Scene Breakdown: Blue Velvet
I knew I would get to this movie eventually, but initially I had a different scene planned. Recently, I got to see a screening of Blue Velvet at the Starz Filmcenter and my intentions changed. Part of it was the other scene, upon further review, carried more of a performance punch rather than an editorial one; and I think part of it was that my sensibilities have changed a bit in the time since I last saw the film a couple years ago.
David Lynch’s work holds a special place in my film vernacular, and led me to his stylistic counterparts Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg, who have also become favorites of mine. Blue Velvet is a “surrealist mystery”, as many film historians have deemed it, but I’m drawn to the dark, twisted intrigue of the classic thriller. It starts with a college boy, Jeffrey, who while visiting home finds a severed ear that leads him down a dangerous road of sex and violence. Ok, so sorry for the cheesy ass synopsis. Most of my analysis is from a film editorial perspective but there will certainly be comments that deal more with directing and the other disciplines. First, I have to give credit where credit is due.
Blue Velvet was released in 1986. The writer and director was David Lynch, the Film Editor was Duwayne Dunham, and the Cinematographer was Frederick Elmes. This scene comes right before the climactic finale where Jeffery returns to the apartment that much of the mystery takes place in. The scene begins at the 1-hour, 46-minute, and 55 second mark and is just over 2 minutes long. As in previous posts, for a couple examples I used multiple screenshots over the length of one shot to show varying action and camera moves.
1) We start in the dark hallway outside of the apartment. Jeffery walks down the hallway towards the camera and the door to the apartment. Jeffery pauses at the door and looks down at the keys, taking a moment to collect himself. This moment gives us a chance to take in the sounds going on. One of the greatest qualities of Lynch’s films is the sound design; there always seem to be gorgeously creepy atmospheres established in the realm of sound. At this point, with the sound effects of footfalls and jingling keys halted; we hear a very low rhythmic tone coming in waves complimented with a much higher pitched steady tone much like electricity or cicadas. After the pause, Jeffery carefully unlocks the door and enters the apartment.
2) We have a matched action cut from inside the apartment now of Jeffery coming through the door. As he moves slowly into the room the high pitched hum gains in volume and pitch, adding to the tension.
3) Still in the same medium shot, Jeffery continues entering the room and as he looks around the corner, sees something and jumps back behind the wall. We don’t know what he saw, and rather than cut away we stay on Jeffery as he hides behind the wall. The editor could have done this sequence a couple different ways with different emotional responses. He could have had Jeffery start looking into the room, cut to what he is seeing, then cut back to Jeffery’s reaction or he could have shown Jeffery’s scared reaction then quickly cut to what he is looking at. Instead he holds on Jeffery without revealing what scared him. Now our imagination starts to run, wondering what horrific sight could have made him leap back like that. We stay on this shot for another 10 seconds after Jeffery reacts; seeing him cower and then inch his way back to look around the corner. Just as the light from the living room hits his face, we finally cut to what he is seeing.
4) In a wide shot of the living room, we see what scared him. There is one dead man tied to a chair and another man who has obviously been shot in the head still standing. We hold on this for 6 seconds, giving us plenty of time to take in this disturbing scene.
5) In a new medium close up, showing much more of Jeffery’s face, he closes the door while maintaining his eyeline into the room. As the door shuts, the high pitched whine quiets down but is not completely removed. Over the next 22 seconds, he tiptoes into the room, always moving forward towards the camera, which is dollying back to keep the same medium close up framing. As he walks, he glances around the room, taking in what has happened here. This shot is all about his facial expressions. They are constantly transitioning between fear, shock, and confusion.
6) Jeffery and the camera finally come to a stop, still in the medium close up. Ever since he started walking, the high-pitched whine, which had quieted, has been slowly rising again in volume. At the end of the shot, he looks down and to his right. This movement initiates the cut, which will show us what he is looking at.
7) We cut to a medium shot of the lower half of the standing man in yellow, who is a dirty cop we learned of earlier, and a broken television. As we cut, the high-pitched sound increases quite a bit, hinting that this sound may be coming from the television or from the walkie-talkie in the man’s pocket.
