Blue Velvet (1986)
Dir. David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper
The camera descends from a cloudless, blue sky, settling on vibrant, red roses highlighted against a white picket fence. A shot of a firetruck slowly crossfades in, a firefighter riding alongside, casually waving at the camera. Children cross a street with the aid of a crossing guard. An unidentified man in a hat is watering his lawn, struggling with a kink in the hose. As an ominous hum fades in on the soundtrack, the man drops to his knees and then falls, grabbing his neck, the hose remains in his grip as he writhes painfully, spraying water into the air. A dog comes along barking and nipping at the water as it sprays from the hose wildly, and the film briefly shifts into slow motion, focusing on the snapping jaws of the little dog, giving his playful nips a sinister undertone. The camera cuts to the lawn and begins a slow zoom, turning the blades of grass into a topiary, under which a teeming nest of beetles writhes, crawling over one another. We are then greeted by a bright sign, featuring a beautiful woman waving and welcoming us to Lumberton. We are in suburbia, but something seems slightly off about this glimpse into the heart of Americana. No time is wasted in showing the audience the rotten core underlying the myth of small town tranquility. The opening sequence of Blue Velvet is seared onto my brain, representing something primal, seminal, and profound. It was my first brush with the perfect oddity of the cinema of David Lynch, who would go on to become my favorite filmmaker.
I’m really not sure how or why I decided to pick up Blue Velvet. As I mentioned, it was my first experience with David Lynch and I do remember purchasing the DVD without having seen the movie before. I must have seen something about it online, on a list of movies, or maybe I had heard about David Lynch in the commentary of some other movie I’d seen, although I don’t know what that would have been. Regardless, for some reason I picked up a copy of Blue Velvet at my local Circuit City, likely sometime in 2003. When I watched the movie for the first time, I really wasn’t sure what to make of a film like this. Though it doesn’t traffic in the same overt surrealism and narrative disjointedness that have become Lynchian calling cards, Blue Velvet is a perfect introductory film for those looking to get into David Lynch. Leaving The Straight Story aside, Blue Velvet is one of Lynch’s most straightforward and least narratively complex films, but there is plenty of weirdness and mystery creeping around the edges. Like its opening montage, the film seeks to take a look behind the idyllic white picket fences of Middle America and reveal the rot and decay hiding therein.
The film stars Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey Beaumont, who is returning to Lumberton from his first year of college after his father collapsed while watering the lawn. While returning home from visiting his father in the hospital, Jeffrey finds a severed human ear in an abandoned lot. He inspects the ear, which appears to have mold on it, and takes it to a detective who he knows from the neighborhood. Det. Williams (George Dickerson) thanks Jeffrey for providing him with the piece of evidence and suggests that he not concern himself in the investigation any further. However, after a chance meeting with Williams’s daughter, Sandy (Dern), Jeffrey’s curiosity is once again stoked, and the two decide to continue looking into the mysterious ear themselves. Information gleaned from Sandy eavesdropping on her father’s phone calls leads the junior detectives to the apartment of lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini), who has recently been under police surveillance and who may have something to do with the ear. Sandy agrees to help Jeffrey break into Dorothy’s apartment, against her better judgment. Using a key that he had stolen earlier, Jeffrey sneaks into the apartment one night while Dorothy is performing. He’s nearly caught when she returns, but is able to hide in a closet where he spies on Dorothy taking a phone call from a man named Frank (Hopper), who has kidnapped her husband and child, and who is using them to blackmail and coerce her. Dorothy discovers Jeffrey and forces him out of the closet, making him strip off his clothes at knifepoint. Her initial desire is to humiliate Jeffrey, who she takes for a peeping Tom, but then she begins to kiss him. They’re interrupted when there’s a knock at the door, and Frank arrives at the apartment. Jeffrey is again forced to watch from the closet as the sadistic Frank shouts at and assaults Dorothy. All the while, he’s huffing amyl nitrate and practically foaming at the mouth with rage and desire. After Frank leaves, Jeffrey tries to comfort Dorothy. They end up having sex and she asks him to hit her, which he initially refuses, though he will eventually, reluctantly, do it. After their encounter, Jeffrey seems disturbed by what he’s seen and experienced, but also feels a responsibility to help Dorothy, so he continues his investigation into Frank and his crime syndicate, despite Sandy’s protestations. Jeffrey becomes caught between two worlds: one bright and promising, represented by the blonde, youthful Sandy, the other dark and sinister, represented by the seductive Dorothy. He risks getting in too deep with Frank and his dangerous friends, but by the time he realizes just how dangerous they may be, it’s too late. The sickness and malice that Frank represents have begun to infect Jeffrey’s formerly benign day-to-day life in the small town paradise of Lumberton.
