Red Lipstick, Blue Velvet: Color and the Costuming of Dorothy Vauhan

I was extraordinarily taken by the work of color in the Blue Velvet, mainly in the motif of primary colors and in the costuming of characters. While I initially wanted to dedicate this blog to discussing the presence and function of primary colors in the film, for the sake of efficiency (and my own analytical cohesion), I will focus mainly on the latter. Most specifically, I want to look at how the color red connects to Dorothy Vauhan, and how this intermingles with her role as the “Blue Woman.” – for in the end, both of these essential colors manifest themselves in her character.

Throughout almost the entire film (save for the last scene – which I shall return to), Dorothy always appears in either red or blue – and sometimes both. Where else does red appear in the film? The red roses, from the very first; the red fire-truck; the red outfits of the Beaumont Lumber employees (and the red axe in the shop); the stop sign (and the outfits of the children crossing); et cetera. With Dorothy specifically, there is her red lipstick and her casual red dress, the red of the crooner’s club she sings at, and, of course, her own pink-red apartment and curtains. By emphasizing the color red and attaching it to Dorothy—and literally making her inhabit it—Lynch also endows her with the symbolic potential of all of the associative signifiers held by the other red objects: the beauty (and/or courtly seductiveness) of the roses; the sexuality of the lipstick and crooner’s club; the danger and/or protection of the stop sign and firetruck; the innocence of the children; the familiarity and loyalty of the Beaumont employees; the destructiveness of the axe; and so on. Yet, red is not the only color Dorothy wears – she also owns the blue of the blue velvet robe, as well as (frequently) a heavy blue eyeshadow. Thus, she also shares in the entire range of implication posed by blue. Arguably, Dorothy bears most of the meaning of the film – that is to say, the meanings of the film, just like the colors, converge in (or rather center around) her.

Dorothy is a blue-red woman who inhabits red spheres: namely, the club and her apartment. Yet, after Dorothy is freed of the hold of the Frank, her character is no longer subservient to this color scheme, nor is she limited to these sexualized locales. When the drama of the film has concluded, Dorothy no longer wears red or blue – rather, she appears a simple brown shirt, sitting on a park bench.  The elements of tension pent up in these colors resolve (within the narrative, at least) along with the drama of the film; accordingly, Dorothy no longer bears the responsibility of carrying them. No longer the center of the narrative and all of its manifold meanings/psychosexual implications, she may settle into the comfortable drab clothing and simple suburban exterior of a normal mother.

(It is interesting to note that the other female lead, Sandy, is also characterized by a dominant costuming color – pink. A color in the same color family as red, but with a much different association – that of unassuming femininity, virginal innocence, quaint prettiness, etc. This cousin color stands in stark contrast with the bold, sexualized red, which, again, suits the role of Sandy’s character in the film – as well as how it is drawn in direct contrast with Dorothy.)


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Dorothy in pronounced reds

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Dorothy after the plot resolves

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Sandy costumed in pink

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Visual Barriers in Raging Bull

While watching Raging Bull, I thought a lot about the patterned recurrence of visual barriers (namely, those that occur completely outside the realm of the ring). As I was (thematically) most interest in how the film depicted its female characters, I considered this pattern mainly in how it marked the evolution of romantic relationships. The visual boundaries that I noticed generally fit the context of scenes in two ways: moments of visual confinement signified the characters’ entrapment, and physical demarcation also emphasized their divisions.

When I think of the visual imprisonment of characters, my mind jumps to two scenes: Jake and Vicki’s first meeting by the pool, and the conversation between Vicki and Joey in the bar. In their first conversation, Jake and Vicki each appears on either side of the fence; while Vicki seems far more like the “caged” object of spectacle (to borrow Thompson’s word), given the low angle and how she approaches the fence when beckoned, both characters are, in effect, visually imprisoned. (And, as we discussed in class, each of them is, in a sense, trapped: Jake by his demons, and Vicki by Jake’s situation and jealousy/the subjective camera.) The camera does not just suggest Vicki’s entrapment, however; it eventually corroborates it. When Vicki is confronted by Joey while out at the club, she exclaims, “I feel like I’m a prisoner” – and in the frame in which she delivers this line, locked in by the mirrors surrounding her, she is.

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On the topic of divisions, I’ll center my discussion around the beginning and end of Jake and Vikki’s relationship. After the aforementioned pool scene, when Jake and Vicki first go out driving together, they remain partitioned by the pole in the car’s windowshield. (Even when Vicki obeys Jake and slides closer to him in the seat, her face remains cut off by the pole – they do not appear together). This shot frames their relationship in a way that foreshadows the persistence of division between them; the visual circularity of this image comes through in the scene when Vicki tells Jake that they are getting divorced. Once again, the bar of a car window crosses her face (this time horizontally, as opposed to vertically) and separates her and Jake. (The visual barrier, of course, physically enacts the emotional barrier evident in this scene.) The motif of the car window both foretells and cement the fate of Vicki and Jake’s relationship: they start divided, and they end divided. Importantly, instead of being on the other side of the windowpane with Vicki (like in the first car scene), as we see in the reverse-shot, this time Jake—along with the viewer—remains on the outside. He occupies the same space as the viewer, signifying that he is now a spectator of—no longer an actor in—his own life.

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Citizen Frame: Depth of Field, Well(es) Done

One of the great things about Citizen Kane is that, every time you watch it, you notice something new. This time around (my third in an academic context), the Bazin reading really primed me to think about the depth of field as I was watching, and, as a result, to note its role in echoing (or even crafting) the emotional context of the narrative. (The depth of field was probably the cinematic technique that captivated me the most besides the foreshadowing, and often figurative, use of lighting). As I was watching Kane, I found that the depth of field recurrently contributed to the construction of visually confining frames. Yet, at times, the deep focus did the opposite, leaving characters drowned in an expansive background. Both of these approaches, though in a sense stylistically juxtaposed, serve similar effects: these visual compositions almost always chime synchronously with the narrative and emotional state of the characters (as I’ll point out with specific examples.) Most commonly, I saw the depth of field, in either of its stylistic manifestations – one loud with action, and the other roaring with compositional quiet – work to communicate its characters’ stark isolation.

A couple of moments stood out to me as particularly emblematic of this pattern. I’d made a note of the tableau in El Rancho before Monday’s class, but had considereScreen Shot 2017-01-31 at 5.57.07 PMd it with slightly different logic: instead of thinking about how the frame composition suggested boundaries (and their traversal), I was caught by how the linear bifurcation siphoned every character into his/her own distinct section of the screen, with Mr. Thompson entirely in shadow. The characters are literally operating in completely different spheres (or, rather, rectangles), and the camera highlights this complete lack of unity amongst the characters.
In regards to the portrayal of divisions, as the shots below demonstrate, spatial composition and framing also highlight the personal fractions between characters. In the conversation with Leland and Kane, the pair’s spatial divisions emphasizes their deepening personal divisions, as well as Kane’s growing isolation: the two are on opposite poles of perspective, and poles literally separate them in the frame. (Kane, recessed, is surrounded by “Kane” campaign posters: beyond emphasizing his ego, this visual minimizatio  drowns Kane as a person in Kane as an idea). In the ensuing scene of the Gettis confrontation, on the other hand, rather than striate its characters, the framing heightens the claustrophobic sense of conflict by visually constraining them.

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Overall, it was precisely this insistent interplay between visual suffocation and isolation that underlined my experience viewing the film.


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