“It’s a strange world.”–Sandy Williams, Blue Velvet
PLOT: While home from college to visit his ailing father, who has suffered a stroke, Jeffrey Beaumont finds a severed human ear in a field. Though warned by his neighbor, Detective Williams, that the case is a police issue and he should not ask any questions, the curious Jeffrey decides to seek answers on his own, enlisting Williams’ daughter Sandy, a high school senior, in his investigation. The trail leads to a melancholy torch singer named Dorothy Vallens, and when Jeffrey hides in her closet after nearly being caught snooping in her apartment, he witnesses a horror he never imagined, which forever shatters his innocence.
- Blue Velvet was David Lynch’s comeback film after the disastrous flop of 1984’s Dune.
- Warner Brother’s commissioned a treatment of Lynch’s basic idea for the film, but in 1986 no major studio would touch the finished Blue Velvet script because of its themes of sexual violence. The film was produced and distributed by Dino De Laurentiis (who formed a distribution company just for this release). De Laurentiis was known for taking chances on risky or salacious movies, whether exploitation or art films. He gave Lynch final cut in exchange for a reduced salary (possibly hoping that Lynch would refuse his insulting offer and chose a more commercial project).
- Blue Velvet is considered Lynch’s comeback film, but even more so Dennis Hopper’s. Hopper, who became a star when he wrote, directed and acted in the 1969 counterculture hit Easy Rider, developed a serious polydrug addiction problem throughout the 1970s. By the 1980s he had earned a reputation as unreliable and difficult to work with, and landed only minor roles after his memorable turn as a maniacal photographer in Apocalypse Now (1979). He entered rehab in 1983 and was sober for a year and a half before making Blue Velvet. Looking for a role to revive his career, Hopper told Lynch, “You have to give me the role of Frank Booth, because I am Frank Booth!”
- Booth’s character was originally written by Lynch to breathe helium from his gas tank, but Hopper convinced the director that amyl nitrate would be a more appropriate inhalant for Frank. The actual drug the villain breathes is never specified in the film.
- This was the first collaboration between Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti. Badalamenti was hired to be Isabella Rossellini’s voice coach for her singing numbers, but Lynch liked his arrangements so much he hired him to produce the film’s soundtrack. Badalamenti would work on the score of all of Lynch’s future films until INLAND EMPIRE, and is perhaps best known for the “Twin Peaks” theme.
- Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Oscar, losing to Dennis Hopper’s performance was widely praised, but was too profane for Academy consideration; he was nominated for Supporting Actor for Hoosiers, where he played an assistant high school basketball coach struggling with alcoholism, instead.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: “Suave” Dean Stockwell performing a karaoke version of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” an illuminated microphone lighting his lightly-rouged face.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dream of the robins; candy-colored clown; dead man standing
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nearly everyone describes Blue Velvet as “weird,” but most of the time, when pressed, it’s hard to pin down exactly why. Yes, there is sexual perversity, a campy and impossibly white-bread Lumberton, and one of the strangest lip-sync numbers ever, but if we were to actually sit down and graph Blue Velvet on a axis of Lynchian weirdness, we would find it closer to The Straight Story pole than it is to the incoherent extremes of INLAND EMPIRE. But despite the fact that Blue Velvet is among Lynch’s less-weird works, it’s one of his greatest. The clear and powerful presentation of key Lynch themes—the contrast between innocence and experience, and sexuality’s fateful role in marking that line—make it a crucial entry in this weirdest of director’s oeuvre. Blue Velvet‘s influence is so monumental that it would be a crime to leave it off the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made.
