A Tribute to Dennis Hopper: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet

The great Dennis Hopper passed away on May 29 of this year, so I thought it was time for a small, very belated tribute. Hopper’s first notable film role was way back alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Through Easy Rider (1969) Hopper not only directed and acted in an absolutely fantastic road movie, he also helped bring about a fundamental change in the way Hollywood chose to make movies. More than just being a great actor, Hopper was also a brilliant photographer and artist, known for being willing to try most things. It is reputed that in his later years that Hopper never turned down a job offer. This resulted in his appearance in such questionable films such as Hell Ride (2008), Choke (2000) and the telemovie Firestarter 2: Rekindled (2002). But this period also resulted in a couple of my all time favourite Hopper performances. He played the main bad guy Victor Drazen in the first series of 24 (2001) which I think is a fantastic bit of television filmmaking. Seeing a renowned Hollywood actor pop up unexpectedly in a TV show blew my mind a little. If you are into big action stories with lots of intrigue and double crosses than this series of 24 is about as good as it gets, and that extends to anything made for the big screen. But probably my favourite performance of Hopper’s is his turn on the Gorillaz song “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head”. On Youtube you can find some really cool film clips for the song, but check out this live rendition which I love:

After the monumental failure of Hopper’s directorial follow up to Easy Rider, The Last Movie (1971), personal issues and poor film choices saw his film career really decline. Today I will be checking out the film which began to rehabilitate his acting career – Hopper’s villainous turn in the somewhat eccentric David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Lynch’s films could be labelled ‘cult’ and are quite divisive. Some think they are masterpieces, whilst others acknowledge his brilliance as a visual stylist, whilst deriding the finished products as nonsensical, and at times exploitative.

Narratively Blue Velvet is a detective story, albeit a very strange one. After his father suffers a stroke Jeffrey, played by Kyle McLachlan returns home from college to aid his recovery. Whilst walking home one day he comes across a severed ear and turns into an amateur sleuth, along the way recruiting a police detective’s daughter Sandy, played by Laura Dern. The villain of the piece is Hopper’s Frank Booth who has kidnapped the family of Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy to force her to perform sexual favours for him. On the most basic level the film follows Jeffrey’s attempts to solve the mystery of the ear, and Booth’s hold over Rossellini’s character. But that is putting it simplistically. At times the film entrances with truly sublime sequences, whilst at many other times it stutters on. One major issue is that there seems to be a lack of explanation throughout. Apparently Lynch’s first cut of the film ran about 4 hours, whilst the finished film is just under 2. It shows. There are so many gaps, so many unexplained jumps in narrative. Yet despite Lynch needing to edit heavily he includes strange, long interludes such as a creepy, unexplained cabaret performance at a house party by Dean Stockwell’s Ben which added nothing to the film for me. The gaps were so monumental that I actually considered that the narrative was all in Jeffery’s head for a little while. Much of the narrative is driven by him making leaps of logic rather than it actually being explained onscreen so I thought the big twist might be that, ta-da, he was just dreaming. Or that he was just an unreliable narrator, embellishing the mundaneness of his life and this was his resultant daydream.

For me, there was a paradox about the place of Hopper’s performance in this film. I enjoyed it most before Hopper’s character appeared, yet I think his performance is by far the best in the film. I think the film almost does not know what to do with such a fantastically evil villain. Hopper’s performance has become one of the iconic psychopath roles in cinematic history, joining the likes of Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates and Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Burton’s Batman (1989), which I think his performance is reminiscent of. But it is notable how little time he spends on screen. He explodes on screen, wreaks havoc for 5-10 minutes, a wonderful caricature spitting f-bombs left, right and centre, then leaves. Repeat this 3 or 4 times, and that’s it. Hopper plays evil well. And Lynch generally achieves the balance of having the character be over the top, whilst still maintaining a semblance of believability to him. The two central performances in the film are nice. McLachlan does quirky well, he went on to pretty much make a career out of it, while Dern is very good as the typical girl next door character (she is a very good actress who has proven adept in a range of genres). But the performance remembered from this film, for good reason, is Hopper’s. It is easy to see that this film has been influential. The dead-pan dialogue regarding the merits of Heineken beer could have been written by Tarantino himself. Lynch proves himself adept at creating interest through the use of music. However some of it suffers from a lack of subtlety, although this may be magnified because it has been replicated by other works that followed. An example of this are scenes of violence being accompanied by upbeat, popular music. Something which doesn’t work in this film (and I think rarely works at all). A nice stylistic touch though, at least early in the film is Lynch’s engagement with melodramatic conventions such as emotive music, and the use of slow-motion in emotional moments.

