In a year where his signature artistic achievement, Twin Peaks, made its triumphant return, David Lynch has been the subject of two vastly different documentaries. Conversations with the lovably oddball director served as the foundation for David Lynch: The Art Life (2016), which charts the progression of his career from childhood to his first film, Eraserhead (1977). German photographer Peter Braatz’s documentary Blue Velvet Revisited, which screens November 14 as a part of the DOC NYC festival, picks up deeper into his film career with a focus on his fourth film, Blue Velvet (1986), but its style differs vastly. Revisited is a collage of video, still photographs, and audio that a young Braatz recorded during his time on the set of the 1986 classic. The behind-the-scenes materials can often prove engrossing to fans of Lynch, although the film’s presentation is frustrating.
After writing a letter to Lynch offering to document the making of Blue Velvet, a 24-year-old Braatz flew across the Atlantic to create a record of the historic film’s North Carolina production. The story of the shoot is told entirely through material culled from his involvement with Lynch. As Braatz explains in his director’s statement, “I dug into my four hours of original Super-8 film, two additional hours of 16mm from Munich in 1987, several hours of video material from the German promotion of Blue Velvet, over 1000 photographs, objects, drawings, and relics.” Braatz’s faint voice asking questions off-camera during interviews establishes his presence throughout the film, reminding us that every shot and every image is a de facto POV. While many documentaries struggle to maintain a veneer of objectivity, Braatz wants the viewer to know that this story is filtered through the subjective lens of his experience.
Throughout Revisited, it is clear that Lynch likes and trusts Braatz, which leads to many conversations about his work and process. The filmmaker is notoriously opaque about his films, refusing to indulge in analysis. The footage on display here shows a younger Lynch, more eager to discuss his work. With a nasal voice not yet deepened by decades of a notorious smoking habit, he discusses themes of the hidden in Blue Velvet. Recordings of Lynch discussing the meaning of his work are as elusive as concrete visual proof of Bigfoot’s existence; this clip’s inclusion alone is worth the price of admission.
Complex, carefully orchestrated soundscapes are a hallmark of Lynch’s work, but Braatz takes all of the wrong aural cues from the director in Revisited. Spooky synthesizers riddled with ambient noise soundtrack the film, creating the feeling of traipsing cautiously through a dreamy wonderland. Lynch does favor this style of music, but he alternates his aural tapestry. For instance, his penchant for ambient noise is Blue Velvet is disrupted by classic songs, like Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” and corny small-town radio jingles. By contrast, the persistence of low-key electronic music in Revisited yields an undynamic soundscape that can encourage viewers to tune out.
Sound also provides a chance for Braatz to enter into dialogue with Lynch’s work, but he botches the opportunity. Since all of the visuals are culled from Braatz’s personal materials and some of these are silent, audio from Blue Velvet is often paired with the photographer’s images, both still and moving– but the sounds and images are not always combined in generative or effective ways. Jeffrey Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) explanation to co-conspirator Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) of his scheme to spy on lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) plays over images of MacLachlan and Dern working and palling around when the cameras aren’t rolling. Dorothy’s pleading, “Help me,” is coupled with footage of Rossellini rehearsing her performance of the song “Blue Velvet.” Besides the fact that the character saying the dialogue is represented visually, these pairings have no apparent logic. Rather than giving the viewer the opportunity to enjoy and glean new insights from these largely unseen archives, Braatz complicates his collage with unnecessary information. He could have added new meaning to the film and redefined its content, but instead Braatz chose to muddy a few rare straightforward scenes in Lynch’s filmography.
Perhaps the best distillation of Revisited’s flaws is in its subtitle, where the documentary is referred to as “A Meditation on a Movie.” In this scenario, Blue Velvet is the movie. It is a bona fide masterpiece that succeeds on its own merits. By comparison, Revisited is the meditation. It exists solely as an extension of the masterpiece, lacking meaning on its own. While Braatz had a wealth of documentation and geeky ephemera that would be catnip to any Lynch enthusiast, he assembled them in such a way that the finished product fails to stand on its own as an artistic statement.
Blue Velvet Revisited screens Tuesday, November 14, as part of DOC NYC (Cinépolis Cinema, 260 West 23rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan)
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