Original trailer for Blue Velvet
COMMENTS: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet exists in a heightened reality—and a heightened depravity—but essentially it is a straightforward, comprehensible thriller, though one set in a stylized world. Other than in The Straight Story, Lynch would never be this linear again. The weird touches are usually subtle, the moments of actual surrealism that so slight that we might find ourselves doubting whether they are, in fact, surreal at all, or whether we notice them simply from our own expectations of watching a Lynch movie. Frank Booth’s drug-huffing, sadistic, Oedipal sex practices trespass way beyond the line of merely kinky, but if his sociopathic behavior was the only bizarre element in Blue Velvet, it would merely be a perverted movie, not a weird one. Yet, despite the absence of ladies in radiators, backward-talking dream dwarfs, or sitcom rabbits, Blue Velvet feels weird at heart; its world is simultaneously real—the evil is on the verge of bursting through the screen and falling your lap—and unreal, filtered through a layer of dreamishness that paradoxically distances you from the horror while at the same time branding it more unforgettably into your brain. Blue Velvet is a masterful balancing act between the dualities of good and evil, light and dark, sincerity and irony, real and unreal, and it has provoked understandably strong reactions throughout its history.
The key scene in Blue Velvet—what David Lynch calls the “eye of the duck” scene—is our introduction to Ben (Dean Stockwell), a minor character whose onscreen impact goes far beyond his small role in the plot. In a narrative craft sense, this scene serves the same purpose as the drunken porter in “Macbeth”; comic relief as a break from murderous tension, which both temporarily distracts from and paradoxically heightens suspense. Jeffrey Beaumont has just been discovered leaving Dorothy Vallens apartment by the psychotic Frank Booth, who “invites” him to go on a joyride. We in the audience have seen Frank abuse Dorothy and know that he is ruthless, obsessive and unpredictable, and we also know that Jeffrey is erotically involved with Dorothy. Frank, however, does not know who Jeffrey is, nor could Frank know that Jeffrey knows who he is and has actually been spying on him. We have no idea what Frank will do to Jeffrey; killing him seems like a very real possibility, though Frank obviously enjoys frightening the boy first. Frank and his gang take Jeffrey to a strange location on the other side of town. (When they arrive, Frank hollers, “this is it!” Pay attention to what the neon sign in the window says). Inside, we expect to see a brothel, and perhaps it is; but if so, it is staffed mostly by matronly women in bouffant hairdos, and by Ben, a slip of a man who wears light makeup and a smoking jacket, and delicately gestures with his cigarette holder. The music, horn-rimmed eyeglasses, and wall lamps seem to come from the 1950s; it’s as if we’ve stepped back in time. Ben is a homosexual stereotype, but ultra-macho Frank, who we would expect to be a raging homophobe, doesn’t notice; instead, he’s overwhelmed and impressed by Ben’s “suaveness.” Frank’s hoodlums menace Jeffrey, but we are unprepared for the most horrific event: Ben serenades Frank with Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” swaying his hips, staring into his eyes, and using a light-up microphone. While nothing happens in this scene that we could put our finger on and say “that’s impossible!,” the effect is undoubtedly weird—and frightening. It is one thing to be captured by gangsters who you know are going to beat, maim or even kill you; but when they stop along the way to perform karaoke, you realize that all rules of normal human behavior are off, and there is no possible way to predict your fate.
Roger Ebert did not single this scene out in his infamous diatribe against Blue Velvet, but he might have had it in the back of his mind. Ebert hated the movie, not because of its disturbing sadomasochistic content, but because he viewed Lynch’s “jokey” moments as betraying the emotional core of the story. He believed that Lynch used black humor and irony in the film to distance himself from having to face the real implications of his exploration of the dark side of human sexuality, complaining that “[a]fter five or 10 minutes in which the screen reality was overwhelming, I didn’t need the director prancing on with a top hat and cane, whistling that it was all in fun” and “What’s worse? Slapping somebody around, or standing back and finding the whole thing funny?” He concluded that Lynch had betrayed his actors, particularly Rossellini (who admittedly is asked to do and to endure some pretty nasty things), by turning their sacrifices into one big joke. (Of course, Rossellini wasn’t nearly as humiliated or abused as Carole Laure in Sweet Movie, which a younger Ebert had given a two-and-a-half star pass).
