Blue Velvet (18.)
Directed by David Lynch. 1986.
Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif and Jack Nance. 115 mins
The notion of Blue Velvet being 30 years old makes me feel old, or rather makes me feel a little too keenly the presence of thirty years between now and the first time I saw it (at the now defunct Lumiere cinema in St Martin's Lane), in ways that other reissues of films from within my adult lifespan don't. I think this is because David Lynch's fourth film provokes almost exactly the same bewildering, intoxicating, repelling reaction today as it did back then. The passing of time has brushed over it, barely laying a finger on it. With most Lynch films audiences walk out wondering What Happened? Nobody walks out of Blue Velvet in any confusion about the plot, but the feeling of not knowing what had just happened is even stronger. Blue Velvet is very simple, very straightforward, lays itself out there in front of you, defies you not to understand it and thirty years on it is still utterly perplexing.
The only effect the passing of time has had on the film is that The Sight And Sound Asleep crowd have got it into their busy little heads that Mulholland Drive is Lynch's best film. Drive ranked higher than Velvet in their last poll of the greatest film made, (though the accompanying poll of top directors had them in the correct order.) In a BBC poll, much the same crowd acclaimed it as the best film of the century so far. Now, Mulholland Drive is a great entertainment but it is, basically, an opportunistic grabbag of great scenes stuck together, and you can very much see the join where the TV pilot ends, and the added on scenes begin. Blue Velvet is all of a whole; every element of it is essential to its vision, even the stupid bits.
On one level Blue Velvet is very easy to explain: it is an exaggerated, parodic vision of virtue, set against an exaggerated, parodic vision of evil. The town of Lumberton with its white picket fences and cheerful waving firemen is some kind of ideal of life. In the middle of all this there is dark area, Lincoln, where the nightclub chanteuse Dorothy Valens (Rosselini) and impossibly evil villain Frank Booth (Hopper) exist. Blundering into this world is Jeffery Beaumont (MacLachlan) the good son, home from college because his father has had a stroke. He finds a severed human ear, puts it in a brown paper bag and takes it to a detective. “That's a human ear alright,” confirms the detective.
The Blue Velvet tone is very a tricky thing to take on. It's jokey, in a non jokey way. People will call it an adult fairy tale but that isn't it. Rather, think of a children's book with a crime thriller plot; a non-ironic Ladybird book of serial killers. It defies you to take it seriously. The plotting is an affront to any notions of narrative credibility: then they looked into the distance and in the distance there had been a murder; and then two men said that if you went into the building they would find lots of drugs; I bet if someone broke into her apartment they could find out lots of interesting things. It keeps offering you a way out, and many take it; now as then, a lot of people will look at it and scoff. For those that stay, it is dreamy pleasure, probably for the way it entwined good and evil and shows you how they work with each others.
Probably the key moment comes at the beginning, when Jefferey's father has his stroke in the garden and the camera moves down into the grass where lots of ants are fighting. It establish the notion of festering; that however smooth a PR campaign out exterior is running, inside we're all have venal needs festering away in us. None of which is a particularly original idea; the novelty is the way in which the film makes it seem so seductive. Rather than a depressing truth, an admission of our frailty, it becomes a sordid little secret, a saucy thrill.
The film has three – MacLachlan, Rossellini and Hopper – career defining performances. Hopper's Frank Booth is the Bob Beamon's-1968-world-record-long-jump of big screen villainy: in the subsequent thirty years every other actor in Hollywood has tried to fling themselves a comparable distance into the dark void, but only Javier Bardem's Anton Chirugh has come close. The only way in which the film is effected by the passing of time is that Booth can never be as unnerving as when you first see him. The first time you see him, you really don't know what he, or the film, is capable of and it really could be anything. The reality is not very much, but it is his frustrated fury at the world that makes him legitimately terrifying. He's an angry, frightened, abused little boy, grown into bully clothes.
Weirdest of all is Laura Dern as Sandy, the oh so innocent high school girl, the vision of white who appears out of the darkness, that is supposed to be our bedrock of decency and normality. From that hairspray constructed blonde monstrosity on her head, like a mullet that has attained consciousness and is making its first wild steps at self expression, to the way her mouth forms the shape of a dog biscuit when she is anguished, this wide eyed frantic doormat is supposed to to represent us in the film, but she is the one we most back away from.
Blue Velvet is the geographic mid point of his career. Prior to this he was an oddball surrealists trying to find his place in the Hollywood order, moving between period drama and epic sci-fi. All the visual and aural obsession of Eraserhead and Elephant Man are in evidence here, but joined by a new set of tricks that would provide Lynch with the material and subjects that would shape the rest of his career. After Blue Velvet he would no longer have to go hunting for a genre to fit into, he would be his own genre. The final seconds of the film, when we learn that she can still hear Blue Velvet in her dreams, tell us that nobody ever fully recovers from horror, you never get really get over it. For better or for worse, Blue Velvet made Lynch a world to play in for the rest of his life.
Blue Velvet though remains the perfect expression of Lynch's vision, all of his twisted Americana. It is probably one of the few times in American cinema where a director has been able to commit a pure and totally uncompromised vision to film. (That he was able to do this after making the mega-budget flop Dune, indeed almost as a reward for making the mega-budget flop Dune, is one of the film's many mysteries. It's definitely a big plus in the ledger of producer Dino De Laurentis.) And you watch it today, as then, and wonder, did he know that this would work, that people around the world would respond so completely to it, find something intoxicatingly repellent in Dean Stockwell miming Roy Orbison's In Dream? Or was it just a lucky guess?