Magnificent Film Obsession: The Ear in Blue Velvet

Pin It
=Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan) in Blue Velvet (1986)
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan) in Blue Velvet (1986)

Robert De Niro's "You talkin' to me?" scene in Taxi Driver, the ear in Blue Velvet and Federico Fellini's legendary casting sessions are three examples of iconic moments in the history of cinema. The obsessive practice of each of these elements is,

Obsessive behaviour is rife in the creative arts: photographer Nick Knight is well known for the many hours spent in post-production; graphic designer Peter Saville has a longstanding reputation for painstaking precision and running past deadlines; and designer Azzedine Alaïa is constantly striving to perfect his virtuoso silhouettes. Italian glasses brand Persol are also feted for their loyalty to craftmanship, with every pair of glasses passing through the hands of at least 15 specialist craftsmen. To celebrate this, the brand have co-partnered with curator Michael Connor for the travelling exhibition, Persol Magnificent Obsessions. The focus is film – a medium rich with examples and one close to the brand's history (Persols have been worn by actors such as Steve McQueen, and Cary Grant).

The most intriguing inclusion is the ear from David Lynch's 1986 cult mystery, Blue Velvet. The 'ear' is central to the film, not just the iconic scene in which Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan) discovers a severed ear in a neighbourhood field, crawling with ants and growing mould, but the link to the film's all-important soundtrack. Alongside vintage pop songs and orchestral arrangements is the surreal soundscape ranging from fog horns to roaches walking over eggshells, painstakingly created by husband and wife sound team Alan Splet and Ann Kroeber.

The ear scene was one of the starting points of the film for Lynch: "I don't know why it had to be an ear. Except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body, a hole into something else...The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind so it felt perfect". The ear is symbolic: it is what leads Jeffrey into danger; just as Jeffrey's troubles begin, the audience is treated to a nightmarish sequence in which the camera zooms into the canal of the severed, decomposing ear. Notably, the camera does not reemerge from the ear canal until the end of the film. When Jeffrey finally comes through his hellish ordeal unscathed, the ear canal shot is replayed, only in reverse, zooming out through Jeffrey's own ear as he relaxes in his yard on a summer day. Lynch was so obsessed by the prosthetic ear, that it also made an appearance in an episode of Twin Peaks. Shown out of context in the exhibition, it is even more sinister. Lynch was determined that the ear would be a character in itself and requested that make-up artist Jeff Goodwin made it using silicone rather than latex. The hair on the ear is in fact Lynch's, procured after a haircut during filming.

Amongst the celebrated stories in the exhibition is the exhaustive preparation and dedication to their art of award-winning actor Robert De Niro (unhinged Vietnam War vet Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver). De Niro had the film’s screenwriter Paul Schrader read the diaries of Gov George Wallace’s would-be assassin Arthur Bremer into a tape recorder which he listened to whilst working as a cab driver for two weeks. The shooting script for the infamous mirror scene describes it with only these words: "Travis speaks to himself in the mirror"; De Niro invented the famous line "You talkin’ to me?" on the spot. Another exhibit focuses on Federico Fellini’s legendary casting sessions, which would attract more than 1,000 people through a small newspaper advertisement for a single minor part, with the director making his choice of actors based on a person’s eccentricity.

Each year Persol will be celebrating ten stories from the history of cinema. Following a brief opening in New York last week, the first exhibition will travel to Paris later this month and Milan in late September 2011.

Text by Laura Bradley