CFF 2017: Blue Velvet Revisited review

It’s been more than thirty years since David Lynch’s epochal Blue Velvet wormed its way into America’s pop-culture psyche. Released in Fall 1986, the surreal conflation of neo-noir intrigue, teen coming-of-age/sexual awakening, and unveiling of the seedy underbelly lurking beneath small-town America stamped its mark on the history of American cinema, jumpstarting interest in the budding American Independent Cinema.

Now comes Blue Velvet Revisited, a feature-length visual essay, directed by Peter Braatz, which bestows us with approximately eighty-five minutes of fragments, sourced from 6+ hours of footage captured on a variety of formats — attention celluloid fetishists, there’s plenty of 16mm and Super-8mm for you to salivate over — as well as B&W still photographs, from the set of Lynch’s humdinger.

Divided into over a dozen chapters, varying in length from ten minutes to only a few seconds, director Peter Braatz constructs a portrait of the pre-production and shooting phases, for which he was granted exclusive rights to document from Lynch himself, his camera circling around the sinews of everyday filmmaking procedures. There’s snippets of rehearsal footage (including dialogue from alternative takes), clowning around the set, technicians preparing for setups, and, of course, intimate glances at David Lynch at work — prepping/directing the actors, modifying props, and, sometimes, expounding on the pleasures/tribulations of moviemaking. Above all, Braatz’s film evokes the genuine sense of collective camaraderie behind the enterprise, with images of the crew hard at work and the hyper-focused but warmhearted eccentric-at-the-helm expressing tremendous enthusiasm.

From Hearts of Darkness to Burden of Dreams, the documentary form sports a compact but stellar catalog of films exploring the hardships of the moviemaking process. These pictures, however, are rigorously confined to the documentary form, establishing a sense of linearity with structure and juxtaposing an observational camera with talking-head interviews. Braatz’s film incorporates some of the latter — a brief enchange with Lynch’s late sound designer, Alan Splet, being a particular treat — but, even with the chapter titles, practically jettisons narrative structure, yielding a sense of disorganization; there doesn’t even appear to be much of an attempt to parse out an overriding dramatic through-line in the orchestration of the given elements.

Braatz bookends his film with the subtitle “a mediation on a movie”, which is probably the best way to approach this for maximum appreciation. One could bicker over reasons of intent, but Blue Velvet Revisited operates less as documentary and more as an impressionistic collage, an assemblage of home video-style footage, punctuated by a resplendent, dissonant score composed by Tuxedomoon and Cult With No Name, which proffers a generalized “feeling” of the shoot more than anything else; you can sense threads trying to develop but the movie is too preoccupied with covering all the bases, and sometimes delivering easy fan-service, that it never achieves the “poetry” to which it so desperately aspires. (One superb exception is a succession of images depicting Lynch and crew dressing sets juxtaposed with audio of Lynch musing on discovering the innate Americanism of his painterly interests amid a trip to Europe.) We hop around the production stage, peeking in on the creation of Blue Velvet’s most memorable scenes and overhearing some backstage banter courtesy of the principals — Dennis Hopper provides a perceptive remark concerning Lynch’s craftsmanship, delineating the director’s care, attention to specifics, and alternative modes of thought and perception.

All this said, Blue Velvet Revisited fundamentally falls into the realm of the “critic-proof” movie: it exists to be savored by the myriad Lynch fanatics — and there’s more of them now than ever — intrigued by the prospect of glimpsing the behind-the-scenes goings-on, as well as the man, himself, at work. (It’s highly unlikely to yield interest in those ambivalent/dismissive of Blue Velvet and/or Lynch’s oeuvre.) While there could be more in the insight department, we’re granted privy to several choice asides wherein Lynch ruminates on the filmmaking process and the (then-)state of the art. Regarding the latter, one of the more curious provocations made by Lynch is an endorsement of the incorporation of computer technology into the world of film production; one of the wishful upshots, for Lynch, being shortening the duration of setting up lighting equipment.

In conversation with director Peter Bogdanovich, actor James Stewart once defined film as “pieces of time”, which might best describe Blue Velvet Revisited’s ultimate function: it’s a personal reverie, a memory, fueled by the various impressions and anecdotes captured amid a particular moment — as the subtitle reads, “A Mediation on a Movie”. Emphasizing the word “personal” is key, as it seems the experience, both on-set and compiling the footage, might ultimately mean more for director Peter Braatz than it will for viewers. Yet, one can revel in the love and care which clearly went into this endeavor, both then (1985) and now. It’s not entirely successful as a movie, but, as a record, a “piece of time”, it’s worthy of attention.

Blue Velvet Revisited screens as part of the 2017 Cinedelphia Film Festival on Thursday, April 13 at PhilaMOCA. Event details and purchase tickets here.

Author: Dan Santelli

Dan Santelli is a film writer/critic and cat-loving dirtbag, born in Ohio and raised in Philly. When not hiking or talking someone’s ear off about Pauline Kael, he can be found at Viva Video in Ardmore. You can follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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