In the decade and a half between his pioneering 'Blue Velvet' and recent renaissance with 'Mulholland Drive', David Lynch's reputation had seriously plummeted, his name a synonym for kitschy, affectless weirdness. It's good to be reminded what a major filmmaker he could be, and Michael Atkinson claims 'Velvet' as the most important and influential film of the 80s. Although the film deals with areas of human behaviour, psychology and sexuality we'd prefer not to think about, and is full of reeling violence and disorienting cinematic procedures, Atkinson argues that Lynch is ultimately a conservative artist, affirming a childlike, pre-Oedipal innocence by vividly portraying its dark, disjunctive opposite.
This thesis is arguable to say the least, and Atkinson himself isn't always very convinced by it. Using a loose psychoanalytic framework, he discusses 'Velvet' as a psychodrama, a narrative unleashing of the Id, with Jeffrey as a kind of Alice or fairy-tale figure undergoing the harrowing, identity-threatening psychic journey to maturity. You may disagree with Atkinson's wider conclusions, but his attentive, close reading of the film pays justice to its full, ambiguous complexity, singling out Lynch's idiosyncratic use of colour, composition and the widescreen frame; his manipulation of physical space in psychic space; the equal importance of his 'aural design' to his visuals; his unexpected sensitivity to class and gender politics; his use of performance (Atkinson brilliantly recuperates the famously vicious Frank (Dennis Hopper)). Each passing insight adds layers to the film's suggestibility, without ever hoping to tie it up, so bound up is Lynch's aesthetic to his own impenetrable demons.
Atkinson has an annoying habit of repeating alienating buzzwords like 'interface' and 'topoi', where clearer words will do; his contention that 'Velvet' is a 'pure' movie, untainted by cinema history, is simply wrong (Douglas Sirk and Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' are obvious precedents for a start), and his interpretation of Lynch's Dennis Potter-like use of song is way off the mark. But if you want to tease out some of the stranger mysteries of Lynch's beautiful and enigmatic film, this is the book to get.