In Dreams: Talking with Nick Antosca About Blue Velvet

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01/14/2010 3:19 PM |


Nick Antosca, the novelist and L Mag contributor, will introduce a screening of Blue Velvet tomorrow night, Friday the 15th, at the Rubin Museum. The film screens as part of series in conjunction with the Museum’s exhibition of the “Red Book” of C.G. Jung, which seems appropriate for a number of reasons we talked about over email this week.

The L: Your association with the L actually began with my own review of your first novel, Fires, which noted parallels between your book and Blue Velvet—in both, an undergraduate returns to his quintessentially American hometown and discovers a shadow-town of vice, violence, danger, etc. Whether or not Lynch was a conscious influence—is he, for you?—it seems like he has a lot to offer to the writer interested in accessing or imagining dark places…

Nick Antosca: If you make art in a storytelling medium, one consequence of absorbing Lynch early is that you feel as if you have the imprimatur to access areas of the mind that may be mysterious to you and to include what you find there in your work in an unrefined form.

By “unrefined” I guess I really mean “unadulterated”—that is, not altered to conform to traditional expectations of narrative. It’s liberating to understand that if you dredge up weird forms and growths from the lower depths of your mind, you can put them to work in their true form. Lynch has been conscious influence on my fiction writing in that sense. Imagery in Fires and <em>Midnight Picnic is also to some degree influenced by Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead, and Inland Empire.

The L: But then what’s fascinating about Blue Velvet and mid-period Lynch—as distinct from the early experimental works, and more recent, transcendental meditation-inspired films—is that, as much as he seems to have access to these lower mental depths, he’s putting these true unrefined forms to work in the service of a very pointed thematic (some would even say political) purpose. Much as in Fires, these depictions of unspeakable practices and unnatural acts seem arranged to deconstruct a very specific notion of secure suburban America. To what extent do you see the modulation and manipulation of the subconscious in Blue Velvet and Lynch in general—and to what extent is that a part of your own writing process?

NA: I see the use of the subconscious as very evident in Blue Velvet, although not as strongly as I see it in Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead. It’s true that Blue Velvet employs a traditionally structured narrative, but it does so almost mockingly. The brittle/old-fashioned narrative template is kind of like the quaint, old-fashioned town where the story takes place—Lynch undermines them both with equal enthusiasm. The narrative is interrupted with injections of surrealist imagery, and the town’s surface is peeled back to reveal a story of bizarre sadism. The bedraggled mechanical robin at the end seems like Lynch having a laugh at Norman Rockwell-type imagery.

As for myself, I find the subconscious pretty consistently fertile ground. I generally try to write my dreams down each morning, and in the past two months I’ve been undergoing hypnosis to manipulate my dreams and retain them more completely. My second novel, Midnight Picnic, contains numerous plot elements that come directly from dreams.

The L:Ah, yes, the robin. What’s interesting about Lynch is that even as he gets a knowing laugh with the mechanical robin, and even after we learn how compromised small-town America and the nuclear family are, I find in him a completely unironic earnestness. (Kyle MacLachlan’s chicken walk is one of the purely geekiest moments in all cinema, I’ve always thought.) And lately, he seems so contented (perhaps even self-satisfied?), shilling for coffee and transcendental meditation even as his automatic writing exercises—like Inland Empire—go to darker and darker places.

I was talking to one of our writers about Paul Verhoeven recently, and he suggested something like a placid perversity at work in ironic, subversive films like Basic Instinct—that the sex-n-violence functions might function as an exorcism of evil urges (among other things). Do you find that to be the case, for what Lynch (or any filmmaker) puts up onscreen or what you put on the page?

NA: With Verhoeven and a lot of other filmmakers, that seems plausible. With Lynch, I don’t know—maybe the gosh-darn facade is so impermeable because he’s keeping the lid on a spectacularly turbulent subconscious. Or not. I’m inclined to think that he’s more in touch with himself/at peace with the beasts below the surface than the average artist is, and that his placid and earnest exterior is in fact directly related to the relative ease with which he can access the depths—which would mean that the disturbing content of his movies isn’t an exorcism, because Lynch’s psyche doesn’t need to be exorcised. Of all working filmmakers, Lynch seems the most tuned in to the idea of the shadow self.

When I’m writing, I don’t think about where it comes from, and I think it can be problematic and potentially self-sabotaging to do so. It doesn’t feel to me like an exorcism but an exploration. Images and ideas come to you and they feel iconic or disturbing or meaningful, whether in explicit or mysterious ways, and it’s the pleasure of your job as a writer to put them to work in a way that makes the most of their existence.

The L:I’m inclined to agree—he seems so untroubled, really. And you see that, as well, in the trust his actors put in him, especially Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern (here as elsewhere). What do you think of the performances in Blue Velvet?

For that matter, when you’re writing from your dreams, are you the director or the actor? You’ve mentioned hypnosis as a way of manipulating and realizing the subconscious, but it must also feel like you’re giving yourself over, at least a little, to someone else’s vision…

NA: I love the performances in Blue Velvet. In some ways I think they’re like those in a Kubrick movie—Lynch emphasizes the strange and unnatural/exaggerated elements of the actors’ performances. It elevates the whole thing, somehow—takes it further from the level of “realism” and makes it feel more iconic.

When writing my dreams down I am both the director and a character, of course. It’s true that the hypnotist has a great deal of influence on where my mind goes when I’m hypnotized, but I trust him, and we discuss the goals of the endeavor before we get down to it. And things happen during hypnosis that he doesn’t anticipate or deliberately provoke—things that make sense more to me than to him. A hypnotist is a catalyst as much as a conductor.

The L: Another thing Lynch does is cast actors for the pop-culture baggage they bring with them, so we’re seeing these archetypes, to be upheld or twisted—like how two of the sketchiest dudes in Twin Peaks are played by stars of West Side Story. In Blue Velvet we’re seeing not just Isabella Rossellini but her mother, Ingrid Bergman, one of the most romanticized figures of old Hollywood; and, in Dennis Hopper, 60s counterculture and drug culture gone totally seedy. Which in some ways is an inverse of Kubrick: except for maybe Eyes Wide Shut I don’t think he wants us to think about the world outside of the movie.

As for the director/actor question, I actually didn’t mean to posit the hypnotist as a possible director—though now despite your assurances I’m picturing a Curse of the Jade Scorpion situation where your hypnotist is manipulating you for nefarious purposes—I was actually wondering whether you think of yourself/your writing as following a script written by the subconscious (or, to maintain the analogy, an element in your subconscious’s mis-en-scene). Who’s driving the thing, in other words?

NA: Interesting, Lynch claims that he doesn’t do that—he says that he met Isabella Rossellini in a coffee shop and didn’t even know she was an actress (at the time, she had very little acting experience, and had primarily been a model). He only found out later—he claims—when he saw her picture in a magazine. Also, Hopper was the third or fourth choice for the role of Frank Booth. It was originally offered to Willem Dafoe and Robert Loggia. Whether we should take Lynch’s claims at face value is up for debate.

My subconscious builds the car, and I drive it.