WEIRD BONERS IS DEDICATED TO ALL THE WEIRD WAYS FILMS AFFECT US SPIRITUALLY, INTELLECTUALLY, AND OF COURSE, PSYCHO-SEXUALLY
Don’t blame me, blame David Lynch.
In the late 1980s, my family and I lived in St. Albert, Canada, a sleepy bedroom community nestled beside the northern metropolis of Edmonton (it had the world’s then-biggest mall and Wayne Gretzky!), but as junior high school ended for the summer, it provided all sorts of adolescent diversions in the form of sleepovers: riding our BMX bikes around the neighborhood, running from high school kids and their egg-throwing antics (known locally as “froshing”), playing Strip Crazy Eights with neighborhood girls (we didn’t know how to play poker), “reading” purloined Playboy and Penthouse magazines (or clipping out color photos of the Sunshine Girls), and watching VHS movies.
The latter two activities were the best parts of sleepovers: someone always discovered their older brother’s hidden cache of glossy adult mags to be passed around (pictorials were fine, but I was more interested in the Penthouse Forum letters), and we experienced the ongoing challenge to convince the local video store clerk to rent us gory horror/sci-fi movies. One friend, Sean, forged a note from his mom, authorizing us to rent William Malone’s 1985 Alien rip-off, Creature (AKA Titan Find); we had been unsuccessful in renting it a few weeks before. This time, the bored clerk read the note and rang us up wordlessly, which empowered us, thinking we had fooled him—who would argue with a bunch of 14-year olds who concocted such an elaborate plot?
At home, we rented a lot of movies as a family. We had bought our first VCR in the fall of 1986, a beautiful chrome RCA VHS model, and we rented a lot of the new releases–be they comedies, period dramas, or action flicks. Despite my mom being a Capital “C” Christian, my dad let my younger brother and I watch whatever he rented (one time, when my mom was out of the house, we watched RoboCop—my introduction to bloody squibs—and my dad, exercising his parental duty, stated, “You kids probably shouldn’t be watching this,” before falling silent, not pausing or stopping the movie, satisfied his duty was completed). When my mom was away at work, we nearly had carte blanche to watch anything we wanted (except for horror movies—my brother was a chickenshit and, more importantly, my dad hated horror).
Until my dad rented a movie called Blue Velvet. That was the movie that changed everything in our house. And my life.
There were movies my parents wanted to watch by themselves, but they were usually dull period dramas like Out of Africa or Agnes of God, Merchant Ivory-like fare that would put adolescent boys to sleep. We’d go downstairs and play Nintendo games, kicking holes in the walls in gaming frustration (don’t ask—that’s for another article). When my dad rented Blue Velvet, he specifically told us we couldn’t watch it. My mom was away at work, so it seemed odd to me I couldn’t watch it—did my dad feel guilty over letting us watch RoboCop? I had remembered Siskel and Ebert talking about a movie called Blue Velvet on their show a year prior, when the movie was playing in theaters, but I couldn’t remember what the movie was about (I was also fascinated with newspaper movie ads from 1986-1989, so I have a keen memory of films from this period—many I still haven’t seen—that have mostly been forgotten, such as Kathleen Quinlan’s Wild Thing). This wasn’t a case of my dad wanting to watch Gardens of Stone in peace. We were forbidden to watch Blue Velvet.
Parenting 101: NEVER TELL YOUR CHILDREN THEY CAN’T WATCH A MOVIE, BUT FAIL TO GIVE A REASON. I don’t have a child, I have an elderly cat, but that seems like a no-brainer to me. When my dad forbade us from watching Blue Velvet, he planted a seed in my mind. The movie was forbidden fruit, and I didn’t know why. He didn’t care if we watched hyper-violent movies or crass comedies (yes, I’ve seen Police Academy 1-6), so there had to be another reason. I was determined to discover its secrets.
It was a cliché that adults over the age of 40 couldn’t operate a VCR other than push “play”, but such was the case with my parents. I knew how to program the VCR to record programs, so my dad would ask me to record TV shows if he had to go out of town on a business trip (my dad sold candy, and because we received a lot of free samples–which I gave away at school to make friends–he was the real “Candy Man”). I was also stymied by my dad’s insistence on flipping TV channels via the VCR. At least this was an improvement from the dark days before we had a VCR: our 20” analog TV didn’t have a remote control, so my dad selected either my brother or I to stand beside the TV, our hands on the manual channel toggle, awaiting further instructions. “Flip…flip…flip…wait, go back…hold it here… (interminable pause)…okay, flip…flip…stop…flip…” I’m not sure if universal remote controls existed in the late ’80s, but my dad had no need for one.
