Blue Velvet: Last Tango in Lumberton
Call it a dream. It does not change anything.
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.
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.
Everything in Lumberton seems slow, sleepy, normal . . . until Jeffrey finds something terribly out of place: a severed human ear crawling with Andalusian ants. Excited by his find, Jeffrey takes the ear to Detective Williams (the sublimely funereal George Dickerson) and, later, meets Williams’ daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), a blond high schooler who glides from the shadows to offer him clues to the ear’s mysterious significance. Sandy tells Jeffrey about a mysterious brunette chanteuse, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who lives in the Deep River Apartments. Fascinated by this ear, this singer, this opportunity to gain secret knowledge, Jeffrey acts at once on what Sandy has told him and finds himself sucked deeper into a mystery that starts as giddy fun but soon unfolds with the murderous deliberateness of a python.
Jeffrey’s youthful curiosity notwithstanding, Blue Velvet is less a benign Hardy Boys adventure than a sexual initiation run amok. Lynch uses the external form of the crime picture to descend into a nightmarish underworld, to pose the nocturnal riddles of light and dark, of voyeurism and cruelty, of love and sexual obsession, of the nasty oedipal whorls of the psyche. And though Jeffrey is frightened by what he sees, he’s profoundly fascinated and begins to abandon himself to the erotics of the unknown.
“I’m seeing something that was always hidden,” Jeffrey tells Sandy, whose vicarious pleasure feeds her own curiosity and leaves her ready for more. While Jeffrey is seduced by the mystery, Sandy is titillated and seduced by his stories of sleuthing, until the mystery, his storytelling and their sexuality blur into one indistinct motive: “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” she says, and Jeffrey responds with a sexy sophomore’s enigmatic coyness, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” (It’s also for the viewer to find out: Our own curiosity makes us another link in the voyeur’s chain.)
Because the story is so nakedly unpredictable (in a Lynch movie, anything can happen), I won’t say what Sandy finds out, nor will I snap Blue Velvet’s sinister spell by giving away the dreamy logic that passes for a plot. But I will say that Jeffrey enters a world where the thugs and “dark women” and psychos of ’40s movies have been stirred into a cauldron far deeper and blacker than mere film noir (whose darkness too often tastes of formula). This world teaches him his own capacity for sexual hunger and sexual violence, the affinity between our human behavior and the grinding insect riot we’ve earlier seen. Jeffrey discovers that everything carries more than one meaning, that even the brightest pop song can cast deep shadows: “Blue Velvet” is an umbilical cord connecting mother and son, fantasy and reality, darkness and light. (One wonders if Lynch’s choice of the song was influenced by Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, which plays “Blue Velvet” while a biker straps on his leathers. As an art-school student, Lynch would probably have seen it.)
In meeting Dorothy Vallens, Jeffrey comes to desire a woman who is both mother and whore, a dark, tragic woman whose desperate cherry-lipped masochism brings out his protective instincts, as well as his most violent desires. His passion for Dorothy runs him afoul of one of cinema’s great psychopaths, Frank Booth (played to perfection by Dennis Hopper). With his paroxysms of rage, his constant profane shrieks, and his sadistic addiction to Dorothy and ’60s ballads, Frank is undeniably “a very sick and dangerous man” who embodies the bully-boy id at its most irrational and terrifying. (“Don’t look at me,” he keeps saying, in one highly charged line, “don’t fucking look at me.”) Yet evil though he is, Booth is viewed with surprising compassion by Lynch (who always looks kindly on freaks) and by Hopper himself, who tempers his furious outbursts with moments of moving delicacy. When Frank looks into Jeffrey’s eyes and declares, “You’re just like me,” Blue Velvet implicates Jeffrey — and us — in a vision of inner darkness from which there is no escape.
David Lynch has no peer at creating disturbing visions (just think of the “baby” in Eraserhead), and can make a joy ride to the brothel seem like bad-acid Dante. There are moments in Blue Velvet that take sexual terror as far as I’ve seen it taken, scenes turning on the fear of being caught naked, of castration and vampirism, of having one’s dirtiest secrets brought to light. Is there any image more gnomically unsettling than the oxygen mask Frank puts on before his next act of cruelty? Can any line betray more horror of sex than Dorothy’s inexplicable cry, “He put his disease into me”? Blue Velvet flouts taboos and breaks new ground, sometimes in shocking ways. Even leaving aside the degradation of her character (which, at times, led the audience to gasp), I was startled at the camera’s pitiless treatment of Rossellini, a fashion model who here appears nude with her belly puffy, her bottom sagging, her face over-lipsticked and whorey. (I bow to her courage.)
