Screening Log #33: Blue Velvet (1986)
There is a version of America that exists in David Lynch’s head that maybe actually exists behind gestures and screens, behind the curtains of veneer and tedium, that he is merely more sensitive to than other filmmakers. Lynch’s film and television work often feels out of time, their aesthetic – interior décor, fashion, music, etc. – gesturing toward the 1950′s manicured, illusory, picture of wholesome American life. Lynch subtly upsets this wholesomeness by exploiting the inherent tensions and gaps in this image, emphasizing its unreality and uniformity; things become unnaturally perfect, the balance of rooms, the appearances of people, before rupturing and exposing the sordid darkness, corruption, and perversion of these ideals that throb just beneath the surface.
Blue Velvet begins with as perfect a visualization of this as any Lynch has produced. While Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” plays, harkening nostalgically back to the idealized 50s and 60s, Lynch shows the viewer white picket fences backgrounding roses and other images typically associated with the ideal American life. Following this, an elderly man – later revealed as Jeffrey Beaumont’s, Kyle MacLachlan, father – collapsing from a heart-attack and Lynch’s camera moves through the grass, into the soil where beetles live, feeding on the roots of the lush green life above. Immediately positing an unseen form of life that feeds on the seen, Lynch’s film functions as an examination of the manifestations of the unconscious id that move behind the idealized version of America that is no more than a mythologized abstraction.
Following his father’s illness, Jeffrey moves home to oversee the hardware store. On a walk to visit his father in the hospital, Jeffrey comes upon an ear in a field. He brings the ear to the police and this encounter catalyzes his desire to investigate who and where the ear came from. He enlists the daughter of a police officer, Sandy Williams, Laura Dern, to aid him and provide him with overheard information. Jeffrey is informed that a woman, Dorothy Vallens, Isabella Rossellini, may somehow be involved, and he decides to gain access to her apartment to obtain an idea of to whom the ear belongs. He poses as an exterminator and lifts a set of keys to her apartment, going there while she works as a singer at a nightclub, but is caught in the apartment when she arrives home, hiding in the closet. While closeted, Jeffrey watches a strange, physically abusive, encounter between Dorothy and Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper, who huffs amyl nitrate or nitrous oxide while sucking Dorothy’s blue velvet dressing gown and alternating between calling himself baby and daddy. Let the Oedipal psychoanalysis begin!
Jeffrey watches this happen while hiding in the closet, and Lynch frames the viewer’s perspective of the encounter from Jeffrey’s. The viewer, through this, is implicated in Jeffrey’s voyeuristic act; the voyeurism of film is analogous to the closeted observation of any intimate activity. Frank is consistently dressed in black leather, visually aligning his sheen with the beetles of the film’s opening. He curses constantly, professes that he will “fuck anything”, and functions explicitly as the film’s manifestation of unrestrained id, the dark underbelly of civilized society, wild-eyed, seething. He is the only character in the film to use the word “fuck” – other than Dean Stockwell’s Ben, who utters it on Frank’s command. Frank functions as desire, drive, instinct, unbound by laws in its search for pleasure, however it manifests. Where Jeffrey drinks imported Heineken beer, Frank drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon; he is immediately American, unmediated by external cultures and processes.
After learning of the developing relationship between Jeffrey and Dorothy, Frank takes the two on a whirlwind night on the town before applying lipstick and beating Jeffrey while reciting the lyrics of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” to him. Frank’s assertion that he will speak to Jeffrey “in dreams” foreshadows elements of Lynch’s later Twin Peaks, wherein Dale Cooper, again played by MacLachlan, receives information pertaining to his case in dreams. That the small town of Blue Velvet is a logging town also predicts Twin Peaks itself, similarly utilizing the diner as a location of discussion, wood trucks moving ubiquitously through establishing shots. The opening/closing image of Lost Highway is also nearly identically presented here while Frank drives with his crew and Jeffrey. Blue Velvet in many ways prefigures many of Lynch’s subsequent works, their visuals and thematic inquiries.
The film’s mystery plot unfolds with Jeffrey caught between Dorothy and Sandy, between a woman who represents pure desire, more explicitly uncovering the power struggle and violence inherent in sex, and a woman who represents the American ideal, industrious and beautiful in conventional, more secure, ways. After a climax of appropriately absurd violence, Jeffrey settles with Sandy and domestic normalcy is restored. Lynch moves his camera out from Jeffrey’s ear, demonstrating how the alienation from the body that initiated the film’s mystery has been remedied, as Jeffrey observes a robin, a bird Sandy had previously dreamed about being a positive signifier of hope and improvement and love. He enters the house as a robin sits on the windowsill, a beetle in its mouth. The film then ends with Dorothy playing with her child recovered from Frank in the park. Ostensibly, these images present a jarringly positive ending out of tune with the body of the film. However, while Dorothy holds her child the soundtrack plays her version of “Blue Velvet” singing, “And I can still see blue velvet through my tears” indicating that though her child may be returned, the past lingers. While the bird of love eating the beetle is an obvious visual of love’s victory over the id, its victory is one of consumption; the bird ingests and absorbs the malignancy through violence, denoting not only a victory, but a victory wherein the id is not excised completely, but, rather, subsumed into love itself.
Easily among Lynch’s more linear narratives, Blue Velvet offers itself as an easy entry point into Lynch’s work. The film’s thematic concerns are here couched in a relatively conventional mystery plot structure that, in subsequent films and television work, Lynch manipulates and stretches into darker and less reassuring terms. Having effectively been defeated and consumed in this film, the darkness and desire inherent in Frank is digested, intrinsically informing the growth of works such as Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive.