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Blue Velvet: Last Tango in Lumberton 

Originally published September 12, 1986

Wednesday, Jul 12 2006
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Call it a dream. It does not change anything.

­—Ludwig Wittgenstein

A young man hides in a closet and peers through its slatted door at a woman called “Mommy” and, later on, at a man known as “Daddy.” What he sees in that 10 minutes is unlike anything ever put on a movie screen.

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Halfway through this scene, the theater door opened and a woman sped out, never to return. To my right, a famous movie director and his producer sat giggling and rapt, but one row back you could sense the fidgety silence of disapproval from two middle-aged Brits. When the final credits stopped rolling, a production executive said she’d like to see the movie again immediately, while out in the lobby, two producers began a bitter argument that would last more than two hours. One claimed he’d seen something sick and evil; the other insisted he’d witnessed a great work of art. The rest of the audience simply looked dazed, shocked — and relieved at the lunchtime normalcy of Wilshire Boulevard. As for me, I found it scary that I’d enjoyed myself so much. And now, weeks later, I feel as though I dreamt this movie rather than saw it: I can’t get it out of my head.

The movie is Blue Velvet, and it is one of the bravest, strangest and most intensely personal works ever to come out of Hollywood. The filmmaker is David Lynch, who here announces that he’s back from the cosmic disappointment of Dune, back from the humanistic beauties of The Elephant Man, and is exploring the same stretch of the unconscious that made Eraserhead one of the most ineffably inventive films of our time. An artist at the peak of his powers, Lynch has thrown himself into one of the riskiest projects imaginable. He has grafted the hallucinatory abstractness of Eraserhead onto familiar Hollywood forms and created, in the process, a movie of dazzling expressiveness and artistry.

Deliberately or not (and probably not), Blue Velvet is an “outrage” in the Surrealist sense and will be received as such by small-town nostalgists, most citizens over 50, Meese Commission puritans, free-love advocates, women’s groups, Chambers of Commerce, the odd gay alliance, TV movie critics, and those who want their stories simple, their endings happy, their meanings neat and comfortable. This is radical moviemaking. In a year when Stand by Me and Ferris Bueller purvey Lite-wisdom about adolescence, Blue Velvet transforms the coming-of-age story into an allegory that flings back the bed sheets of the psyche and bursts taboos like balloons at a child’s party. In a time when filmmakers live by formula and cliché, Blue Velvet takes those formulas and clichés and drives them to commit suicide. In a decade when Reagan and Cougar Mellencamp croon about small-town America, David Lynch walks us through one small town and finds in its smiling faces the darkest dreams of the republic.

These dreams give rise to an eerie, funny, powerful film whose moody intensity most filmmakers couldn’t create if they tried and wouldn’t try to create if they could. Blue Velvet is a disturbing picture — it puts its madness into you — but it’s also an exhilaration. In its power to infuriate, agitate, sicken and delight, Lynch’s perfervid brainchild hearkens to the Buñuel-Dali collaborations of the late ’20s. Contradictory and nasty though it sometimes may be, Blue Velvet is clearly one of the few great films of the ’80s, could be the most sensational work of cinema since Last Tango in Paris. It has been years since a film reached me this deeply.

The opening is extraordinary. After a long shot of the most pestilent-looking blue velvet imaginable (a pulsing, crushed velvet), Bobby Vinton’s sappy ballad pours onto the soundtrack and accompanies an intensely colored shot of red flowers against a white picket fence and a blue sky ­— a red-white-and-blue vision whose saturated ’50s hues announce, in a sense, Lynch’s whole approach: Everything is slightly off — don’t trust it. The subsequent images (a fireman waving mechanically, kids at a crosswalk, a trim white house) reinforce a cockeyed picture of Americana, one that soon cracks apart. For inside the white house, two women watch a TV program where a man is holding a gun; outside, a man watering his lawn clutches his neck, as if stung or shot. He falls to the ground, his (obviously) phallic hose shooting into the air, a little boy watches the toppled figure (his father?), and the camera tracks down deep into the grass where strange, ugly beetles climb all over each other to the highly amplified sound of their grinding, clicking roar. End of sequence. From apple-pie order to insect madness in a little over a minute.

The stricken man turns out to be the father of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), an eager young man whose boyish good looks come shaded with neurosis. (Interestingly enough, Jeffrey’s dark coat and fastened top shirt button recall Lynch himself.) Called back home from college to literally “mind the store” while Dad recuperates, he wanders around Lumberton, an archetypically timeless small town with a Central High, a Lincoln Street, and a radio station (WOOD) breezing out the usual corn-fed pleasantries (“At the sound of the falling tree” — crash — “the time will be . . .”). At first, Jeffrey seems oppressed by his father’s machine-bound silence in the hospital, yet as any psychoanalyst could tell you, the disappearance of the father is also a liberation — here, one that yields dangerous fruits almost immediately.

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