I mentioned being somewhat perplexed by the film after my first viewing, and that certainly isn’t due to any lack of narrative clarity. I had understood the film fine, but I was left unsettled. I don’t remember if I watched it again in quick succession, or if I let myself stew on the film for a while, but the weirdness of Blue Velvet was lingering around in my head for days. Bugs crawling out of the ear, Isabella Rossellini singing “Blue Velvet” bathed in an ocean of blue light, the savagery of a dog’s jaws opening and closing in slow motion. The images from the film were persistent and strange, and they suggested a certain sort of world view that was maybe a bit skewed. I watched Blue Velvet again and again, becoming more comfortable with its tone and appreciating more and more Lynch’s cynical, surreal take on small town Americana. Growing up in a small town myself, although one that was more urban and was certainly a bit more populous than Lumberton, I had first-hand knowledge that the mythos of the pristine, Middle American, small town experience was often belied by what happened after dark when the shades were drawn.
Blue Velvet launched my obsession with the work of David Lynch. Even though his feature output isn’t necessarily as large as some other filmmakers, Lynch is undoubtedly an auteur, having developed an unmistakable style, sonically, visually, thematically, and in his choices of subject matter. I went next to Mulholland Dr., at the time Lynch’s most recent film, and I was shocked and often terrified by the strange film. If Blue Velvet had left me vexed, then Mulholland Dr. had me flat-out stupefied. I couldn’t put the film together coherently in a narrative or thematic sense, and I really had no idea how to process what I’d just seen. I wanted more, but I couldn’t find copies of Eraserhead or The Elephant Man or anything else Lynch, so I just watched Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. repeatedly over the last two years of high school. After I came to college, I had access to so many more movies, and I would start to work my way through Lynch’s filmography. I remember well a bus trip to the Regent Theater to see INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch’s most recent film, in 2006. When I had the opportunity to take a class on the films of both Lynch and Luis Bunuel (which I mentioned when writing about Belle de Jour), I jumped at the opportunity and my fandom was cemented. I filled in most of the gaps in the Lynch filmography through this class and I relished the opportunity to write at length about Mulholland Dr. which had become my favorite of his films, and try to work out some of the questions that I still had about the film. After college, I had less and less time to watch films as I’ve mentioned many times before, but I always came back to Lynch. Every five years or so, I take another deep dive into his work. In 2012, it was sparked by a rewatch of Twin Peaks on Netflix with a roommate. In 2017, it was another rewatch of Twin Peaks in anticipation of the release of the currently airing Twin Peaks: The Return. Lynch has been on my mind quite a bit lately, and rewatching Blue Velvet reminds me of where it all started.
Lynch’s original cut of the film was rumored to have run nearly four hours before he cut the runtime in half. Nearly an hour of that excised footage has been recovered and was included on the Bluray rerelease of the film. I don’t have that edition and I haven’t seen the footage, but from what I’ve read, it hints that Lynch’s original version of Blue Velvet was to be a much darker and stranger film, more in line with his later style. Though I would be interested to see some of these deleted scenes, I think that Blue Velvet works best just the way it is. Keeping the Lynchian surrealism to a minimum makes the film’s dark undertones seem all the more sinister. Unlike the later fictional town of Twin Peaks, Lumberton feels like a real place that could exist, indicating that the evil contained there is linked to the evil that exists in our own world. The final cut includes a (seemingly) happy ending that sees Frank defeated, Jeffrey and Sandy united as a couple, and order seemingly restored to Lumberton. The film’s final shot is of a robin crunching on one of the beetles from the film’s beginning, a callback to an earlier line by Sandy where she describes a dream in which there was no love in the world, only darkness, until thousands of robins were released, symbolizing the return of love to the world. However, I think that this happy ending is somewhat facile, because even though the robin eating the beetle might signify the return of natural order and the triumph of love and goodness over evil, it just serves to remind me that there can never be enough robins to do away with all the beetles. Digging deep into the soil of any town will turn up a nest of vile creatures. Lynch films tend to want to expose the teeming underbelly of their worlds, forcing the viewer to confront ugly truths, although often in a distorted, surreal manner.
