Saturday, 5 June 2010

Reel Retrospective: Blue Velvet (1986): RIP Dennis Hopper

This past week, we bade tragic farewell to one of Hollywood's legendary bad boys, Dennis Hopper, who passed away after a battle with cancer at the age of 74. Famous of course for single-handedly making counter-cultural youth cinema both commercially and artistically successful with Easy Rider, his was a career that saw more dips and mounds than most. Blighted by bouts of drink and drugs, Hopper made a triumphant dual comeback in 1986 after years in the wilderness, with an Oscar-nommed turn in Hoosiers...and, more significantly, his extraordinarily frightening turn as Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. This review is to his memory: RIP Dennis Hopper.


To say that examinations of American suburbia were unheard of when Blue Velvet appeared in 1986 would be a mistake. What was unforeseen was the force with which director David Lynch yanked back the curtain. Forcing our faces into a dark, vaguely Freudian notion of an apple-pie town concealing a rotten, monstrous subterranean layer, it's arguably his most successful fusion of satire, pathos and horror, beginning when Kyle MacLachlan's naive Jeffrey discovers a severed human ear in a field. Pursuing the mystery further (Lynch humorously aware of the Hardy Boys-esque nature of Jeffrey's venture), events take an unexpected, horrific turn when he traces the source back to tormented lounge singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), captive of Hopper's terrifying, gas-guzzling psychopath.

Set in that distinctive Lynchian hinterland between plausible reality and unnerving fairytale malevolence, Blue Velvet was to influence virtually all representations of suburbia to follow. It's a world that speaks of the director's singular perspective, deconstructing Americana as we may (or may not) know it. One minute, Laura Dern's wholesome, blue eyed Sandy (with whom Jeffrey rekindles a teenage crush) reveals, completely straightfaced, a dream she had about robins, and their symbolic beauty; the next, by contrast, Dean Stockwell's sinister, camp gangster, Ben, is miming Roy Orbison's In Dreams into a lamp. Those venturing in unawares may find the contrasts hilariously obtuse and hamfisted, but of course the joke's on them, Lynch always being one step ahead with his keen eye for absurdity and satire.

The most famous anecdote bandied about the film of course is that initial meeting between Lynch and Hopper, where the actor claimed: 'I *am* Frank!' Clearly this would be a one-of-a-kind synergy between actor and character, Hopper drawing on his turbulent years to bring added authenticity to the part. It would mark his return to the A-list, sealing him as villain-for-hire in hits like Speed, Waterworld and TV's 24.

Even with prior knowledge of those latter efforts though, nothing prepares the viewer for the sheer ferocity and viciousness of Hopper's performance as Frank, one which makes Victor Drazen look like the careleader at nursery. It's a breathtakingly nasty performance, yet one that's keenly tuned into the absurdity of Lynch's tale. It's also remarkably cryptic, something which adds to the palpable fear the first time Frank stalks on-screen in the notorious cupboard-watching episode. After all, while Hannibal Lecter would cook your liver with some Fava beans and a nice Chianti, Frank would likely perform the latter without the common courtesy of even ringing your doorbell. He's a rampaging id, harbouring some serious Oedipal issues ('Mommy wants to fuck' is his repeated mantra when assaulting Rossellini's Dorothy) and always boiling over with rage.

It's the epitome of a fearless performance, and by far the most memorable thing about the film, despite the admirable tightrope walking done by helmer Lynch, Maclachlan, Dern and the rest of the cast. Hopper is indeed the beating heart of the picture, the psychological flipside to the sweet-natured romance rekindled between Jeffrey and Sandy. It's chilling enough in its presentation...but it really frightens, as do many of Lynch's films, because our primordial senses recognise the very darkness itself. He's the big bad wolf writ large. Few screen psychos generate as much terror as Frank, who is stomach-churning simply because of his very unpredictability. As one might say: 'It's a strange world'...


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