The other night I was watching Blue Velvet for the 26th time. I am helpless against the power of Blue Velvet, especially if it’s an uninterrupted (looking at you, IFC), uncensored showing, which this happened to be.
I’m a big fan of David Lynch. Generally speaking, I think Lynch makes movies about The Movies, and that alone would normally be enough to keep me interested. But he also has a terrific imagination and a painter’s eye for color and detail.
Just about everything Lynch has directed, including the oddly successful Twin Peaks television series, is by turns familiar and eerie. It’s hard to identify a tonal baseline in a Lynch film. Things get weird fast, and they just get weirder as the story unfolds.
The landscapes of films like Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart (1990) are relentlessly gorgeous and, well, Lynchian. You know you’ve accomplished something when your last name becomes an adjective. Hats off, sir!
The plot and milieu of Blue Velvet are reminiscent of classic film noir. Kyle MacLachlan, a Lynch favorite, is college student Jeffrey Beaumont, home from school because his father has fallen ill, the victim of a stroke or aneurysm.
Walking home from the hospital after visiting his father, Jeffrey finds a human ear in a vacant lot. He soon finds himself exploring what turns out to be a rather appalling mystery, assisted by a police detective’s daughter (the always crushworthy Laura Dern, who has also worked with Lynch on multiple projects over the years).
Blue Velvet was released in 1986. Here, MacLachlan and Dern are fresh-faced and utterly at home in Lumberton, an All-American kind of place. As in Twin Peaks, there are lots of jokes about wood.
In an interview with Film Comment in 1986, Lynch told writer David Chute the setting was influenced by growing up in places like Spokane, Washington:
Kyle is dressed like me. My father was a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture in Washington. We were in the woods all the time. I’d sorta had enough of the woods by the time I left, but still, lumber and lumberjacks, all this kinda thing, that’s America to me like the picket fences and the roses in the opening shot. It’s so burned in, that image, and it makes me feel so happy.
For a filmmaker whose work is closely associated with nightmares and dystopian visions, Lynch always seems to be having a great time. There is something awesomely goofy about Blue Velvet, which is saying a lot, since the movie features Dennis Hopper’s ferocious turn as Frank Booth, certainly one of the best villains ever brought to life on the screen.
On one level, the film is simply an R-rated version of a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery. But Lynch unpacks so much detail and mood in every scene that any pedestrian attempt to categorize the movie comes up short.
There are way too many beyondo moments in Blue Velvet for it to make much sense, but it does. I recently told a friend the reason I like Blue Velvet so much is because I have no idea why it works as a movie, why it hangs together so well.
That’s not entirely true, of course. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes, composer Angelo Badalamenti, and sound designer Alan Splet make significant contributions here. (Lynch collaborated with all three on several pictures.)
The acting is great across the board, too. Isabella Rossellini makes the best of a torturous role, and bit parts are ably filled by Lynch stalwarts Jack Nance and Brad Dourif. Dean Stockwell’s psycho dope dealer mesmerizes.
But there are moments in Blue Velvet that still leave me open-mouthed with astonishment. Some of these moments are purely visual or aural, while others are generated by passages of mundane dialogue that Lynch elevates to a kind of cinematic poetry (best exemplified, perhaps, by the now-famous exchange between Jeffrey and Frank regarding the merits of Heineken and Pabst Blue Ribbon).
I saw Blue Velvet for the first time when I was 25. It was, at the time, a revelatory experience. Today, I wonder if a young person would encounter the film in the same way. Lynch is one of the most influential American filmmakers of his generation, and his style is now widely aped and parodied.
What the imitators and detractors miss, I think, is the wacky joie de vivre Lynch slyly brings to his work, no matter how seedy or shocking the context. He is clearly a guy who enjoys making art for art’s sake, and in doing so has given us the sturdy – and often impenetrable – pleasures of his movies.
John Hicks posts here every Friday.