Grade: 98 (A)
What to do after the most high profile failure of your career? For David Lynch, the answer was to go back to his own obsessions and interests rather than take on another studio project. After Dino de Laurentiis and producer Richard Roth showed little interest in his long gestating Ronnie Rocket script, Lynch brought up another: Blue Velvet, an idea for a film that he’d been kicking around for years. The film was released in 1986 to controversy, with some calling it a masterpiece and others calling it sick, vulgar, and misogynistic (Roger Ebert was one of the most vocal detractors). But the film’s has stuck around as a twisted psychological thriller that’s also a brilliant noir, a sick black comedy, and perhaps Lynch’s crowning achievement.
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns home from college after his father has a stroke. One day, while walking home from the hospital, Jeffrey finds a severed human ear in the middle of a field. He takes it to the police, but the terminally curious Jeffrey is unsatisfied to sit back and wait for answers. With the help of the police captain’s daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), he traces the ear to lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), whose husband and son are being held captive by nitrous-oxide huffing drug dealer named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who forces Dorothy to cater to his sexual depravity. As Jeffrey starts to fall for both Sandy and Dorothy, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the case until he’s so in over his head that it turns into a living nightmare.
Lynch sets the tone for Blue Velvet early on with a scene in Jeffrey’s hometown, Lumberton, a seemingly idyllic small town where kids play, lawns are freshly mowed, and firefighters wave happily to passersby. It’s all a little bit too perfect, to an disquieting degree. As Jeffrey’s father has a stroke and collapses on his lawn, Lynch shifts to slow motion as ambient noise swells on the soundtrack, drowning out Bobby Vinton’s classic song “Blue Velvet”, and beneath the freshly cut grass, a hive of horrible bugs live, tearing away at the soil. This scene showcases several Lynch tropes- strong use of unsettling sound design, obsession with 1950s style décor, idyllic small towns and their dark underbellies.
Few directors get as much mileage out of sound than David Lynch, and Blue Velvet is no exception. Lynch uses sound designer Alan Splet’s sound design to swing the audience into uneasy situations, whether it involves low humming in an apartment building or inexplicable, distorted noises of Jeffrey’s dreams. The ear is used as a passageway to the mind rather than the eye (notably, an ear is severed, and Lynch pushes in on an ear to show that we’re descending into hell). When Frank’s creepy sexual habits are introduced, we notably hear him huffing gas before we see what he’s actually doing. Just like the horrible noises of Eraserhead, Lynch gets the intended effect- “Oh my god, what the fuck is that?”
That said, not all of the sound here is outright horrifying. Blue Velvet is the first of Lynch’s many collaborations with composer Angelo Badalamenti, and it’s one of the most important collaborators of his career. Badalamenti’s score ranges from lush, beautiful love themes to classic, Bernard Herrmann-esque Hitchcock cues to horrifying brooding. It’s a spectacular and varied piece of work for a film that requires radical shifts in tone from scene to scene. Equally important: Lynch’s mastery of using old pop songs against strange, often disturbing images. His use of “Blue Velvet” in the opening scene is spectacular, but it’s even better when Dorothy sings the sadness-tinged pop song in her lounge act, as if she’s crying for help to her audience (and to us). Even better is the use of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” (more on that later).
That’s not to say that Lynch is a slouch when it comes to visuals, either. His noir-like lighting is nearly as central to the mysterious atmosphere of the film as the sound is. Particularly memorable is Sandy’s introduction, approaching out of the shadows only to be revealed as the classic girl next door. Also memorable- whenever Lynch uses flickering lights, a simple yet always effectively creepy touch. Lynch’s lighting, sparing use of slow motion (often coupled with distorted noise), and gorgeous 1950s décor gives Blue Velvet a feel that’s unmistakably the work of a unique artist.
