Blue velvet was released 30 years ago, in 1986, but David Lynch’s ” woozy surrealist masterpiece, not quite in the form in that decade. Some hair cuts are definitely from the 1980’s, but it’s an homage to the films noir of the 1940s and ‘50s, with his signature on two ballads, Velvet Blue, and the Dreams were recorded in 1963. The hero’s detective work might have been lifted from a 1970’s cop show. But more than anything, though, Blue Velvet, feels as if it is the first film of 1990. A reason why so many critics I love is that it has been several years ahead of his time. But that is one reason why some critics do suck, too.
Lynch’s previous film was the 1984 Dune, an interstellar epic that has become one of the most famous flop in the history of cinema. Blockbuster about the immortal alien worms were, of course, is not his forte (Lynch has accused the studio interference), but, again, you could say that he was a pioneer: it is now the order of the day for the acclaimed young art-house authors to be handed the reins of the sci-fi franchise, the Fantastic Four Jurassic World. In any case, the manufacturer of the Dunes, Dino De Laurentiis, Lynch gave me another chance. As long as he agreed to a reduced fee, would be able to do something closer in spirit to his experimental debut, 1977’s Eraserhead. Lynch does not hesitate.
Anyone who, in 1986, really I was shocked to hear of the unpleasant happenings in a small american town?
Instead of being set on a desert planet, in a galaxy far, Blue Velvet would be set in Lumberton, North Carolina, American logging town of white picket fences and the corner of the street diners. But there is trouble in paradise. A Lumberton resident collapses while watering his lawn, so his clean cut son, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan, who had starred in the Dunes), returns from college to manage a family, a hardware store. Jeffrey is quite happy to be home, but he clearly has a thirst for adventure. After finding a severed ear on a patch of wasteground, teams up with Sandy (Laura Dern), the blonde teen-age daughter of a police detective, and tries to figure out whose ear it is. Young people, investigations lead them to an apartment where an exotic cabaret singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), is having bondage sex with an unstable thug, Frank (Dennis Hopper). Jeffrey, that light from inside Dorothy’s closet, is dismayed… sort of. But it is not entirely against the idea of some bondage sex with Dorothy.
What to make of all this? The most common reading of Lynch’s mysterious crime reverie is that he discovers the rot that is its distance behind America’s shiny facade. According to Hopper, among other commentators, it was this brave to tell the truth that has shocked many critics when it was released. But it is a reading that poses a series of questions. Anyone who, in 1986, really I was shocked to hear of the unpleasant happenings in a small american town? And today someone really believes that the country of the shame involved Italian torch singers in the unflattering Frank-N-Furter wigs, and tearful psychopaths that sniff the nitrous oxide from your portable cylinders? Blue velvet was attracted to his cult following not exposing a sordid reality, but with the staging of a terrifying but seductive fantasy.
The right of the slow-motion intro of the mount, it is normal that Lynch does not want to see Lumberton as a real place, but as a make-believe city of the stilted dialogue and FLAT archetypes. Then, when Jeffrey stumbles into the Dorothy depraved world, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the movie to get even more: in his most famous sequence, a foppish pimp (Dean Stockwell) mimes to a recording of Roy Orbison, In Dreams, illuminating his face with the lamp is using as a fake microphone. It makes the most sense – if a movie of Lynch, can never be said to give a sense to see Blue Velvet, not as an indictment of a corrupt America, but as a Freudian study of a boy on the threshold of adulthood, who is torn between the hometown respectability represented by the virginal Sandy (perhaps named after the heroine of Grease) and the excesses represented by the whore-ish, Dorothy (surely named after the protagonist of the wizard of Oz).
The Film allows us to visit the twisted demi-monde of sex and violence and moody music
It is the story of two competing stories, which seem to take place in the universes separate. When Dorothy discovers Jeffrey in her closet, nick has his cheek with a kitchen knife, but the next morning, his face is smooth as always. Another night, Frank beats him up brutally, but his bruises fade with miraculous speed. In a certain sense, he is a substitute for those who go to the cinema. Movies allow us, like Jeffrey, to visit a twisted demi-monde of sex and violence and moody music for a couple of hours of darkness, before returning unscathed to normal life.
Blue velvet invites countless other interpretations, of course: why viewers are drawn back, again and again. But what is undeniable is that Lynch is not telling a true story (to borrow the title of one of his later films); he is the transition between different genres and different sounds, constantly reminds us that we are watching a work of fiction.
In 1986, these post-modern games were bamboozling – and, for some critics, irritating. The Washington Post, Paul Attanasio complained that, Blue Velvet, ultimately, frivolous, “a young man, ‘it Would not be right if … ” quality”. In a star review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert has claimed that Lynch is to be cowardly, repeatedly pulling Jeffrey back from the transgressive world of Dorothy and Frank: “You are afraid that movie audiences might not be ready for stark S&M unless you are sure that it’s all 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 1990, however, everything that annoyed Attanasio and Ebert would become a standard practice. Just like the rap records of the era were always in the habit of sampling soul tracks, independent films stole scenes and wildly incongruous film and stick together in strange new configurations. They were inspired less by the writer-directors lives and their own collections of videos. They are, in short, the copy of Blue Velvet. The hip, the goal, the back film of mix-and-match 1990 learned everything he knew from Lynch.
Just look at how reservoir dogs has in common with Blue Velvet: the career of reviving the fusion of an old actor, the voice from the radio DJ, the cutting of an ear, the left runs on a harmless, decades-old pop hit Stuck in the Middle with You). In 1996, the novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace has gone up to close Tarantino as a populist Lynch imitator, someone whose only result was to “take what is ragged and distinctive and menacing [Lynch’s] work and homogenize it, churn it until it’s smooth and cool and hygienic enough for mass consumption”.
If you do not 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 Sundance imitators. Watch any thriller of 1990 that the pairs of the extreme violence with humor, and that signifies its artificiality 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 of the people who have followed in his footsteps, of course. But maybe Blue Velvet should take responsibility for the pop-cultural tendency to put things between quotation marks – to be arch and ironic instead of sincere. Maybe he has so many devoted fans, because, as Ebert observed, we are encourages you to peek at our most frightening desires, and then back away with a chuckle, as Jeffrey, rather than have the courage to explore. In the 1990’s, too many movies wrapped in a comfort blanket of Blue Velvet.