“It’s a song, and a texture”: Meaning in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr.
I’ve not written anything for a while and I often find that when that’s the case the best thing to write about is David Lynch.
I’m probably old enough now that I can say that Lynch is my favourite filmmaker and not worry about changing my mind next week. The thing I love best about his films is that they feel so overbearingly loaded with significance, but very often refuse to surrender any meaning at all. Mystery is frequently the key to their lasting effect, a carefully constructed ambiguity that doesn’t, I don’t think, hide any carefully designed truth, just an artfully arranged set of impulses, images and textures that create a sensation that almost hums, like a harmonious atmospheric chord.
This is all just a disclaimer, of course, before I present one of the meanings that I do see, shared between my two favourite Lynch films, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. Because while I’m antsy about ascribing anything as boring as logic to Lynch’s work, still those textures and chords are about something. Maybe nothing as simple as whether the Yellow Man is actually dead or just lobotomised, or exactly how the clashing realities of Betty and Diane fit together, but wider things about love and fear, and frequently, I think, about Hollywood and how films are made.
Lynch often seems to make films that are sensitive to when and how they were produced. And one of the remarkable things about Lynch’s career is that he’s worked in just about every type of production – from the no-money independence of Eraserhead, to the big-budget flail at mass market that was Dune, with Blue Velvet (a mini-major production even before king of the form, Miramax, arrived) and TV with Twin Peaks in between.
And each of these forms has led, one way or another, to the next. The success of Elephant Man opened up the opportunity for the folly of Dune, which in turn led to the scaled-down artistic control of Blue Velvet. Twin Peaks transferred Blue Velvet’s dark fascination with the hidden world of small town America to television screens, before transferring them back again with Fire Walk With Me. Mulholland Dr reversed the trick, taking a failed pilot for ABC and reinventing ideas designed to stretch a season into a tight, impossible cinematic loop.
In other words, Lynch made Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr fresh from traumatic industry experiences – the fiasco (if not quite flop) of Dune, and the wrenching pass on his new Hollywood-set pilot. And it’s hard not to see something of his reaction in the films themselves.
I’m thinking of two scenes in particular – in Blue Velvet, the louche cabaret of Isabella Rossellini singing Blue Velvet itself, and in Mulholland Dr., Rebekah Del Rio’s ghostly turn at Club Silencio. The scenes echo (or better yet, mime) each other – both mournful women singing ghostly ballads, and performances which seem conspicuously about performing.
Other bits of Mulholland Dr speak to Lynch’s uneasy relationship with Hollywood and its processes – Michael J Anderson’s surreal, sinister power figure, the treatment of bemused, Lynch-like director Adam Kesher as he strives for artistic control, and the otherworldly presence of the Cowboy. It is, in an oblique and thoroughly enjoyable way, about the confusion and frustration of working with ABC (and their corporate parent Disney), and about television production and independent movies and how they differ from the golden era Hollywood that ghosts through the film.
The scene in Club Silencio, when Del Rio’s moving performance is revealed as an emotional sham by the desynchronisation of sound, is like the schism experienced in the film itself when reality twists and characters switch identities, and also like the schism in the film’s transition from television to movie production – one possible meaning of the performance dies joltingly, but another fractured meaning takes its place.
The scene in Blue Velvet, on the other hand, is not only outwardly similar, but serves a parallel function. The film was made as home video was transforming the film industry, creating a new revenue stream that made Blue Velvet’s kind of high-quality, medium-budget production possible. Dino De Laurentiis is a key figure here. He produced both Dune and Blue Velvet, in between the two establishing his own small film studio, DEG, and taking risks by releasing his own, smaller movies – something only made possible by the lucrative second market of home video.
When asked what Blue Velvet is at the time, Lynch said: “It’s a song, and a texture”. The film is about fetishisation – well, obviously, but fetishisation of performance in particular. The ability to own films, in a condensed physical form, was new and looming – the VHS cassette like the square patch of blue velvet that good old mad Dennis Hopper rubs furiously as he watched Rossellini, grasping for a physical way to possess the sound and feeling of the music.
This is how I enjoy thinking about these scenes, anyway. You may – you should! – have other ways. In fact, there are so many asides and interesting offshoots to even these simple ideas about these two isolated scenes that this post has taken me three days to write, and plenty of resentful editing, just to make it semi-readable.
I’m going to listen to Little Jimmy Scott sing Sycamore Trees now.