‘Blue Velvet’ A poisoned valentine to the illusionary, transparent, American dream

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Blue Velvetblue-velvet
Directed by David Lynch
Written by David Lynch
1986,  USA

In 1986 it was a strange world and it was about to get weirder, as the irradiated detritus from the Chernobyl disaster infected Northern Europe a similarly radioactive event was contaminating cinema screens worldwide, as we alight upon the first masterpiece of Lynch’s career – I just thought I’d be up front about that. After the painful critical evisceration of Dune a wounded Lynch retreated to his lair and decided he needed to go back to his roots and make a smaller, more personal and manageable film, without the distractions that an interfering studio, costly SFX and adjacent marketing concerns which had partially diluted his creative essence and drive. He had signed a two picture production deal with Dino De Laurentiss whom in a rare moment of  executive support stood true to his word and honoured the contract, a risky move as the script for Blue Velvet had been floating around Hollywood and had not been picked up due to the concerns of the potentially offensive violence and strong sexual content, not to mention it not exactly being viewed as a promising commercial prospect. Lynch had long been toying with two or three separate embryonic ideas or feelings, of a man finding a severed ear out in the woods, of the title and haunting track Blue Velvet  and the voyeuristic possibilities of secretly accessing a woman’s apartment and watching her in the night – no-one ever claimed these film director types were normal – and so cameras finally started running in early 1986. Finally Lynch had managed to wield the triumvirate of feelings together into a single noirish script, a coruscating mystery film which now stands as one of the core films of the eighties, a psycho-sexual nightmare that is a journey to a Norman Mailer facade with a Charley Manson core, a sensuous and savage fairy tale take on the American dream. The music rises, a curtain of rich, mazarine velvet drapes the opening titles, and we dissolve to a cerulean sky as the crooning begins.

It’s the red, white and blue, we’re in Lumberton, a small, sleepy mid-western town. Deploying his most blatant directorial avatar we are introduced to Jeffrey Beaumont(Kyle MacLachlan), a young man who is  listlessly throwing some stones at a distant target on the outskirts of town as he wanders to visit his father in hospital whom he has suffered a debilitating stroke. Retracing his steps after the visit Jeffrey searches for further ammunition to repeat his efforts and unearths a shocking discovery – a severed human ear discarded amongst the brush. A dutiful citizen Jeffrey takes the ear to his local police station and meets Detective Williams (George Dickerson), the father of his school mate Sandy (Laura Dern), and his inquisitive nature compels him to strike up a relationship with her and enlist her aid in solving this gruesome mystery. A local singer, Dorothy Vallens (a smouldering Isabella Rossellini) has become involved with some local thugs who have kidnapped her husband and son, a plot that Jeffrey voyeuristically discovers when he sneaks into her apartment one evening when she’s supposed to be at work. Enter Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper in a career defining performance), the rabid, terrifying local villain whose crew are behind the kidnapping, he’s squeezing Dorothy for violent, disgusting sexual favours which is distressingly illustrated in one of the most uncomfortable scenes of the era. After Frank leaves Dorothy discovers Jeffrey and embarks on a dark and troubled, intimate relationship with her clandestine admirer, and he is plunged into a noirish miasma of danger and secretive delights, a pilgrimage that will shatter his idealism as it reveals the lurking horrors of the adult world.

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No less an authority than J.G. Ballard cited Blue Velvet as the greatest film of the decade and it’s a persuasive assertion, as a nightmare vision of Regan’s America that is rotten and twisted at its nucleus behind those immaculately maintained lawns and salutary patterned drapes. The sexual content retains its horror and is difficult to watch, but it never feels exploitative or unqualified, as Jeffrey’s naive innocence and simplistic worldview are ruthlessly demolished by his sortie into the smoky realms of sexual temptation. MacLachlan is the prefect foil for Lynch’s quixotic gleam, his chirpy small town inquisitiveness masking a unconsious desire for seduction and adventure, it’s a troubling thought but does it never cross his mind that having relations with an obviously distressed woman who is being sexually abused by a degenerate criminal might not be the right thing to do? Or does he accept this but is unable to resist? In her first film role Rossellini seethes like a Crinaeae temptress, a custodian of the carnal waters of wanton allurement, it’s an extraordinarily brave performance for its neurotic nudity and emotional vulnerability. We’ll come back to ferocious Frank but Laura Dern also excels as the serene, frequently clad in white Sandy, Jeffrey’s auricomous co-conspirator, her barbie doll innocence also tested by her peek behind the curtain.

