August 16, 2003

Feels Like A Fisking!

Another day, another drag. Things might get interesting when the California election gets close (though there's rumors that a Judge might postpone the election on October 7th due to some legal concerns).
So, here I am desperate for some news to blog about and all I find is crud about the Blackout (it's over, move on), Idi Amin (he's dead -- yay! -- move on), and other crappity crap that doesn't move me enough to rant, explore or disect.

But, I'm in an antsy mood. So I went to to look for an opinion piece to fisk. Scrolled down the long list of essayists and clicked on Roger Ebert. Chose a movie review; Blue Velvet, and took it upon myself to fisk ol' Roger's pan of this rich and entertaining film.
So, here we go:

Date of publication: 09/28/1986
By Roger Ebert

R.E.If you want to understand David Lynch, maybe the place to start is with his paintings. He paints in a style he describes as "bad primitive art," and says that one of his paintings works if you feel the desire to sink your teeth into it.

Well, whoopdy-freakin'-do, you've spoken to David Lynch about his paintings. And I thought this was a movie review.
Okay okay, it's about understanding his style. I know.

R.E.Although Lynch is a serious painter, he is much better known as a movie director, and with his latest movie, "Blue Velvet" (now playing at the Fine Arts), he finds himself at the center of a national critical firestorm. The movie is so strong, so shocking and yet so audacious that people walk out shaking their heads; they don't know quite what to make of it.

"Although"? Sounds like you're differentiating between his "seriousness" as a painter and his reknown as a director. The second sentence describes Blue Velvet as much as it does his "serious" paintings; so why the differentiationalityness, hmmm?

R.E.I am not one of the film's admirers. Or perhaps I should say, I admire its craftsmanship but am not one of its defenders. I believe Lynch is a talented director, and that in Blue Velvet he has used his talent in an unworthy way.

O, great Sage, do please tell us of the unworthiness of the Way in which he has used his admirable craftsmanship.

R.E.The movie is powerful, challenging and made with great skill, and yet it made me feel pity for the actors who worked in it and anger at the director for taking liberties with them.

Liberties; like having them apply their talent in a way that fits the story they're being paid to act out. The horror! Oh, pity the wealthy thespians forced to be shackled in the chains of their director's great cinematic skill!
Get to the real point, will ya, Roger?

R.E.Then I interviewed Lynch in New York, and I found, not a monster, but a pleasant, sincere man who was disarmingly frank about his film.

Wow, he wasn't a monster? My world is shattered!

R.E.If you have not seen "Blue Velvet," perhaps a brief description is in order.

Golly garsh gratuitass, do y'think?

R.E.The movie is a head-on collision between two popular genres from the 1940s: the insipid small-town comedy and the film noir.
In the first genre, a character not unlike Dagwood Bumstead fumbles his way through life while dogs bark at him, kids play jokes at his expense and his wife nags him a lot. Yet all is essentially sunny in his world, which is made up of picket fences, green awnings, shade trees, genial neighbors, friendly policemen and postmen who know his name. Dagwood, or whatever you want to call him, acts as if he is unaware that many males actually do have sex lives.

More verbosity than neccessary, but we get it...go on...

R.E.In the film noir, a more serious and brooding genre, ordinary people find out that evil lurks just beneath the surfaces of their lives, and that they themselves are capable of committing unspeakable acts.
A proper film noir is not usually a gangster or crime film, but the story of how evil enters everyday lives.
The genre is profoundly pessimistic; it does not show bad people doing bad things, but average people doing bad things. The implication is that we are all capable of evil.

Yadda yadda, we know already, blah blah, thanks for the round-trip to Blathertown. Is there any part of your persona that isn't bloated?

R.E."Blue Velvet" has two kinds of scenes: (1) The everyday small-town scenes, in which people go out on dates to the soda fountain and drive around town in shiny cars, and (2) the subterranean scenes in which the most unspeakable acts take place behind closed doors.
Lynch has cast as his heroes two clean-cut young performers, the square-jawed Kyle MacLachlan and the blond, perky Laura Dern. They're both about 18 or 19 years old.
One day they stumble across a mystery involving a severed human ear, and their investigation leads to one of the most shocking scenes in recent movies.

Wow, we finally got some information about the movie!

R.E.The scene: MacLachlan hides in the apartment of a local nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini), who he suspects knows something about the ear. He watches as a perverted madman (Dennis Hopper) screams obscenities at the woman, beats her, inhales narcotic gas from a cylinder at his belt, and then rapes her. He leaves.
Rossellini finds MacLachlan in the closet, pulls a knife on him, forces him to disrobe and orally arouses him. Later, she asks him to "be a bad boy" and hit her. She is a masochist.
Although Hopper apparently holds her husband and son as kidnap victims to force her to submit to him, we realize with a shock that she has discovered that she likes to be brutalized.

Well what's so shocking about that? Women LOVE "bad boys"! Hell, they stay with abusive men for years -- getting the crap beat out of 'em -- all the while saying "but he loves me!"
Her family and her very life may be at stake, but she stays anyway. Helplessness has taken over, and has mutated her fear into submission, and then -- out of pure adaptation for survival's sake -- into pleasure.
Gawd, don't you understand women?!

R.E.In the course of the film, Rossellini is put through a more severe emotional ordeal than any movie performer since Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in "Last Tango in Paris."
In one scene, she lies naked on the lawn of the local police chief, while strangers form a crowd. I found that her scenes had an unexpected effect.
I responded to their raw power, yes, but the more I thought about them, the angrier I got, because Lynch surrounds them with what is essentially a satire on small-town comedies.
He generates this immense and painful power, and then uses it merely as counterpoint to an immature satire.

