PRINT December 1986


the rewards of giving.

AT THE CAESARS TAHOE hotel in Lake Tahoe there’s a booth where you can cut a tape of yourself singing along to instrumental versions of your favorite songs. Naturally, the results are often pretty funny; the concession operator likes to make copies of performances that strike him as particularly ridiculous, and recently he passed a few of his anti–chart toppers on to a local radio show. The unqualified hit was some guy stretching his lungs to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.”

Listening to it was unsettling. “Uptown Girl,” more or less a tribute to the Four Seasons (“Dawn,” “Rag Doll,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” etc.), is a tricky number; those ascending “wo-wo-wo-wo” ’s almost defeated Joel himself. This singer, whoever he was (I imagined him short, overweight, about 40, sweating like mad, sort of Billy Joel without the money), didn’t come close: I mean, he wasn’t in the room. You had to laugh; it was hard to figure how the guy kept from laughing himself.

As the tape kept playing, though (and it kept playing—the backing track seemed about twice as long as the original), the fact that the singer never flubbed a lyric began to seem interesting. The fact that, hopelessly out of breath, he somehow stood straight and tall for the flat self-affirmation demanded by the blunt last line of each verse (“. . . downtown man / That’s what I am”), began to seem remarkable. There was no way around it: as a shower singer the man was drowning, but he was also moving. The poor-boy/rich-girl story line of the song, which in Joel’s hands came off as the sort of thing you write when you’re working up a Four Seasons tribute, now seemed to count for something. The singer in the booth was desperate, tortured by the arrangement, Sisyphus rolling up the wo-wo-wo-wos, and yet he put all of his panic into the story he was trying to tell: he wants an uptown girl, but he’s a downtown man. You heard the guy trying to smile through his boundless incompetence; you heard the pride Joel wrote the song about, but never quite gave it. This Tahoe tourist, probably drunk, changed the song at least for one listener: HI never hear Billy Joel sing “Uptown Girl” again without thinking of how little it must have meant to him, compared to what it meant to somebody else.

Such an incident defines the pop song as a gift, and it defines the pop process as a medium of exchange which elicits gifts in return. Billy Joel makes a record, sends it out into the world, and it comes back to him in various forms: as money, as fame, as approval, scorn, indifference. But should he have found himself in the right place at the right time, his radio tuned to the right station, it would have come back to him in a form he could have never anticipated: in the form of a fan who, returning the gift, took the song away from the man who made it.

Weird, huh? Well, it’s just idle speculation, Billy Joel will probably never hear the Tahoe tape, so we can forget about it, but Roy Orbison is probably going to see what’s been done with his “In Dreams” in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, and what’s he going to think? The same thing that happened in the Caesars booth happens in Lynch’s movie.

Though as filmmaking Blue Velvet is your basic work of genius, as the dramatization of an idea—the primeval pit of corruption simmering beneath the bland surface of middle-class life—it’s your basic work of corn. As Pauline Kael once said of Citizen Kane, it’s a shallow masterpiece. That may be why none of the critical raves the film attracted are half as convincing as the movie itself; if you read them after seeing the movie, they can make you doubt the power of what you’ve just seen. The writers are trying too hard to say what Blue Velvet means, what Lynch’s message is, certain that anything so esthetically strong must mean something socially, even philosophically profound. Thus they make the movie more than it is, ultimately making it seem less; they fetishize Blue Velvet’s fetishes, refusing to let them remain as ordinary as Lynch made them. So far I’ve read that the plastic mask the Dennis Hopper character clamps onto his face each time he’s about to commit an act of sex or violence contains helium, cocaine vapors, ether—as if mere oxygen were just too tame. But Blue Velvet is a movie of sensations, not ideas. The horrible roar that rises out of the bed when the clean-cut kid and the mystery woman fall together just after she’s made him hit her—it’s the voice of Grendel’s mother—is an event, a breach, not a thesis on sexuality or phenomenology.

What Blue Velvet dramatizes is displacement—not, it would seem, because Lynch finds displacement socially significant, but because he finds it thrilling. There’s no other reason for what he does with “In Dreams”—the song creates the most pointless moment in the film, the most perverse, and the most elegant. It adds nothing to the plot, nothing to characterization. It’s as if Lynch simply loved the song, as if he’d waited since it hit the charts in 1963 to find a way to reply to it, as if, in the middle of making Blue Velvet, he simply decided he’d waited long enough.

Dennis Hopper, the fiend, forces the clean-cut kid and the mystery woman into his car and drives them across town to a scummy whorehouse. They’re greeted by Dean Stockwell, the whoremaster The mood is cruel, but not exactly menacing; there’s a lassitude in the way the villains move that almost freezes the scene, as if they’ve run through their cheap bullies’ gestures for so long they can’t imagine how to get more pleasure out of them.

Hopper stands silent, smiles, then screeches, but the kid and the woman know this is just the way he talks. What scares them is Stockwell: you can sense them trying not to look at him. He’s a pervert beyond gender; the makeup on his face is so thick you can’t believe there’s skin underneath. Everyone is waiting around, waiting to leave, waiting to think of what to do, waiting for something to happen, and then suddenly “In Dreams” is playing, and Stockwell is posing in an archway, miming, performing, a little entertainment, the song coming out of his mouth, perfectly You don’t know what’s going on—where the music’s coming from (a cassette machine, but that’s not shown right away), why it’s there at all.

As Roy Orbison songs go, “In Dreams” is bland, even vague—shapeless. Here it’s distinct, demanding, beautiful, horrible: you have to look at Stockwell, you can’t bear not to. A terrific tension builds up in an instant: the song is expanding, and it’s going to blow up at any second. The whole movie is going to blow up, right here, for no reason. At the same time, the movie has become irrelevant; as a story the viewer isn’t even in it anymore, and neither are the other characters.

Maybe this is just the Stockwell character’s favorite song. Maybe he’d been waiting around all night for someone to show up so he could put it on and pretend to sing it. Who knows? His performance is as revolting as it is fascinating, and to keep from seeing what you have to look at you listen harder, and the music takes on a clarity it never had before. But you might as well be catching the sweat that drips out of Stockwell’s makeup in your mouth: as a conventional romantic ballad the song vanishes, turning into a wash of loathing, of hatred, of vileness. It becomes a threat, what it means for Stockwell to commit an act of sex or violence. It’s all too much to take in; Dennis Hopper walks over to the tape recorder and cuts the song off.

"In Dreams” is now changed. As a conventional romantic ballad it now contains extremes a punk rant about rape and gore could not begin to suggest. Presumably David Lynch has gotten pleasure from “In Dreams” for years; it appears on his screen as a moment of pleasure, at once empty and overwhelming. As a director, Lynch speaks through actors; no less than the man in the booth at Caesars Tahoe, he’s singing a song he likes, just singing it. Like the man in the booth, he’s returning a gift, giving something hack to the song—something, in this case, it never wanted, but now has to accept.

Greil Marcus contributed the introduction to Kleenex LiLiPUT, Zurich: Nachhar der Welt Verlag 1986. His column appears regularly in Artforum.