Friday, May 20, 2011

Always Weird America

A recent reviewing of the still-execrable American Beauty with my wonderful friend María left me considering that well-worn standby of American "independent" cinema, the suburban excavation piece. I say "independent" because the rise of Indiewood, the transformation of independent filmmaking into a farm system underwritten by the studios, has gone hand in hand with a resurgence of this type of film. (Play with cause and effect as you will.) L.I.E., Happiness, Far From Heaven, Donnie Darko—all delight in what I once drunkenly called "picket-fence exploitation," using suburbia's visual framework as an ironic underpinning to stories of abuse, repression, and stunted growth. To my eyes, this kind of movie is successful to the degree it acknowledges the role fantasy and self-conscious artifice play in its construction. Including the occasional giant rabbit allows these movies to stretch out aesthetically (beyond the tired "Look, it's so pretty! But, y'know, it's actually not" binary) and positions them as subjective works, accesses to headspaces in transition, rather than faux-objectivist condemnations from above. (Thus, Far From Heaven is a masterful snapshot of feminist and queer identity theories as lived in daily life, its gorgeousness both cutting and genuine, whereas Happiness is just one long exercise in rote button-pushing, conducted from the sneering remote plane where Todd Solondz lives.)

Great and terrible, these films were manna to those audiences and critics raised in suburbia and inordinately proud of having “gotten out,” who also tend to be the type bankrolling Indiewood’s commercial ascendance over the last two decades. I’m not attempting to recoup suburbia as a serene paradise, and those contemporary indie-kid hits (Garden State, Little Children, Juno) that take a relatively genteel view, complete with happy ending, are uniformly awful. American suburbia has its remarkable and regressive features, just like the rest of the world; it’s also more diverse a space than is usually represented on screen, and the best way of getting at it may indeed be pursuing this sort of third-person subjectivity. Some of my happiest times growing up just outside Buffalo were spent wandering alone or in small groups at night, claiming banal places not to “subvert” them, but to appreciate them as already ideologically malleable. Why tear down strawmen from afar when you can plunge in headfirst?

That David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, released in 1986 and saturated in the ‘50s, is still widely (and rightly) considered one of the masterpieces of American cinema, while thirteen, released and set in 2003, has already been largely (and wisely) forgotten, should be indication enough that Lynch had more than mere provocation on his mind. Yet Blue Velvet is still generally discussed as the ne plus ultra of suburban deconstructions, a creepy-ass shot to the heart of Reagan’s rose-tinted America. It’s worth pointing out that Lynch himself was actually a Reagan supporter, but more importantly, the film itself doesn’t seem to me the penetrating social commentary it’s made out to be. Instead, it’s a feverish aestheticization of one almost-adult coming to terms with the ineffable, the inexplicable, and the insane; less an exposure of truth than an acknowledgment of truth’s limits in the face of mystery. The journey is visualized, not as the famous descent into the insect-filled grass, but as the stunningly shot journey through the ear canal—which leads not to the collective hive, but the individual mind. “It’s a strange world” comes early on in the proceedings, but it’s the only conclusion Lynch dares draw from this mad crooked tale of hazy days and endless nights.

Which should hardly come as a surprise, given that conclusions aren’t exactly Lynch’s game. Societal examinations always hover at the margins of his rabbit-hole meditations (the aura of apocalypse in Eraserhead, the “poisonous valentine to Hollywood” unfolding in both Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire), but his cinema is a proudly subjective one, getting at larger issues only as glimpsed by his characters. We Lynchians throw around the “dream” label constantly, yet we rarely investigate what that conceit might mean in context. As near as I can define it: Lynch is less concerned with life’s corruptions and lies than he is with the escape hatches we use to both get away from and hopefully survive this strange world. Like Laura Dern in Inland Empire, and unlike Jack Nancy in Eraserhead and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, Kyle McLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont makes it out of Blue Velvet with his skin and soul intact, and his inner methods of doing so are the movie’s focus, more than the literal events he copes with. The movie’s signature image is Jeffrey peering out from a stranger’s closet, unwilling (not unable) to tear himself away. As has been much noted, we don’t actually see the moment when the psychotic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) strikes poor Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Instead, Lynch shows us Jeffrey flinching away, and then looking back for more. Again, though, our boy isn’t condemned for his Scooby-Doo curiosity; Blue Velvet practically hums with a warm, sympathetic empathy for its protagonist, sharing in his excitement and observing his tearful mistakes with wretched pity. What separates this film from the rest of Lynch’s oeuvre isn’t any strident political intent, but that Jeffrey serves as a viable director’s surrogate: McLachlan unabashedly (and actually quite sexily) embodies a cornball archetype, while moving with increasing familiarity and even confidence in a darker realm. Obviously, there are limits to what biography can tell, but I still find this quote from the director revealing:

"Kyle is dressed like me. My father was a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture in Washington. We were in the woods all the time. I'd sorta had enough of the woods by the time I left, but still, lumber and lumberjacks, all this kinda thing, that's America to me, like the picket fences and the roses in the opening shot. It's so burned in, that image, and it makes me feel so happy."

