SJC film series to screen Lynch's 'Blue Velvet'

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — To think it all started with a severed ear.

Christopher Schipper

OK, so maybe screenwriter and director David Lynch wasn’t exactly an unknown by the time his signature film “Blue Velvet” premiered in 1986. His directorial debut, 1977’s “Eraserhead,” had earned cult-favorite status by the early 1980s. And Lynch had achieved that elusive combination of critical acclaim and commercial success with 1980’s “The Elephant Man” before he stumbled with his all-but-unwatchable interpretation of the Frank Herbert novel “Dune” in 1984. But even that spectacular failure only caused his name recognition to increase.

Still, when Lynch unleashed the volatile “Blue Velvet” on an unsuspecting American movie-going public that had been lulled to sleep that year by such ultra-safe fare as “Top Gun,” “‘Crocodile’ Dundee and, of course, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” it was a bit like turning a few hundred rabid ferrets loose in a dark, quiet, crowded theater and sealing all the exits.

It wasn’t hard to imagine Lynch standing in the projectionist’s booth with his face pressed against the window, giggling at the chaos he had wrought.

As “Blue Velvet” marks its 30th anniversary this year, the film — which drew widely disparate critical and popular reactions at the time of its release — finally has settled into the status of an American classic and is widely regarded as one of Lynch’s crowning achievements. But its road to respectability was, to borrow a favored Donald Rumsfeld line, “a long, hard slog.”

Christopher Schipper, the director of library services at San Juan College and one of the organizers of the Farmington Cinematheque Series that will present the film this weekend, was a student at the University of Iowa in 1986 when “Blue Velvet” was released. He remembers going to see it at a local art house cinema, even though he was only vaguely aware of Lynch’s reputation.

“I went with a group of friends,” he said. “And I knew within the first five minutes of the film we were in for a bumpy ride.”

Enter the severed ear, discovered by the film’s star, Kyle MacLachlan, as he walks home from the hospital in the movie’s opening moments after visiting his father, a recent stroke victim. What follows over the next two hours as the mystery behind the stray appendage unfolds is a relentlessly shadowy, twisted journey through suburbia that bears little resemblance to the carefully crafted “Morning in America” façade that already was beginning to fray around the edges in the later years of the late President Ronald Reagan's second term.

Anyone who has seen Lynch’s subsequent work — “Wild at Heart,” “Mulholland Drive” or, of course, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” — likely wouldn’t be shocked by the appearance of a bloody piece of gristle shortly after the opening credits had faded. But in 1986, the filmmaker’s distinctive style was still taking shape. No wonder so many folks, even inquisitive college kids like Schipper, were caught unawares.

Even so, the film’s early moments only hint at what is to follow as the lives of a sultry, distressed lounge singer (Isabella Rossellini), a drug-fiend, profanity-spewing sociopath (Dennis Hopper) and an innocent, wide-eyed police detective’s daughter (Laura Dern) intersect with that of MacLachlan’s character. Lynch transposes such elements as insects, sadomasochism, voyeurism, sexual pleasure, addiction, rage and, of course, explosive violence with dreamy, whitewashed settings and moments to expose the institutional and personal corruption rampant in an apparently idyllic community — and, by extension, society as a whole.

“I think it’s an amazing film, particularly considering its age,” Schipper said. “It’s groundbreaking, inasmuch as it charted new territory in independent cinema.”

Indeed, much of the ground Lynch covers in the film is territory he would tread again in his best-known work, the “Twin Peaks” TV series and film. But Schipper’s favorite Lynch film — the relatively unknown and G-rated “The Straight Story” from 1999, which chronicles the journey of an elderly World War II veteran who pilots a riding lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother — bears little resemblance to the director’s other work.

“It’s a dramatic departure from the David Lynch bag of tricks,” Schipper said. “It’s a very straightforward, dramatic narrative. I also love it because it takes place in Iowa, and I’m from Iowa. ... It’s remarkable. It’s quite beautiful visually, as well as thematically.”

The idea of showing “Blue Velvet” for its 30th anniversary is one that Schipper said he borrowed from the Guild Cinema in Albuquerque, an art house located near the University of New Mexico campus. Though “Blue Velvet” is not his favorite Lynch film, Schipper recognizes and appreciates the artistry behind it. “I would rank ‘Blue Velvet’ very high on the list — and it’s quite a list,” he said of Lynch’s canon of work.

Even among those who favor art films, Schipper understands that “Blue Velvet” isn’t for everyone, and he has no idea how the film will be received here, especially by those who have never seen it.

“I couldn’t even guess,” he said. “I think people who are accustomed to independent cinema and films understand that it has achieved cult status. Hopefully, they’re up for a challenge, because it’s a challenging film.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: The Farmington Cinematheque Series presentation of “Blue Velvet”

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12

Where: The Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Admission: $5 at the SJC box office

For more information: Call 505-566-3430