Blue Velvet, 25 Years Later
An almost unrelieved carnival of perversion, corruption, mayhem, and spectacle.
One of the things that made Blue Velvet such a hard sell at its inception was Lynch's unexpected juxtaposition of high-end cinematic and production techniques with his insistent homage, in the "sunny" parts of the films, to b-movie melodrama, schlock films, and plain old Bad Cinema. The beats and rhythms of Jeffrey's and Sandy's dialogues are off. There are porn films with more natural conversations. Jeffrey's chats with the police detective are stilted and filled with arrhythmic pauses. They are not entirely dissimilar, for example, from some parts of The Room, the famously inept cult film. Now we can see that the film is half awkward reality, half surrealistic horror—and that the nightmares are made to seem more real than normal life. Twenty-five years on, we view the thing as a whole; we await Hopper's appearance the same way we do Jack Nicholson's transformation in The Shining; we are actively engaged with the film's progression. Back then, we didn't know what was coming and had no context for the bravura unforgettable horror lurking just outside the jerky forgettable normality.
The sumptuous Cinemascope-sized framing and the ultradeep focus Lynch used on certain scenes, notably those inside Vallens' apartment building, were key tools in his creation of an insistent dreadscape unlike any other mainstream movie that had come before. The somber interiors—again, particularly in Vallens' apartment, when Jeffrey's awakening occurs—are foreboding and muted. So extreme is the depth of field that characters walking down the hallway to the back of Vallens' apartment seem to be walking uphill. (Later, during a wrenching scene at Sandy's house, the outer parts of the screen image twist sympathetically with Sandy's warping psyche.) For contrast, throughout the film Lynch uses sharp primary colors to cast a sexual aura, signal danger, and mark his characters. Vallens wears bright blue or red dresses, paints her eyelids blue and lips red, and sings at the nightclub bathed in the same colors. A bright yellow raincoat fatefully scars another man; a sharp red marks various lamps, Jeffrey's car, a malevolent bed of roses, and Vallens' bed.
Finally, Lynch's use of sound in the film is steady and disturbing. The ear is our ticket, too, into this netherworld. The sound design, by Alan Splet, oozes dread from every speaker. (The Blu-ray sound is lubricious and vital.) Vallens is a singer, of course, as is, after a fashion, Dean Stockwell. The score, by Angelo Badalamenti (that's him accompanying Vallens at the nightclub), veers from electronic abstraction to bombastic Hitchcockian clichés. The dialogue, too, makes it clear everyone involved is attuned to sound, and includes some rude jokes, too. (Vallens, talking to her kidnapped, earless husband on the phone, keeps saying "Can you hear me?")
Blue Velvet's original shooting script (said to have been four-and-a-half-hours long) has long been available; aficionados of the film have known of at least an hour’s worth of material shot that added depth to the story, and in at least one case significantly alters it. The footage, according to Lynch, had been lost after the death of funder Dino De Laurentiis and the sale of his companies, but had finally turned up. Seemingly all of it is being used to promote the new Blu-ray. (It's all collected in a single special feature; there's no director's cut with all of the scenes included.) It's interesting to note that some reputed scenes aren't included; others, like the extended nightclub sequence, have a substance that was only hinted at. While some of the new stuff is incidental (we hardly need more scenes of Jeffrey's Aunt Barbara), a lot of it is powerful and disturbing.
The first one offered features a sort of tedious musical number of a white guy playing an acoustic guitar as a black guy does some blues vocalizing over it. Then we see the scene—it's the prostitute-strewn bar Frank takes Jeffery to during his night of terror. As Frank and his myrmidons sweep in, Frank sees some guy he's been looking for. He gets briefly brutalized on a pool table, as abject naked women stand around undulating. (Frank's mad because the guy has apparently lost Frank's favorite fetish object—a strip of Vallens' blue velvet dress; in a later scene we see that the police had found the fabric, apparently near where Jeffrey found the ear. It's possible that the guy Frank was terrorizing in this scene was the one who'd tossed the ear into the field.) This outtake had a certain notoriety because it was said to include a shot of a prostitute who could do some sort of trick that made it look like her nipples were on fire. This turns out to be something less than a cinematic landmark.
Another deleted scene sees Jeffrey and Dorothy Vallens on the roof of the Deep River Apartments with Vallens balancing herself, heart-stoppingly, on the edge. This seems to be part of the understory of her being suicidal. In the released movie, Sandy's boyfriend, a football player named Mike, has a small role. Here there's a long, odd scene in which Mike and Jeffrey are both at her house for a grim dinner and some TV watching.
The most purely entertaining of the outtakes is I think the longest. It shows the opening acts of Vallens' performance at the Slow Club. One is a terrier eating dinner contentedly from a bowl. The other is a caustic-comedian lounge act that will be worth searching for on YouTube once the Blu-ray comes out. (It's not up yet.)
The most important of the deleted scenes are a series that see the young Jeffrey at college getting informed of his father's illness and then saying goodbye to his friends, including a girlfriend he says he's in love with. They add some substance to a figure who, when we meet him in the released film, is a tabula rasa. We learn that he was unilaterally ordered to leave college and come back and work in the family store by his mother. (This is a twist; in the released film his mother is a weak figure.) In the goodbye scene with his girlfriend, her mannerisms are stilted even by the standards of this film, so it's difficult to get a read on her. (The part is played by an unrecognizable Megan Mullaly, the actress who plays Karen on Will & Grace.) Later, we see their relationship disintegrate over the phone lines. The most mordant of these scenes, heard just from Jeffrey's side, is the final one, in which she tells Jeffrey she's gotten married. "If things don't work out, you have a future in comedy," he says, and hangs up.
The key scene in the college sequences would have made Blue Velvet a different movie. It starts at a wan school dance. Where's Jeffrey? a student asks; there's an emergency call for him. Turns out Jeffrey's in a grungy basement, spying on what is apparently a date rape in progress. We see a bulky college guy pinning down a struggling co-ed—clad, significantly, in blue—on a mattress. Jeffrey watches, fascinated, as the scene unfolds. He hears someone call out to him; only then, in a fit of sudden bravado, does he tell the guy to leave the woman alone.
The inclusion of this scene would have significantly changed our understanding of the film. We think of Jeffrey as someone drawn by curiosity into a new world, in which he is freed, in some way, to experience desires or urges he didn't previously know about. That's part of the director Lynch's professional mien, too; a naïf detachedly exploring, with open eyes, these unaccountably dark images that pop into his head. Instead, in this memorable shot we see something like a portrait of the artist as a young perv, comfortable, even eager, to watch not just sex but explicit sexual violence without protest. Roger Ebert, please note!