Hot on the heels of the new season of Twin Peaks, London’s Prince Charles Cinema is hosting a retrospective of the films of David Lynch between now and autumn 2017.
I re-watched Blue Velvet (1986) last night and was taken at how it is perhaps more relevant now than it was in 1986, especially in regards to identity of place and the dark underpinnings of the seemingly most idyllic small towns in the United States of America. In the film, the darker underbelly of what seems to be a perfect little town called Lumberton is exposed to the young protagonist, played by Kyle MacLachlan, who is then forced to confront his own darker nature through his experiences with the criminal underworld. It is the same theme explored by Lynch in Twin Peaks (1990). If we look at the small towns in the USA and what has happened since the ’80s and ’90s, and the subsequent Great Recession, what we see is that, like their fictional counterparts, the underbelly was always there. Only now it is fully exposed.
I grew up in small town not unlike the Lumberton of Blue Velvet or the Twin Peaks of the series. When I lived there, the residents would hunt and fish for sport and everyone knew the name of every other family on their street. As art imitates life, there were always darker things afoot. There was the family-run restaurant where you could go to buy a gun before it became legal to own an automatic weapon. There was the pizza shop where you went to buy drugs before you could get opioids from your Doctor. There were the abusive alcoholic parents who beat their kids, and the small-time thugs and gravel miners who ran illegal operations. There were high school teachers who had affairs with students. There was even the kidnapping and murder of a fellow classmate named Heidi Allen, which still remains in the news 25 years later for the possible prosecution of the wrong man. That case, like both the Dorothy Vallens and Laura Palmer cases in Lynch’s worlds, involved drug smuggling, police informants, violent murder, law enforcement ineptitude and/or corruption and a lot of unanswered questions. All in a town with a population of only around 2,000 people. A town that a tourist might drive through and think ”What a cute place to live! Let’s stop in at the (only) local roadside bar and get a Heineken!” To the outside world, the facade held firm. But, now things have changed.
I went there recently for a visit, and the economics are even worse than when I left in the ’90s. This is one of the myriad of American towns that journalists and economists speak of as ”the forgotten America.” The ones that refuse to change or simply don’t know how. When I went into the doughnut shop to get an iced tea, I asked the glassy-eyed high school girl behind the counter if a certain geometry teacher still teaches at the high school. ”Yep.” she stated, unemotionally. ”Does he still suck?” I further queried. She answered in the same deadpan tone. ”Yep.”
In the years since I have been away, the entirety of Main Street was burned down in an insurance scam and re-built to look even worse than it did before. There are few jobs and even fewer good ones. The exterior window dressing has fallen away and the malaise now lays bare.
In my early ’20s I moved to Los Angeles, and lived for most of it, in a smallish suburb to the North, which boasted swimming pools and Spanish-style ”planned communities” where appearance was everything. In fact, it was so important that at one point, the housing association that ran my development fined me for having the “wrong” colored welcome mat. It was black. “That mat might lower the property values in the area and NO ONE wants that, right?” At that moment, I knew I had made a mistake by moving there. It was the very definition of ”Stepford.” Like Lumberton, none of that was real either.
In fact, this nice little desert commuter town was filled with more screenwriter wannabe posers than you could shake a stick at. Many of them were cokeheads and almost all of them were in debt up to their eyeballs from buying too much house and too many cars.
I moved away 6 years ago, and when I went back in December to get some things out of storage, I was informed that while I was away, the town had joined what was unceremoniously nicknamed ”heroin belt.” The epidemic thus far has primarily taken the lives of the teenagers of those ”well-off” families who moved there in the ’90s so their kids could go to the ”good school” outside the LA unified system. The facade had finally cracked. Wide open. There is no ideal America when even the kids who want for nothing are so bored and depressed that they turn to hard drugs to numb their pain.
The bugs in Blue Velvet which were heretofore hidden beneath the lush green lawns and picket fences are coming to the surface in small towns and suburbs all over America and overrunning the place. There are still the two Americas as presented by Lynch. Only, now it seems that the darker one seems to have taken over. I wonder if it is possible to fully integrate the dark and light in the way that Lynch did in Blue Velvet. To reconcile our darker selves with our lighter selves, forgive ourselves and each other and move forward the way that Jeffrey Beaumont and Sandy Williams did. Perhaps what America needs right now is to have a good cry like Jeffrey did in his bedroom after getting his ass kicked and then accept the fact that the world, is indeed, a very strange place. People like Frank Booth exist. For no reason. And they must be stopped. I hope the robins come soon.