Like most people, I disagree with Ebert’s assessment; I think Lynch’s use of irony and black comedy here is masterful and thematically appropriate, and complements, rather than betrays, the horror. On the other hand, I do think Ebert was onto something; he just had the wrong movie. Perhaps his jeremiad was a prophecy, rather than a criticism. Ebert was concerned about the insincere use of irony as an tool by artists to legitimize their own (and the audience’s) sadism. In fact, the widespread critical and popular success of Blue Velvet gave future movies implicit permission to be much nastier and sleazier—so long as they played it off as a joke. Think of the way by 1994 Natural Born Killers depicts an abusive family as literally living in a sitcom, or even how “South Park” killed a child each week, among the more artistic examples of the phenomenon. It is conceivable that none of these would have existed in their current form had not Blue Velvet paved the way with its juxtaposition of campy comedy and violent brutality. Just as Miles Davis may be posthumously blamed for decades of hackneyed fusion jazz snores by founding a musical genre only he could play correctly, Lynch might be indirectly to blame for the atrociously grating pop-shock humor of “Family Guy.”uses an ironic killshot to the head as a punchline in Pulp Fiction, or how
Still, although I think it’s important to consider his concerns, and generally support the pro-sincerity principle, I stand with the majority in thinking Ebert is way off base in regards to Blue Velvet. I think Lynch’s use of irony in Blue Velvet, while admittedly attached to stronger material than usual, is well within the classical narrative tradition’s parameters for employing this tool. A more astute appraisal of the movie comes from a man who wrestled with the dilemma of irony his entire life: “Infinite Jest” writer and Lynch-booster David Foster Wallace. In “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (a profile written on the set of Lost Highway, reprinted in the collection “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again“), Wallace wrote about seeing Blue Velvet as a grad student with a group of his MFA peers: “The movie’s obvious ‘themes’… were for us less revelatory than the way the movie’s surrealism and dream logic felt; they felt true, real.” Further, Wallace contends that “Lynch’s movies [are] fundamentally unironic…” This, of course, is precisely the opposite of Ebert’s position. Of course, Wallace could not fail to notice that Lynch employs irony; it’s just that, in direct opposition to Ebert, he does not see the “ironic self-consciousness [that] is the one and only universally recognized badge of sophistication” as part of Lynch’s makeup. Lynch uses irony the way people did before the postmodern age; he is not hyper- or meta-ironic. Lynch is odd, Wallace thinks, because Lynch is odd, and perverse because he is at heart a prude who possesses the prude’s natural fascination with perversity. His work is not a pose or a cynical attempt to shock; Lynch simply channels his unconscious preoccupations onto the screen without worrying about whether they will be considered “hip.”
I don’t know if I can get 100% behind Wallace’s assessment that Lynch is irony-free, but I agree that Blue Velvet feels true, real. And a large part of what makes it true and real is its pervasive use of irony against the happy-faced platitudes of middle class life. The 50s sitcom world of Lumbertown, a Mayberry inhabited almost entirely by extras from “Leave it to Beaver,” is exposed as artificial, fake, a construct. Lumberton’s picket fences are lies; reality lies under the manicured lawns, with the squirming, fighting beetles and severed ears. What’s terrifying about Blue Velvet is how it depicts Lumbertown’s “clean” daytime world of waving firemen and friendly crossing guards as absurd and artificial, while the “dirty” nighttime world of drug-sniffing fiends and rough sex appears vital and real. Jeffrey sees Lumberton as a child would, full of iconic red, white and blue images of American virtue. When he begins investigating the mystery—not just the mystery of the missing ear, but the symbolic mystery of sex and the fallen grace of adulthood, which he first learns of as a voyeur spying on Dorothy and Frank—a new reality is revealed to him. “Now, it’s dark.” Jeffrey learns of the evil within himself; Frank is his shadow, just as Dorothy is sunny Sandy’s blue-hued, tragic double. I choose to take Lynch at his unironic word when he says that Jeffrey’s discovery of the knowledge of good and evil will not inevitably doom him, that someday the robins will return. But, just as Jeffrey will never see the world the same way after peering through the slats in Dorothy’s closet, we can never see movies quite the same way after we’ve experienced Blue Velvet.
