Che Vuoi? in Blue Velvet

One of the most interesting characters in Lynch’s Blue Velvet must certainly be Dorothy Valens, the mother/wife of Donnie/Donald, the sexual slave of Frank Booth, the lover of Jeffrey Beaumont, and the resident of room 710.

We initially learn about her as the “strange” neighbor subject often discussed in Sandy’s father’s friends’ cases: she comes to us as evidence that the most seemingly innocent small-town has its perversions. But we are quickly stupefied by her conduct when she holds Jeffrey at knifepoint: does she mean to castrate our hero or to give him fellatio?

To my eye, Jeffrey asks the essential question of the film while in bed with her: What do you want?

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Of course, narratively, and as a mother, Dorothy wants her son back. We see this in two particular places in the film, once at “(THIS IS) IT”, or Ben’s apartment, where she is allowed to visit Donnie, and then again at the end of the film, where she is reunited with Donnie, who wears his propeller hat and mimics a flying plane.

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While this might seem to be an innocent, even unspeakably pitiable (and essentially humane) desire, the film tells us otherwise. Firstly, we are barred from entering the room with her when she visits Donnie, who proceeds to upset his mother quite audibly. We don’t hear him speak; we’re not given any indication of his existence other than the overt agreement between her and Frank, which functions as the evident excuse for her perverse sexuality. Secondly, we’re denied the privilege of seeing his face at the end of the film. If the film were looking to generate pity on our behalf, we might be shown his mistreatment in captivity, or scenes of his visible discomfort, and therefore his unsettled state as a result of his forced separation from his mother. But such is never the case. Readers of this strangely hidden relationship must ask why?

On the other hand, we are shown those perverse desires which might normally remain behind closed doors, and we’re asked to always be asking “what is left to hide behind closed doors?” In this sense, the film operates on an inversion of the familial structure, strongly paralleling Donnie & Jeffrey’s respective Oedipal usurpations of their fathers. We are asked to read her relationship to her family, in fact, through her sexual maladies, namely, her longing for sexual masochism.

This is particularly difficult for most observers. While on the one hand we see her brutally raped by Frank, we also see her demanding to be sexually punished by Jeffrey in that scene’s immediate aftermath. And part of the danger in addressing this side of her desire is that as we take notice of her enjoyment of (and indeed demand for) sexual violence, we can’t help but feel its repercussions bleed into her sexual victimhood at Frank’s hands: we feel guilty for even beginning to suggest that she desires her rape and we feel simultaneously irremediably stained for our misunderstanding. Hence, the question of what Dorothy wants in the film is a delicate one. As we approach it, we are repulsed by ourselves.

I think that Slavoj Zizek can help us in understanding the dilemma of Dorothy’s desire, through his writing on rape in “From Che Vuoi? To Fantasy: Lacan With Eyes Wide Shut”. The essential point is this one:

the problem with rape, in Freud’s view, is that it has such a traumatic impact not simply because it is a case of brutal external violence, but because it also touches on something disavowed in the victim herself. So, when Freud writes, ‘If what /subjects/ long for most intensely in their phantasies is presented to them in reality, they none the less flee from it,’[7] his point is not merely that this occurs because of censorship, but, rather, because the core of our fantasy is unbearable to us.

If we understand Dorothy to long for both a reunion with her trapped son, Donnie, and for punishment at the hands of sexual partners who take on childish sexual personas (“Baby” for Frank and the childlike innocence of Jeffrey), then we can say with confidence that Dorothy’s essential fantasy is one of incest. This is fairly evident from their names: Donnie overtly mirrors Donald, his father.

We might think, then, that the closer she could be to realizing this fantasy the more sexually appealing it would be. After all, if she is interested in removing barriers, this would be the logical extension of this fact.

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But such is not the case, as we see when Jeffrey plays with Donnie’s propeller hat after their primal union. Dorothy, instead of being pleased or even sexually stimulated, is shocked and unsettled. Although she longs for reunion with her son, there is a violation of a sacred contract here for Dorothy. The hat—which we see featured in one of Jeffrey’s dreams and is indeed, one of the last shots in isolation before he witnesses the trauma of the primal scene between Frank and Dorothy, thus perhaps constructing a fetish for Jeffrey—is that unbearable, inviolable core of Dorothy’s fantasy.