The way that Jeffrey moves into this hidden, sepulchral and wicked world  evokes a Grimms fairy tale unearthing of a terrible secret in the dark, dark woods, and the moody photography of Lynch’s regular DP Frederick Elmes has a faded, trance like quality punctuated by a dilution of his usual design preferences, there is no clanking industrial machinery but a much softer emphasis on tables and lamps, on furniture and make-up, on costume and set decoration to blend the contours of the symbolic into the subconscious – all those Edward Hopper inspired bedrooms, lounges, and nightclubs all contain an eerie, empty, artificial dread. There has been critical speculation that perhaps Detective Williams – and note again that he is Sandy’s father – is actually the lynchpin (heh) of the drugs trade sideplot which is not satisfactorily resolved in the film, even as the film closes you’re not sure of all the relations between the players, or indeed what fate may have in store for Jeffrey (he probably grew up to become Patrick Bateman) and Sandy as the equilibrium is falsely restored with a (SPOILERS) obviously mechanical symbol. Blue Velvet has its moments that have entered the cinematic lexicon, whether it’s the sultry nightclub reveal, an angry choice of ales, or Dean Stockwell’s Candy Coloured Clown crooning a somnambulant screed.

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The arrival of Frank on-screen cued a round of nervous laughter and some audibly sharp intakes of breath, he is quite simply a palpable, elemental force in the film, absolutely terrifying in less than a half-dozen scenes, never mind being someone you’d be scared to meet in a dark alley this is a guy you wouldn’t want living in the same country as you. His language is akin to a petulant toddler from the kindergarten of Mephistopheles, his barking of the word ‘fuck’ as a noun not a verb hinting at a mentally diseased and corrupted spirit, I think it was Hopper who suggested the use of the gas mask and it’s a wonderful stroke, never explained or rationalised, just another tweak that hints at a narcotic fugue that permeates the film. The legend goes that Hopper called Lynch having read the script in the midst of a swiftly descending career where he couldn’t get hired due to his legendarily difficult and opiate blasted persona, explaining that he simply had to cast him as ‘David, I AM Frank’…..

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This dangerous dream is supplicanted with viewings of Lynch’s later work, before the formal experimentation with form and structure dominated his process, as Blue Velvet is actually rather straightforward from a plot point of view. It’s the wealth of symbolism and visual codes embroidered throughout the film that give it its memorable power and haunting atmosphere, the psycho-analysts had a field day with Blue Velvet, noting  the dual nature of the saintly ego-figure of Sandy mirroring the super-ego of diabolic Dorothy, with Frank as the howling id of Jeffrey’s psychology. It’s one of the essential components of the so-called ’Into The Night’ sub-genre of the eighties, that strange, nocturnal species of film where hapless protagonists embark on an  illicit adventure and emerge from their experience changed or transformed, I’m talking about Something Wild, After Hours, Risky Business, Into The Night and House Of Games, where our voyagers are looking for illicit thrills, usually with some promise of a sexual encounter, coupled with a discombobulated suburban disquiet. Blue Velvet is essential Lynch, one of his unimpeachable masterrpieces which nests at its core one of his crucial scenes which was contemporarily read as some sort of satire of American teenage purity – the robin speech. In retrospect it is presented without irony, I feel that this is Lynch being absolutely serious and earnest (and this is why he can be so remarkable and unique), it contains the films entire fable-like premise and is in retrospect one of the central moments of the picture, a psalm to the purity of love over the forces of darkness in this poisoned valentine to the illusionary, transparent, American dream.

– John McEntee

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