Of course, every artist has his influences, and Lynch’s here are a fascinating mix. The backbone of the film is a Hitchcockian thriller with elements from Rear Window (Jeffrey’s voyeuristic tendencies), Vertigo (his obsession), and Psycho (pure, visceral horror). The horrifying claustrophobic mood is taken from Roman Polanski, whereas the noir elements (detectives, big bads, and femme fatales) and the desire to peer behind curtains feels like something Billy Wilder might do. Lynch’s populations of strange, Fellini-esque grotesques is more restrained here than it would be in future films, but there’s plenty of weirdoes, both benign and malignant, to warrant comparison. Lynch’s depiction of Frank’s overpowering madness recalls Werner Herzog’s work (see: anything Klaus Kinski ever did), and there’s more than a few surreal touches borrowed from Luis Bunuel. One of the most bizarre influences, less explicit here than in future Lynch films, is The Wizard of Oz. It may sound strange, but The Wizard of Oz has its own strange dream logic and surreal (fantastical, but surreal) touches to it, and Lynch’s obsession with polarized worlds (a split between the good small town and it’s seedy underbelly) bears resemblance to the polarized world of The Wizard of Oz.
Let’s take a look at those worlds. In one, there’s the small town filled with good cops, friendly family members, and two aw-shucks kids who couldn’t look more wholesome if they tried. Dern, in one of her earliest roles, is perfect as the good girl with just enough curiosity to be tempted to get into dangerous business. Equally strong is MacLachlan, the ultimate David Lynch surrogate, as a good small town kid with a whose healthy curiosity in what’s behind the curtain leads into an unhealthy obsession.
The real fascination of the film, however, is the trio of seedier characters. Rossellini has given great performances in the years since Blue Velvet (Fearless, most notably), but she never topped her fearless work here. Dorothy is a bizarre version of a femme fatale- the first of Lynch’s many women in trouble. Dorothy’s masochistic behavior was upsetting to many viewers (Roger Ebert accused Lynch of harboring secret misogynistic feelings), but Lynch sympathizes with her. The director said that he was inspired by a childhood memory of a naked woman walking dazed down the street, having clearly suffered a significant trauma. Lynch found the incident deeply upsetting, and that feeling carries over to a character whose ordeal is so great that she’s begun to believe that she deserves, or even desires, Frank’s brutality. Her abuse is ultimately more about how it affects Jeffrey, the seemingly innocent protagonist, but it doesn’t trivialize her pain.
Dennis Hopper is, by my estimation, the greatest character actor who ever lived, and his work in Blue Velvet is easily the best work of his career. Simultaneously horrifying (who wouldn’t be disturbed by his violent sexual abuse of Dorothy) and darkly funny (“What kind of beer you like, neighbor…HEINEKEN? FUCK THAT SHIT! PABST BLUE RIBBON!”), Frank is the monster hiding beneath the wholesome small town- the bug in the freshly cut grass. He’s easily one of the most vulgar, sadistic villains to ever grace the silver screen- when Jeffrey sneaks into Dorothy’s apartment and sees Frank beating, dry humping, and gagging Dorothy, he’s repulsed and horrified. It’s one of the most shocking scenes in movie history. And yet there’s some humanity to the monster- one scene shows Frank listening to Dorothy sing “Blue Velvet” in the Slow Club, stroking the piece of blue velvet he cut from her robe, filled with sadness. He’s the face of evil, but he’s also a human being. His Oedipal cries of “Mommy” and “Baby wants to fuck!” during his sexual escapades take on a more disturbing and slightly sad tone because of this- something has damaged Frank to the point where he functions on unbridled sadism and hatred. Hopper was nominated for Best Supporting Actor that year for Hoosiers. Nothing against that basketball favorite, but…come on.
Still, he’s not the only disturbed individual in the film. Dean Stockwell appears in one scene as Frank’s creepy, effete colleague Ben. Stockwell thrives on portraying characters who are equal parts sleazy and suave (he is, as Frank says, “one suave fuck”), and Ben fits the mold better than any character he ever played, save perhaps Tony “The Tiger” Russo in Married to the Mob. Ben offsets Frank’s feral nature with an unnervingly calm and polite manner. There’s clearly something wrong with this guy, and his creepy lip-sync to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” doesn’t do anything to dispel the situation.
