Blue Velvet, 25 Years Later
An almost unrelieved carnival of perversion, corruption, mayhem, and spectacle.
When Blue Velvet came out, it was so shocking we couldn't appreciate how straightforward the movie really was. I first caught it at the Lumiere Theater in San Francisco, where waves of revulsion swept over the crowd. A few nights later, at a late-night showing in Berkeley, theatergoers got up, singly and in pairs, to leave during the film's most horrific moments. (This was the era of Top Gun and Rambo, remember, Ferris Bueller and Crocodile Dundee.) So assaultive was it that an outraged Roger Ebert (in a clip routinely included in home video releases of the film) denounced the excruciating scenes director David Lynch put his star actress, Isabella Rossellini, through: "I want to know that if I'm feeling that pain it's for a reason the movie has other than simply to cause pain to her." A new Blu-ray edition of the 1986 film, which gives us a pretty spectacular sound and picture for home viewing, along with nearly an hour of long-thought-lost excised scenes, allows us finally to re-see and reconsider the thing in all its glory—and be reminded again how, though Lynch's film was routinely called mysterious and dark, its motives and underpinnings were all pretty clear.
More on those deleted scenes in a minute. Rewatch it today, as I did the other night with a group of willing friends, and the thing is still affecting, still alluring, still shocking, still challenging, offering glimpses of humanity at its most methodically terrifying and death at its most grim. But the clues Lynch left were all intact. Is there sexual violence in the film? Sure. But the first actor you see, after all, is holding a hose, squirting water out at waist level; seconds later, on a TV, we see another hand at waist level, this time with a gun in it. Seconds later, the first man is having a stroke and the hose is squirting around; he writhes on the ground spraying in all directions, like Jupiter Pluvius agonistes. And then shortly after that, our hero, young Jeffrey, finds an ear in a field and the director's camera takes us deep down into its buzzing, ant-covered moldly hole (!). Squirting hoses, drawn guns, scary holes. … I mean, what did we expect?
And that's just the first few minutes. Frank, the sociopath played by Dennis Hopper, calls himself "Daddy" and Dorothy Vallens, the woman he's terrorizing, "Mommy." When Jeffrey's mind is filled with horrified thoughts of Frank, the criminal's visage merges with that of his wounded biological father. Jeffrey is sexually assaulted by this "Mommy" as she holds a (remarkably phallic) knife, and then, at the film's climax, as Lynch goes all in with the Oedipal stakes, he's sexually brutalized again by his alternative "Daddy" as well. Meanwhile, Jeffrey's "sister" Laura Dern falls in love with him—and gets all weepy when a naked Mommy, bloodied and bruised, falls into her brother’s arms, gazes into her eyes, and informs her, "He put his disease in me." As my former colleague Michael Sragow used to say, it's not even subtext. It's text-text.
Our setting is a bucolic small town—an imaginary town, as Marianne Moore might have put it, with real psychos in it. Lynch, with his perverse Oedipal fantasia established, takes on the conventions of the noir—in which our hero goes off in search of answers, compromises himself, and winds up finding out more than he bargained for. Again, these are modes of storytelling we all should have been familiar with. You'll recall the basic outlines of the Blue Velvet story. The man with the hose is Jeffrey Beaumont's father; he collapses and is hospitalized, which brings Jeffrey back from college. Jeffrey, played by Kyle MacLachlan in Lynchian top-buttoned shirts, walks through a field and discovers a severed human ear in the dirt. That grotesque MacGuffin's aural passage is his route, you might say, to the underworld. (It's also a sign to us the viewers that sound will play a big role in the film's impact.)
He takes the ear to a detective who lives in the neighborhood; the detective's daughter, Sandy, is Laura Dern. She feeds the overcurious Jeffrey information she hears from her father—that the ear is connected to an investigation involving a local nightclub singer, Dorothy Vallens, played with a wounded luminousness by Rossellini. She too lives in the neighborhood; Lynch makes it quite explicit that Jeffrey and Sandy were already living quite close to the dangers that await them.
The ear aside, up to now the film is fairly chaste. Here and in Mulholland Dr., Lynch is capable of pulling off a production design trick that lets separate decades hang heavily in the air. Sandy's friends have typical '80s hairstyles, but the minute she detaches from them we see she's clad in chaste '50s-style clothing. Jeffrey's red car is a wide boat of a thing from what seems to be the '60s; Vallens' apartment is that of a ruined woman from a '40s noir; and Jeffrey and Sandy meet to whisper and plot in retro diners.
And there, caught up in a seemingly innocent inquisitiveness, the two conspire to have Jeffrey surreptitiously enter the singer's house. That's our first sign of transgression. Retribution is swift. Dorothy Vallens catches Jeffrey inside her apartment—and what she does next is the film's sexual Rubicon. Angered but also seemingly aroused at his voyeurism, she orders Jeffrey to strip and begins to perform a sex act on him. This little passion play is interrupted by the arrival of Frank, a local gangster. Jeffrey hides and again becomes a voyeur. As he watches, Frank brutalizes Vallens. With Jeffrey we discover that Frank is a patent psycho who is infatuated with the singer and holding her husband and kid hostage. He periodically visits the singer to visit assaultive sex on her, in his own creatively distinctive and dysfunctional way. It may or may not be significant that he warns Vallens to "stay alive"—the implication seems to be that he knows she's past the point of despair.
Jeffrey watches, you might say, with a wild surmise, and soon finds himself regularly engaged in similar, though not quite so sadistic, sexual activities with Vallens. (In noir terms, this is the rough equivalent of Marlowe sleeping with Lauren Bacall's druggie sister in The Big Sleep.) It is arguably the film's most transgressive plot point that Vallens likes being beaten during sex; whether this is induced by the trauma she's experiencing isn't clear, but it's strongly implied. Jeffrey keeps the details of his deepening relationship with her away from innocent Sandy. It's just a matter of time, of course, before Frank makes the acquaintance of Jeffrey, with unfortunate results. (Frank calls him, ominously, "neighbor.") The second half of the film is an almost unrelieved carnival of perversion, corruption, mayhem, and spectacle. The images we're given—a ghostly, feminized Dean Stockwell (a commedia dell'arte nightmare) lip-syncing Roy Orbison's "In Dreams," a floozy dancing atop a parked car as Jeffrey is beaten, a tableau of degradation and death in Vallens’ apartment, Vallens herself appartitioning, bloody and naked, in a suburban yard at night—remain among the most horrifically indelible in American film.
But most of the actual plot points are within the confines of the typical noir. Isn't Jeffrey just another inquiring mind on a case, getting in a little too deep, and enduring a beating or two? OK, so Humphrey Bogart never had a sick sexual double life with an abused crime victim old enough to be his mother. Still, after all that, we get a fairly optimistic coda: Jeffrey, now a man, his relationship with Sandy secure, his mother and aunt happy and relieved to have their son back. Even Vallens is reunited with her little boy. The final noir touch is a wink from the director: a cartoony sweet robin, chewing on a bug. Commenting on the scene of The Maltese Falcon (in which Mary Astor is taken down in an elevator by the cops, as Bogart takes the stairs), the critic David Thomson observed that both were going to the same place. Lynch knows that we know it's just a matter of time before the more dangerous residents in the neighborhood come back for more fun, and that Jeffrey won't be able to resist their enticements.