Blue Velvet

The Scholarly Filmmaker: David Lynch

As anyone who’s seen one of his films can attest, David Lynch is one weird filmmaker. Perhaps more than any other director working today, he lets his subconscious do the heavy lifting when it comes to storytelling. Anthropomorphic talking rabbits? Check. A human baby that looks like a squid? Check. A homicidal maniac who is sexually obsessed with blue velvet? Yeah, Lynch has made movies about all these bizarre things. He’s a popular surrealist, infusing soap opera storytelling with liberal doses of uncanny madness. He’s also a great filmmaker, with a knack for atmosphere and getting under the skin of his viewers. Few directors are better able to depict the well of sin lurking beneath the wholesome exterior of Americana.

David Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana in 1946, but he spent most of childhood traveling around the United States to wherever the United States Department of Agriculture stationed his father. After grade school, Lynch spent a failed year at the School of the Museum of the Fine Arts, Boston. He then enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. It’s there he first dabbled with film, making short experimental films that incorporated his paintings. Lynch famously hated Philadelphia and soon moved to Los Angeles to join the newly formed American Film Institute Conservatory. The AFI provided him with the financial backing to direct his first feature film, the experimental fatherhood drama Eraserhead (1977).

Eraserhead took Lynch five years to complete, being made piecemeal whenever Lynch had the money to afford the shooting days. The film follows a young man named Henry (Jack Fisk) who has a deformed baby with his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and attempts to survived the nightmarish aspects of new fatherhood and the industrial wasteland of a city he lives in. Eraserhead is full of dream imagery and makes little to no literal sense. Lynch has said numerous times that trying to decipher the meaning behind the film’s nightmarish imagery is a fool’s task. Despite this impenetrable surrealism, the viewer still can decipher the parental anxiety that drives the film, as well as the paranoid feeling of living in an oppressive world. Eraserhead would be the last film I’d recommend to an expecting parent, or anyone thinking of having kids in the near future. The sheer vileness of the baby in the film is enough to make one consider sterilization. When Eraserhead was finally released in 1977 it became a hit on the midnight movie circuit. Stanley Kubrick even called it one of his favourite films of all time.

The film’s cult success and critical status gave Lynch the artistic capital to transition to Hollywood for his next project, the historical drama The Elephant Man (1980). The film told the heartbreaking tale of the severely deformed John Merrick, who suffered from a rare degenerative disorder that made his limbs appear swollen and grotesque. The Elephant Man was a great success, garnering eight Academy Award nominations, including Lynch’s first Best Director nom. Despite its conventionality, it still bears Lynch’s unique stamp, highlighting the grotesquery of the carnival world and exploring the barbaric nature that lurks beneath bourgeois respectability. Lynch followed up The Elephant Man with another Hollywood picture, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece Dune. Despite the promise of the source material and the ample budget he was allowed to play with, Lynch’s Dune (1984) is his only unquestionable failure, a woefully miscalculated sci-fi epic that ups the novel’s grotesque aspects while completely ignoring its mystical and romantic appeal. Lynch’s ambivalence towards the source material is apparent in the film’s every frame.

Luckily, Lynch’s deal with Dino De Laurentiis to direct Dune also allowed him to make a smaller picture as its follow-up, the small town mystery Blue Velvet (1986). Blue Velvet is Lynch’s masterpiece. No film save Rear Window (1954) does a better job of equating the protagonist’s voyeurism with the voyeurism of the viewer. Of course, unlike Rear Window, Blue Velvet connects the voyeurism of its protagonist to the sexual violence of the villains he watches. It explores voyeurism as a way of exorcising the demons that lurk under the skin of even the best people.

The film follows Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a college student who finds an ear in the field of his small hometown and investigates who it could have belonged to. His investigation leads him to the apartment of a lounge singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), where he discovers she lives as a thrall to a criminal named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who has kidnapped her husband and child in order to turn her into a sexual slave. Jeffrey’s investigation leads him down the rabbit hole of his cozy hometown, revealing its seedy underbelly and the psycho-sexual desires that exist within himself.

From the opening credits of Blue Velvet, set against a curtain of blue velvet with Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting score playing over top, Lynch’s tone and vision is apparent. The film’s opening scene, a montage of quiet life in the fictional American town, outlines everything you need to know about the film you’re about to see. The first shot is a tilt down on roses in front of a white picket fence, with Bobby Vinton singing “Blue Velvet” over top. This is the American ideal: wholesome, quiet, pretty, and dull. The frame cuts to a wide shot slowly panning right of a fireman riding a vintage firetruck down a suburban street, a dalmatian sitting patiently next to him. The fireman waves to the camera. The shot reinforces the suburban stereotypes of Blue Velvet’s setting, but it also subconsciously alerts the viewer to the film’s preoccupation with voyeurism. The fireman looking at the camera is subtly unnerving. Movie characters aren’t supposed to acknowledge the viewer, to watch us watching them. But Blue Velvet is all about watching and right from the second frame Lynch is signalling its importance.