Two themes stood out for me in this film. It does examine the seedy underbelly of society’s clean-cut facade. The film is bookended by sequences of hyper-suburbia – white picket fences, perfectly manicured lawns and flower gardens, all with saturated bright colour. This is stereotypical, perfect American suburbia. At the end of the opening sequence of the film featuring these images, the camera zooms under the lawn, to an extreme close-up of a confined space teeming with cockroaches. The suggestion is clearly that what looks perfect on the surface, has some measure of rottenness underneath. This is a truism really. As Jeffery explains “It’s a strange world isn’t it.” Every night in a given place, even a quiet suburban one, terrible things happen. People are raped, murdered and physically assaulted and so on. Blue Velvet depicts all of these things but in reality I’m not sure how deep this theme is explored really. The point is made, but it is not really examined or illuminated as it could be. For me, the second theme that was predominant was the power of sex. Sex is a wonderful thing, but it can also drive people to do hideous things. A majority of people have probably at some time in their life placed a disproportionate amount of importance on the place of sex in their lives. Lynch extends this to extreme ends. There are strange scenes of sexuality – Dorothy forces Jeffery to get naked at knifepoint and gives him a blowjob because she is equally fearful and aroused when she catches him hiding in her apartment. Soon after Jeffery returns to his hiding place and witnesses Frank sexually assault Dorothy. Inexplicably, once Frank goes, Jeffery and her resume their sexual contact. This is an example of McLachlan’s character not being able to overcome the power of sex. He knows this woman is in no position to be seduced. She has just been assaulted in the most hideous way, and even though she initiates the contact there is no way that he can believe she is in a position to engage on a sexual level. The lure of her body is too much and supersedes all other concerns. Dorothy seemingly utilises sex as a form of punishment. She seems to blame herself for the kidnapping of her family and seeks out sadomasochistic contact with Jeffery as punishment. She continually begs her to hit him in erotic trysts. He resists, but eventually gives in, an act he regrets for the rest of the narrative. The suggestion is that she does not enjoy these things in a physical or psychological manner, but rather they serve as an emotional release for what she is going through. Not a comforting release, but a reaffirmation of her (misguided) belief that she is to blame for Frank’s heinous behaviour.

Maybe some fans of David Lynch films would surmise from this review that I just don’t ‘get’ this film. That’s possible. But for me lack of coherence was the killer for this film, and all Lynch’s style and the terrific performances were unable to overcome this flaw. There is an obvious issue with attempting to write a tribute piece such as this. How honest can you be – What if the film sucks, or the actor I am supposed to me saluting is rubbish in it? In some ways this issue reared its head for me with this blog. This film was so underwhelming for me. There are flashes of excellence, but the second half is such a slog, with little reward (and more than a few brutalities to sit through – Rossellini’s infamous appearance on the lawn, naked & battered). As a calling card for Hopper’s talents though it is not such a bad thing. I don’t know that he has ever given a better performance, on a pure acting level (I don’t claim to have seen anywhere near all his films). But if I want to really enjoy something he has done, I’ll whip out Easy Rider, 24 or my Gorillaz CD, rather than watch this film again.

Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught

Progress: 19/1001

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