I am introducing what will be a running feature called Retro Review, where I will discuss some piece of pop culture – film, music, literature, etc. from the ‘70s and ‘80s – two decades close to my heart.  I may dip into the ‘60s and the ‘90s because I was alive and kicking during those eras also and I would be lying if I said the pop culture and events during all of these decades did not contribute to the person I have become.

Author’s note: Click on the words in green throughout this article for links to related video clips and supporting articles

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Over the fence and under the lawn to Ben’s House we go… 

Warning: Some of the supporting links in this post contain profanity and mature content.

 

I enjoy movies like everyone else. However, I try to shy away from the mainstream fare with their formulaic plots, digitally enhanced effects and stunts, cardboard characters that read dialogue that doesn’t ring true, and gratuitous sex scenes tacked on for an R rating. Don’t get me wrong. I like the sex scenes as much, if not more than the next person, but I expect them to be believable, and not to be in the film because some Hollywood suit says it is necessary to get a certain demographic in the theater.

 

My strict criteria for what makes a movie enjoyable was met and I was completely drawn in the first time I saw Blue Velvet directed by David Lynch. What Lynch does so well in this movie is to give us a peek beneath the surface of small town America and suburbia at the underbelly that most of us either are unaware or choose to ignore by staying on the “right” side of town so that it does not infringe on our pristine existence.

 

Lynch had me at the opening sequence where he paints an exaggerated, too good to be true cinematic picture of small town America/suburbia, where the fences are white picket, the lawns are green, the flowers bloom bright and enthusiastically, firemen wave happily at citizens as they ride by in their shiny red trucks, and crossing guards protect well-behaved children as they cross the street. Lynch quickly jerks the green lawn out from under our feet to show us what lurks beneath this Norman Rockwell wet dream.

 

The father of the main character of the film, Jeffrey Beaumont, is watering his perfect lawn when a kink (foreshadowing of the dark behavior of some of the characters Jeffrey will meet as well as a dark side he discovers within himself) forms in the garden hose.  As he struggles to untangle it, he suffers a stroke/seizure and falls to the lawn still holding the hose as it sprays into the air from his clenched hand. His dog jumps on his chest and barks and plays with the spray, oblivious to the condition of his owner. The camera tracks toward the green lawn and digs below the surface of the thick, green grass revealing this underworld to be populated by hostile, noisy insects. The camera focuses on two beetles involved in a battle to the death.

 

The movie is not even at the four-minute mark yet, and suddenly it is obvious that this is going to be a very different experience. And that is what I am looking for when I watch a movie. Anything less is insulting. 

 

If the opening sequence isn’t enough, Lynch veers a little farther off the Hollywood beaten path when Jeffrey Beaumont, walking home from visiting his ailing father in the hospital, discovers a severed human ear in a field and picks it up and bring it to the police.  I am going to go out on a limb and say, any movie in which the plot is set in motion when the main character discovers a severed human ear, has got my attention right away.

 

Shortly after this discovery, as the ear sits on the coroner’s table, Lynch burrows even deeper beneath the surface of postcard perfect suburbia, as the camera zooms in on the ear and descends deep inside the ear canal into its darkness, metaphorically beginning the descent that the film narrative and Jeffrey himself will take as he tries to solve the mystery of his find, and discovers the seamy, evil and dangerous underbelly of his home town that he did not know existed.

 

The most powerful and horrifying scene in this movie or any movie as far as I am concerned is the joyride scene (the entire scene runs from about 1 hour and 10 minutes through 1 hour and 26 minutes and must be viewed in its entirety for the full emotional effect) which occurs when Jeffrey gets in over his head on the wrong side of town as he tries to unravel the mystery of this human ear. He is confronted and taken against his will on a journey into the human equivalent of the hostile insects and warring beetles under the green façade of his dad’s lawn.

 

Frank Booth, played flawlessly by Dennis Hopper (who you actually believe is a soulless killer, and his sociopath posse take Jeffrey on a “joyride” to “Ben’s” place where he comes face to face with a dark side of life that is frightening and mesmerizing at the same time.

 

 

Scarier even than Frank Booth is Ben, played chillingly “suave” by Dean Stockwell, who has a penchant for wearing makeup, lip singing to Roy Orbison, and taking pleasure in inflicting pain on others, for the amusement of himself and Frank and his posse.

 

 

This scene had a profound impact on me the first time I saw it and even now as I watch it years later. Any criticism the film may have gotten when it was first released about Frank Booth and his posse and Ben being exaggerated caricatures of evil for cinematic effect is unwarranted.  As a child and a youth, like many others, I dealt with the wrath of bullies that usually ran in packs like Frank Booth and his posse and they had that same blank soulless look in their eyes and seemed to experience genuine amusement and gratification by hurting and demeaning others. These bullies had to grow up and become adults, and they did not change into kind people overnight. If you need any evidence of this, look no further than George W, Bush (who tortured animals, bullied his siblings and tortured classmates both as a child and as an adult) and then grew up and along with many current and former members in his administration have shown a morbid desire for homoerotic torture to coerce confessions of innocent people, including children to wield the power of fear over their own perceived enemies and even their own citizens. If this is not convincing enough, try going to a 24 hour Walmart after midnight and look at some of the unsavory characters trolling around there. It is like a David Lynch film casting call.

 

Another reason this movie had such an emotional impact on me was because I was a good law-abiding kid as well as an adult, never touching alcohol or drugs and trying not to hang with people who seemed to be trouble. However, even I came to find out there is a thin line you walk sometimes between your normal everyday green lawn suburban life and stepping into the abyss and becoming mixed up with the warring beetles beneath the surface where, before you know it, you are in over your head.

 

As careful as I was, I found myself in situations more than once that could have easily been similar to, but not as extreme as Jeffrey’s fictional “joyride.”  It might have been something as simple as going out with college or high school acquaintances and being the passenger in a car with no control over the destination. Then, realizing too late that the journey had taken a turn for the worse, while powerlessly watching it begin to spiral out of control like a dream or a movie in front of my eyes, where my only options were to jump out of a moving car to get out of the situation and hope to survive to limp back to the safety of my normal world, or ride it out and hope for the best. I have often wondered if this is the situation an innocent passenger finds himself in right before he falls victim to a drunk or dangerous driver with whom he has gotten into a car and surrendered control.

 

Lynch is at the top of his game with Blue Velvet and does a superb job in this pivotal scene, and in the film overall of exposing the dark, evil underbelly of suburban life, that we all know exists in this world, whether we want to accept it or not, and tapping into the terrifying reality of how it is much closer than we like to believe. If you think it you are safely insulated from what lies below the gift wrapped façade in your little corner of the world, you only need to look as far as the most recent religious figure or politician caught for pedophilia, or anti-gay rights politician or reverend caught in a gay sex sting, or political pundit or reporter close to the White House with a questionable past, or even the last road rage incident or random work place shooting. This underbelly is more prevalent than you think. The evidence is there, you just have to look past the white picket fences and beneath the well-manicured lawns.

 

– B

 

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