With the mawkish creepshow Eraserhead (1977), the darkly beautiful The Elephant Man (1980) and the interminable sci-fi trash of Dune (1984) behind him, and his Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart (1990), his brilliant noir Lost Highway (1997), the haunting road movie The Straight Story (1999), and his glittering masterpiece, Mulholland Dr. (2001), still ahead, David Lynch turned forty with the funny, stylish, compassionate Blue Velvet, which, in addition to taking best film honors from the National Society of Film Critics, won Lynch their best director prize, and the same from the Los Angeles Film Critics.
West of Lynch’s own Missoula, Montana, Lumberton, U.S.A.: an Everytown where folks know how much wood a woodchuck chucks. The time is the present, but an early sixties zeitgeist hangs about: kids are modest and sweet; Bobby Vinton sings on the radio; red roses grow by white picket fences under a placid slate sky. After visiting his father, hospitalized following a stroke, Jeffrey, home from college, spots in a grassy field a neatly severed ear glistening with ants. Jeffrey shows it to a neighbor, a police detective who, used to life’s strangeness, notes, “It’s a human ear all right.” Police investigate; and, surreptitiously, with the help of Sandy, the detective’s daughter, so does Jeffrey, who thus finds himself in the midst of a convoluted mystery involving murder, drug dealing, kidnapping, torture, police corruption, sexual slavery—a mystery exposing cruelty and sadness behind Lumberton’s sunny façade. A boy achieves maturity, then, by penetrating the no-trespass warning enrobing his home town.
The Hardy Boys Go to Hell: That’s how Lynch described his film.
Beginning the film as a measured descent, a closeup of rippling blue velvet dissolves into sky, and the camera gently lowers to record everyday smiles and activities. Red—the saturated red of the roses; the color of a ceremoniously passing fire truck—interjects something disquieting, though. While he is gardening, the stroke victim’s spouse unsuspectingly watches, on TV, a killer stalking his prey; and, afterwards, as the man lies helpless, his once-faithful dog, ignoring him, quenches its thirst at the springing hose, its lunges and retreats, calculated to keep itself as dry as possible, eerily violent in repeated stroboscopic (seemingly stop-start slow) motion. Things just won’t be following a straight line here. To be sure, Sandy and Jeffrey fall in love, and by the end nearly everything’s back to “normal”; but—but—. How ambiguous and problematic everyday life will have been shown to be. Thus at the end, in a reversal of the opening shots, an upwardly panning camera finds the (now) distressingly even sky dissolving back into (now) ominously rippling blue velvet. Jeffrey has been initiated; so the enticing robe is sealed shut for the next youth, and the next.
What lies behind the curtain? What lurks, hidden, like the teeming black beetles zoomed in on to a prodigious closeup during the garden “accident,” their normally “silent” noise likewise ferreted out and magnified on the soundtrack? Jeffrey has suspected that something dark and dangerous exists in Lumberton to which he has not been privy. But what? Something sexual, surely, at least in part. When Jeffrey entreats highschooler Sandy’s help with his sleuthing, the dialogue betrays the sexual sublimation involved. “There are,” the boy explains, “opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a risk.” When Sandy is reluctant to help him into an apartment where he can jimmy a window for a later sneak-back, the boy softly pleads, suggesting foreplay, “Sandy, let’s just try the first part.” But all this we catch—not Jeffrey, the innocent.
The mystery of the severed ear—Lynch discarded the Gogolian idea of a severed nose—leads Jeffrey to a roadhouse chanteuse, Dorothy Vallens, in whose apartment closet, when she returns from work, he hastily hides, a closeup of his shiny black shoes visually punning off the garden beetles. (Earlier, he stole Dorothy’s spare key while posing as an exterminator; the “bug man,” she called him.) When Dorothy discovers the boy, at knife point she has him undress and begins having sex with him, which Frank Booth’s appearance aborts. Hiding again in the closet, Jeffrey, entranced, watches as the sadistic Booth subjects Dorothy to unspeakable rites of rape on the living room floor—ironically, a projection of the boy’s own desire to be in sexual control, to turn the tables on Dorothy for “subjugating” him. Moreover, we learn, armed with a penile kitchen knife, that Dorothy’s subjugation of Jeffrey—“Don’t look at me!” she had commanded—shows her asserting power over the boy in an unconscious mimickry of her tormentor. Booth’s leverage over her, though, is monstrous beyond her mimickry or Jeffrey’s imagination; Frank has kidnapped Dorothy’s spouse and little son. Now he stuffs her orifices with blue velvet, to remind her of the ballad that, at his behest, she must nightly sing at The Slow Club (good name; disappointing spelling), the rendition of which she gave earlier that night having also excited Jeffrey. Thus does scenarist-filmmaker Lynch extend the kin(k)ship between clean boy and foul Booth. For what Jeffrey witnesses in Dorothy’s unsavory apartment projects his own sexual dread and dark, compensatory fantasies. Indeed, Jeffrey will become Dorothy’s lover, and the one person whom she feels she can trust, as his gradual penetration of the misery, slavery and corruption around him registers, for us, as an innocent’s irrevocable journey of self-discovery.