Even after excising some of the film’s stranger elements, Blue Velvet retains many of the key elements that would come to define Lynch’s cinema over the years. Not only does the film explore themes of hidden darkness and the depths of depravity, it also engages in a light/dark dichotomy that becomes central to Lynch’s symbolism. Lynch loves doubling and doppelgangers and in Blue Velvet, the light/dark dichotomy is very literal, pairing Sandy and Dorothy, whose contrasting hair colors are symbolically representative of their moral standing. The symbolic use of night and day in this film and throughout the Lynch filmography is another example of this light/dark dichotomy. The film additionally features many actors who have come to make up something of a stock cast for Lynch, appearing in multiple films, often playing roles that share some similarities from film to film. Kyle MacLachlan has worked with Lynch frequently, most notably here and in Twin Peaks, while Laura Dern would go on to star in Lynch’s follow up to Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart. Jack Nance, who plays Paul, a member of Frank’s gang, was a close friend of Lynch’s and the star of his debut feature, Eraserhead. Blue Velvet also features many of Lynch’s iconic visual motifs, such as lounge singers and night clubs, highly staged and stylized interiors, and overtly performative acting style. The scene where Ben (Dean Stockwell), an associate of Frank’s, lip syncs to “Candy Colored Clown” is the best example of this type of performative style, and is a decidedly Lynchian set piece. Though the film doesn’t go over the top with its strangeness, its core is rooted in Lynch’s avant-garde, surrealist style.
I think there is a temptation, particularly among those who are maybe not as acquainted with the entire corpus of Lynch’s work but I have even seen it in academic writing, to lump discussion of Blue Velvet in with its obvious influence of Lynch’s television series, Twin Peaks. There are many similarities between the two, and Lynch has even admitted that the idea for Twin Peaks began germinating while he was directing MacLachlan in Blue Velvet, but I think it’s important to point out a major difference between the two texts. There is no hint of supernatural or metaphysical forces at play in Blue Velvet. While both works explore the duality of human nature and the darkness that can be revealed when the veneer of polite society is stripped away, Twin Peaks attributes the evil in its universe to malevolent beings who live in an interdimensional space called the Black Lodge, the entrance to which happens to be in the woods near the town of Twin Peaks. In Blue Velvet, the evil infesting Lumberton is inherently a part of the town. It is represented by a figure of pure destruction in Frank Booth, one who is not being controlled by any forces other than his own desire to hurt others. Frank is an unrestrained id, manifestly evil, but he is real, and represents the terrifying reality that anyone could potentially break bad like this. That realization fuels Jeffrey’s nightmare and anguish the morning after he hits Dorothy during sex. He doesn’t know why or how Frank’s psychosexual fury developed, but he fears that he may have taken the first steps down that same path. I think this insistence on reality makes Blue Velvet a more successful and compelling work of art than the later television show. I love Twin Peaks, but one of my only criticisms of the show is that its insistence on an intentional artificiality makes its darker themes seem less serious, particularly in its troubled second season. I think that Lynch took steps to resolve that in the harrowing prequel film Fire Walk With Me, which he released after the show was canceled, and which marks one of Lynch’s most overt forays into out-and-out horror filmmaking.
When I do go back and watch Lynch films, all of which I’ve seen more than a few times now, excepting The Straight Story, I sometimes pass over Blue Velvet. Probably because I’ve seen it so many other times earlier in life, I’ve felt like my time is better spent familiarizing myself with Lynch’s 90’s works, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, both of which are incredibly interesting, but neither of which work nearly as well as a film as Blue Velvet. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to love about Blue Velvet in this post, from Angelo Badalementi’s gauzy score, to the actors’ strange, exciting performances, to Lynch’s subtle attempts to drop surrealist tropes into a more straightforward narrative. Blue Velvet is packed with information and symbolism; Freudian critics can have a field day with this film, and with the dreamscapes that Lynch creates, in general. While I don’t subscribe to that line of critical thinking, I do find myself finding new ways to arrange the tapestry of signs that make up Blue Velvet, even after 15 years and more than 15 viewings. The film still feels fresh and transgressive after all this time, and I think that makes it the perfect introduction to the cinema of David Lynch. It provides a strong enough narrative foothold to give viewers a sense of security while still introducing the darker elements of Lynch’s visual style and his thematic obsessions. Form and content match up well in the film with its traditional mystery narrative masking Lynch’s more subversive content, which mirrors the idea in the film that there are hidden evils coursing just below the surface of Lumberton. If you’ve been wanting to get on the Lynch bandwagon after hearing about the Twin Peaks revival but don’t know where to start, this would be the perfect place.