Blue Velvet

Dir: David Lynch, 1986. Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell. Cult.
Blue Velvet

Before director David Lynch got too carried away with his so-called genius, before his television show Twin Peaks brought him into the home and consciousness of the casually pretentious, before he would slap any old weird images together and have people call it art, back in ’86 he made his best film...Blue Velvet. It had much of the surreal oddball touches we’ve come to expect from a "David Lynch film," but instead of relying on hammy artifices, it’s just simply a haunting, funny, and beautifully crafted film. Though it’s challenging and can be considered an "art film," it’s still one of Lynch’s most accessible films and works just as well as a straight suspense movie.

Before Blue Velvet helped push David Lynch further into the "auteur" big leagues, he had already had some major artistic success. His first feature film, the horror, sci-fi, surreal Eraserhead became an instant cult film for both its disturbing imagery as well as the humor in its strange pacing. He got an Oscar nomination for his next film, the beautiful and disturbing studio picture, The Elephant Man. He was miscast as blockbuster director for Dune; the adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel was a massive bomb, both financially and creatively. Though Blue Velvet was produced by the big-time producing Dino De Laurentiis Company and was even originally sold as a mainstream thriller, it was Lynch’s return to his roots with an original screenplay, not developed for him, but by him and his own weird mind. Lynch and the film were obviously embraced by Hollywood. With Blue Velvet he would score another Oscar nomination for directing, but it meant he would never go back to being a "director for hire."

Blue Velvet opens with clips of any-town USA (Lumberton), a wholesome looking place, to the sound of Bobby Vinton’s classic title tune. Then the camera dives into the underbrush of the grass, where horrible monstrous bugs fight it out. This is Lynch asking us to look below the surface of any-town USA and see the darkness that is hidden there, a horror you can only see if you look for it. And that’s what happens to Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a rather awkward young man, home from college to tend to his sick father. One day in a field he finds an ear (yes, an ear, sliced off from a head) which leads him into a mystery and opens his eyes to the dark world just beneath the surface of his seemingly bland hometown.

After following up with the local police detective, Jeffrey is given more information about the case from the detective's teenage daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). The two try to solve the case of the ear and begin an innocent romance. They learn that an older torch singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) has something to do with the case so, like any budding detective, he begins to spy on her, hiding in her closet. Eventually Dorothy catches him and they begin a sexual relationship. She likes to be abused and eventually he gives in to her needs. It’s the complete opposite of his and Sandy’s Leave It To Beaver romance. He comes to realize Dorothy is being terrorized and sexually abused by a local criminal, Frank Booth (Dorothy lives on Lincoln street, get it?). Played brilliantly by Dennis Hopper, Frank is one of the great psychopaths in film history. After Jeffrey is forced on a terrifying road trip with Frank and his crew Jeffrey must muster the courage to save Dorothy from the twisted grip Frank has over her.

Like Jeffrey, the world of Blue Velvet opened my teenage eyes to a world I didn’t know - not necessarily the sadomasochism and cruelty, but the sophisticated campy humor and the absurdism. The style and the symbolism - and understanding it - was a new major event for me and my film-geek development. Even with the horror of Blue Velvet (and every moment Hopper is on screen it's a scary movie, especially when he pulls out his oxygen mask), but for the first time Lynch helped me see the comedy in the fiendishness. It’s a roller coaster Lynch sends Jeffrey and us on. Perhaps like Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein it 's one of those perfect blends of horror and comedy.

Before taking Jeffrey to a field and beating him up, Frank and his misfit posse take him on a road trip. His crew includes Eraserhead himself Jack Nance and uber-intense weirdo Brad Dourif (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest). They stop at a bordello (called This Is It) run by the strange effeminate pimp, Ben (Dean Stockwell). In another piece of creative casting Stockwell gives a creepy performance - his lip-syncing to Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" is one of the great moments of utter oddity in the film. Stockwell had floated around the fringes of Hollywood for years, after being a successful child actor, but post-Blue Velvet he, Hopper, and Dourif would all become go-to guys in Hollywood for playing creeps and oddballs.

Another player to emerge from the success of Blue Velvet was the haunting score’s composer, Angelo Badalamenti. He would continue to apply his simple, almost new-agey music to most of Lynch's films to follow. Most memorably the music for Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks (and its horrible spin-off movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) would become one of the most famous scores in small screen history. He would also branch out internationally, working with the likes of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (A Very Long Engagement and The City Of Lost Children). Interestingly, like the early half of Ennio Morricone's career, Badalamenti’s music has never been recognized with an Oscar nomination, while he has still been one of the most influential film composers for the last twenty-five years.

Blue Velvet was both loved and hated. It received loads of critical kudos, but film critic Roger Ebert and many feminist cultural observers felt that the abuse and stark nudity that actress Isabella Rossellini had to endure was exploitive and felt the film reveled in the cruelty. Perhaps there is some truth in that, but certainly no worse than the snarky attitude toward their characters that often exists in the work of critical darlings Todd Solondz (Happiness) or the Coen Brothers. Or worse, the deliberate cruelty that Danish director Lars von Trier (Breaking The Waves) famously puts his actresses through, though the results are often breathtaking.

Lynch rode on his new title as "controversial genius" and for years has seemingly tried to keep his outlaw reputation afloat. There have been some great qualities and moments and scenes in his films since. They usually always have an ugly beauty and often wonderful performances. But nothing has matched the seamless perfection of Blue Velvet. His later work seemed to depend on the imagery alone. The scripts often are too campy and feel like spoofs of his earlier work. It’s almost become a Lynch cliché that his films have dream sequences with dwarfs and plenty of grotesque characters and nudity. But it is admirable that he has continued to try to invent (when not making features he shoots short films). The guy seems to love to create and though his work doesn’t always appeal to me, at least he has a head full of ideas.


Blue Velvet was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 12, 2010 12:08pm
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