“I can’t figure out if you’re a detective or a pervert.”
Blue Velvet (1986), directed by David Lynch; written by David Lynch; produced by Fred Caruso; music by Angelo Badalamenti; cinematography by Frederick Elmes; editing by Duwayne Dunham; sound design by Alan Splet; distributed by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group; Awards: nominated for Best Director Academy Award; Won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor (Dennis Hopper), National Society of Film Critics; for a full list of nominations and awards, go here.
There’s nothing quite like the first viewing of Blue Velvet in a cinema. It has for me the status that my elders attributed to an initial viewing, in a cinema, of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The sense of collective dread emanating from the audience is something to experience, to say nothing of the gasps and squirms occurring all around you. I first saw David Lynch’s breakthrough film a year or two after its release, in a crowded auditorium on the University of Delaware campus. Many of the guys in the hall chimed-in gleefully each time the song “Blue Velvet” was heard. There was definitely a feel of camaraderie in the screening—we were all in this together!—but it was also the kind of situation where I couldn't help but wonder what was going through other people’s heads while they were watching it. The presence of a large crowd doesn’t stop one from having a personal response to the film, and that screening goes down in the history of my film-viewing as one of the few films that floored me on the first viewing as something completely unique and unforgettable.
From that time on, I’ve considered Lynch a cinematic genius—the kind of figure who sets his own standard. The problem is that the standard he set with this film was incredibly high and also unrepeatable. His work has rarely lived up to it, and, though I’m always intrigued by his films, I feel that the amazing high-points create expectations very difficult to match or maintain. But the purpose here is not a career retrospective on Lynch, but rather an account of what makes this particular film so successful.
Its success has to do with the control of tone throughout. The film opens with such an off-kilter view of All-American normality that we know from the start we’re going somewhere different. This film was released in the heart of Mr. “Morning in America” Reagan’s effort to return us, collectively, to some fond daydream of post-WWII, pre-Vietnam American citizenry as all white, all “normal,” all TV sitcom all the time, and Lynch, oddly, seemed to take him up on it. But the place Lynch took us to (filmed in and around Wilmington, NC) was a place called Lumberton—“there’s plenty of wood out there, so let’s get to it!”—with wide sidewalks and spacious lawns and a police chief living in a house where you can just drop by, like visiting a high school coach, and where freak accidents can strike during lawn-watering and where birds and bugs are vaguely unsettling, and where an unremarkable kid home from college, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachan), could find a severed ear crawling with ants in a field near an old shack.
To say that Lynch wants to show us “fear in a handful of dust” is to state the obvious—the sense that something is rotten even in Lumberton is simply the starting point. “Why, anyone could think of that,” as Dr. Seuss says in one of my childhood favorites, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. What Lynch does so effectively is to take us into one very particular dark side, one that seethes with all the horribleness of a dream becoming a nightmare—and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. The nightmare was already there, it’s just that now you’re aware of it. What Jeffrey becomes aware of—on one hand—is a freakish subculture of comic and sad acceptance of anything and everything. Lynch has the guts to follow in Tod Browning’s footsteps, but not as a tale of tolerance and of different strokes for folks who are perforce different. Lynch doesn’t champion nor condemn deviance—he’s simply drawn to the outsiders who make their outside-ness their identity. All of which would be rewarding enough, if perhaps off-putting to some, but for Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper in one of the key roles in a career of offbeat character-actor roles). “Why are there people like Frank?” Jeffrey asks, with real anguish. And there’s no good answer. But there is some value in letting us see someone like Frank and, thanks to him, a world that includes kidnapping, torture, sexual enslavement, masochism, sadism, violent and vile intimidation, drug-running, and police corruption.
Lynch goes beyond any previous version of the eccentric bad guy. His and Hopper’s Frank Booth is a study in wild mood swings, abusive language (back when “the f word” could still pack a punch—I mean, long, long before Go The Fuck To Sleep, y’know?), and in some kind of writhing, self-determined deviance that generally goes by the name of “love.” Yeah, Frank’s got it bad for a local chanteuse named Dorothy (who’s definitely not in Kansas anymore) Vallens (Isabella Rossellini)—so much so that he kidnaps her kid, holds her husband hostage, and forces her to please him. All of that might be unpalatable enough—but Frank’s version of sexual favors takes the form, more or less, of an angry little boy raping mommy while fueled by amyl nitrate. And our hero Jeffrey, early on, gets to witness this form of degradation through the slats of a closet door. It doesn’t get much creepier than that.
