The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Looking back at 35 years of Blue Velvet

Has it really been thirty-five years?

If there’s one question that gets thrown around more than others around The Frida, it’s “What’s your favorite movie?”  And if there’s anyone that gets it more than others, it’s Trevor and myself, who dedicate ourselves to programming the films our cinema presents to you.  If you know Trevor, that’s an easy one — he’s always ready to proudly tell you it’s Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 adventure/thriller Jaws, and to break down the many reasons why.  Similarly, I’m always more than ready share my own favorite film — which is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that it’s the only film represented twice in our lobby’s Tribute to Art House & Cult Cinema mural — David Lynch’s landmark 1986 mystery Blue Velvet. What hasn’t always been as easy is the Why…

I suppose it all started with ON TV.  This was some EARLY subscription television, brought to you by a box that you would switch on when you wanted to watch…well, cycling presentations of The Cannonball Run, Condorman, Tarzan the Ape Man, Taps, The Pirate Movie, and The Elephant Man.  Suffice it to say I had a lot of these movies memorized by a pretty early age, and in the case of The Elephant Man (and, okay, The Pirate Movie as well admittedly…) I was somewhat obsessed.  Like many folks who grew up with that movie, I always assumed it was an “old movie,” shot in the “black and white” times, certainly a heralded classic from some golden age of cinema.  I can’t remember quite what it was about that movie that affected me so much, but in retrospect, I think it’s quite likely that it was the first movie that made me cry.  When I think back on the movies that really shook me emotionally as a kid — Testament, Terms of Endearment, The Color Purple, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and of course those unforgivable traumatizing moments in The NeverEnding Story and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (poor, poor little shoe…), The Elephant Man was easily the earliest.  Couple that with the film’s aesthetics — gorgeous cinematography and set design, that score that evoked the world’s saddest circus, and of course, that incredible makeup — and I was hooked.

When E.T. The Extra Terrestrial came out and became an instant phenomenon, it was hard to see or read anything about the movie without the mention of Steven Spielberg.  You’d scarcely see a picture of the title alien on a magazine cover without Spielberg standing right next to him.  That was my introduction to the idea of a filmmaker, a Director, a person “behind the camera” (not really — well, sometimes) who envisions the movie, puts the parts together, films it, makes it Be so we can see it.  With the one-two punch of E.T. and Poltergeist in the Summer of 1982, followed by his name tied to everything from Gremlins to The Goonies to Amazing Stories and so on, this man quickly became my hero.  And as I set out to learn the most I could about him, that led to a deeper understanding of the filmmaking industry in general, and I started to become interested in learning more about filmmakers in general, experiencing their entire body of work and trying to pick apart what ties the stories together, what aesthetics and tricks and approaches might I find across their body of work, might I have other filmmaking heroes that I didn’t even realize I had?  I still marvel to this day, for example, that people don’t speak about Rob Reiner the same way they might speak about a Spielberg or a Hitchcock or a Burton or a Nolan or a Campion or a Landis or a Von Trier or anyone whose name pops up when we speak about filmmakers who’ve given us a celebrated, reliable body of work.  Check out this run alone — This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Misery, A Few Good Men.  With exception maybe to The Sure Thing, these are some iconic films.  Is it just that they’re far too different film-to-film for Reiner’s presence to be felt enough to earn him more recognition as a filmmaker?  Does one need to be an Auteur filmmaker to celebrate such notoriety?

Say nothing of the great Robert Zemeckis…   But I digress.

SO… In 1986, hot off my mania of deep-diving into the works of the filmmakers whose movies I’d come to love, I heard that the man behind The Elephant Man was releasing a new film.  So I begged my dad to take me to see it.  And they way it worked with my dad is this — he’d take me to see anything I wanted to see, and he’d take me to see anything he wanted to see.   No questions asked. My mom would take me to movies too, but she was of more discerning tastes: with her I was fortunate to experience great films like Amadeus, Nine to Five, Terms of Endearment, Mask, and the first movie I remember seeing in a movie theater — and still one of my all-time favorites — 1981’s Arthur.   With dad on the other hand, it was The Terminator, Commando, Future-Kill, Runaway (a movie I love just far, far too much), pretty much anything that looked awesome to either a movie-obsessed pre-teen and his hyper-teenager-at-heart father.  And so here was a new film by David Lynch, whose The Elephant Man had deeply affected me, and I had to see it.  If memory serves, mom was intrigued that Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini, was starring in it, so she came along. So it was off to the Bijou Theater in Hermosa Beach, a little two-screen movie theater that I would soon learn was considered an “art house” and that would soon by the first of what would be many home-away-from-home movie houses, to see David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

It’s important perhaps to remark here that I was ten years old.  Blue Velvet was released in September, 1986, so in fairness to my parents, technically I was a month shy of turning eleven…   Okay that doesn’t really make a difference, but no, my parents didn’t necessarily read up on these movies before they took their kids to see them.  If they knew a film was Rated R, they figured okay, it’s got some cussing — our kids can handle that — it’s got some violence — our kids can definitely handle that — and if there’s nudity, we’ll do the whole hand-over-the-eyes shield thing.  I remember seeing Cat People and The Entity with my mom, and her sitting next to me with her hands furiously voguing before my eyes the entire time, her hands seemingly figuring out their own trial-by-fire censorship system between scenes of sexual violence and those momentarily flashes of nudity therein, which of course where what I couldn’t see.