Lynch has devised a(n audacious) visual means of implicating Jeffrey in Booth’s drugged, mad, violent world. The stray ear, it turns out, belongs to Dorothy’s spouse; Booth severed it as a means of threatening Dorothy with the deaths of both husband and child, to make her submit to his sexual demands. Early in the film, the camera appears to enter this ear, into the dark world of the hidden Lumberton; when near the end of the film the camera finally withdraws from it, the ear it comes back out of turns out to be Jeffrey’s. Thus Lynch implies that in this film-between-the-ears the nightmare through which we have seen Jeffrey wade is a revelation of the boy’s own psyche.
Nice Jeffrey even starts to act a bit like Booth in his sexual relationship with Dorothy Vallens. At first, led into bed, he soulfully comforts her as though wanting to hold onto his innocence even in the midst of their lovemaking. But Dorothy will not have it; she grabs at him and draws him into the abyss of her humanity—partly to cleanse her tortured self with his innocence, but also to corrupt that very innocence as she guiltily wallows in the bondage (on Lincoln Street) that Booth continues to make her suffer. “Hit me,” she has begged the boy repeatedly, needing abuse to relieve her guilt over the enslavement of her son, her spouse and herself, her red lips—in closeup, a saturated red rose and, with the camera upside-down, an upwardly displaced vagina—both a badge of pain and a flaming enticement. Now at last Jeffrey complies, loosing on Dorothy’s face hard slaps that will rack his memory. He does this to please Dorothy, whose suffering has moved him; but, at the same time, isn’t he also doing this to assert his masculine pride in retaliation against someone who has succeeded in bending him to her will? Someday Jeffrey will marry Sandy (by film’s end their families have already meshed into one), and—who doubts?—their sex life will be perfectly conventional; but behind this normalcy Jeffrey’s memory of lost control, assertive triumph and, precisely because he is so decent and gentle, humiliating defeat, always will lurk, repressed, threatening to erupt. There will always be beetles in his and Sandy’s garden.
To the chagrin of some, who (lamely) find this cruel, Blue Velvet—like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)—is very funny. There is one “cute” scene, in a parked car by a church, where comedy causes a tonal disruption. Otherwise, Lynch’s quirky humor enriches the piece beautifully; it even helps define—which is to say, blur—the line between normalcy and perversion, between Sandy and Dorothy, between Jeffrey and Frank. One of the ways Lynch suggestively treads this wobbly line is to give “normal” characters dialogue to speak the perversity of which they are blissfully unaware. Thus when Jeffrey asks Sandy what she knows about the case involving the severed ear, she replies, “Bits and pieces,” adding, “I hear things.” By contrast, Booth intends his vicious humor, as when he refers to Dorothy’s one-eared husband as “Van Gogh.” Too, Booth’s furious speech, the product of terrific frustration, is uproarious; it’s the dirt-talk of a self-dramatizing cartoon. And its humorous aspect helps provide sufficient distance for us to see his connection to us; for Frank’s psychopathology is part of the societal price that we pay for insisting so on our own normalcy. In effect, the Booth that Lynch gives us is a strange criminal because our kinkiest aspects have all been projected onto him.
