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.
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!
The disc also includes the documentary "Mysteries of Love," which owners of the original DVD already have. It's a thorough exposition of the film's making and themes, done with extraordinary taste, intelligence, and lack of squeamishness. Among other things, it has a lot of footage of the cerebral Rossellini (the daughter, you'll recall, of director Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman) offering her take on the movie. It was her first American film (Lynch happened upon her in a restaurant, also the beginning of the pair's extended personal relationship), so we had no context for her at the time. We can see how her intelligence informed her performance. The grueling, notorious scene Roger Ebert found so provocative—that's the one in which an abject, nude Vallens appears on a street at night—remains an iconic moment in transgressive cinema. In this film and elsewhere, Rossellini has said she drew on several images to help her do it. Among them: The famous picture of the Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack; a slab of beef hanging from a meat hook—and her personal experiences with the haunted visages of privileged European friends who'd been kidnapped and tortured by the Red Brigades.