The frame cuts to another brief shot of yellow tulips in front of a picket fence and a shot of a crossing guard waving children across the street. It then cuts to a wide shot of the Beaumont household. The next shot shows us Jeffrey’s dad watering the picturesque backyard. Inside the house, we cut to Jeffrey’s mom sitting on the couch watching a murder soap opera. When the shot cuts to the television screen, it shows a gloved hand holding a gun. It’s key that these wholesome characters would watch such a show. In their blissfully unaware world, violence is something that only happens on a TV show. The frame cuts back to a cowboy shot of Jeffrey’s dad outside. It then cuts to a closeup of the hose attached to the faucet on the side of the house. We hear an ominous rumble as the water fills the hose. Something’s not right. It cuts back to the cowboy shot of Jeffrey’s dad as he tugs on the hose caught on a branch. The frame cuts to a close-up of the hose constricting around the branch, not giving in to the tug. It goes back to Jeffrey’s dad before cutting back to the faucet. The rumble gets louder. It cuts to the constricting hose again. The knot gets tighter. It cuts back to the faucet about to burst then back to Jeffrey’s dad as he grasps his neck in pain. He falls into the mud. The hose is still blasting water. It cuts to a closeup tilting down as the water sprays about in circles, almost like a sprinkler. It then cuts to a wide shot of a dog biting at the water spraying out of the hose as Jeffrey’s dad lays helpless. It punches in closer to a medium wide shot and we notice that the hose is undeniably phallic. It goes even closer to a close-up of the dog biting in slow motion, its barks turning into malevolent growls.

The frame then cuts to a close-up of the grass and starts panning down to the ground, pushing in slowly. We can still hear the water, but the rumble starts to overpower the sound of the spraying hose. We cut closer to the ground and the camera pushes forward, parting the blades of grass as it moves deeper into the ground. Finally, as the last blades of grass part, we see bugs, festering, chomping on the grass, the sounds of their bites overpowering the soundtrack. Beneath this beautiful lawn with a white picket fence, there’s something evil and monstrous lurking. This opening scene lays out all of Blue Velvet’s themes in just over two minutes and without a word of dialogue. Such narrative economy and symbolic storytelling speaks to Lynch’s immense talent.

After Blue Velvet’s critical and modest commercial success, he partnered with Mark Frost to create a TV series for ABC. The resulting show was Twin Peaks (1990), following the investigation into the death of a high school prom queen in a town in the Pacific Northwest. The show would further the themes of American domesticity hiding perversion and corruption that Lynch explored in Blue Velvet. The series was a huge hit in its first season, but its second season alienated viewers by prematurely solving its central mystery and delving deeper into its bizarre mythology. It was cancelled after its second season, ending on an infuriating cliffhanger, although it was picked up earlier this month for a third season to air on Showtime in 2016. In 1992, Lynch released a companion film to the series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which failed to answer many of the questions left by the cliffhanger finale. However, the film did a great job of further exploring the malicious forces at work in the town of Twin Peaks.

In the midst of working on Twin Peaks, David Lynch also released Wild at Heart (1990), a road trip romance starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern that won him the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. After Twin Peak’s cancellation and Fire Walk with Me’s critical failure, Lynch returned to surreal storytelling with Lost Highway (1997), which started an unofficial trilogy of Lynch exploring moebius strip narratives. The trilogy also consisted of Mulholland Dr. (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006), which featured damaged characters caught up in fantasy realities they create to cope with their pasts. In the midst of these films, Lynch also released The Straight Story (1999), which, as the title suggests, was his most straightforward narrative: a touching tale of an elderly man driving his John Deere lawnmower over 300 miles to visit his estranged, ailing brother.

David Lynch is the man who made surreal filmmaking mainstream. He bridges the gap between experimental cinema and the wholesome soaps that beguile daytime TV viewers. The meaning of his films may often be inexplicable, but their power is undeniable. He gets under the skin of the viewer and reveals the festering psychoses that drive the viewer’s subconscious desires. He is a master at showing the best and the worst of humanity. He may seem insane, but his vision of what drives human beings is both startlingly sober and sadly accurate.

OIFF 2014

OIFF: Film Army Goes to Ottawa

The Ottawa International Film Festival celebrated its fifth anniversary this year and it’s fantastic to see how quickly it has grown over those years. This year had a great blend of local films, like Girlhouse, and international films from Brazil, India, Russia and more. They even got an Oscar winner in there with The Lady in No. 6, which is pretty cool. It also partnered with other Ottawa events like co-presenting My Father and the Man in Black with the Ottawa Bluesfest, securing its place in the cultural landscape.

There is also the Music Video Challenge, which has been a part of the festival since the beginning. Yes, music videos still exist and are a unique art form unto themselves. This is a great way to celebrate the work that these artists and storytellers are doing in this often over-looked medium. A really unique and interesting experience in a film festival.

The gala, which kicked off the whole festival, was quite the classy affair. There was a great turnout of varied filmmakers, Ottawa’s new film commissioner and even the mayor, Jim Watson, himself. (The best comment of the evening: “Here we’re proud of our mayor.” What a bizarre concept.) Watson made a speech which included the most relevant line: “We’re not TIFF. We’re not Toronto.”

