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CRITIC AT LARGE

Can 'Blue Velvet' Stand Up To Serious Scrutiny?

September 23, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

"I can't believe that he/she/they saw the same movie/play/TV show that I did" is the official chant of the Critic Doubters Club.

The club exists only in the minds of those who suspect, in varying degrees of outrage, that they have been led down the garden path by reviews of a particular item. The club even includes other critics from time to time, sitting obscurely in the corner with their collars turned up, hoping to disagree with the prevailing vision of the item, but without discrediting the whole idea of reviews.

David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," which opened last week, has had the kind of reviews Orson Welles could have used for "Citizen Kane" when it first came out. The word "masterpiece" was heard.

Masterpiece ? That's a word to be kept in a locked case at the Bureau of Standards and used with the frequency of solar eclipses.

Briefly told, "Blue Velvet" is about a young lad, a sort of premarital Dagwood Bumstead, fetched home from school because his father has had what seems to be a stroke. The lad finds a detached and bug-ridden ear that leads, by a set of staggering improbabilities, to a mysterious, masochistic captive beauty, a raving but possibly impotent homicidal sex maniac, a corrupt police officer, assorted whores and panders and some shadowy dealings that may be clearer after a second or third viewing, not that they matter.

Some of the movie is played like a sleepwalker's version of a '50s crime film, with reddish-brown shadows doing for film noir . The style, in the early sequences particularly, also suggests a high school play whose performers have been told to enunciate clearly but not try for expression, thus creating a curious formalized aspect for the proceedings. It is an easy film to hoot at, and I have no doubt that for some of the time, laughter was what Lynch wanted, and gets. (The USC audience with which I watched "Blue Velvet" had a merry evening.)

But he seems to intend more than a campy homage to yesterday's crime movies. His point is that evil lurks in the hearts of small towns, beneath those Norman Rockwell surfaces. But that, of course, is what the film noir chaps were saying, too; it was goodness that was hard to locate.

Ripping the lid off small-town evil has a long history in film, and an even longer history in print. "King's Row" and "Peyton Place" got there first, and Sherwood Anderson and Frank Norris. No matter, except that some of the claims for "Blue Velvet" outreach its own grasp; and it's the over-claims more than the film itself that are startling.

Actually, it's easy enough to see one great appeal the film has for film critics. In a time when so many movies bear the homogenizing marks of deals, committees, studio infrastructures and an impersonal, unassertive timidity, "Blue Velvet" is indubitably a personal, private film. Lynch wrote it and directed it and you can't imagine anyone else having had a word to say about it.

He began as a painter, which is significant here. "Blue Velvet" in its mixture of camp and earnestness can be seen as a kind of expressionistic pop art. It vaguely suggests (philosophically) the paintings of Larry Rivers, with Rivers' mixture of fine painterly qualities, fragments of portraiture and landscape tumbled into a deliberate disruption of art.

"Blue Velvet" is a gestural film, a series of images that mean something to the film maker and are meant to convey a feeling--probably more than an intelligence or a coherent tone or narrative line--to the viewer.

The other appeal to the film critic is, I think, that this is life not as it is lived, but life as it has been told again and again by the movies themselves. Even more than "The Last Picture Show," with its double-edged homage to the films (the movie house itself, the cinematic characters and events), "Blue Velvet" is a daisy chain of movie impulses and fantasies, quite hermetically sealed off from real life in Lumberton, N.C., or anyplace else.

Lynch has said he acquired his impression of the world's corruption from living in Philadelphia as a child. But even the concept of "pure," inherent evil, which needs no causations outside itself, is a literary-cinematic creation. There was probably an explanation in Philadelphia, but you have to make local inquiries. What we have in Lumberton is natural evil, embracing, like sex, the birds and the bees as well.

Even the paranoid sexual frenzies of "Blue Velvet," a cavalcade of kinky but ultimately unsatisfying excess calculated to invite celibacy on a major scale, suggest an immature imagination that has been worked on, or worked over, by bad movies rather than bad companions.

"Blue Velvet" is being celebrated as a chronicle not so much of the loss of innocence as of the discovery of evil, the revelation that every cloud must have a somber lining, every apple a worm. The movies have unquestionably found too many silver linings and worm-free apples in their history, but only because the customers knew the truth well enough and needed a change.

Lynch, I think, argues that some films are made to be felt rather than understood, and "Blue Velvet" is, as its enthusiasts and its detractors can agree, a succession of private feelings and fantasies given visual shape. It is revealing, which is not quite the same as a revelation, and like most half-waking fantasies, is in danger by the hard light of day of appearing slightly simplistic and silly.

"Blue Velvet" is a film naif, and it has its gleeful passages, but there is, I think, less here than meets the eye.

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