Scott Sentinella adds: Blue Velvet was released in 1986. David Lynch’s similar television series, “Twin Peaks”, made its debut in 1990. For those of us who saw “Twin Peaks” first, Blue Velvet comes off as less than revolutionary. Yes, the film features much rawer language, violence and sexuality than the TV show, bizarre though it was, could ever have included. But Blue Velvet gives off a whiff of déjà vu, only in reverse. However, there is no doubt there is much that is memorable, if not unforgettable, about the film. The famous opening scene, where the camera tracks down a white picket fence and into the ground, revealing a frightening world of ugly insects, is a beauty. Obviously, we are being told, beneath the wholesome façade of small-town America lives a “strange world”, to quote the movie’s last scene. After seeing this movie, no one can hear that famous Bobby Vinton song again without thinking of Kyle MacLachlan lurking in a closet. MacLachlan is impressive, but Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper are genuinely disturbing. Hopper’s Frank Booth is as one-dimensionally evil (not necessarily a bad thing) as Kenneth McMillan’s pustulous Baron Harkonnen in Lynch’s earlier, disastrous Dune. While Dune does not make the List, Blue Velvet, although arguably overrated, has to be one of the five or ten most famous “weird movies” of all time. Angelo Badalamenti’s florid music, the typically Lynchian pulsating sound effects, the non-stop, creeping sense of dread: there is so much that is striking about this film, and yet I can’t help shake the feeling that the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Once the film’s hero, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), discovers a severed ear lying in the tall grass and begins tracing its origin, ‘Blue Velvet’ begins ricocheting from one weird episode to another, propelled by the logic of a bad dream. These forays seem to grow even longer and stranger as the film progresses.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“‘Blue Velvet’ isn’t about David Lynch’s view of the world, it’s about David Lynch; he isn’t interested in communicating, he’s interested in parading his personality. The movie doesn’t progress or deepen, it just gets weirder, and to no good end.”–Paul Attanasio, Washington Post (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Blue Velvet (1986)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Blue Velvet – David Lynch – An extensive compendium of links and resources, including a reproduction of the original press book, at lynchnet, the David Lynch fan portal (unfortunately, the page does not seem to have been updated for at least five years)
My Problem with ‘Blue Velvet’ – Roger Ebert’s infamous negative review of Blue Velvet, incorporating quotes from his interview with Lynch
Notes About One of the Last Scenes in Blue Velvet (SPOILERS) – Blogger F. Fred Palakon takes an almost forensic approach to analyzing the unresolved mysteries of Blue Velvet‘s ending
21 Things You Might Not Know About ‘Blue Velvet’ – Basically an enhanced version of the IMDB “trivia” section for the movie
Blue Velvet (BFI Modern Classics) – Film critic Michael Atkinson gives Lynch’s work a Freudian reading in this British Film Institute monograph
DVD INFO: 20th Century Fox’s “Special Edition” DVD (buy) was released in 2002, and, like all home videos associated with Lynch’s name, the transfer was approved by the director. Special features include a “making of” documentary, a Lynch interview, and, perversely, the clip of Siskel and Ebert’s split decision on the film for their popular “At the Movies” TV show.
For a long time the montage of stills of deleted scenes of footage thought to be lost (called “Are You a Pervert?”), was the suprelative extra of this DVD. That changed with the 2011’s “25th Anniversary” Blu-ray release (buy), which includes all the supplemental material from the DVD with one important difference: gone is “Are You a Pervert?”, replaced by nearly an hour of deleted scenes that were discovered in 2011. Most of the scenes are unremarkable, but one includes a flaming nipple (!)
Of course the movie is also available to buy or rent on demand (buy or rent on-Demand), with no extra features.
(This movie was first nominated for review by reader “Oregon JayBird,” who called it “a cinematic triumph for weird movie fans the world over.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)