Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) – It’s a Beautiful Day

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An existentialist road movie from the master of crime does sound strange. But when it’s from a visionary, it tends to work out as Alice would substantiate. Sandwiched between Mean Streets (1973) and the cult Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese tried his hands on a low-budget feminist drama about life by peeking through the journey of a single-mother, her displaced son, and their adventures trying to earn a living and a slice of fame through austerity and honesty.

After her alcoholic husband (Billy Bush) passes away one mournful morning, Alice (Ellen Burstyn) has no support system. She has nowhere to go, nothing to do. A generic homemaker, Alice has spent most of her life under guidance of her parents and later her husband. Her only skill, per se, is music. But she has to cope with a new life, especially with her nagging pre-teen son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), her sole responsibility.

Alice decides to sell whatever’s left, keep the tidbits, and leave Socorro for Monterey to revive her singing career and presumably become the new Alice Fay. Yet, money doesn’t compromise and they’re forced to lodge in Phoenix. There she applies for jobs that require singing. For her, applying means knocking door-to-door offering her musical talent, but luck’s a hard bird to catch. With proper marketing, she does catch it, only for it to crumble down after her brief association with the suave, yet abusive husband of her next-door neighbor.

The mother and son flee again. This time, they reach Tucson. Lady luck strikes, Alice gets a job as a server at a fast food. It rolls smoothly there. She comes across peculiar characters, but hey–she’s working, she’s earning, and she has a wonderful son. Time rolls on for Alice until David (Kris Kristofferson) comes by. They fall in love, yadda, yadda. Again, Alice being the naïve country girl, she stumbles upon another setback, with her lover here. This time though, she doesn’t elope, but holds firm and continues her work.

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Alice is a bittersweet tale about the journey of a woman in an age when feminism was sharply rising. Scorsese picks an unassuming, simple woman to tell a story of a single-mother striving to survive, in a largely patriarchal society, with her son stuck within the four corners of a house. Perhaps, Scorsese added something of his own to the character of Tommy. By his own admission, Scorsese was an indoor child during his early days and spent much time watching TV and subconsciously learning the craft of filmmaking. There are good similarities between Martin Scorsese’s childhood and the childhood of Tommy, except he doesn’t live in nearby gangster town filled with mafias and wise guys. But, there are similarities…

Through this drama though, Scorsese previews the aftermath of tragedy for a housewife—who had no career of her own, not much in the name of property, and was all alone, with a young son, in a distant society. The story of Alice is about coping up and trying to create a niche for oneself. Alice and Tommy travel from here to there in search for a dignified life amidst strangers and demons. The purpose for Alice is to find work that would enable her and the son to live cozily, and would help her realize her childhood dream. In this small quest for dignity, they come across different people in different settings. Yet, they strive on together as candid buddies amid some amusing circumstances.

At the end, people do need support systems. All Alice is doing is seeking one—for her and for her son. And, Scorsese shows this with unwavering simplicity, a country charm, and unfiltered nobility. Alice doesn’t Live here Anymore is arguably the most underrated film from Scorsese, and throws a revealing reflection of what’s in store from the maverick filmmaker. It’s all easy to say that now 30 years after Alice, but for a select few, Roger Ebert comes to mind, they’d seen the legend of Scorsese before even Scorsese envisioned his role as an unparalleled storyteller.

Scorsese fans would no doubt love Alice for it’s unalike most Scorsese movies since then. It’s a refresher and I’d doubt many could guess that Alice came from Scorsese if they ignored the rolling titles, which serves Scorsese well. One of the criticisms against him have been lack of variety in his movies as opposed to Kubrick, Wilder, Spielberg, et al. Rather naïve to say that for people mistake his archetypical vision and stamp for lack of variety. He’s shown variety in plenty of movies, in diverse genres, Alice included.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a beauty. A gusty little story told with ease, the movie is warm, charming, and adorable just like the character of Alice. Ellen Burstyn carries the movie on her shoulders for which she deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress, even though she’s known more for another classic, The Exorcist (1973). Other actors are in fine form, especially Diane Ladd as the foul-mouthed server, Flo.

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Alice comes across as a simple documentation of  life. For those who admire existentialist dramas, coming of age movies, or the lovely liberty of a second chance, or for film buffs, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a fine experience and a swift watch encompassing the spirit of life’s tangibility and exemplifying that if life throws lemons at you, just make lemonade. After all, you’re only as healthy as you feel, no?

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Blue Velvet (1986) – Treacherous Manifestations

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Is Blue Velvet an ode to Sigmund Freud and his theory of psychoanalysis? It seems so, but I feel it’s an ode to cinematic surrealism in its simplest form. We’ve heard a lot about the Le Style du Cinéma Lynchien and Blue Velvet is one fine example.

Surfacing as a simple story, yet carrying heavy themes, Blue Velvet might have a case of being David Lynch’s most accomplished work. It’s a mammoth statement because of Lynch’s pedigree as a storyteller, but we’re really not that far off. There’s of course the sentimental journey of The Elephant Man (1980), schizoid reality of Lost Highway (1997), and the dreamy myriads of sub-consciousness in Mulholland Drive (2001) to contend. Let’s not forget the simple journey in The Straight Story (1999) or the dreary Eraserhead (1977) – all classics – ornamenting Lynch’s plethora of work.

Deep rooted in sexuality, with violence, treachery, abuse, and the dreaded charms of the underworld summing up the movie’s themes, Lynch sets up the mood by showing the dismay of underground insects in one of his most acclaimed shots. A spiraling secret in a calm looking town that appears to be an ideal summer location only serves as an illusion for what’s hidden layers within: something disturbing, yet fascinating. Behind the lulls of such a sweet place though, an underbelly of malicious insects represents all that’s wrong in society. That could be said for any society, but in this case – Lynch sets the milieu in Lumberton.