8) The shot continues, with the camera tilts up to the head of the man in yellow. It appears he is still breathing, but has been lobotomized by a gunshot wound to the head. Once the camera stops tilting up, we hold on him for a beat before cutting away.
9) We return to the medium close up of Jeffery. His eye contact is still with the man in yellow. As we cut to him he looks to the right and we cut away again, following his gaze.
10) In a medium shot, we see a bound and gagged man who has also been shot in the head.
11) Back to Jeffery, who takes a deep breath in reaction. This scene is all about Jeffery, so we are seeing a lot of his reaction shots as he examines the crime scene. Also this scene is based on tension, so is slower cut with a more shots to draw out the suspense. We could have removed this shot and gone to the next but by including this one we get an extra beat and an extension of the dread he is feeling.
12) Following along with Jeffery’s increasing focus on the details, we go to an extreme close up of the seated corpse. The shot starts on the man’s mouth, which is stuffed with a piece of blue velvet. If you haven’t seen the movie, well first go out and see it, but if you haven’t then you need to know that blue velvet is a key story element in the film and the song is sung numerous times throughout. After a moment, the shot tilts up slowly into a gorgeous composed shot of both the bullet hole and the results of a severed ear. In this moment we understand who this man is. He is the kidnapped husband of one of the main characters. The whole mystery began when Jeffery found the ear in a park at the beginning of the film and now he has finally found the ear’s owner, but unfortunately it is too late. After the camera comes to a stop, we hold on this for 3 seconds to allow for the realization to settle in.
13) We return to another reaction of Jeffery, as he is forming the same conclusion we just did in regards to the man’s identity. What comes next is the greatest scare of the movie. We have been lulled into this trap with long, slow shots with very little movement or sound, other than the incessant drone in the background of course. As I brought up in the Dark Knight scene breakdown, all good scares are dependant on strong audio cues. This one begins with an audio cue in this shot and overlaps into the next to finish with the visual scare. From the pocket of the man in yellow we hear the loud hiss of the walkie-talkie and the words “Get back”. In the same moment that we as the audience jump; Jeffery jumps back as well. His reaction takes 8 frames and then we cut.
14) Now, back in the wide shot from behind Jeffery, we hear the rest of the line from the walkie-talkie, “and stay down.” At the same time, the arm of the man in yellow spasms and knocks the shade off the lamp next to him. It is hard to say in written words how much this scare has gotten me each time I have viewed it. Even in reviewing the cuts for this breakdown it got me, and I completely knew it was coming. It works in a duel way because of the way the audio leads us into the visual cue; but even more so, it succeeds because so much effort was invested into the lead up. All the long shots hanging on Jeffery as he moved about the apartment, the slow camera moves, and especially the sound design got us keyed up so that when the scare came it worked magnificently. We hang on the shot as Jeffery leaps back and then settles himself. The next line begins over the walkie-talkie, “It’s Frank Booth, apartment 26.” Frank is the villain of the film and it seems the police are about to raid his place. As soon as the line finishes, we cut.
15) In his medium close up, Jeffery is still a little shaken up. The walkie-talkie transmits again with, “Lieutenant, we’re at Frank’s place now. The raid has commenced as scheduled.” Over the course of the message, Jeffery inches forward again, his eyes flicking between the man head and the walkie-talkie in his pocket. By the time it finishes, he seems to have regained his composure. As the line finishes there is a beat where he is steadily looking down towards the walkie-talkie and soundtrack music begins to fade in. After the beat he looks up, initiating the cut. This shot last for 11 seconds.
16) Back on the medium close up of the bloodied head of the man in yellow, we hear over the walkie-talkie, “Stay in place.”
17) In Jeffery’s medium close up, he looks from the man’s head down to his pocket again. The music is now at full volume, and as we cut to this shot the vocals of the song begin.
18) We cut back in the shot of the broken television and the walkie-talkie in the pocket. We hear static coming from it, but no words are being said. This is an excellent vehicle for getting us to the following scene. By looking at the device and the audio coming from it, we instinctively want to know what is happening in that other place, and will be rewarded by transitioning to that event.
19) Now we are in the next scene, where the police raid is about to begin.