The Polygraph Scene: What (or whom) lies between Jake and Joey?

We spoke in class about the ways in which the championship fight in Raging Bull largely consists of the anticipation of glory and hinges crucially upon a nostalgia rooted in the introductory scene of the film (with Jake shadow-boxing alone in the ring). And although we mentioned that Jake’s fight is largely against himself, we were unable to produce a meaningful theory of his fraternity with Joey. The scene immediately following the championship might help us to do so.

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The flashes of the camera bulbs sonically dissolve (1:22:07) into the rustling of the TV antennae in the LaMotta’s living room. Joey’s seated on the couch, chastising Jake for his rash adjustment of the bunny-ears. Jake shoots him a sour look, while chewing a sandwich. Before we know it, Vickie has arrived home, giving Joey a kiss (on the lips) before doing the same for Jake. Jake interrogates her briefly on her whereabouts, to which she gives a vague (and suspicious in Jake’s eyes aligned with his response to questions about his first wife Irma) response. We watch her walk up the stairs, her shadow completely disappearing from view, before we return to the brothers.

Then it’s Jake’s turn: he badgers Joey about kissing Vickie on the mouth, before getting up to check the TV picture (still just as irresolute) when Joey delivers a sucker-punch in calling him fat, accusing him of having “lost it”. Of course, it’s undeniably true. Jake has put on weight, a fact emphasized by his open button-up and the sandwich always in his hand and his mouth at once. And while Jake’s physical state might have deteriorated, he’s still just as much of a fighter at heart. He takes a swig of his brew and comes after Joey, chasing him down.

Digressing, Jake asks Joey what happened with Salvy at the club. “It didn’t have anything to do with you” Joey replies. When we cut back to Jake at the TV, Jake’s “dirty look” has evolved into something more disengaged, more scientific and more dissatisfied. The right TV antennae has also dramatically shifted downwards, which we can notice quite clearly against the venetian blind background.

Unconvinced, Jake persists, “It had nothing to do with me….? Who’d it have something to do with? Vickie?” And here, if it wasn’t clear before, we can recognize this as a visual analog to a polygraph examination: Joey is being subjected to Jake’s lie-detector.

They continue sparring finishing out the round before Jake clobbers Joey with another wild hook. “Did Salvy fuck Vickie?” / “What?” / “Did Salvy fuck Vickie?” And as Joey tries to come up with a response, we cut back to him, significantly zoomed in (1:25:15). The predator is closing in on his prey. When we cut back to Jake at the TV (1:25:20), not only are we zoomed in (heightening the intensity of the sequence) but the right antennae has shifted again.

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Although the conservation gravitates around Vickie, the beginning of the sequence makes it clear that Jake isn’t especially fond of her: she functions for him as an object of possession. She is his trophy (wife) and an object-indicator of his masculinity: little more. And with the zoom-cut to Joey, we see the small blond figurine perched over Joey’s shoulder is decapitated. Vickie’s role here is no longer the woman as wife, but the woman as body, as object.

As we’ve been scrupulously tracking the antennae’s movement in this sequence, it would be prudent to note the formal symmetry between the antennae and the figurine. The antennae roughly correspond to a stick-figure drawing of a person. Thus, if the figurine is decapitated, and the head present on Joey’s side of the skirmish is cut away, there’s an imbalance: an asymmetry.

We’re given some room to breathe at 1:25:57 with a zoom(out)-cut back to Jake. But Joey isn’t relieved of the pressure (the camera doesn’t zoom out) as Jake responds. When we cut back to Jake (1:26:07) and he discloses that he’s going to kill somebody, the camera tilts downwards.

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Is this to mark the strangeness of his unusually calm composure? We’re given a heavier hint as Joey stands up to yell at Jake.
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Here, Joey lets slip an unfortunate list: “Kill Vickie. Kill Salvy. Kill Tommy Como. Kill me while you’re at it, what do I care?”

We see the information register on Jake’s face. He stands up to interrupt, and as he does he obscures the other antennae and covers one of the small hangings on the wall behind the TV.  