And then there’s a movie like Blue Velvet.  Suffice it to say, none of us had seen anything like it.  How do you prepare to shield the eyes and ears of a ten-year-old boy from a towering big-screen cinematic assault of violence, perversion, and explosive, obscene menace — especially when it’s packaged within an elegant, Mayberry meet The Hardy Boys package?  How to predict that this dreamlike fable that opens with a vintage Bobby Vinton standard and idyllic shots of a white picket fence and waving firemen would ultimately reveal itself to be a cinematic Virgil taking us deeper and deeper into Hell?  And how do you find the bandwidth to secure the safety mask on your child then the plane is going down and you yourself are holding on for dear life?

Fortunately for me, they didn’t try.  Maybe they respected me enough at that point to take it in.  This may seriously feel like hyperbole, but I really mean it — I shudder to think of how my life might be different today if they had stopped at “Now show it to me…” and pulled me right out of that cinema.

That movie marked me.  It was, more than anything, my introduction to Art House cinema — and at so many levels.  For one, it showed me a kind of movie I had never seen before: one that seemed less interested in presenting me a narrative to follow, and more interested in evoking ideas, moods, and emotions.  And what’s more, mixing them up and letting them wage conflict in my head.  The singular emotion of laughing at something that part of me feels I maybe shouldn’t be laughing at.  The experience of hearing other people laughing at the same things around me, and wondering if they’re feeling just as odd about it.  The experience of watching something that I feel like I shouldn’t be watching — and certainly not with my parents, or with a shared audience of strangers.  A growing understanding of the value of a movie theater like The Bijou — at that time I’d only seen a handful of movies there, but they all had this thing in common: they all felt more creative, and more unique, than, say, Blue Thunder or Back to School.  Or hell, even movies that were winning Oscars, like Out of Africa and Cocoon.  I quickly became a regular at The Bijou, seeing every film I could there, and adding names like Pedro Almodóvar, Spike Lee, Wim Wenders, Allison Anders, Kenneth Anger, Lizzie Borden, John Waters, Jim Jarmusch, Penelope Spheeris, and later, Gregg Araki, Jane Campion, Todd Haynes, Mike Leigh, Todd Solondz, and Hal Hartley, to my growing list of filmmaker heroes whose new releases, and revival screenings, I’d never miss.

I immediately wanted to see every film like Blue Velvet, and set my life to it — which of course was a foolish and ultimately impossible notion, but boy was the odyssey worth it.  Along the way I developed a mania to introduce my friends to films like Blue Velvet, and so many other auteur, avant garde films and filmmakers I discovered along the way.  Along with The Bijou I made a home in neighboring Manhattan Beach’s Video Archives, a truly fantastic video store where film-savvy clerks introduced me to darker fare like Nekromantik, Der Todesking, and a particularly gruesome little film that no one near my age should have been allowed to watch called In A Glass Cage.  One day I showed up to find the place completely decked out in celebration of the upcoming release of one of the clerks’ first feature films, but that’s a story for a different time.  Point is — Blue Velvet set a path out in front of me that at the time I had no way of understanding, but that I took to like a train, never looking back, and still on thirty-five years later.

So what about the film itself do I love?  So, so much, but I hope the point isn’t lost that these elements aren’t why the film is so important to me.  And, in reverent consideration of what David Lynch’s take on such things, really, who cares?   Watch it for yourself.  Love it, or hate it, for yourself.  You may find it hilarious, or you may find yourself wondering how anyone in their right mind would find it hilarious.  You might find it jarring and offensive, or you might find it harmless compared to so many films that have come since.  You might find it a work of art, or you might find it a work of self-indulgent trash.  Or, you might find yourself marveling at the idea that a film can somehow manage to be both self-indulgent trash and a mesmerizing work of art simultaneously.  Find our for yourself as The Frida Cinema presents David Lynch’s Blue Velvet on September 17th, 18th, and 19th, accompanied by a new Lobby Art Show that opens Friday, September 17th with our 7:30pm screening.  Click here for tickets and showtimes.

Happy 35th, Blue Velvet, and thank you.

Logan Crow
Executive Director, Founder
The Frida Cinema