Looking back at David Lynch’s Blue Velvet

Recently reissued on Blu-ray, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet remains one of the most influential American films of the 80s. Paul takes a look back...

Sandy Williams: I can’t figure out if you’re a detective or a pervert.

Jeffrey Beaumont: Well, that’s for me to know and you to find out.

What’s the most influential film of all time? Citizen Kane? The Birth Of A Nation? Battleship Potemkin? It’s likely to be something from the early years of cinema, as it’s becoming increasingly hard for a film to truly innovate and provide a genuinely new experience in a medium that’s been around for well over a century now.

In the last 30 years, however, if you’re talking in terms of pure, unprecedented innovation, it’s hard to look past Blue Velvet, which almost single-handedly broke down barriers that allowed the likes of Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, David O. Russell, Todd Haynes, Paul Thomas Anderson, and inestimable others to come to Hollywood and make some of the most critically adored films of recent times.

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While its post-modern gambit of mixing the macabre and the mundane, and pop culture with the perverse has been mined by about 80 per cent of all American independent cinema since it came out, there has still never been another film quite like it, and while the film features career-best work from a number of Holywood’s finest artists, the reason Blue Velvet will be studied and unpicked for years to come is down to its chirpily enigmatic creator, the bequiffed painter, musician and occasional film director David Lynch.

Many have profiled Lynch over the years, but the definitive piece of writing on him comes from the late novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace, in what was, perhaps tellingly, one of the only pieces of film criticism he ever did. Writing for Premiere magazine on Lost Highway, he compares the word ‘Lynchian’ to ‘post-modern’ and ‘pornographic’ as something that’s definable “ostensively – i.e. we know it when we see it”.

It’s pointless therefore to try and define Lynchian here, but as Blue Velvet feels like the most ‘Lynchian’ of all of his films, it’s worth trying to isolate exactly what he does in the film that makes it feel so much like a distillation of all of his other work.

As previously mentioned, one of the defining and influential traits of Lynch is the way that he exploits the tension between the pop cultural imagery of classic Americana, and scary, unfathomable perversity. Lynch certainly explored this territory before – most memorably perhaps in the legendary ‘dinner scene’ of Eraserhead, where a quiet meal with the in-laws turns into a surreal, gory nightmare – but it’s never been as pivotal to a piece of work in Lynch’s career as it is in Blue Velvet.

It’s this conflict that provides the whole backbone for the film, an existential back and forth that’s personified by Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey Beaumont, as clear a Lynch surrogate as there has ever been in any of his works. A clean-cut, overgrown boy scout of a man (much like Lynch himself), Jeffery returns to his small-town home from college and, after discovering a severed ear in a field near his home, quickly finds himself both wrapped up in a criminal plot and torn between the affections of two women. 

On the one hand, there’s Laura Dern as the virginal, all-American girl next door, who enchants him with sentimental descriptions of her dreams of robins and wide-eyed unspoken proclamations of love over milkshakes at the local diner. Then, on the other, there’s Isabella Rossellini as Dorothy Vallens, a woman with a penchant for rough S&M, and someone damaged enough to initiate sex with a man she’s just found hiding in her cupboard.

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Both women represent true but competing aspects of Jeffery’s personality – he’s as polite as Ned Flanders, but gets off on breaking into women’s houses and watching them undress – and they come to represent the light and shade both in his life and in this story; the normal and abnormal, the Madonna and the whore, the tender and the violent.

For a film that’s notoriously elusive, the thematic imagery and symbolism in the film as a whole is actually pretty on-the-nose. Take the bravura opening sequence – a succession of shots of a stereotypical white-picket fence neighbourhood seemingly trapped in the early 50s (it’s never clear exactly when the events of Blue Velvet are taking place), that include a friendly fireman waving on a fire truck, a lollipop lady helping children cross the road, a housewife watching TV, and lots of shots of actual picket fences. Then, after we see a man collapse while watering the garden, the camera glides over and down past him, burrowing into the grass until we reach an uncomfortable close up of vicious-looking beetles attacking one other.

It’s not hard to discern what Lynch is suggesting here – that beneath the gleaming enamel of an American smile is rotting gums and bad breath, to use another blunt metaphor. But what makes Blue Velvet so unforgettable is what’s layered on top of this symbolism, and what accompanies the serviceable but largely incidental mystery plot:  it’s the other, seemingly incidental details, the ones that don’t seem to make narrative or logical sense but make sense on another, subconscious level, and just serve to enhance the pervading feeling of wrongness.

It’s details like the inhuman, overwhelming industrial noise of the beetles clicking on the soundtrack at the end of this opening scene, or the way that the gardener holds his hose by his crotch when he collapses, leading the dog to rush over and enthusiastically drink from it. Is this deliberately phallic and suggestive imagery? Is it a coincidence? Is Lynch messing with us? Is he a detective, or a pervert? What does that make us? Wait, am I the one with the problem? This is what happens if you start pulling at one of Blue Velvet’s many unexplained threads – it results in a gentle but headfirst tumble into the rabbit hole.

Blue Velvet’s most famous non-sequitur comes late in the film when Frank, the on-screen psychopath to end all on-screen psychopaths played by Dennis Hopper, takes Jeremy and Dorothy, the woman he has been holding captive and intermittently raping, to the location where he has been keeping her son. While Dorothy visits her child, Frank’s fantastically creepy criminal compatriot lip-synchs to Roy Orbison’s In Dreams while Frank looks on, snarling, twitching and weeping. Like the majority of Lynch’s stuff, it’s next to impossible to authoritatively say what this scene actually means, but the visceral power of its weirdness is undeniable.