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“Excuse me, what do you mean by ‘you’ though? …. You don’t even know what you meant by ‘you’… Joey that meant something! You mentioned Tommy, you mentioned Salvy, you mentioned you! You included you with them.”

As Jake delivers the end of this line, we cut back to Joey. But in addition to the portrait on his left, the lamp on his right and the figurine beneath the lamp, there’s a new portrait on the wall and it is tonally black, aligned with the stairwell and with Vickie (who was dressed in a dark-colored dress at the beginning of the scene, and who departed her shortly after). This framed portrait is his secret, exposed. Despite the radical jealousy and anxiety which are evident in Jake’s character, formally, this portrait leads us to believe that we have uncovered Joey’s dark little secret.

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With this, we realize what the figurine was pointing to all along. What, then, is the importance of the mirroring antennae? In the final few cuts of the scene, Jake gradually eclipses more and more the small framed photos behind the television, finally aligning with the left antennae. In fact, he stands in for the antennae as he scrupulously interrogates his brother to uncover his (and his wife’s) infidelity. We might also note that in these final shots the right antennae points to the hole in the venetian blinds, another signal that we were to expect a secret to be uncovered.Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 6.31.46 PM

Cotten (Candy) Kane – An Unspoken Intimacy

For the many critical perspectives Citizen Kane the film has inspired concerning Charles Foster Kane, played by Orson Welles, one would think that some simple facts could be asserted as to his character. He’s been married. Twice. He has a good buddy, Jedediah Leland, played by Joseph Cotten. And while the film goes to some lengths to inform us as to the (familial) histories of Kane’s wives (alternately the niece of the president and a woman whose mother dreamed her daughter would become a singer), we learn very little of his relation to Jed. So little, in fact, that it seems almost suspicious for his prominence in the narrative (both as a central character and as a narrator to the reporter in the nested narrative). But what the film doesn’t say explicitly in dialogue it makes up for in screen time.

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One of the key scenes in elaborating Kane’s relationship to/with Jedediah comes in the aftermath of Kane’s loss of the election. In fact, Jedediah’s reaction is the first we see in the publicization of Kane’s sexual scandal, which coincides with Kane’s political downfall. At the end of an eerie drone from Bernard Herrmann blended with newspaper salesman calls, we hear a young boy ask Leland “….paper?” to which he responds,“No, thanks”. His face is cast in shadow here. Jedediah is not simply shameful, as one might be of his choice candidate, he’s infuriated. His fury is legible not simply as one of political betrayal, but one of intimate betrayal. Having come too close to home, he marches off, through the shadow of the room, pushing through saloon-style doors to begin drinking at a bar. Although Jedediah is keen to hide himself from the camera from this shot, the source of his drunkenness is completely unambiguous: he drinks as a result of this news. Further, the doors can’t protect him. This isn’t like the Thompson’s exit from Thatcher’s manuscript where the camera is forcedly confined. Here, we’re given a taste of reality, and allowed to keep sipping at it, indicated by the stoicism of the camera. The dissolve brings us to a press at the National Inquirer, where we’re told there is no choice but to print the headline “FRAUD AT POLLS” in favor of “KANE ELECTED”. But the way in which we enter this scene is peculiar: we’re introduced to the news through the backwards lettering of the press of the parallel universe in which there was no scandal. In some sense, this is Jedediah’s paradise: if Kane would have been elected, he might’ve remained under the auspices of a happy marriage in which case their intimacy would’ve been allowed to persist. It’s unclear what form this intimacy takes, but it seems one-directional, at least in the sense that Jedediah pursues Kane with a particular fervor which is just as quickly redirected by Kane, who evidently longs to be loved, but perhaps is incapable of loving in the same way; i.e. Jedediah is legible as homosexual, he’s queered by the film, but is Kane? Theirs is a relationship which always goes unarticulated, and is constantly kept behind closed doors–perhaps it could be said that their relationship is unspeakable, which, if it were sexual in nature, would be historically appropriate for the time of the film’s production. But to allow such a dramatic reading to hinge on one shot would be naive. Certainly, in order to substantiate such a claim, we’ll need to read it throughout the next scene he Jedediah shares with Kane.

