March 5, 2012

Preaching to the perverted (lost and found Blue Velvet)

There is more story. That’s the obvious and immediate thrill of deleted scenes or lost footage showing up, and adding to or expanding the experience of a film you love and know well, or thought you knew well. The same kind of thrill as finding more Heavenly Creatures – or an alternate version that extends the story by a couple of days – when you first heard about Angela Carter’s unproduced Parker/Hulme screenplay. The same kind of thrill – you imagine – that keeps fantasy and comic book fans going back for more, and generates entire internets of fan fiction. More story. Sometimes the new stuff, or newly available stuff, incorporates itself so smoothly into the old stuff that you can no longer consider the first version you saw to be complete (Apocalypse Now vs Apocalypse Now Redux or the 2010 Metropolis vs all the inferior versions). At other times, the deleted scenes are best left where they were (Reservoir Dogs would become more fully Mr Orange’s story, and probably a lesser film, if an editor were to put the cut scenes back in) and you might only watch them once, out of interest.

Fifty-one minutes of “lost” Blue Velvet footage was found in time for the 25th anniversary blu-ray release. This was both a surprise and not one; fans knew the deleted scenes existed and that they had once made up part of a legendary four-hour cut (some say three and a half hours). Cut scenes had been partially reconstructed from stills and text and there has been the weird phenomenon of a Blue Velvet poster (this hideous one, for an Italian release) depicting a moment that doesn’t exist in the film. But it’s one thing to know and another to see, which is why there was genuine excitement last year when the news came: the blu-ray would have the lost scenes, all scored and edited. It's a big deal. Just like Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) tells Sandy (Laura Dern) over a malt at Arlene’s, “I’m seeing something that was always hidden”.

And? The most anticipated bit has become known as the “flaming nipple” scene, because it ends with a topless woman illuminating the seedy darkness of a bar with exactly that party trick. The same scene gives us more rampaging Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and a moment in which Brad Dourif’s shock-haired Raymond, who never really has enough to do, orders “Pabst Blue Ribbon, one case, long neck” (apart from anything else, Blue Velvet is one of the great beer movies) at the counter while Frank terrorises a guy called Willard and also sets up the pool-table image that the Italian distributors loved – although we never see it from that angle. This scene would come just prior to Frank and his gang of perverts showing up at Ben’s house – Ben is Dean Stockwell, above – for a scene that is altogether seedier, more surreal and more central (perhaps the centre of the film). But much of the 51 once-lost minutes are taken up with banal home scenes of Jeffrey, his mother and his aunt Barbara, which anticipate the gentle eccentricity of Twin Peaks, although you could argue that aunt Barbara’s obsession with termites adds to the movie’s insect theme, and there is a scene at the Williams house that sets up a meeting between Jeffrey and Sandy ahead of her famous, and much better, entrance in the actual movie (be like the wind was apparently the direction Lynch gave Laura Dern – it worked). We get more scenes of Sandy’s jock boyfriend, Mike, who we barely glimpse in the film proper, and a series of scenes in which Jeffrey phones his college girlfriend, and gets dumped. A scene in the Slow Bar as Jeffrey and Sandy wait to see Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) sing has them sitting through the interminable support acts: a dog eating its dinner, a Z-grade comedian with a band and a belly dancer. In all, this Slow Bar stuff runs for close to nine minutes and it’s Lynchian quirkiana that somehow doesn’t fit this Lynch film but would work in his more indulgent, less narratively concise ones (were it looking more like it was shot on your phone than playing in hi-def it could slip easily into Inland Empire).

Mostly, these scenes would have been in the first third of the film, and would have it slowed down considerably – despite it and Lynch’s reputation, Blue Velvet is surprisingly economical and straight-forward in its storytelling – but there is one early Jeffrey scene that could have added something. When Jeffrey’s father is hospitalised at the very start, his mother calls him at college and tells him to come home. She rings during the middle of a dorm party. And where’s Jeffrey? He’s in the basement, watching a couple make out in a scene that establishes him to have been a voyeur well before he ever heard of Dorothy Vallens. But, again, it would slow the film down and Lynch doesn’t have flashbacks in this story, so it’s hard to know, if you're playing editor at home, just what you would do with it. But in any case, Bill Wyman (not the Rolling Stone) is right to say, in this great review of the blu-ray edition, that it is the one deleted scene that would significantly change our understanding of the film as we have come to know it. In the finished film, Jeffrey strikes us as innocent but curious, stepping into a new world for the first time; this deleted scene shows he has been at least part of the way into it before. But even if most viewers of Blue Velvet have had no direct knowledge of his history until now, that history was known to MacLachlan and Lynch – and some others – when the Dorothy scenes were shot. In other words, is there a way in which deleted scenes always leave traces, even subliminal ones, in the finished film?

Otherwise, one very quick scene has Jeffrey calling Dorothy’s house and getting a terrifying – even by phone – Frank on the other end. It’s pretty fantastic and short (only about 30 seconds), so it’s hard to know why it went. But the best – one I would have kept somehow, were I David Lynch – is Dorothy’s rooftop scene. This one establishes a tenderness between Jeffrey and Dorothy that also adds to the wider story. He is in her apartment. She is suicidal. She asks him to come with her to the roof of the apartment building. In the corridor, the lights flick on and off – a Lynch motif that usually indicates evil or supernatural trouble – and on the roof, the sky is lit up by blue-white lightning and the “Mysteries of Love” theme plays. Along with the lights going out when Frank dies, this is the closest that Blue Velvet gets to the more supernatural or gnostic visions of Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, Eraserhead, Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive, where gaps between worlds opened up (and I’d recommend this recent Sight and Sound piece to anyone interested in Lynch-as-religious-artist). But, still, the surprising tenderness between Dorothy and Jeffrey here also seems, like the deleted voyeur scenes, to have left traces elsewhere in the finished film. And even if I never watch them again, my future viewings of Blue Velvet will be subtly altered by them (once seen, things are impossible to unsee).

Despite all this, though, there are still missing scenes that remain missing, or have not been included. There is a famous still (below) from a scene set in Dorothy's bathroom. It's not on the blu-ray: according to the screenplay, it involves Dorothy flushing the other severed ear down the toilet. Some things stay hidden.

Also on the blu-ray: bloopers, a Siskel and Ebert clip in which Ebert demonstrates that he was on the wrong side of history, and the hour-plus Mysteries of Love doco from the DVD release a decade ago which re-establishes some things we have come to know as the folklore of the film: Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti writing “Mysteries of Love” because the production couldn't afford This Mortal Coil's “Song to the Siren”, which was Lynch’s favourite song at the time (he went on to use it in Lost Highway), and Rossellini basing her famous, traumatic nude scene on Nick Ut’s photo of a girl burned by napalm.

The three beautiful screen grabs above are from here. I thought my selection was random but now I’m noticing where a light source is in each pic.