Now that's a mayor you ca be proud of.
Now that’s a mayor you ca be proud of.

Now, yes, Toronto’s film community is undeniable and is the reason most people have to leave smaller cities like Ottawa to find work and make movies. It happens. But Ottawa shouldn’t try to be Toronto (unless you too would like to be a stand in for all American cities). There is room for many different film industries to exist in this country. Ottawa has its own unique flavour and not being the size of Toronto’s industry offers its own opportunities and advantages. It’s about finding what makes Ottawa unique and running with that. (The opportunities that exist in the Market alone are copious.) There’s a lot more to Ottawa than the politicians.

Talking with local filmmakers, there’s the passion and determination that is helping grow Ottawa’s industry, just like this film festival is doing. People in Ottawa have still been making films but mainly on their own. Now there is more of a spirit of collaboration and working together to make even greater films which will push the industry further and further.

This growth is happening at the same time that there is a lessening of the fear of actually using Canadian settings. Shows like Rookie Blue and Flashpoint are more Canadian and still sell south of the border. The F-Word is intensely Toronto and still sells tickets despite the use of the Bloor Street Diner and The Royal. And in this vein, I can’t not mention the greatest show of all time Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays which was set in Ottawa – the perfect backdrop for those two characters. There is more opportunity now to explore our own cities in our films and TV.

The whole point of this is that there is room for more filmmaking industries outside of the behemoth that is Toronto. Areas like Niagara are also exploring and building their own industries too. There is a ton of potential in Ottawa right now and I have no doubt that we will see a lot of great things coming out of there. OIFF is a great way to celebrate that and showcase the work that is being done.

Thank you to everyone at OIFF for the wonderful experience and letting us be a part of the festival this year. Looking forward to seeing what you do next year!

See? You wouldn't even notice that you're not in Toronto.
See? You wouldn’t even notice that you’re not in Toronto.
PROMO_ROLLING_HILLS

Pause for Dinopaws

Do you ever happen to come across something you’ve never seen before? Ever want to touch it, smell it, keep it, grab it, or eat it?  This sounds weird until I tell you that it’s what three dinosaurs do in a preschool show called Dinopaws!

Show Specs
Target demographic: Ages 2-5
Length: 11-minute segments
Genre: Preschool
Style: 3D animated
First aired: June 2014
Seasons: One so far!

Dinopaws is an international co-production between the following:

  • Treehouse
  • Guru Studio
  • Kindle Entertainment (UK)
  • Impossible Kids (UK)
  • BBC (UK)

The scripts were given to Guru from the BBC where the director Harold Harris developed the look and feel of the show. Harris has also directed other shows like Justin Time (my post) Clone High and Bob and Margaret.

Dinopaws has quite a feminine approach; everything looks soft, cozy and very huggable! The show is rendered using an engine called VRay, which simulates real world lighting. The shadows are never totally black but follow the characters in a very playful way.

Dinopaws-Perspective-1300x800

The main dinos, Bob, Gwen, and Tony are friendly, inquisitive and very excitable. They eagerly explore their unique (and sci-fi-esque) surroundings, full of pep and giggles! This show is visually very exciting!

My favourite thing about this show is that Tony doesn’t speak English. He’s full of squeaks, moans, ooohs and ahhs. You don’t even need to translate it between languages!

Some parents have complained about the use of made up words, like this lady here:

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 5.16.35 PM

CBeebies is a channel owned by BBC. Some were concerned that kids will start learning the wrong words. But that’s really part of having fun! Dr. Seuss is a great example! Well it’s great that CBeebies was able to respond, however I don’t think they would change a character based on this woman’s comment.  According to the developer and head writer Alan Gilbey, it’s part of Bob’s charm and imagination to make up words:

“Bob is the biggest and he’s a Stegopawrus, slow of body and ponderous of mind. He thinks BIG thoughts, is the philosopher of the group and (because language is new in Dinopaws world) he loves to invent new words that sum stuff up. He composes little ‘bouncy word parties’ too – which we would call poems.” - Alan Gilbey (The rest of the interview here.)

See, it’s part of Bob’s charm! Also this show is not mean to be educational but entertaining.

A great place to watch episodes is right here (but you need to pretend you are from New Zealand and Hola! can help with that).

Just for fun, here are some other dinosaur-related shows:

  • The Flintstones (1960)
  • Land of the Lost (1974)
  • Dinosaucers (1980)
  • Dino-Riders (1988)
  • Dinosaurs (1991) – The creepiest dinos ever…
  • Barney & Friends (1992) – I totally thought that he was dog for the longest time…
  • Walking with Dinosaurs (1999)
  • Dinotopia (2002)
  • Prehistoric Park (2006)
  • Primeval (2007)
  • The Land Before Time (2007 TV series)
  • Dino Squad (2007)
  • I’m A Dinosaur (2008)

So what I’ve learned from this show is that I should explore everything and when I find something I should touch it, smell it, keep it, grab it, and eat it. Good, because that’s what I’ve been doing so far.