Blue velvet was released 30 years ago, in 1986, but David Lynch woozy surreal masterpiece that don’t just fit in that decade. Some of the hair cuts are definitely from the 1980’s, but it is a tribute to the film noirs of the 1940s and ‘ 50s, his signing of two ballads, Blue Velvet, and In the Dreams, they were both recorded in 1963. The hero of the detective work could have been lifted from a 1970s cop show. But more than anything, though, Blue Velvet feels as if it is the first film of the 1990s. A reason that many critics adore it is that it was several years ahead of its time. But that is one reason why some critics are suspicious of him, too.
Lynch’s previous film had been in 1984, Dune, an interstellar epic that became one of the most notorious failures in the history of cinema. Blockbusters on immortal alien worms were obviously not his strong (Lynch has blamed studio interference), but, again, you could say that he was a pioneer: it is now common for young people acclaimed art-house auteurs to be in the lead of the science-fiction franchise, from the Fantastic Four Jurassic World. In any case, the producer of the Dune, Dino De Laurentiis gave Lynch another chance. While he agreed to a reduced rate, that could do something that was closer in spirit to his experimental debut, 1977’s Eraserhead. Lynch no doubt about it.
Would anyone in 1986 actually have been surprised to hear that such nasty goings-on in small town America?
Instead of being in a desert planet in a distant galaxy, Blue Velvet would be in Lumberton, North Carolina, an all-American record of the town of white picket fences and the street-corner diners. But there is trouble in paradise. One of Lumberton residents collapses while watering his lawn, so that his clean-cut son, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan, who had starred in Dune), returns from the university to manage the family hardware store. Jeffrey is quite happy to be home, but it is clear that you have a thirst for adventure. After he finds a severed ear in a patch of wasteground, he is paired with Sandy (Laura Dern), the blonde, the teenage daughter of a police detective, and tries to find out whose ear it is. The younger of the investigations lead to an apartment where an exotic cabaret singer, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), is having sex sadomasochistic with an unstable thug, Frank (Dennis Hopper). Jeffrey, who spies on them from inside Dorothy’s closet, is shocked… kind of. But he is not totally against the idea of some sadomasochistic sex with Dorothy himself.
What to do with all this? The most common reading of Lynch’s mysterious crime of dreaming is that we discover the rot that is festering out behind America’s shining façade. According to Hopper, among other commentators, this was the brave that he tells the truth, that upset so many critics when it was released. But it is a reading that poses a series of questions. Would anyone in 1986 actually have been surprised to hear that such nasty goings-on in small town America? And does anyone today really believe that the country’s secret shame involved Italian torch singers in unflattering Frank-N-Furter wigs, and tearful psychopaths that smell of nitrous oxide from their own portable cylinders? Blue velvet attracted to his cult not by the exposure of a sordid reality, but by the mise en scene of a terrifying but seductive fantasy.
To the right of the slow motion introductory of assembly, it is clear that Lynch did not want us to see Lumberton as a real place, but as a make-believe city of stilted dialogue and FLAT archetypes. Then, when Jeffrey stumbles into Dorothy’s depraved world, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the film gets even more strange: in his most famous sequence, a foppish dandy (Dean Stockwell) mimics to a recording of Roy Orbison In Dreams, that the lighting of his face with the lamp you are using as a mock microphone. It makes more sense – if a movie Lynch you can never say with meaning – to see Blue Velvet, not as an indictment of a corrupt America, but as a Freudian study of a child, on the edge of adulthood, who is torn between the hometown of respectability, represented by the virgin Sand (perhaps named after the heroine of the Fat) and the illicit pleasures represented by the whore-ish Dorothy (definitely named after the protagonist of The wizard of Oz).
The film allows us to visit a twisted demi-monde, sex and violence and moody music
It is a story of two competing narratives that seem to take place in separate universes. When Dorothy discovers Jeffrey in her closet, she nicks his cheek with a kitchen knife, but the next morning, his face is as smooth as always. Another night, Frank beats him up viciously, but his bruising disappears with the miraculous speed. In a sense, he is a substitute for anyone who goes to the cinema. The movies allow us to, like Jeffrey, to visit a twisted demi-monde, sex and violence and moody music for a couple of hours of darkness, before returning unscathed to the ordinary life.
Blue velvet invites you to a number of other interpretations, of course: that is why viewers are drawn back, time and time again. But what is undeniable is that Lynch is not telling a true story (to borrow the title of one of his later films); it is the switching between different genres and different tones, that we are constantly reminded that we are watching a work of fiction.
In 1986, these post-modern games were bamboozling – and, for some critics, irritating. In the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio complained that the Blue Velvet was ultimately frivolous, “a youth, ‘would not it be fantastic that … “quality”. In a star review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert argued that Lynch was being a coward and repeatedly pulling Jeffrey back of the transgressive underworld of Dorothy and Frank: “the fear Is that movie audiences might not be ready for the marking of S&M, unless you have the certainty that everything is really a joke? I was absorbed and convinced by the relationship between Rossellini and MacLachlan, and … not had the need for the director of ferrari with a top hat and cane, whistling that it was all in fun.”
In the 1990s, however, everything bothers Attanasio and Ebert could become a standard practice. As well as the rap records of the era were to get in the habit of sampling soul tracks, indie films were the theft scenes and settings of wildly incongruous movies and paste them together in strange new configurations. They were inspired less by the writer-directors of the lives of those who by their video collections. They were, in short, the copy of Blue Velvet. Hip, goal, retro, movies of the mix-and-match of the 1990’s learned all he knew of Lynch.
Just look at how much Reservoir Dogs has in common with Blue Velvet: the race of the revival of the cast iron of an old actor, the voice of a radio announcer, the cutting of an ear, the sinister twist on an innocuous decades pop hit (Stuck in the Middle with You). In 1996, the novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace went so far as to dismiss Tarantino as a populist Lynch imitator, someone whose only achievement was to “take what is ragged and distinctive and menacing about [Lynch’s] work and homogenize it, churn it until it’s smooth and cool and hygienic enough for mass consumption”.
Whether or not you agree with this assessment, there are echoes of Blue Velvet not only in the work of Tarantino, but Robert Rodriguez, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers, not to mention the dozens of lower Sundance hopefuls. Look at all the 1990s thriller that couples the extreme violence with the humor, and the flags, until its artificiality with a wink 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 followed in their footsteps, of course. But maybe Blue Velvet must assume some responsibility for the pop-cultural tendency to put things in quotation marks – to the arch and the ironic instead of sincere. Maybe that’s why it has so many fans because, as Ebert observed, it encourages us to take a look at our most frightening desires, and then again with a giggle, as Jeffrey does, instead of having the courage to explore. In the 1990s, too many movies that were wrapped in a comfortable blanket made of Blue Velvet.