Blue Velvet was released 30 years ago, in 1986, but David Lynch woozy surreal masterpiece is not all hold in this decade. Some of these haircuts are certainly from the 1980s, but it pays homage to the films noirs of the 1940’s and 50’s, his two signature ballads, Blue Velvet, and In the Dreams, have been recorded in 1963. The hero is a detective work could have been lifted from the 1970s, a cop show. But most of all, however, Blue Velvet feels as if it is the first film of the decade 1990. Why so many critics love it is because it has been several years ahead of its time. But it is one of the reasons why some critics hate it also.
Lynch’s last film was 1984’s Dune, an epic interstellar, which has become one of the most famous flops in the history of cinema. Blockbusters on immortal alien to were obviously not his strong point (Lynch has blamed studio interference), but, once again, we could say that it has been a pioneer: it is commonplace now acclaimed young art-house authors to hand over the reins of the science-fiction franchise, from the Fantastic Four Jurassic World. In any case, the producer of Dune, Dino De Laurentiis, Lynch was given another chance. As long as he is agreed to a reduced charge, he could do something that was closer in spirit to his experimental debut, 1977’s Eraserhead. Lynch did not hesitate.
Would we be in 1986 have really been shocked to hear of the dubious goings-on in a small town in America?
Instead of being on a desert planet in a galaxy far, far away, Blue Velvet would be fixed in Lumberton, North Carolina, an all-American logging town of white picket fences and the street-corner diners. But there are problems in paradise. One of the Lumberton, the inhabitants collapses while watering his lawn, so that his clean cut son, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan, who had starred in Dune), and on his return the college to manage the family hardware store. Jeffrey is quite happy to be home, but he clearly has a thirst for adventure. After he finds a severed ear on a patch of wasteground, he teamed with Sandy (Laura Dern), the blonde teenage daughter of a police detective, and tries to find out whose ear it is. Young’ investigations lead to an apartment where an exotic, cabaret singer, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), is to have sadomasochistic sex unstable thug, Frank (Dennis Hopper). Jeffrey, who spies on the inside Dorothy’s closet, he is dismayed to see… sort of. But he is not totally against the idea of some sadomasochistic sex with Dorothy himself.
What to make of all this? The most common reading of Lynch’s mysterious crime of reverie, it is that he discovers the rot that corrupts far behind America’s shiny facade. According to the Hopper, among other commentators, it was this brave to say the truth that upset so many critics when it was released. But it is a reading which raises a number of questions. Would we be in 1986 have really been shocked to hear of the dubious goings-on in a small town in America? And does anyone today really believe that the countries of the secrecy of the shame involved Italian torch singers unflattering Frank-N-Furter wigs, and weepy psychopaths who sniff nitrous oxide from their own portable cylinders? Blue Velvet attracted its cult following of not exposing a sordid reality, but by featuring a terrifying yet alluring fantasy.
As soon as the slow-motion introduction of timeline, it is clear that Lynch doesn’t want us to see Lumberton as a real place, but as a make-believe town of stilted dialogue and FLAT archetypes. And then, when Jeffrey stumbles into Dorothy’s depraved world, like Alice falling into the rabbit hole, the movie get even more strange: in his most famous sequence, a foppish pimp (Dean Stockwell) mimes to a recording of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams, lighting up his face with the lamp, he uses it as a mock microphone. It makes more sense – if a Lynch film can ever be said to make sense to see Blue Velvet, not as an indictment of corruption in the America, but the Freudian study of a boy, on the verge of adulthood, who is torn between the hometown of respectability represented by the virginal Sandy (perhaps named after the heroine of the Fat) and the illicit pleasures represented by the whore-ish, Dorothy (certainly named after the heroine of the Wizard of Oz).
Film allows us to visit a sprain in a half-world of sex and violence and bad mood of the music
This is the story of two competing narratives that seem to take place in separate worlds. When Dorothy first discovers Jeffrey in her closet, she cuts his cheek with a kitchen knife, but the next morning, his face is as smooth as ever. Another night, Frank beats him violently, but his bruises fade with miraculous speed. In a sense, it is a substitute for anyone who goes to the cinema. Movies allow us, like Jeffrey, to visit a sprain in a half-world of sex and violence and bad mood of the music for a couple of dark hours before returning unharmed to the ordinary life.
Blue Velvet invites you to many other interpretations, of course: that is why viewers are drawn back, again and again. But what is undeniable is that Lynch is not telling a linear story (to borrow the title of one of his last films); it is the switching between different genres and different tones, which constantly reminds us that we are watching a work of fiction.
In 1986, these post-modern games have been bamboozling – and, to some critics, irritating. In the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio complained of Blue Velvet has finally been frivolous, with a “minor “wouldn’t it be neat if …” quality”. In a one-star review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert has argued that Lynch was loose repeatedly extract Jeffrey return of the transgressive underworld of Dorothy and Frank: “Is it fear that moviegoers may not be ready for stark S&M, unless they are assured it is really a joke? I was absorbed and convinced by the relationship between Rossellini and MacLachlan, and … I don’t need the director prancing on with a top hat and cane, whistling that it was fun.”
In the 1990s, however, everything that has annoyed Attanasio and Ebert would become a common practice. Just like the rap records of the era were getting into the habit of sampling soul tracks, independent films have been pilfering scenes and settings are wildly incongruous films and glued them together in strange new configurations. They were less inspired by the writer-directors of the life that by their collections of videos. They were, in short, the copy of Blue Velvet. The hip, meta, retro movies of mix-and-match of the 1990’s learned all that they knew of Lynch.
Just look at how Reservoir Dogs has in common with Blue Velvet: the career-reviving the casting of a former actor, voice-over by a radio DJ, from the rupture of an ear, the sinister spin on an innocuous, decades-old pop hit (Stuck in the Middle with You). In 1996, the novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace has gone so far as to dismiss Tarantino as a populist Lynch imitator, someone whose only success is to “take what is ragged and distinctive and menacing about [Lynch] and homogenize it, churn until it is smooth and cool and hygienic enough for mass consumption”.
Whether or not you agree with this assessment, there are echoes of Blue Velvet and not only in the work of Tarantino, but Robert Rodriguez, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers, not to mention dozens of lower quality Sundance hopefuls. Watch a thriller of the 1990s that couples extreme violence with humour, and that indicates its artificiality, with winking references to old songs and movies, and you can bet that the director is a fan of Lynch.
Lynch himself can hardly be blamed for all the people who have followed in his footsteps, of course. But maybe Blue Velvet must assume the responsibility of the pop-cultural tendency to put things in quotation marks – be arch and ironic instead of sincere. Maybe he has many fans, because, as Ebert observed, it encourages us to look at our most frightening desires, and then come back with a small laugh, just like Jeffrey, rather than having the courage to explore. In the 1990s, too many of the films have been wrapped in a comfort blanket in Blue Velvet.