[Sidenote: This headline and this “choice” takes on a particularly foul flavor in an election just won by Trump, who declared “Fraud at Polls” or “Foul Play” in spite of winning. In some sense, Trump doesn’t retain the savvy to be able to know that this is a choice: he lacks the critical faculty of this newspaper in insisting on the best of both worlds (i.e. victory and injustice at his expense).]

Next, we see the paper from the ‘working man’ as it were, while a man cleans up the street in front of the “KANE CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS”. The music endows this with a sweet, bucolic mood. We see Jedediah snap his fingers (maybe drunkenly?) over a wheelbarrow, and then walk inside. The next shot is of the bulk of the team packing up in preparation to leave. This registers as normal in the aftermath of the election, but it also conveniently serves to isolate the two men whose relationship seems so precarious at this very moment, whose reunion the camera is priming us for with suspense.

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Welles doesn’t disappoint with the meeting. When Kane says “Hello Jedediah” and Leland replies, “I’m drunk” there’s already a sense that Leland, despite having liquored up, can’t quite bring himself to say what he really wants to. Having come all the way here, and having walked right up to Kane, we might expect something punchier. Visually, the room is slanted to the left, such that Leland has cohered up until this point. Kane detects this and exposes it, “Well, if you got drunk to talk to me about Ms. Alexander, then don’t bother”. And in saying so, he turns away from Leland and crosses this threshold of the room, gradually pulling the visual focus to the piles of KANE signs in the righthand corner. Leland supports this redirection, moving his body again to face Kane’s.

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When he stops, there are two KANE signs from behind him which again produce a kind of visual arrow directing our line of vision towards Kane, but only through Leland, roughly at the height of his waist, or his crotch. After Kane makes a gloomy fatalistic remark, the camera cuts to beneath and below him, on his righthand side. We only see Kane’s leg in this shot, the rest of the image is directed towards Leland. But the leg is enough to be staggeringly imposing: Kane comes off like a giant, his voice booming down from above. Leland begins a retort concerning the “rights of the working man”, and when he arrives on “as a reward for services rendered” Kane can’t bear the logic, so he steps forward, trying to interject (“Jed”). It seems that the sensitivity on Kane’s behalf pertains to a resonance that the conversation takes on in the context of their personal relationship. “You talk about people as if you own them” Jed says, resonating with former descriptions of Kane as someone who doesn’t collect diamonds, but collects people who collect diamonds. There’s a sense that Kane is concerned with a kind of affectionate endowment, a kind of adoration, a kind of intimate slavery. Kane needs to be loved, as we’re told, which seems to cohere perfectly with the rest of this composite.

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Kane then approaches Leland, but keeps his body language pointedly directed away from Jed. Jed, though, is interested in always approaching Kane. Here, he draws nearer to his face (and his speech hikes up in pitch, particularly when he says “Oh, boy!”) He follows this with a comment, perhaps phallic, that sounds like schoolyard smacktalk, “That’s gonna add up to something bigger than your privilege and I don’t know what you’ll do”. While Leland seems to try to approach him from behind, Kane again shifts to bring Leland into his sight. Although he’s been exposing himself to the audience thus far in the sequence, here he closes us off, notably when he’s closest (and thus at greatest risk of intimacy). This idea echoes Kane’s innocence with Ms. Alexander when “cleaning off” and contributes to some of the absurdity inherent in hearing that Kane enjoyed a sex scandal (for, although we can conceive of him as handsome and physically capable, perhaps as a result of his financial authority, it’s hard to emotionally understand how this man would toy with lovers in this way).
The end of the scene is particularly telling. Kane makes his famous facetious toast “to love, on my terms–those are the only terms that anybody ever knows…..his own”. We’re left to linger for a moment, asking ourselves, “is Kane proposing that his terms of love are universal?” And with that, we’re wrangled back into the heteronormative narrative solution: “KANE MARRIES ‘SINGER’”. The quotation around ‘SINGER’ do, indeed, suggest a falseness or an insufficiency which Kane seems intent on repairing, but it also casts doubt on the only noun which bears most of the gendered weight in this construction. Is she a woman? It would be contained in her ‘singerhood’ which is cast into question, therefore raising doubt surrounding whether Kane would marry someone else if his terms of love weren’t those universal ones, or if this marriage is really all it’s made out to be.