Blue Velvet

Last night I watched Blue Velvet directed by David Lynch with cinematography by Frederick Elmes.

Blue Velvet — Small Town Horror Tale - The American Society of  Cinematographers

Heavily psychological and dreamlike images combine to create a mood of almost unendurable dread, yet his dark visuals are infused with a peculiar beauty and humor.
“The whole idea of the film is going underneath the surface of a supposedly peaceful neighborhood in a small American town,” Lynch says. “It’s a real American film and it starts, because it’s so personal to me, with that first image of blue skies and a picket fence and the roses and the angle looking up I don’t know if Fred and I even talked about the angle, but it’s something that had to be looking up because it’s a childhood sort of image. It had to start with that kind of thing, but then it had to go from there and there’s a transition from the blue skies to things that are connected to plants and watering, and then that became pressure and then it had to do with introducing certain people. The image of the mother watching television and the image of the gun on TV didn’t happen until the very end, but it said something about Jeffrey and his love for a detective thing — it gives it a mood.”

Part of the contrast Elmes was seeking was built right into the film’s structure from the outset. Both Lynch and Elmes had agreed that the opening and closing sequences of the film should be mirror images of each other in overly bright, cheery tones — a sandwich made with Wonder Bread surrounding the dark meat that makes up the film’s disturbing middle section. “We had always planned to have the beginning and the end look like this very cheerful — slightly too cheerful — a little-bit-more-than-real world that David wanted to create,” Elmes says. “We designed it with that in mind. We didn’t do anything to manipulate it, except to light it in such a way that the colors really appeared to be saturated. That, contrasted with the middle part of the film, gives you that sense of difference.”

The joyride upon which Frank and his cronies have taken young Jeffrey pauses for a brief time at Ben’s club, undoubtedly the film’s most bizarre location, not so much because of the setting itself, but due to the unusual clientele the place attracts. Then again, Ben, as played by Dean Stockwell, is an effete counterpoint to Hopper’s brutal Frank, and the usual byplay between these two characters is largely responsible for building the perverse mood of this sequence. 

Simplicity became the key to their approach, and then the true horror and humor of the situation became apparent. Simplicity is a deceptive word because it tends to make things sound easy; Elmes’ photography in the sequence is flawless, and its apparent artlessness is so artful that the scene becomes painfully real. The audience is made to feel that they’re in a horrible, claustrophobic environment with some very unsavory though oddly amusing types, and Elmes does nothing photographically to make it look the least bit inviting. “What’s interesting about this scene is that we have this group of very strange characters in one room,” Elmes remarks. 

“We’d already chosen the exterior of the building, so we knew what the interior should look like and then David and Patty Norris spent a lot of time talking about it and I think she came up with a wonderful design for the apartment. It was quite fabulous and styled after the era. Also, the palette of colors in there is very well chosen and sets a real mood for the things that happen.” 

“We chose our slats carefully because we knew we’d be spending some time in the closet, and we knew this element of his voyeurism was important to the script,” Elmes explains. “We tried a couple of different things and this one seemed to be the one that gave him the best visibility and also gave us the opportunity to do an interesting light that we knew we’d have to live with for awhile once we established it. We never shot anything that he couldn’t actually see from the closet. The set was designed in such a way that the closet was in a special spot where Jeffrey can see the living room, he can see down the hall to the bathroom, and he can see part of the kitchen, but he can’t see around the corner which is the place Dorothy sneaks up on him with a knife. 

A production still from German filmmaker Peter Braatz’s 2016 documentary Blue Velvet Revisited, showing Elmes operating a closeup on Rossellini while shooting the cabaret sequence (seen below).

(source)

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