Touchstones #1 – Blue Velvet

Touchstones is a series about those films that have played a pivotal role in shaping the contributors to Stranger Than Paradise.  Those films that opened up a doorway into a new genre, director or movement.  Films that have stuck with us over the years as being responsible for our passion and love of cinema.  The aim is not to analyse or provide any major insight into these particular films but to share their importance and impact on our cinematic lives.

In many ways Blue Velvet is the gateway film for me.  It is absolutely the film that showed me the light and made me realise that there was a world out there that was a million miles away from the mainstream American cinema that I had previously been exposed to.  Somewhat bizarrely I have 80’s thrash metal giants Anthrax to thank for introducing me to this film and therefore setting me on the journey that has led to both the creation of this blog and my career as a film and media teacher.  Anthrax’s 1988 album State Of Euphoria contains the track Now It’s Dark and I remember reading in an interview how the song was inspired by Blue Velvet and specifically the character of Frank Booth.  The interview talked about how Frank was the most terrifying character in cinema and made Freddy Krueger look like Mary Poppins.  In hindsight comparing Blue Velvet to Nightmare On Elm Street seems somewhat ridiculous and inaccurate but it was enough to perk the interest of one horror film obsessed teenage metalhead!

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that my 15 year old self sat down to watch this potentially terrifying film and my god was it terrifying!  Not terrifying in the way I was expecting but terrifying in a whole new strange, violent, sexual and all together more adult way than I had ever experienced before.  The opening scene alone was enough to tell me I was in for a brand new experience.  The slow motion shot of the fireman waving from the fire truck has stuck in my head ever since I first saw it and might be one of my favourite moments in cinema (strange the things that stay with you isn’t it!).  In fact I remember when I worked in a factory in the early 90’s that me and a friend used to get one of the engineers to reenact the scene on a forklift truck as he bore a passing resemblance to the fireman!

The thing that really disconcerts about that opening scene though is when Jeffrey’s dad has the stroke.  The sense of creeping dread that recurs throughout the majority of Lynch’s work is perfectly captured in this one short sequence.  The cuts from Jeffrey’s dad to the tap and hose accompanied by a rumbling drum roll just ramp up the tension to an unbearable level.  I think it’s the use of sound that does it but there is something about it that really puts me on edge.  When Mr. Beaumont does finally succumb to his stroke his pained writhings are, for some reason, made all the more unsettling by the piece of string that he is lying under.  It’s these little touches that really get to me in this film.  Last of all it is the final shot of this sequence that finishes me off.  The slow zoom into the grass to reveal the crawling bugs underneath the surface accompanied by that same swelling, throbbing, unidentified noise that gets under your skin and lets you know (indeed feel as it is such a visceral sound) that things are not right.

Needless to say Blue Velvet continued to astound my impressionable young mind (as it still does today) and after it finished all I could do was sit there in stunned silence knowing that somehow my life had been irrevocably changed by watching this film.  I think Blue Velvet was probably the first film that induced that sense of shock and deep contemplation that follows all great films.  That ten or twenty minutes where you just sit there unable to speak whilst you process what you have just witnessed.

I don’t want to go into anymore detailed analysis other than to say that Anthrax were absolutely right about Frank Booth and the world he inhabits.  Blue Velvet and Lumberton is a terrifying, funny, magical place that has absolutely altered my life and one that I return to on a regular basis always finding something fresh to discover.  So thank you Anthrax for pointing me in the direction my life has taken!

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