My dad also forgot to take back rented movies on time frequently, often incurring late fees. He and my mom would run errands regularly on Saturday afternoons without us, forgetting to grab Friday night’s rentals. Most of the time, they were movies we all watched together. This time, he left Blue Velvet behind.
I ordered my brother to stand watch near our bay windows, in case my parents came home sooner than expected. I popped in the tape and decided to fast forward through it to save time. After fast forwarding for a bit, I saw a giant ear that looked like it was surrounded by grass; ants were crawling all over the ear. What the hell kind of movie was this? I pressed fast forward again, zipping through several scenes: it looked like a family drama set in a bucolic American town, starring a clean-cut, cherubic brunette actor I didn’t recognize. There was a lengthy scene, set in a nightclub, with an angelic-looking, dark-haired female singer, but I pressed forward. But what was up with that ear? I kept fast forwarding until I saw the young man scramble into a closet of a darkened apartment, only to be caught by the angelic singer, whom I assumed lived there. I started watching the scene: the singer ordered the man to strip off his clothes. All right, I thought, now we’re going to see some tits and ass! The man stripped his clothes off, but the woman didn’t follow suit, instead performing oral sex on him. Suddenly, she pushed him back into the closet, and an older gentleman, dressed in a black leather jacket and bolo tie, burst into the apartment. Immediately, I knew this guy was trouble. He sneered, shouted, and swore, shoving the woman into a chair. He pulled out a gas mask, wheezed into it, and started pretending to be a baby, crawling on all fours. Why did my dad rent this movie?
Before I could question my dad’s movie tastes, my brother cried out, “MOM AND DAD ARE BACK!” I could just see my Dad’s company car, a black ’87 Bonneville, pulling up to the driveway. I ejected the tape without rewinding it, slapped it into the plastic case, and dumped it where it had been left. My brother and I ran down the stairs to the basement frantically, hoping our parents wouldn’t see us as they walked into the back entrance. We ran into the rumpus room and switched on Super Mario Bros., pretending we had just restarted a game.
With Blue Velvet, my dad had started a phase in which he would rent movies, but watch them alone while my mom was at work. Most of the movies were uninteresting to me, but my brother and I continued to scroll through “R”-rated tapes looking for a hint of nudity (see All the Right Moves, Youngblood, My Chauffeur, My Tutor, etc.). If I was a pervert, it was only because my dad had made me one. The apartment scene in Blue Velvet would continue to rattle in my head for weeks; I promised myself that I would watch it someday.
Several years later, in the spring of 1990, while watching TV with my family, a promo ad aired for a new TV series, Twin Peaks. The TV announcer mentioned the series was from the director of Blue Velvet, and I perked up instantly. Blue Velvet! The angelic singer! The bolo guy with the gas mask! Even the closet-dwelling actor appeared in the ad, this time looking a bit older, but much different: his hair was slicked back and he wore a dark suit and officious trench coat while holding a tape recorder. There was also a woman holding a small log, like a child, in her arms. The man in the trench coat was asking about trees. I decided I needed to watch Twin Peaks. They mentioned the Blue Velvet director’s name: David Lynch. I’d never heard of him, but he was the man who fueled my excitement, my dark thrill, so I wouldn’t forget his name.
By this time, our household had two VCRs. My dad won the second VCR at a golf tournament, so I was free to record TV shows with impunity. I started to record late-night movies, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Space: 1999 reruns, but I was excited to record Twin Peaks’ debut episode. I was already tired of watching most TV shows with my family. Perhaps it was the adolescent hormonal change, or boredom caused by bad TV writing (or both), but I no longer cared about keeping up with family-themed sitcoms like Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss (my dad’s favorite, as he crushed hard on Judith Light, which I totally understood—I was not into acid-wash-clad Alyssa Milano).