Again like Psycho, Blue Velvet not only makes us laugh but also moves us. When the film first appeared, TV and movie screens offered numerous works involving the kidnapping of a child—this, likely, an indicator of American guilt over child neglect, the troubled familial and social mind for which national hysterical delusions about sexual abuse and satanic rituals in schools and child-care facilities perhaps provided the most telling index. Yet none of the other films more than entertained; only Lynch’s proved, and remains, unshakable. Why? For one thing, the reunited mother and son in the park—the scene, our first glimpse of the two together, follows their offscreen reunion—eschews formulaic tear-jerking. Here, Lynch’s directorial patience and tact, by matching Dorothy’s fortitude, releases an unexpected depth of feeling, given additional urgency by the murder of Dorothy’s spouse. For Lynch expresses himself cumulatively, and visually, not rhetorically in prepackaged emotion. Much earlier, Jeffrey discovered the child’s party hat, which we subsequently saw Dorothy caress; now the same hat dominates the shot, bobbing as the child, finally restored to it, joyfully moves toward and into his mother’s open arms. Over time, then, the hat has accumulated an emotional charge and resonance that implicate us profoundly in the park embrace. But more affects us besides. Contemporaneous films about child abduction—soap operas, really—seem premised in the notion that the child, implicitly the parent’s property, best belongs with the parent(s), to whom restoration of the child constitutes a reassertion of the natural, social, and legal order of things. A parent’s sincere love for the abducted child usually masks or obscures the antiquated nature of this notion; but it’s there in these conventional films nonetheless, and the narrative works its way mainly to get the child back to the parent(s), who deserve(s) this outcome merely because of their parental status. How refreshingly different, then, is Lynch’s film, where the adoring, attentive mother earns her reunion with her child by virtue of all her private agony—her tortuous secret life—that we have been permitted to glimpse from the “closet” of a darkened theater. Dorothy thus offers a rebuke to the sentimental notion of “family” that helped prop up the Reaganism of the film’s day, much as Booth by his warped presentation of it exposes the sentimental nostalgia—the reactionaryism—of Reaganism. Dorothy pays such heavy emotional dues simply to stay alive for her son’s sake—other than for him, we learn, she would have killed herself—that their moment in the park pierces. Yet even here Lynch, an exquisite intuitive artist, applies his intelligence; for the hug between Dorothy and child also contributes to the film’s encompassing theme. Even Dorothy, who has suffered so much, has been assimilated into Lumberton’s smiling façade.
Like Hitchcock, the party hat reminds, Lynch is very good at using objects. The most notable example in the film is the blue velvet robe that Booth makes Dorothy wear for their hideous nights in; it’s a tawdry mockery of protective cover, emblematic of pleasure and desire only for the gawker, not the wearer. But Lynch’s most surreal and startling “thing” is a curiously oversized mechanical robin, its sharp beak clamped on a desperately wriggling black beetle. Hilariously, for all its blatant artifice, the bird is perceived as real by characters in the film; it evokes Sandy’s moony identification of robins with the love that fills the universe, an interpretation she reprises when the “bird” appears towards film’s end. Is she right? Something about this bird’s jerky movements, coupled with its cold-eyed captivity of the insect, recalls Booth, the horrible memory of whom—by now, Jeffrey has shot and killed him and Sandy has seen the bloody result—will light on Sandy and Jeffrey’s marital window sill from time to time. It’s a mockery of the ‘something old’ for their approaching wedding, much as the velvet swatch for mouth and vagina mocks, in memory, the ‘something blue.’ The comedy is completed when the camera, suddenly a bird, pans upward to a featureless sky suggesting the impersonality—not, as Sandy would have it, the love—of the universe.
The acting in Blue Velvet is excellent. As Dorothy Vallens, beauteous Isabella Rossellini (Independent Spirit Award, Best Actress) stuns, achieving great dignity in a passionate role that would send most actors over the top. Hers is one of the great performances of cinema. Kyle MacLachlan, as Jeffrey, can credibly do four things at once—as he must when, terrorized by Frank and about to be beaten, the boy registers fear and disgust while trying mightily to hide both emotions. He does well, too, with the limited eccentricity of an adolescent eager to show that he isn’t nondescript but worried nonetheless about seeming too far out of the peer mainstream. As Frank Booth, the boy-next-door—really, Ronald Reagan—after a few downturns in his life, Dennis Hopper is frightening, funny and (heaven help) endearing—on occasion, all at once. (Hopper was named best actor at Montréal, and best supporting actor by the National Society of Film Critics.) As Sandy, Laura Dern projects vulnerable yet adaptable middle American adolescence. As Sandy’s father, a man poised between the vile world he investigates and the home life he tries to shield from it, George Dickerson is shrewdly ambiguous; it’s a role that perfectly expresses Lynch’s own skepticism about normalcy. And, in the same exalted league as Rossellini, the once Boy with Green Hair (Joseph Losey, 1948) and Nick and Nora Charles’s son, and one of three American film actors to be twice honored at Cannes, Dean Stockwell is brilliant as Ben, a drug-stewed dealer, sadist and pimp whose dead, dead eyes periodically glow like hot coals.
A word, too, for Frederick Elmes, whose hot, swooning, noirish work won him the best cinematography accolade of the National Society of Film Critics. Less than a year later, Elmes conjured the frosty, limpid pastels appropriate for Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1986), another one of the best American films of the ’80s. Question: What can’t Elmes do?
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.