Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Blue Velvet - opening breakdown

In honor / apropos / opportunistically of the new Blu-ray release of Blue Velvet and its special features (which Noel Murray wrote a stellar review of at The A.V. Club), I thought I'd post something I wrote quite a while ago for a critical studies class. It's a breakdown of the opening of the film - specifically, how it reflects two different Soviet montage theories.

In the beginning moments of Blue Velvet, director David Lynch, cinematographer Frederick Elmes, and editor Duwayne Dunham present an idyllic setting of a small town, which is suddenly altered as a dark layer to the community is revealed. The editing of this sequence utilizes two classic Soviet theories of montage to create its disturbing juxtaposition and thereby establish the tone of the film. Fittingly, two forces or styles are at work in this brief segment, capturing both the conflict/contrast and the comprehensive methods of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, respectively. In analyzing this sequence, it will be determined that this combination is not inherently paradoxical, but instead a valid tool for a creative filmmaker to achieve a desired effect. 

Blue Velvet opens with just that, a shot of blue velvet curtains, which dissolves into a lighter shade as the next image tilts down from a low-angle perspective on the sky to show bright red roses set against a white picket fence. The film’s immediate use of iconography here, in summoning both the colors of the flag of the United States and the clich├ęd touchstones of simple beauty and security, elicits both a tranquil, familiar tone as well as sets up the requisite fall from such an ideal. (It is in the evenness of the pacing that this descent is held off until the moment of maximum potential.) The color scheme and suburban utopia setting remains consistent with the next image, as the roses and the fence dissolve to a fire engine traversing the frame from left to right, complete with Dalmatian and firefighter, dressed in a blue shirt, waving to the camera or viewer.

The overall montage theory of Pudovkin is represented thus far with, as the editors of Film Theory and Criticism summarized his conception, “a method of building, of adding one thing to another.”[1] The filmmakers have quickly established both a visual and an emotional pattern, and they then return to a low-angle shot of flowers against a white picket fence, though this time the flowers are yellow tulips. This difference in the flowers suggests not only a variation on the liet-motif of Pudovkin, a change in the reiteration of a theme, but also brings his theory of parallelism into the pattern as well.[2] By inter-cutting flowers with (as will be seen with the next image) doings of small-town life, the film sets up a constant, of things growing from the ground, showing that while human life is active, so is nature. The next shot is of school children being directed by a crossing guard, from right to left in the frame, which begins to show a conflict of graphic directions, as described by Eisenstein[3], given the opposite motion earlier with the fire engine. This still falls within Pudovkin’s theories, however, of building towards something. That something is finally arrived at – by location, anyway – with the next image, an establishing long shot of a house. Then, in the yard, a wide shot of a man watering the grass and flowers. The next shot is of a woman sitting on the couch in the living room, assumedly of the house the man is at, and then we see what she is watching: a television program with a close-up of a gun being carried from right to left.

This solitary image presents the most contrast in the sequence so far, for not only is it darker in lighting, framed within the television, and a close-up, it is of course an image of a violent object. Here is where Eisenstein’s theory starts to come to the forefront, that the “collision of two factors give rise to an idea.”[4] In this case the idea is a beginning sense of unease; the presence of the gun, coupled with the next cut to a medium shot of the man outside, may not be the sole reason for apprehension, but the audience probably knows that such a peaceful setting as the first few shots cannot last.

Accordingly, the rest of the opening sequence focuses on this man and his apparent demise. Nearly all of the Eisensteinian conflict that exists in the piece is contained in these next several seconds. There is a shot of the faucet to which the watering hose is attached, and then the man tugs at the hose, which is kinked and stuck on a branch. This quick succession of shots is repeated to escalate the tension as the man struggles, finally grabbing his neck in pain and falling down. There is an overhead angle of him writhing on the ground, his head somehow underneath some string, and then a slow, close-up tilt down of the spray from the hose, which the man still holds upright. A long shot follows of the man in agony, a small dog now jumping up and down on the man’s torso, excitedly drinking from the hose, and a toddler walking down the driveway in the immediate background. The dog is next shown in a medium and then a close-up, this filmed in slow motion, its barking converted into a grotesque, stretched out growl. Finally there is a ground-level pan across the grass, the focal distance extremely close as the camera pushes through the grass and comes upon a dark, frenzied horde of beetles.

Their actions are unclear – the “scene” could be of a scavenger, combative or orgiastic nature – but nevertheless disturbing given the bright, tranquil images seen before. Lynch has swiftly brought us into the absurd and tragic, not only with “story” development but with changes in graphical content and motion, as well as camera placement and pacing, expertly capturing several of Eisenstein’s “conflicts within the form – characteristic for the conflict within the shot, as well as for the conflict between colliding shots, or, montage.”[5] These conflicts include, according to Eisenstein, those of graphic and spatial, between planes and between volumes, in lighting and in tempo, as well as “conflict between matter and viewpoint [and] between an event and its temporal nature.”[6] This end of the opening portion of Blue Velvet also relies on Pudovkin’s sequential theory that “editing is in actual fact a compulsory and deliberate guidance of the thoughts and associations of the spectator,”[7] By using both a psychological build-up in the beginning and a collision of images at the end, Lynch and his crew combined the different Soviet theories of montage in a complimentary fashion. In doing so they lead the viewer from a peaceful, passive state to one of perhaps horror or revulsion, but also to a more intrigued and engaged frame of mind. Which, given the rest of the film, is the perfect beginning.

(While I think there's still some truth to what I wrote, this type of writing was part of why I found cinema studies to be difficult at times.)
[1] Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, eds., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, New York: Oxford University Press, 1974, 62.
[2] Vsevolod Pudovkin, “On Editing,” from Film Technique. Ibid, 73.
[3] Sergei Eisenstein, “The Dramaturgy of Film Form [the Dialectical Approach to Film Form].” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings Fifth Edition. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 31.
[4] Sergei Eisenstein, “Beyond the Shot [the Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram].” Ibid, 21.
[5] Sergei Eisenstein, “Montage and Conflict” from Film FormFilm Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, 79.
[6] Ibid, 79-80.
[7] Vsevolod Pudovkin, “On Editing,” from Film Technique. Ibid, 71.

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