Wow, the Clue Meter is reading zero again.
The placement of profound humiliation into an everyday and familiar setting isn't "immature satire", you bellowing sack of carbonated water; it's exactly the opposite. The superficially paradisiacal small-town of Lumberton is sincerely presented -- not as satire -- but as reality. Perhaps you're too sophisticated -- having spent too many years in hussle and bustle of Chicago -- to recognise the difference.

R.E.The more painfully a director violates the sensibilities of his audience and his performers, the more serious his intention should be.

Has it occurred to you that perhaps the director's "intention" has escaped you? Probably not.

R.E.Bernardo Bertolucci earns every moment of pain in "Last Tango in Paris" because he tells us things about the human spirit that we can respond to and learn from. Ingmar Bergman's "Cries and Whispers," the most painful film I have ever seen, requires three actresses to portray moments of incredible pain, debasement and self-revelation. It is a noble film.
Lynch shows us Rossellini naked and humiliated, and then cuts to jokes about the slogans on the local radio station.

Not every films has to "teach" us something; some can just show us something in a vivid and memorable way.
F'rinstance, Alfrd Hitchcock's Vertigo -- an all-time favorite of mine, and one which you gave five stars -- doesn't "teach" us anything about our behavior that we don't already know. But it does present it to us; brutally and hauntingly.
Vertigo and Blue Velvet are very similar in that respect; our engagement is more psychological than emotional.
My college drama coach once said that "there's a difference between 'knowing it' and 'knowing that you know it'." Lynch's film may only tell us something that we know, but it does so in a unique and engaging way. That's pretty special, if y'ask me.

R.E.The movie has received some rave reviews, but many of them seem to tap-dance around the central emotional challenge to the viewer...

Didn't I just ream yer ass on that point?!

R.E.In the New Yorker, Pauline Kael says she loves the movie, but her review is an extended plot summary, a detailed description of the movie that seems to imply that a precis is enough - she doesn't choose to discuss the issues it raises.
Dave Kehr, in the Chicago Tribune, hardly seems to have noticed the scenes I just described and devotes most of his attention to explaining the cleverness of Lynch's ironic style.
Gene Siskel says the director is "playing the audience like a piano," first shocking us, then making us laugh, as if merely causing sensation to the audience - any sensation - were by definition an admirable thing.

Okay, is this a critique of the film or of other critics?
Working backward, obviously Kehr and Siskel (rest his soul) has missed the point even more than you have, and has concentrated on lauding the style (which, as you said yourself, deserves lauding).
You reprimand Kael for saying she loved the film, but didn't address any of the issues that it (or you) have raised.
I'm guessing that she understood but refused to address (maybe publically, maybe personally) the issues it raises. You, being more eager to investigate, are willing to address the issues yet are unable or unwilling to.

R.E.Is that all a movie is, style? Some critics think so.

Didn't I just ream yer ass on that point?

R.E.They argue that a movie isn't about anything except itself.
They approach "Blue Velvet" like some kind of clever intellectual puzzle in which the challenge is to find all of Lynch's filmic references and neat little in-jokes.

Er, excuse me, but, isn't that exactly the way you're approaching it?

R.E. But wait a minute. There's a woman standing naked on the lawn here. Has this movie earned the right to show her that way? Having talked to Lynch about his film, I am inclined to believe that he takes it more seriously than many of his defenders do. It is an intensely personal film, and here's the catch: It is personal for reasons that Lynch has not put in the film. Therefore, it means more to him than it ever can to us.

...or to you, anyway.
The movie has a "right to show her that way" because that's what the movie is about. Presenting a stark and naked picture picture of who we are is at least as important as trying to tell who we should be through some grand Message.

Have you ever seen the Zapruder film, Roger? Have you stared at it in grotesque curiosity of what horrors exist in humanity's heart? It didn't seek to teach us anything. It wasn't fashioned to deliver a profound insight into our human condition. It was a recording of reality -- by a guy standing on a stoop with an 8mm camera -- and nothing more. Yet we view it again and again because it does teach us something by showing and reminding us of something we'd rather not admit.
We look at Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Saddam & Sons and Idi Amin and others and call their treachery "inhuman"; but we know better.
We know from Dahmer and Berkowitz and Manson and Bundy and Speck and McVeigh that darkness of spirit is just a twist of fate away.

Then we can look at Todd Beamer or Jeremy Glick or the people who dug out those miners in Pennsyvania last year. Or we can look at all the guys who came out of their offices and directed traffic during the worst and longest blackout in history (not because they were being being paid by government but because they were bound by honor to assume responsibilty and pitch in to better the predicament of people they've never met and may never cross paths with again.

It's okay to show a snapshot of human reality and have no Message any broader than "this is us." You laud film noir for this very characteristic, yet are repelled by darkness without the redeeming light of Instruction.
Sometimes seeing the situation is all the instruction we need. Pardon me for not looking to Hollywood for directions on how to find me.

Think of David Lynch's Blue Velvet as a kind of a cross between Andy Warhol and George Lucas.
Warhol would set up a camera and film the most routine drudgery and call it a film. Tedious and true: completely real, completely artless; and who cares?!
Lucas, on the other hand, created films of amazing dazzle and energy, and very little of the ordinary. Exciting, but just fantasy...but who cares?!!

Lynch presents the tragically ordinary as art. It's a shame that you, Roger, an inordinately insightful cinemaphile, haven't yet learned -- as Pauline Kael intuitively has -- to experience a film in a personal and welcoming way that allows one to Live the experience rather than to sceptically critique it. Have you grown too cynical for your shirt?

There is more to Ebert's review that can be read HERE, but I'm gonna stop here because I think I'd only be redundant from here on out!

Posted by Tuning Spork at August 16, 2003 11:12 PM
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