When Twin Peaks premiered, I fell in love instantly. From the moment Pete Martell (Jack Nance) calls Twin Peaks Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic,” I was mesmerized. There was something about this show that was unlike anything I had seen on TV. The visuals were incredible—gone was the dull, flat lighting and static camera shots found in a typical hour-long network TV show. On Twin Peaks, the camera wasn’t a passive witness to the discovery of the brutal murder of a popular high school student, Laura Palmer; it moved about, circling characters and cataloging local landmarks like the Great Northern Hotel and its gorgeous waterfall backdrop, Douglas Firs swaying in unison, the Double R Diner, and lonely traffic lights on empty roads. Fluorescent lights crackled and flickered, supervising FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, looking particularly heroic in a suit and slicked-back hair), as he examined Laura Palmer’s body in the morgue. Even in a supposed Pacific Northwest paradise, darkness and evil existed; it wasn’t explicit—you just felt it.
I hadn’t forgotten about Blue Velvet. All the time I watched Twin Peaks, developing a taste for the outré, I thought of the film. Our local video store didn’t have a VHS copy, so I hopped on a bus and ended up renting it from another video store. By then I was old enough that video store clerks didn’t care if they rented “R”-rated films to teens. Having a second VCR in the basement meant I had freedom to explore films without fast forwarding through them on the sly. Nevertheless, I waited for a night when both my parents were out of the house–I wanted no interruptions for my Blue Velvet experience.
“Now it’s dark.” Wow—what was that? Images and sounds replayed in my mind: ants crawling on an ear, a robin singing, a flame flickering, and the sound of a car engine growling in the night. The mix of light and dark, which I found in Twin Peaks, was even more apparent in Blue Velvet. The appeal of small-town Americana, but at a price: the psychotic likes of Frank Booth. Dennis Hopper (whom I’d now recognize from Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, and a Twilight Zone episode) was pure blunt trauma in the guise of a human being. Sadistic, ferocious, profane, loyal to Pabst Blue Ribbon, Frank was not someone you wanted to piss off, as young Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), my cherubic totem, discovered.
Blue Velvet was unlike any movie I had seen before. I had watched Laurence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey with my parents on PBS, but they were too long for my attention span, and I slept through parts of them. Most of my film experience was escapist fare. I grew up afraid of bathtubs and swimming pools, courtesy of Jaws, which began my love of horror cinema (the subsequent sleepless nights were worth it), but I couldn’t appreciate its narrative and technical accomplishments. Movies were watched with friends at birthday parties, usually diminishing sequels of beloved movies (see Superman IV, Jaws 3-D, Return of the Jedi, etc.), and those damn Police Academy movies. I loved the action in RoboCop, but was oblivious to its satire. Movies fed my imagination, but I didn’t think of them beyond their imagined worlds; the people who made movies were just names on the screen to be ignored before the action began. Blue Velvet was the first movie to challenge my attitude towards cinema—it didn’t reward passive viewing, and it didn’t fade away from memory after a few hours.
There was a singular creative force in David Lynch, an authorship I didn’t know had existed in movies. He created a schism in Blue Velvet: the town of Lumberton, like Twin Peaks, was an embodiment of small-town life, where people knew each other, creating a secure sense of community, but there were insidious elements lurking beneath that sense of community. Under the pleasantness of small-town Americana, there existed repulsive people like Frank Booth, selfish and misanthropic, uninterested in building community, despite taking an (unhealthy) interest in Dorothy and Jeffrey. In a town where people could spend a sunny afternoon watering their lawns, the appearance of a severed ear indicates that nefarious activities also exist in Lumberton when the sun goes down.
The apartment scene I stumbled onto years before now made sense. Jeffrey’s voyeurism resonated with me, as I too was aroused by Isabella Rossellini’s enigmatic night club singer, Dorothy, and wanted to know more about her. She was intoxicating to me, as she represented a part of the adult world I didn’t know about. Just as she played mentor to Jeffrey, she was powerless to stop Frank and his “drop-ins”, as he kidnapped her husband and child for blackmailing purposes. After his dad is hospitalized, Jeffrey leaves college temporarily to help with his family’s hardware store. Though he has much in common with bubbly blonde high-schooler Sandy (Laura Dern), as they delve deeper into the mystery of the severed ear, he lusts after Dorothy, an older woman who introduces him to sadomasochistic pleasures. Like Jeffrey, I felt like I was trying to be a good son in the eyes of my parents, going to church and earning good grades at school, but I snuck around reading porno mags at sleepovers, clipping Sunshine Girls, and searching through R-rated movies for nudity. He spoke to me as a kindred spirit, a wannabe-Hard Boy whose naiveté left him unprepared for what awaited him in Dorothy’s apartment.