Dreams are perhaps the most important aspect of Lynch’s filmography. No modern filmmaker is more interested in dreams and the subconscious than Lynch. It’s certainly the easiest way to fit in his surrealistic touches. Blue Velvet features multiple dream sequences- Jeffrey’s nightmares after his first encounter with Dorothy and Frank, Sandy’s dream of robins bringing light to the world- but the whole film operates on a sort of dream logic. The idea that the town could be this idyllic and cheerful seems like an idea from a nice dream that can’t possibly be real, and Lynch brings a Brechtian detachment to these scenes that highlights it- the sets feel artificial, the teen romance scenes between gee-whiz sweethearts Jeffrey and Sandy is hilariously corny, and Dorothy’s big hair is obviously a wig. Then the nightmares start, and everything starts to feel more real (don’t nightmares always feel real?)- the filmmaking becomes more intense, the sets feel claustrophobic, and now the danger is very palpable. Jeffrey starts out as an amateur sleuth with an innocent curiosity, but now he’s in way over his head. “Now it’s dark…”
Then again, maybe Jeffrey isn’t so innocent after all. His disappointment when it seems that Sandy can’t stay out all night shows that his desire be a bit less sweet than hand holding. When he meets Dorothy, he gets that chance. He’s exposed to a much more dangerous side of sexuality, one that he has less control over. He starts out as a peeping tom before Dorothy invites him into her life. Dorothy likes getting hit, and while Jeffrey shows reluctance at first, he’s perfectly able to do it after some goading. “Are you a bad boy? Do you want to do bad things?” Jeffrey can only hide his hidden desires for so long before he inevitably acts on them in a slow motion lovemaking scene that turns sex into something nightmarish. As the road gets darker, his hidden desires are exposed to the world- first he’s humiliated and beaten by Frank on a sadistic “joy ride” that ends with him bruised and crying to himself for the things that he’s done. A later scene shows a battered Dorothy showing up naked on Sandy’s lawn, babbling about her sexual experience with Jeffrey to Sandy. The sweet, romantic date is ruined, and Jeffrey’s no innocent boy. “You’re like me”, Frank says to Jeffrey at one point. He’s not completely wrong.
Here’s an interesting parallel: Blue Velvet was released in the button down 1980s, amidst the Reagan administration’s “morning in America” period. The country had grown more conservative, and part of the conservative vision was going back to an idealized portrait of the 1950s, where America was at its finest, everything was clean cut, and romance between teens (like Jeffrey and Sandy) was innocent. It was a complete contrast between the oversexed modern society (complete with the burgeoning AIDS crisis), outlandish styles, and spiritual malaise America had been through. It was time to take it back to that period.
Of course, that idealized vision of the 1950s is a complete crock of shit, and Blue Velvet digs beneath it. The 1980s world of Blue Velvet looks suspiciously like a clean-cut TV show of the 1950s (albeit in vivid color), but there’s beneath the idealized vision of middle America lies a sinister truth- danger, complete in wacko version of 1950s greaser garb (Frank and his creepy associates, played by Brad Dourif and Jack Nance) and a bizarre version of the suave Hollywood type (Ben). Notably, it’s also a time where the War on Drugs was at its peak. Blue Velvet provides a view of the nastiest drug dealers you’ll ever see, but it also shows corruption (the police captain’s partner) and the idea that the “good guys” aren’t so innocent. Plus, Frank is only one of the bad guys out there. After he’s taken out, what happens next? Lynch has said several times that he’s not a political person, but then again, the man believes in subconscious desires very strongly, and the film’s perfect timing makes it one of the most subversive films of the decade.
Love conquers all in the end- Frank is dead, Jeffrey and Sandy are happy together, and Dorothy is reunited with her son. But as many would attest, it’s all a bit fake, no? Jeffrey introduces himself as a bug exterminator early in the film, and he’s proven himself right. But Frank is just one bug, held in the beak of the beautiful robin that Sandy dreamed about. And the bird is more than a little artificial looking. It’s a happy ending if we pretend that Jeffrey is just an innocent robin rather than someone whose actions put those he loves in danger, not to mention a man with his own sexual deviancies. They’ve saved the day, but for how long? And as the camera pushes in on Dorothy, the sadness on her face is still clear. She has her son, but her husband is gone, and it’s unlikely she’ll ever fully recover from this psychologically devastating ordeal. As the song goes…“And I still can see blue velvet through my tears…”
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