
     narcissistic language-game to allow me to transliterate and
     socialize it that much more towards a strictly ideological
     sense.  See especially Zizek's alternately insightful and
     hilariously obscurantist essay "'Che vuoi?'," in "The
     Sublime Object of Ideology", 87-129.
          9 Not to mention noirish melodramas of the same
     moment: see Mary Ann Doane's illuminating discussion of
     these issues in "The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of
     the 1940s" (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
          10 See the opening pages of his fine discussion of
     "classical" film genres in "The World in a Frame", 104-24.
          11 The hysterical panic provoked in (some) male
     quarters by the appearance of Linda Hamilton's ninja warrior
     in "T2" and Sarandon and Davis's incarnation as vengeful
     bandidas in "Thelma and Louise" in the same summer of 1991
     is a topic worthy of investigation in itself.  For a sample,
     see Joe Urschel's "USA Today" editorial, "Real men forced
     into the woods," July 26-28, 1991, which argues, as far as I
     can tell, half-seriously, that the powerful women and male-
     bashing plots of movies the two aforementioned movies leave
     men no choice but to join Robert Bly's mythopoetic "men's
     movement" and return to nature!  I am grateful to my friend
     Gray Cassiday for bringing this phenomenon to my attention.
          12 Here the comparative term might be Jennifer
     O'Neal's fatal paralysis at the sight of her cloned self at
     the climax of "The Stepford Wives" (1975).
          13 Quoted, from the notes for the uncompleted
     "Passagen-Werk", in Susan Buck-Morss, "The Dialectics of
     Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project" (Cambridge,
     MA: MIT, 1989), 375.
          14 See the concluding section of "From Pillar to
     Postmodern: Race, Class and Gender in the Male Rampage
     Film," in "Socialist Review" and in "White Guys: Studies in
     Postmodern Power, Choice, and Change" (forthcoming from
     Verso, 1993).
          15 See "Plot and Patriarchy in the Age of Reagan:
     Reading "Back to the Future" and "Brazil"," in my "Another
     Tale to Tell: Politics and Narrative in Postmodern Culture"
     (Verso, 1990), especially 235-36.
          16 For a prescient early warning of this phenomenon,
     first spotted in the high-cult realm of the visual arts, see
     Lucy Lippard, "Rejecting Retrochic," in "Get the Message?  A
     Decade of Art for Social Change" (New York: E. Dutton,
     1984), 173-78; and for a recent assessment of its presence
     and effects in contemporary American popular culture, see
     Suzanna Danuta Walters, "Premature Postmortems:
     'Postfeminism' and Popular Culture," in "New Politics", 3.2
     (Winter 1991).
          17 The distinction between the "classical" and the
     "grotesque" body is drawn from Bakhtin and elaborated
     brilliantly by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in "The
     Politics and Poetics of Transgression".  What seems worth
     noting here now, however, about the figure of "our Arnold"
     and perhaps about other contemporary ideal-images of
     contemporary white straight masculinity, is the degree to
     which the "classical" and "grotesque" seem to be mutually
     contained and containing within such figures, in a way that
     seems connected to the broader thematic and political
     argument I am making here.

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