Three Gauges of Cell Vol. 1 – Blue Velvet vs Mulholland Drive

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David Lynch’s two most critically acclaimed works meet head-to-head in the debut addition of ‘Three Gauges of Cell’.

In choosing which two films would kick off this feature (and don’t laugh at the name, I spent 20 minutes coming up with that!), I decided to go back to what inspired me personally to stop being your average film watcher and develop what has become a bit of a hobby.

When I first sat down and watched Mulholland Drive I had always enjoyed the film watching experience but I had rarely felt challenged, I rarely looked for further meaning beyond what I was seeing on-screen or even appreciating the art of film-making itself; 147 minutes later, with my mind officially blown, I could not watch another film the same way again.

Since then I have endeavored to trawl through films new and old, using aids such as AFIs Greatest 100, IMDB Top 250 and the Empire 500 as reference points to guide me as I go to tick off all the classics that I have missed out on, to review and collect my own opinions on these films and then it occurred why not share my own opinions with the P2B Nation through the form of a structured face-off? But like the old wrestling grudge match, I had to put on a pretty big stipulation to let these cinematic titans clash.

Each week I will marry two films with something in common, whether it be director, genre or performer, and analyze the two and come to a reasoned decision which film I personally prefer focusing on what I consider the 3 major themes of the film, without giving away any major plot spoilers. I would also love to hear your opinions and comments on the two films and the common link between them, in this case, David Lynch.

After Lynch burst onto the scene with his surrealist debut, Eraserhead (1977) he quickly divided opinion amongst fans and critics, was this the work of a mad genius or was it a ham-fisted collection of weird scenes pieced together with no deeper meaning?  Following up with the Oscar-nominated Elephant Man (1980) and the critically panned Dune (1984), Lynch struck gold with his next film Blue Velvet (1986), but it would be 15 years before he re-captured that magic again with Mulholland Drive (2001). It is those two films that we will now explore.

Environment

A major theme in both Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet is the dystopian world that Lynch creates. What is masterful about both worlds is that we are lulled into a false sense of security. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sally (Laura Dern) appear to be the most vanilla, idyllic, conventional teenagers in film history, it is only when Jeffrey finds a severed ear that we begin to unravel a seedy underground hell.

We meet an array of a cast of characters trapped in the ‘underground hell’, one being the beautiful Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) who has had her child kidnapped by a sociopath who we will soon get to.

Blue Velvet is a film of contrasts, and it is in one of these contrasts that Jeffrey and Dorothy first meet. Jeffrey’s curiosity leads to a voyeuristic scene where he witnesses the nightclub singer undress, this is followed by another voyeuristic scene in which Jeffrey watches as Dorothy is beaten and abused.

It seems to me that the main theme of this film is the contrast of innocence and depravity, in the middle you have Jeffrey and Dorothy, who by circumstance have been dragged into a situation that puts their lives in danger, they float between the two contrasts throughout the film and it is their story which we tell. Will innocence win out over depravity?

Innocence vs. depravity is also something that is explored in Mulholland Drive. Like Blue Velvet, the film has sexually explicit scenes, which despite being performed by the same actresses are in one scene presented as loving and beautiful and in the next desperate and lewd.

In the 2001 film we are more familiar with the location, Hollywood, as the locations are instantly recognizable and whilst we might all suspect a seediness and a corruption about it, the familiarity is a comfort, especially when we are presented with Betty (Naomi Watts) a bubbly, naive, hopeful actress. Lynch again offers a cozy antithesis to what the tone of the film soon develops into.

With Mulholland Drive the tone is set much more quickly, we are given the old jitterbug couple, the music, the lighting, the camera focus is all deliberately a little off the norm, disturbing and unnerving the audience is a trick that Lynch uses several times throughout the film, to create an illusion of mystery and dream-like vagueness.

We are presented with scenes out-of-order, scenes where we are given brief snippets that turn into pivotal plot developments and long scenes that are ultimately filler, whilst detractors would categorize this as poor film-making, I see this as an integral part of the Mulholland Drive experience, it tests its audience to remember minor details as it progresses, it really isn’t a film that can be properly consumed in one sitting but rather in 3 or 4, when the richness of the layered plot can be appreciated by the audience.

A huge theme in Mulholland Drive is: “What is reality and what is a dream?”; Lynch throws that at the audience point-blank in the Club Silencio Opera scene where the narrator on stage exclaims: “It is an illusion!”

Both of these films use contrasting emotions, moods and themes to create their stakes and their tone. Certainly, one of Lynch’s greatest strengths is being able to carve an environment from thin air and make it his own both from an atheistic point of view and through his characters also. A common thread throughout Lynch’s films, and certainly these two, is that behind every smile there is a secret, behind every town there is an unpleasantness waiting to seep from underneath.

Lynch’s ability to use imagery, camera effects and sounds to lull his audience into the dream-like mood is the most effective example I can think of since the opening 15 minutes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). A personal character driven journey explored in the vast, recognizable scope of Hollywood provides the perfect backdrop to the dreams vs. reality theme running through Mulholland Drive.