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While we’re on the subject of Frank, this is probably Hopper’s greatest performance in a career full of excellent ones. Fresh out of rehab and with a point to prove, he shot Hoosiers (AKA Best Shot), River’s Edge and Blue Velvet back-to-back, a magnificent run by anybody’s standards – he picked up an Oscar nomination for Hoosiers – but Blue Velvet is easily the pick of the bunch.

Hopper taps into a level of madness rarely seen on screen, perhaps because few ‘star’ actors are sufficiently unselfconscious enough to let themselves appear so strange and revolting. Hopper famously persuaded Lynch to give him the role by telling him “I am Frank!”, and while the implications of that are somewhat chilling there’s no doubt that it’s Hopper’s most iconic performance.

One thing that Hopper brought to the role was Frank’s penchant for sucking amyl nitrate through a mask before committing his sexual assaults. The actor revealed that in the original script Frank breathed in helium instead; on reading this Hopper, something of an expert in chemical hedonism, told Lynch, a tee-totaller, that amyl nitrate would be better as it enhances the sensation of sex where helium has no effect. It was only upon reflection that Hopper realized how strange it was to have Frank inhaling helium for no other reason than to make his voice high-pitched.

It’s hard to say whether Blue Velvet would have been better or worse with the addition of a squeaky-voiced Frank, but once again, it’s an example of Lynch, for better or worse, trusting his instincts, no matter how weird they may be. But the key to his success is that these intensely strange touches never feel whimsical, like Lynch is employing weirdness just for weirdness’ sake.

Referring back to the Foster Wallace piece, he sums up the experience of watching a Lynch film brilliantly: “You don’t feel like you’re entering into any of the standard unspoken and/or unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies… if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t… This may in fact be Lynch’s true and only agenda – just to get inside your head. He seems to care more about penetrating your head than about what he does once he’s in there. Is this good art? It’s hard to say… it sure is different, anyway.”

This confusion in regards to its artistic merits was a sentiment that was shared by some critics on Blue Velvet’s initial release – while it received significant praise from many, there were also a number of prominent detractors: Roger Ebert was particularly vociferous in his dislike of the film, decrying what he saw as a sneering attitude towards small-town life and a misogynistic attitude towards Rossellini.

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It’s telling that Ebert has since, in a rave review of The Tree Of Life, admitted that he is intensely nostalgic for his childhood in the American midlands: where The Tree Of Life equates an upbringing in this environment with the utmost reverence, infusing it with an existential importance, Lynch (who also grew up in 50s Middle America) argues in Blue Velvet that the rural simplicity of small-town life serves only to deflect attention from communities that are as riddled with as many sordid secrets as any metropolis, if not more so.

Blue Velvet’s uncompromisingly weird content begs the question: how did a film as non-commercial and troublesome as this one ever get made within the Hollywood studio system? As it turns out, it was almost by accident.

Lynch had previously cut a deal with Italian super producer Dino De Laurentiis to produce three films for him after the critical and commercial success of The Elephant Man. Unfortunately, the first picture was Dune, a bloated mess of a film and a hugely expensive flop that proved to be an experience to forget for nearly everybody involved, but particularly Lynch, who said, “[it] taught me a valuable lesson – I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don’t have final cut.”

However, Lynch and De Laurentiis were still locked into an agreement, despite a fraught relationship after the Dune debacle. Lynch presented De Laurentiis with the script for Blue Velvet, and in effect demanded that his right to the final cut be written into his contract, a demand largely unheard of at the time.

De Laurentiis refused to put this in writing, claiming that if word got out, every director would begin demanding it, but gave Lynch his word that he would have final cut, in exchange for making the film on a micro-budget, with an insultingly low directorial fee. Perhaps to his surprise, Lynch jumped at the deal, and De Laurentiis stuck to his word, despite being exasperated by early test screenings of the film.

It’s an important story in the context of independent film, as Lynch demonstrated to the likes of the Coens, Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and their ilk that it was possible to translate their intensely personal artistic visions into mainstream Hollywood movies without having to compromise – it also, in its surprise box office success, demonstrated to studios that it was worth occasionally taking a punt on these small, odd movies, and entrusting the weirdos who created them with pulling them off.

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the great independent cinema of the 90s and 00s have their roots in Blue Velvet, both in terms of its trailblazing success, and its content – as previously mentioned, the blending of pop cultural reference and violence has been a familiar sight in movies for a while now, but it was largely uncharted territory on Blue Velvet’s release.

And that’s just the legacy Blue Velvet has had in cinema: the impact it had on television cannot possibly be overestimated, either. Four years after its release, Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost borrowed a number of elements from Blue Velvet – the small-town setting; a horrific discovery unveiling a conspiracy; Angelo Badalamenti’s dark, soulful score; Kyle MacLachlan – to create ABC’s Twin Peaks. Like the film that preceded it, it was written off as too uncommercial to be a mainstream success, but ended up reaching a level of popularity rarely seen before or since, in the process blowing open the prospect of what television could be and directly influencing shows as disparate as The X-Files, The Sopranos, and Lost.

Blue Velvet is a film that echoes through our pop culture as much as any other, but what’s most amazing about it is that in the 26 years since its release, it has lost none of its power to shock, horrify, baffle, amuse and confuse. It’s a film that’s easy to get lost in: what it ultimately ‘means’ feels permanently just out of reach, but still close enough for you to want to keep trying to grab hold of it. The point is, it’s still as fun and rewarding to try as it ever was. It sure is different, anyway.  

“It’s a strange world, Sandy…”

Blue Velvet was recently re-issued on Blu-ray as part of the David Lynch box set and is available now.

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