Blue Velvet is a neo-noir film that borrows as much from Alfred Hitchcock as much as it does from gothic literature. A surrealist drama, 9 years after Eraserhead highlighted latent tendencies within a dystopian city and much before the dreamlike chaos of Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet has tinges of both movies – the mechanics of Eraserhead and the intoxication of Mulholland Drive. Unlike the said movies though, Blue Velvet is awake and aware; it’s fathomable – asserting consciousness in a stratum filled with motifs, symbols, and what could arguably be the simple theme of purity against pollution.

What you find underneath this pure vs. impure theme are the three components of Freud’s psychology. Those would be the psychic apparatus of Id, Ego, and Superego. The characters in Blue Velvet represent Id, Ego, and Superego at some level, and this shapes Blue Velvet as a psychological thesis on the mind, the dilutions of mind as a result of the trepidations within society.

Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth signifies the Id factor. His raw, violent, instinctual personality enslaves him – giving us a vibrant example of the functioning of Id. Kyle McLachlan’s portrayal of Jeffrey Beaumont represents the superego—the morality standards that are present in us—exhibiting concepts of good and bad. The mediator now, the ego, would largely fall into the laps of Laura Dern as the realistic and lovable Sandy Williams.

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The vivaciously painful Dorothy Vallens (played by Isabella Rossellini) is the special element in this alchemy of mind. She completes the mysterious saga with her repressed and painful joie de vivre hovering between her strive towards the superego of Jeffrey, yet trapped in the cage of the id symbolized by Booth.

Essentially, Blue Velvet is a gang war between gangs of our mind that promise to devastate the world outside, with various shades like in painting leaving a rich impression—lasting and incongruent—in this story of a world within a world, a secretive mare within the alluring forces of sex, beauty, and poison.

Going back to Freud, David Lynch mostly explores the Oedipus complex through Blue Velvet. Whether it is Booth in search for sexual gratification from his roleplaying mother, Dorothy, or Jeffrey seeking the same end of motherly affection, albeit subtle and emotional, this surreal drama explores psychoanalysis under the masks of crime and mystery.

Dorothy Vallens epitomizes mind’s allures. Her character is rich, suicidal, and driven by introspective goals. This makes Blue Velvet an experiment on objectification that women like Vallens become under the possession of dangerous minds. She degrades from the highs of a flying Robin in the sky to the derailment of bugs torturing her psyche, hence, transforming her from a real mother to a victimized masochist who pleasures in being tortured, maltreated, and dumped. That is, however, only until she stumbles upon a superego (Jeff) who comes to her life as a blessing and corrects her state, whilst restoring her prestige as a flying Robin free and in union with her true self.

The background score (Angelo Badalamenti) is soulful, as in the case of most movies from the director. They harmonize the visuals and narratives, enhance the mood, and emphasize in authenticating the central theme. In Blue Velvet, it might go a notch up—it configures the movie as a beautiful accord of visuals, sound, and story. Beautiful does sound like a strange word to use in the context of the movie. A more accurate term would be infatuation—towards the movie and towards the characters alive in it.

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At one point, we travel across a Catholic Church echoing liturgical hymns, as Jeff and Sandy talk about the repercussions of their findings, which leads to the much-anticipated embrace between the ego and the superego, a perfect kiss – another neatly done subplot in the story. The slow and methodical build of their romance gives the movie a repressed flaming feel. Flaming it is, as Lynch cuts back to rapid flames flickering off the candle from time to time to highlight obscurity of situations and mutability of people.

Would it be appropriate to call our central character a voyeur though? I think it would. From his voyeuristic suggestions sneaking into Vallens’ apartment to his crunching curiosity to get deeper into this mystical woman, her world, the character of Jeff has its doses of voyeurism. Sandy even refers to this by asking if Jeff is a detective or a pervert. Certainly neither. Jeff is the moral pillar who is shaky and dejected himself, but his superego functions in regular intervals to make him a soothing influence to all those around him, except those driven by their perennial brute instincts (Id).

Blue Velvet is just a polarizing movie in many ways. There is an enigmatic sex Goddess in Dorothy, the antithesis of Dorothy in Sandy, and the synthesis of both in Jeffrey. Wrapping these together in an intriguing story, whilst telling the story from the intra-real point of view, Blue Velvet is hands down the best fusion of psychological representation in a crime environment. That in turn makes it a compelling mystery.

Blue Velvet is a blend of cinemas of the 40s and 50s, the psychoanalytic movement, the paroxysm of reality overriding conscience, and the secrecies that lie within societies. Despite being heavily loaded, Blue Velvet is amongst the simplest stories from Lynch. It’s not as arid as Eraserhead or as anomalous as Lost Highway. Neither is it as ambiguous as Inland Empire (2006), or as distant as Mulholland Drive.

Different to the Elephant Man’s realism, and a step above the recklessness present in Wild at Heart (1990), Blue Velvet is a modest story enhanced by its abstractness. It’s the second installment of the surreal series that started with Eraserhead, heightened with Blue Velvet, evolved with Lost Highway, and climaxed with Mulholland Dr. These four movies form a fundamental study of psychology in a complete abstract, ethereal way.

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Ultimately, Blue Velvet is a brutal burying of the pseudo-intellectual drumming that forces us to accept life in an exclusive pattern shaped by society, family, and circumstances. As a movie, it’s a demolishment derby, and one of the finest from the most perplexing filmmaker of his generation. The elements of noir make love with the depths of surrealism to produce a psychological horror that frightens, disturbs, and bewitches you. A movie that’s been a constant object of adulation for film enthusiasts and is one of the most captivating mysteries, it deserves multiple viewings to absorb and appreciate it because it just so happens to be that damn good.

That damn good.