Mulholland Drive 1-0 Blue Velvet

Watts is captivating in her dual-role
Watts is captivating in her dual-role

Performances

Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) steals the show in Blue Velvet as a sadistic, ether-sucking madman, a villain that I will put against any horror movie monster ever created. The gritty surrealistic environment created is the perfect playground for him to live out his sadomasochistic tormenting. What makes him more terrifying is unlike many of the great horror monsters, he’s a real person. In a similar way to Hannibal Lecter, the fact that the evil comes from a human face makes his threat seem more legitimate and certainly more frightening. You do not have to suspend disbelief because there could be a Frank Booth living in every city in the country, and like Jeffrey you could stumble into his world unwittingly. What arguably gives him the edge over even Lecter is that there is nothing suave or likeable about him, he has no redeeming qualities, he is a true heel!

His foul-mouthed rants toe the line between terrifying and comedic and that is something that has to be said for Blue Velvet. I recently re-watched this film with a friend who is convinced that the film should be classified under comedies, despite the sexual nature and horror-like subject and characters. Hopper’s dialogue is so over the top, MacLachlan’s so boyish and Dern’s so innocent that at times it does threaten to become a parody. Whether this is intentional or not is debatable, as the film is based on contrasts, it could quite possibly be that Lynch has cleverly contrasted the wickedly horrible with the ludicrously comic to further enhance his environment of underground hell.

A less-rich cast in Mulholland Drive is propped up by a masterpiece performance by one of the 21st century’s best actresses, Naomi Watts as desperate Diane Selwyn and naive Betty Elms. The two roles Watts plays could not be more different, Betty is innocent, beautiful and hopeful whilst Diane is haggard, cynical and lost. It is a testament to both Lynch and the actress that on my first viewing of Mulholland Drive, I didn’t immediately pick up that Watts was playing both characters. I was so lost in the plot that a slight change of wardrobe and a huge change of attitude left me disoriented as to an obvious that this was the same actress. Laura Harring plays a supporting role and whilst not the most accomplished actress, she is very well cast in Mulholland Drive. She manages to marry a voluptuous femme fatale sex appeal with a terrifying inner anguish threatening to break through the surface. We immediately sense she is not only in trouble but that she is bringing trouble to the doorstep of Betty. Her ‘terrifying sexiness’ also sums up well the overall tone of Mulholland Drive.

Despite Watts’ masterclass, the dichotomy between MacLachlan & Dern and Hopper & Rossellini gives the performances edge to Blue Velvet. A strong cast, with Hopper’s portrayal of Frank Booth being the ultimate difference maker.

Mulholland Drive 1-1 Blue Velvet

Hopper and Rossellini are the quintessential 'depraved'.
Hopper and Rossellini are the quintessential ‘depraved’.

Plot

Whilst you would be hard-pressed to use the word conventional about Blue Velvet, in relation to Lynch’s other works, Mulholland Drive definitely included, it is relatively straight forward. We have a linear narrative set in the film noir genre. Its characters and subject matter are what make it surreal and ‘Lynchian’.

We are offered a cast of characters who are quite easily definable as good and evil, as discussed some of its characters flirt the borderline, as Jeffrey gets pulled into Frank Booth’s world, he too begins to rough up some of the edges on his unblemished character as he deals in deception, violence and sexual promiscuity but never without good intention. Like all classic Hollywood films, we start out with an equilibrium, we are offered a problem which leads to disequilibrium and finish the story with an equilibrium once more, albeit one where our central characters have grown and developed from their experience. Blue Velvet is a satisfying, even if somewhat weird, cinematic experience that most audience members will be able to follow without being overly challenged.

Opposite of that is the Hollywood-set Mulholland Drive in which we get a very Un-Hollywood film (another one of those darn contrasts!). A non-linear, dream-like picture with characters doubling up, Mulholland Drive is an extremely easy film to get lost in.

On first viewing of the movie I became engrossed by the characters, even though at the end I admit I was scratching my head trying to work out what the hell just happened. Whilst the plot can be somewhat difficult to follow (although on 2nd and 3rd viewing it really isn’t all that difficult) the haunting sounds, shocking images and cinematic tricks of Mulholland Drive left me utterly engaged and at no point did I feel lost enough to give up. Mulholland Drive allows you to leave the cinema with more questions about the film than you went in with, and yet still feel utterly satisfied with what you did see.

An all-round stronger plot, Lynch uses his 15 years of experience to delve back into the underground world of seediness and corruption with much more to say and a stronger cinematic eye, more unforgettable images and three-dimensional characters.

Mulholland Drive 2-1 Blue Velvet

On reflection I have to give the edge to Mulholland Drive. In truth there is very little between the two in my own personal opinion, some will argue Blue Velvet is a more universally accessible film for its unforgettable villain, it’s easier to follow plot-line and the mere fact it came earlier in Lynch’s career but I see Mulholland Drive as a richer cinematic experience that better defines Lynch’s filmography as a director. It has much more to say as a story than what you are offered in the main plot. He delves much further into the city with something rotten at its core theme and flanked by the brilliant Naomi Watts, we are offered multi-layered characters who are engaging and believable in their roles.

Both of these films would feature in my personal top 25 of all-time, they are genre-defining films. As I said at the beginning of the piece, Lynch attracts acclaim and disgust in equal measures, I would be very interested in hearing your comments on these films, which did you prefer? Did you not like either? Is David Lynch overrated or underrated? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.

Author: James Derbyshire