But giving out details of the film's situation like that is making this account much too plot-driven. And the film, while a mystery/thriller (as Psycho is a mystery/thriller), isn’t great because of its plot. It’s not Lynch’s imagination in coming up with a truly psychotic villain that puts this film on my list; it’s Lynch’s skill at rendering his own aesthetic in such fully fledged and relentless terms. No other film looks, sounds, feels, entertains and unsettles like this one. And it's not just technical or visual savvy—it’s also at the level of performances. The work Lynch gets out of his young stars is stunning: MacLachlan as Jeffrey—a seemingly normal kid who rushes to the dark side—and Laura Dern, particularly, as the sweetheart who, as the daughter of the police chief, pretty much knows more about the dark side than she’s willing to let on, and who simply glows with vulnerable, wholesome charm until she faces horrible things—and, yes, faces them.
Then there’s Rossellini’s Dorothy—looking and sounding like her mother Ingrid Bergman to an unsettling degree at times, she is the mystery woman, femme fatale, victim, mother-surrogate, “other” woman, dark lady, vamp, succubus, naked and battered escapee, and survivor all at once. And she manages to do it all as if such roles are simply moods or changes in wardrobe.
The supporting work is memorable too—Jeffrey’s mom (Priscilla Pointer) and aunt (Frances Bay), in the recently found footage that was cut out of the final film, are almost a film unto themselves, as Lynch initially extended the human range of his hero by showing us glimpses of his interactions with his dotty aunt. In fact, the extension of those two roles in the deleted scenes, when added to the presence of Hope Lange as Sandy’s mom, gives more form to the film's gentle fixation on matronly types, and that may well have been important to Lynch in unlocking Frank’s violent fixation on mommy-sex.
And don’t forget Dean Stockwell’s creepy cameo as Ben—“one fucking suave fuck!” as Frank puts it, a languid queer with a willingness to lip-synch to one of Frank’s favorites: Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” with its great opening line Frank likes citing so much: “a candy-colored clown called the Sandman…”
And yes, of course, it’s relevant to bring in Freud’s piece on the Uncanny which references E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale “The Sandman.” Freud’s notion that the Uncanny is a feeling one brings to an experience, triggered by subconscious associations with that experience, is the undercurrent of the entire movie. The scene with Dorothy naked and bruised on Jeffrey’s front lawn is a case in point. Lynch claims that, as a child, he and his brother witnessed a naked woman walking on the street, a sight that made Lynch as a little boy cry—that memory, which Lynch is conscious of and exploits consciously in the film, partakes of the Uncanny because it was, for the child, the first glimpse that something horrible and awful might be lurking behind the everydayness of things. In the film, extremity, the complete breakdown of polite codes, surfaces with that nudity, bringing the extremity and its violence—and passion—right into Mrs. Williams’ comfy little house and rubbing Sandy’s nose in the secret, psychologically fraught relations between Dorothy and Jeffrey. It’s a brilliant scene and might be the cathartic last outrage, except . . . Except for the fact that Jeffrey has to go back to Dorothy’s apartment, and what he finds there is both one of the oddest tableau in this or any film noir, and a situation of lethal hide-and-seek that should make anyone who’s played that game in earnest (as kids do), with bated breath and pounding heart, go through a place they probably haven’t been back to in a while.
And I haven’t even talked about the wonderful score by Angelo Badalamenti, which now, thanks to the intervening years of Twin Peaks, is even more evocative. To say nothing of the combination of Alan Splet’s sound design—an appreciation of which only grows the more you watch the thing—and Frederick Elmes’ widescreen cinematography (and yes, it has to be seen widescreen). A film with a budget this slight should not look this good, and kudos to the one-and-only Dino de Laurentiis for having the presence of mind to figure out how a) the film could get made and distributed and b) how Lynch, even after the debacle of Dune, could still get the right of final cut.
Blue Velvet is one of those films where everything came together the way it had to—and that in itself is stunning, given how idiosyncratic the entire enterprise is. But maybe that’s what made people want to give the baby his bottle, so to speak. And this is Lynch’s baby all the way, a revisiting of film noir, B-movies, sitcoms, Hitchcock ripoffs, teen films, lowlife sensationalism, and arthouse threat and camp—all in the name of a middle-American surrealism that, in the end, is his great contribution to the palette of American cinema. Long live Lynch!
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