Not all of Lycnh’s effects are quite so harsh. In fact, Blue Velvet is often quite sly, with a skewed sense of humor that wrings a few big laughs from the audience but also keeps a few people snickering throughout — especially when it seems inappropriate to others. Lynch plies his flat-footed surrealism with a total assurance that may leave many viewers wondering about, and frustrated by, the movie’s queer tone: Is this supposed to be serious or what? In an enormous artistic risk, Lynch steers his irreal story so close to ordinary realism that most people won’t see the difference and will be enraged or aggravated by his violations of ordinary logic and life. And he obviously doesn’t care. Lynch trusts viewers to bend with the humor of his deadpan dialogue (“It’s a strange world” keeps recurring as a massive understatement); he trusts them to spot the grinning incongruities of his Lumberton world. (When Jeffrey carries the severed ear into the police station, he passes a sign that says, PLEASE DEPOSIT PARKING VIOLATION PAYMENTS HERE.)
Many of Blue Velvet’s best things are quiet in this way — especially Patricia Norris’ witty, otherworldly production design, which features rooms with grotesque wall sconces, strangely elongated mother-in-law plants, and the most hideous battery of lampshades ever assembled for a motion picture. Throughout the film, Lynch and photographer Frederick Elmes create an utterly distinctive look, a wholly original world whose unhealthy colors, dingy lighting and bent visual field have a surprising stylistic range, dousing surreal objects with subaquatic paranoia, rising to moments of operatic craziness or nodding at such lurid film noir classics as Kiss Me Deadly. Although some folks are tempted to read the film realistically, there’s not a single shot in Blue Velvet that looks like a shot from a normal movie. (MacLachlan and Dern told me that when they saw the film, even they were surprised at how stylized everything actually is.) Lynch’s movies are not conventionally beautiful, but his greatest single strength may well be his graphic sense, his ability to create arresting, original images: A boy’s propeller-topped beanie hints at tragic futility; a gun on TV sets up a rippling series of cross-references (revolver = garden hose = bug sprayer = Heineken bottle = penis). While these images draw their power from Lynch’s unloosed intuition, their actual forms are extremely studied and reveal their creator’s art-school roots. His every shot is framed with painterly care and informed by painterly influence. Blue Velvet often reminds one of the work of Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper and others, while remaining true to Lynch’s overall vision, which is uniquely his own.
Many viewers are bound to be put off by Lynch’s desire to make us see things that most people (like the folks in Lumberton) want to pretend don’t exist. Part of this reflects badly on present-day audiences, on their fear of new experience, their desire to have their prejudices flattered, their need to keep a distance between them and the movies they’re seeing. At the same time, there is something repellent about Lynch’s vision of life, something unhealthy about Blue Velvet, and I can easily see why intelligent people could find this picture nasty, evil or sick.
Lynch may not poke fractured bones in our eyes like naughty boy David Cronenberg, but he also hasn’t achieved the pellucid objectivity of Kafka or the bracing sanity of Buñuel. There’s fever here, there’s barking obsession, and one senses that Lynch kind of digs it, thinks it’s cool, remains stuck in the icky, bowel-clutching anxieties of adolescence: He seems like the most brilliant teenager who ever lived. This is particularly true in his portrayal of sexuality (hetero- or homo-), which makes it seem foul, violent, driven, disgusting, insect-y — everything but pleasurable or healthy or sane. True, Sandy and Jeffrey kiss, but their lovey-dovey teenage smooching does little to counteract the sexual revulsion that runs through the movie like a spasm. Can any 10 kisses counteract “He put his disease into me”?
Still, Blue Velvet is hardly a celebration of evil. As an allegory of dark and light, it offers a counterforce — the transcendent power of love — and expresses it through Sandy’s dream of robins descending and bringing light to the Earth. You have to respect Lynch’s panache in trying to find a surreal iconography of love to match the dark dementia surrounding it. But, frankly, this affirmation is so loopy that it throws the film’s allegory off kilter. Lynch may want to believe in sweetness and light, yet he seems ironic about his own affirmation: Sandy tells Jeffrey this dream while religious music soars and stained-glass windows illuminate the darkness.
