I was planning on curbing my tendency to upload two reviews every week for Midnight Screenings, rather than one, but seeing as how I missed last week’s review, I’ll post two this week one last time. One is below, with another, linked by theme and something a bit more concrete, to come tomorrow.
Update June 2019: After another rewatch, I remain enamored of Lynch’s general aura of cinematic discontent, and even more enamored of his obvious empathy for (most of) his characters: the American dreams that Lynch devours whole-cloth are, of course, his own dreams, and Blue Velvet in particular has the unmistakable mood of possibility thoroughly deflated, of Lynch’s own innocence curdled into demonic cynicism. Lynch’s immanent critique of mid-century Hollywood cinema and the dreams it promised feels less like an outsider director dismembering a naive vision he feels foreign to (and thus one he views as deluded) than the tragically absurd sight of an animal devouring itself from behind. For that reason, the film’s mood is not of barking cynicism but elegiac collapse, a dream realizing that it cannot sustain itself after all.
Still, after having done more of a deep dive into Lynch in the ensuing five years, Blue Velvet does feel slightly … cruder this time out. It’s fantastic cinema, and in 1986 it must have felt like an apocalyptic full-frontal onslaught, but after three (on-and-off) decades of Lynch so thoroughly burrowing into and then disemboweling everyday life and the cinema that upholsters it, one can’t help but think of Blue Velvet as a test-run for Wild at Heart, or a cinematic prelude to Twin Peaks, to say nothing of the sheer depths of cinematic exploration he would achieve with Mulholland Drive. His elastic attitude toward aesthetics – many images evoke demented horror, mournful drama, and tortured comedy at the same time – is as phenomenal as ever. But Blue Velvet feels a bit more schematic in its analysis – many of the visual contrasts are explicitly schematic, for that matter – and less of a maddened dispatch from another world (that is, of course, the underbelly of our world) that exposes the soul-devouring undercurrents of a reality totally riven before our eyes. It’s the only one of Lynch’s mature (which is to say, Blue Velvet onwards) features that feels like he’s already worked everything out in his head before filming, and that robs the film of Lynch’s typical aura of having discovered modernity unraveling itself mid-process.
Blue Velvet is curiously, even paradoxically, both director David Lynch’s most anarchic film and one of his most straightforward. Perhaps the two are linked, for Lynch opens up the film with an image of straightforward reality he spends the film taking to task. We get clean-cut grass and well-manicured houses, spaced evenly between one another, hiding well-manicured people who probably take pains to space themselves evenly as well. Lynch is aware that these images construct our dreams of America, or at least our dreams of an American past, and even in his admitted celebration of them, he also examines them, cutting into them like a knife through pre-sliced, packaged white bread (what could be more American?) hiding maggots under its façade of comfort.
The film’s most famous shot to this effect is a slow zoom in to the freshly cut, artificially green grass used to segment out plots of suburbia that construct not only physical but mental geography. As the camera moves in, the clean angularity of white fences gives way to a demented mass of blades wavering every which way, serving as shrine to a severed ear adorned with maggots and dirt. The shot isn’t subtle – conveying the way that America’s quest for precision and order hides a sense of not only decay but ragged, frustrated, tangled chaos – but it’s completely effective in its directness.
More generally, the shot is a metaphor for Lynch’s film, which takes clean-cut college-boy Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) of the bitingly named “Lumbertown USA” when he discovers the aforementioned ear. Ever the good boy, he takes it to the police, at least initially. But soon he finds himself enraptured by the delicious mystery of the whole thing, the idea of something literally hidden behind the identity he (and America) had structured for himself. Like any good newly-christened vigilante (another favorite American pastime), he takes matters into his own hands, accompanied by the police chief’s daughter played by Laura Dern and winds up involved in the affairs, the allure, and the allure of the affairs, of a local nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini). This may be enough for Jeffrey, but Dorothy is a slippery slope to Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), her abusive partner who asserts power over her in a relationship whose central feature is S&M.