Blue Velvet served as a totally new kind of horror film to me, one in which the nightmares come not from supernatural creatures, but residents of an ordinary town: in the recesses of Lumberton, there existed a collection of horrific characters. Frank is like a vampire, climbing out of his coffin when the sun went down, prowling Lumberton in his menacing black Dodge Charger in search of victims. Frank’s criminal friend, Ben (Dean Stockwell), appears even more vampiric than Frank—his chalk white skin and antiquated clothes suggest a faded night club singer from a bygone era, but he too joined Frank’s party of Pabst Blue Ribbon and violence before breaking into song. I don’t claim to have understood the finer plot points, particularly with Frank’s criminal enterprises and his connection to the “Man in Yellow” on that initial viewing, but it didn’t matter. I was in love. The imagery, sound design, bizarre humor, foreboding Angelo Badalamenti score, Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”, everything about the film fascinated me. Not only did I realize that Blue Velvet was the antecedent to Twin Peaks, but it was a gateway to a form of storytelling that was both terrifying and thrilling. Like Jeffrey, I was being educated in ways I hadn’t expected. Here was a film that provided no easy answers, and yet I was enthralled. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet was truly a work of art, unbound by a “PG” rating or network standards and practices. I wanted more.
My interest in David Lynch coincided with the advent of American independent cinema becoming a genuine alternative to traditional Hollywood fare. Poring over film books at the library (yes kids, there was a time before the Internet and IMDb), I discovered his other films and sought them out. Eraserhead was really out there and I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but, like Blue Velvet, its images and sounds never left me (it certainly could have contributed to my desire not to have children). The Elephant Man was another revelation—like Eraserhead, filmed in black and white, it had the appearance of Hollywood respectability, but it too had that unnatural Lynch touch that made it somehow dangerous. Dune was a disappointment, but it still had Lynch’s stock company of actors to admire (Kyle MacLachlan really looked young here). If one wanted science fiction that was decidedly not Star Trek or Star Wars, one could do worse than hire David Lynch. Wild at Heart was Lynch at the height of his Twin Peaks fame, and the tumultuous love story of Sailor and Lula was a drug-fueled joyride of Wizard of Oz references.
By the time I had completed watching his filmography, his Twin Peaks film prequel, Fire Walk with Me, was being released. I was excited because it was the first time I could see an “R”-rated film in theatres legally! There was a small crowd of fans lined up at the local multiplex (including some underage girls who got kicked out), doughnuts and coffee in hand. I had read that the film had been booed at the Cannes Film Festival, but I didn’t care—Twin Peaks was back! The people in the theater seemed to enjoy the film (particularly the “Welcome to Canada” joke), and as I left the multiplex, I couldn’t figure out why the film had been hated by the Cannes crowd and film reviewers on this side of the pond. Sheryl Lee was brilliant playing Laura Palmer in the days leading to her death, and Lynch wasn’t interested in answering what had happened in the series finale. I was disappointed that Agent Cooper wasn’t the lead (I had read that MacLachlan wanted to distance himself from the role for fear of being typecast), but Chris Isaak’s goofy FBI agent was (mostly) satisfying. The requisite corny Lynch humor was present, but so too was the darkness, and Fire Walk with Me was an operatic phantasmagoria depicting Laura Palmer’s final days. I wished that film critics could have seen the film as I’d seen it!
After I’d devoured Lynch, I still wanted more. Big-budget Hollywood spectacles left me cold. Independence Day? Get outta here! Then came fellow countryman, David Cronenberg, from low-budget body horror to cold psychological horror, and from there, I found the Coens, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, and many filmmakers with eccentric tales to tell on the big screen. I craved dark narratives, not just in horror cinema, but in the depths of psycho-sexual desire (hello, Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, and Brian De Palma!). The ’90s thrived on darker cinematic fare, and I gravitated to the likes of Trainspotting, The Rapture, and Cronenberg’s Crash–the darker the better.
And I owe it all to my dad. I realize he didn’t rent Blue Velvet for psycho-sexual thrills; it was just a titillating new-release in 1987 that sounded halfway interesting to a tired candy salesman. To this day, I don’t dare tell my parents about what transpired on that Saturday afternoon in 1987 (my mom would pray for me, more so than she already does). Whether or not we are products of nurture or nature, something inside me felt compelled to know what existed on that VHS tape. I owe my love of cinema to that desire and curiosity. Blame my parents, blame David Lynch, but if I’m to be labelled a pervert, so be it—life is infinitely more interesting that way.