At their strongest, the forces of light in Blue Velvet display little of the imaginative intensity of the dark material. Given Lynch’s fascination with the nocturnal and the freakish, it’s no surprise that the film’s most potent moments are those of violation, masochism, punishment, terror. As in The Night of the Hunter, say, the spiky details of evil puncture the soft skin of good.
Yet in keeping with his allegorical intent, Lynch ends Blue Velvet with a “happy ending” whose meaning people will be arguing about for years. Do the characters forget everything they’ve experienced and lumber back into the woodenheadedness of the opening? Do they embrace the Americana illusions that opened the movie because, for all their failings, this offers a hope of escaping the darkness outside? Could Lynch really believe that the ending is happy, or does the final shot suggest that the whole process is inevitable, that in the most innocent child the whole clicking chaos is starting all over again?
Whatever the case and whatever his intent, Lynch eludes the dangerous Manicheanism of those who deal cheaply in dark and light. Though I suspect Blue Velvet is, in some eraserheaded fashion, the work of a devout conservative, the passions and ideas it unleashes are profoundly subversive of Reagan’s America; this movie will be richly despised by those who think the robins of light already inhabit our land. For rather than offer us a simple either/or vision, Blue Velvet puts dream and reality onto the same Möbius film strip and shows how seeming opposites bleed into each other: Norman Rockwell becomes Francis Bacon; Sandy’s name links her to “the Sandman,” a figure in Frank’s insidious fantasies; both Frank and Detective Williams are surrogate fathers to Jeffrey. Sifting Jung into its Freud, and both into its own irreducible mysteries, Blue Velvet poses an insoluble riddle of love and sex, good and evil.
Having written all of this in one long, tall session, I’m left frustrated at how much more I might say. Lynch gives his story so many levels and so much English that one could interpret it for pages on end without exhausting its treasures. One could trace the oedipal-sexual images in detail. One could discuss the crackerjack work of “sound designer” Alan Splet. One could detail the superb, touching performances: Rossellini’s desperate vulnerability; Hopper’s crazy persona, grown deeper than ever; Dean Stockwell’s slick turn as every homophobe’s nightmare; Dern’s small-town girl prettiness that, given the right emotional prodding, can pinch itself ugly in girlish jealousy or twist itself into an agony mask right out of Kokoschka; or MacLachlan’s dangerous, terrified boyishness, which holds the movie together and couldn’t be better: Imagine Rob Lowe or Judd Nelson with a person inside.
But for all I could say about oedipal desires or primal scenes, no analysis could capture my gut excitement at this movie, the thrill that I got from watching it. Even though Lynch’s non-narrative weirdness gets in the way of his mystery (the last third tends to drag), I found myself giggling with glee at every twist of the story. For like Jeffrey, I love to find what’s hidden beneath the surface of things.
Yet there’s more going on here than simple pleasure in mystery stories. Though it disturbs me to admit this, I can feel Blue Velvet priming me in ways I can’t control and don’t really want to — it gets my juices going, and a strange sweatiness overtakes me during its kinkiest moments.
David Lynch, I imagine, feels the same way. Blue Velvet has the air of a movie that flows out of the artist’s obsessions the way silk comes from the worm; in Susan Sontag’s terms, it has been “secreted, not constructed.” It shows what a brilliant filmmaker can do by nurturing his unconscious, by digging through mere cleverness to the sap of life. (Though After Hours is beautifully made, it’s bloodless compared to Blue Velvet.) Rather than offer us bogus wisdom or literate entertainment, Lynch compels us to feel and think our way through the film’s throbbing contradictions and watertight mysteries. By so doing, he redeems the great dreams that people have had for the movies, the promise of artistic courage and psychological exploration.
You may not agree with what Lynch says about sex, the psyche and our everyday lives. But if you have ears to hear and eyes to see, this toxic masterpiece will carry you off into a dark, lucid dream that you can despise, reject or argue about till dawn. But you will not shake it off easily, that much I know. And Lynch, I’d wager, knows it too.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.
More Film News
- I Never Liked the National Lampoon's Vacation Series, and This New Version Is...
- Five Reasons to Enter the Silly, Sad World of Netflix's BoJack Horseman
- You Will Learn Exactly Three New Things From the Chris Farley Documentary
- Jason Segel Had His Book Club Read Infinite Jest Without Telling Them He Was...