It seems important to me that Jeffrey is a college student visiting home, rather than an independent adult or in high school with Laura Dern’s Sandy. McLachlan perfectly portrays a psyche in transition, equally at home drinking a Heineken and doing the chicken-walk, caught between blowjobs at knifepoint and “you’re a neat girl, Sandy.” These divisions have less to do with the Freudian concepts often mapped onto Blue Velvet than with Lynch’s honest assessment of what it’s like to re-examine one’s old haunts while on the cusp of adulthood. When Jeffrey exclaims excitedly, “I’m seeing something that was always hidden,” he’s not talking about willful collective blindness so much as the bygone ignorance of his childhood. The traditional anti-Everyman screed of suburban excavation is turned on its head: yes, every town is like Lumberton, with its lunatics and robins, and so the point is not to condemn us for hiding the former, but to ask how it is that we carry on anyway. Poking flat stereotypes until they explode, à la American Beauty, is no less disingenuous than “morning in America,” and is in fact nothing more than the flipside of the same coin. Perhaps it’s precisely because Lynch draws fewer conclusions than the likes of Sam Mendes that the former’s project has so much more emotional range, and for all the director’s supposed derangement, is the far more humanistic picture.

thirteen, by the way, was originally intended as a comedy, and ended up an unintentional comedy. Blue Velvet, by contrast, remains the clearest example of Lynch’s greatest artistic strength: cobbling together disparate elements of horror, comedy, and melodrama without ever falling back on irony as glue. This is worth emphasizing. On the cusp of the sardonic, quotes-laden breakthroughs of Tarantino and Kevin Smith (/preaching), it’s astonishing how thoroughly un-ironic Lynch’s approach is here. Hopper’s deranged (and hilarious) rants are no more real than McLachlan and Dern’s painfully sweet slow dance. No one is ever held up purely for mockery. This dedicated humanism is perhaps best expressed in Blue Velvet’s visual palette, another surprisingly under-discussed feature, especially given that the Lynch conversation so often centers on imagery. American Beauty and its bastard cousins employ superficially beautiful sets, color, and cinematography as so many props to expose the rot underneath, treating the medium’s potential for beauty as nothing but cheap contrast. Blue Velvet is unrepentantly gorgeous, but uses soft colors (pale blues, greens, and browns) to emphasize the general dreamy mood of the town’s residents and the controlled slowness with which they move. Lynch’s signature is never the mirror, with its rigid divisions, but the shadow, in which definitions melt and blur. Jeffrey and Sandy first meet on a sidewalk at night, telling awkward jokes and discussing the infamous severed ear in hushed tones. Lynch blankets them in darkness, but a warm, open kind, with much of the neighborhood still visible; a distinctly summer dark, one I remember well.

I left Buffalo for Oberlin College, and this is among the scraps of wisdom I’ve learned both from being at school and from coming back home: the whole surface=fake and hidden=truth thing is mostly bullshit. Not that working from those equations can’t lead artists to some powerful places (Haneke’s Caché gets it right from the title on down), but yeah, it’s a starting point, more relevant in terms of why we hide things than what we may be hiding. If picket-fence exploitation too frequently rests on conclusions that support its own initial premises, that the “good life” is simply bad and that deviance undercuts every attempt at individual happiness, then Blue Velvet, far from being the genre’s standard-bearer, stands as a much-needed corrective. The light and the dark are both simply part of life. “Why are there people like Frank?” is an unanswerable question, and facing that is part of growing up. Realism would seem to stand in opposition to the daffy Lynch project, with its discomfiting imagery, sound-sight dislocation, and wacky archetypes brought to vivid life. Yet Blue Velvet addresses a distinct time in life with such passion, depth, and wry, knowing humor that it cuts deeper into the heart of the real than a thousand Ice Storms, and like no other film I know, it gives the oh-so-dreaded suburbs their proper, human due.

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