by Daniel Suddes
Blue Velvet (1986) – Director: David Lynch Screenplay: David Lynch Starring: Kyle Machlachan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern. OSCAR COUNT: (0)
Blue Velvet is the mythical “greatest film Alfred Hitchcock never made.”
Hitchcock actually had quite a few bizarre sensibilities that few commentators seem to care about. Hitchcock was obsessed with subdued sexual desires, mental illness, and small town, simple living. Lynch was at least honest about his material. As a result, it is easy to be caught up in the emotional energy of the film (which the film delivers in spades). But it is easy to overlook everything that is happening in the film, from the satirical edge Lynch gives the material to the layered performance by Hopper (most assume he is just bombastic and direct. Watch it again and pay attention.)
The story takes place in Lumberton USA (there IS a Lumberton in North Carolina, I believe, but I doubt this is meant to be that town). Jeffrey Beaumont comes home from school after his father becomes gravely ill. While there, he tries to play detective by hiding out in Dorothy Vallen’s apartment, where he uncovers an underground web of drugs and violent sex, most of it caused by the evil Frank Booth.
The film, much like Back to the Future, was released at a time when Reagan’s America felt utterly nostalgic for the 1950s. Yet while Back to the Future openly embraced that mentality, Blue Velvet deliberately shied away from it, and even laughed at it. After all most people only remember the portions preserved in media or what is half faded in their mind. Did anyone actually think that family dynamics resembled those presented by the Cleaver family? The violence and sex in Blue Velvet is not more horrific than present in other films – it just seems more horrific because it does not resemble the world that Lumberton so desperately wants to be.
And that is where Frank Booth comes from. One scene has Jeffrey wondering aloud “why are there people like Frank?” Only later does he get his answer, in the form of a jealous boyfriend. One can surmise how Frank was created; I have always imagined that he was a very week youngster who was consistently abused by his peers. Of course he turns into a psychopath. That was the only option present to him.
Of course, this is never suggested. That is a unique element of the film. Most films (especially newer blockbusters) hold one’s hand during the entire running time. Blue Velvet plays more like a dream – you get a sense of who everyone is, but not a complete picture of their personalities. I am not sure who Frank is, or who Dorothy is, or her son Johnny.
Of course the standout performance in the film belongs to Hopper (his is probably the only character anyone seems to remember) but picking a favorite sequence becomes much more difficult. In fact, there are very few scenes that stand alone – it is all meant to be part of a larger whole. Besides, most of the best details are subtle (watch the introduction of Sandy Williams, and how it harkens back to the noirs of old) I have always enjoyed the infamous “In Dreams” segments, in which Roy Orbison actually sounds threatening. Yes, here, the narrative stops and more questions than answers are raised (for one, when exactly does the film take place? That is a very real cassette that Booth holds). But it is also Lynch at his rawest and can really explain what the entire film is about. All of Lynch’s work shows an obsession with small town America, music, and surrealism. Each of those obsession are combined here to create a sequence that has never been repeated in any film. Also, this sequence acts as a sort of response to the modern era’s fascination with pop music. Is it just me, or is the shot framed in the same way that Tom Cruise’s dance in Risky Business is framed? The sequences are dense and remain enigmatic no matter how many times one sees them.
The entire film must be seen multiple times in order to be understood. I am not entirely sure that I understand it all. But unlike Lynch’s other work, which becomes quite obtuse at times, Blue Velvet finds that perfect level of accessibility and depth. Lynch’s obsessions are not always easy to decipher, but here, he used them to find something magic.
Did You Know? The original cut was four hours long. Lynch was contractually obligated to make a two hour film, and thus was forced to trim it down. The lost footage has, as of this writing, never been recovered.