Elsewhere, it’s the wider surrealism of the film that strikes a genuinely unnerving chord, Lynch taking us down a quintessentially American rabbit hole. He constructs the film as a place out of time, with technology that conflicts with itself and doesn’t reveal its truth in any one time period. The effect is to render the film both timelessly real and entirely fake, a place that inhabits dreams more than reality. As the film progresses, Lynch sends Jeffrey from a dream masquerading as reality into a nightmare, and Jeffrey, for all his inconspicuousness, comes to enjoy it in a way that frightens him. Lynch teases out Jeffrey’s sense of moral superiority, but Lynch is interested in something else: a vacation to the dark-side, something so surreal and disconcerted and grimy as to approximate a reality more real than anything the prim-and-proper cardboard cut-out Jeffrey has ever known, a dark underbelly that authorizes the more overtly obsessive side of his self-superiority.
As the film progresses, we see the dark side of not only Jeffrey, but Dorothy, an abused woman who’s come to enjoy how Frank treats her and wants Jeffrey to do the same. He’s initially unwilling but turns over more quickly than we except … or is that hope? Blue Velvet is about the dark side in all of us, and Lynch uncovers the shadows of the soul not only in the goody-goody college boy who’s quest for justice shares a link with obsession and asserting power over women, but in a lounge singer who reflects the seemingly innocent allure of naughty but still supposedly safe desires inhabiting small-town American dreams. She, and Frank, are caricatures straight out of noir-ish fantasy, but they are mixed here with two straight-arrows who we want to, and perhaps must, see as beacons of halcyon Americana. Ultimately we come to see them all for what they are: dreams and fantastical desires that metastasize into the obsessive once the veneer of civilization is scrubbed away. The central dream, the American one, is his primary talking point.
Which of course brings us to Frank. McLachlan, Dern, and Rossellini are all excellent in their roles, but they can’t help but be overshadowed by Hopper, who plays Frank with not only a kinetic sense of implacable and unfathomable terror but a savage wit. Here, he isn’t just nasty (his signature mode). He’s an all-time devil, a chaotic maelstrom of conflicted activity that can’t be stopped and revels in every minute of it, one of the cinema’s greatest manipulative tempters, a figure of pure nightmare logic.
Through all this, Lynch’s warped, black-as-coal humor takes center stage. Two scenes, where Jeffrey meets Frank’s friends – all of whom seem to exist eternally in a fugue state – and where Jeffrey comes upon two dead bodies locked in demented rigor mortis, positioned like waxworks out of a museum, are all the more unnerving because they absurdly refuse to be binarized. In the former scene, Frank’s friends are technically “alive”, while the later one centers around death, but the two bleed together here – Frank and co. act like re-born ghouls living around life but not within it, and one of the dead men stands up as if he were alive. Here and throughout Lynch knows well the implicating ability of the inherently voyeuristic core of cinema, using it to make us enjoy what we feel we ought to run from and then disfiguring us for it. Visually and aurally, we become Jeffrey, increasingly and scarily comfortable with what we initially turned our heads from. We must peek, as Lynch must.
Blue Velvet isn’t an oblique film by any means, but it is a challenging and subversive one, perhaps less because Lynch is trying to confuse us and more because he reveals, with a simple, brutal elegance, his own understanding of the fundamental tensions in the American Dream. Near the end of the film, when the sun comes out after a descent into hell, we witness a bird with a beetle in its mouth, the natural order of things predicated on carnal and primal actions we’d prefer not to talk about but which seem to be playing themselves out implacably in human society nonetheless. Lynch concludes by providing only a naughty semblance of respite from the horrors we’ve witnessed before-hand, a bestial replay of the narrative, two animals parodying our veneer of civilization. For once, Lynch isn’t openly challenging us – he’s mostly playing it straight, or at least pretending to do so. But the film’s seeming acquiescence to conventional narrative and normative reality makes its subversive uncanniness bleeding into horror all the more disconcerting.
In the end, what scares us isn’t so much Jeffrey’s descent into hell but the fact that he enjoys it despite himself, rendering circumstantial the American Dream and its predication on the “other” as the figure that inhabits the underbelly – we all, ultimately, could fill any role society gives us if we’re introduced to it in the right way. This is the most transgressive horror the film proposes because it tampers with the direct core of the Dream: the implicit, individualist idea and the unstated assumption that some people are simply more moral than others and exhibit better character as a result not of situation but of intrinsic personal merit and individual “morality”. This canard has caused more harm than perhaps any other in America – it’s been hidden, reformed, and surreptitiously reconstituted to reflect nominally more progressive times. But Lynch doesn’t give us the benefit of time. Here the Dream, and everything associated with it, is a lie of timeless culpability.