Blue Velvet is the type of film that lingers in your mind long after your first viewing. One that inspires focused and passionate discussion amongst friends. Love it or hate it, it still has people talking to this day, 30 years after its initial controversial release.
My friend Eddie says it best: “I don’t like how this movie makes me feel.” Neither did Roger Ebert, by the looks of his infamous scathing review in which he referred to Blue Velvet as “…a story that’s marred by sophomoric satire and cheap shots” but many viewers today find his opinion somewhat misinformed. To this day it is considered one of the best films of the the decade with a cult following that rivals any other art film of the ‘80s.
It’s obvious that nobody in this movie really likes the way they feel, and they’re feeling it a lot. Lauded for its cast’s meltdown performances (which makes it an instant favourite in my book) every character seems to reach an almost rapturous breaking point of emotion. For some, it takes effort to enjoy Lynch. His dreamscape universe combined with the jilted, somewhat campy dialogue can turn people off. Even so, another repeated viewing brought just as many emotions and uncomfortable silences as the first time I saw it. 30 year later, Blue Velvet still manages make people feel strange, but why?
Blue Velvet has been a part of the cultural landscape for so long, I doubt there’s anything new anyone can say about it. Ten minutes into the film, when Detective Williams says, “…One day when it’s all sewed up, I’ll let you know the details.” it feels like it’s coming straight from Lynch’s mouth regarding the entire film. There is a lot going on underneath the surface, and it takes some time to put the pieces together.
Released in 1986, it’s evident that the Reagan-era plays some part in the subtext of the film. America was led by a president swaying between the glamour of Hollywood and the gravity of leading a nation. A man with a veneer, just as the town of Lumberton appears to have when we’re introduced to it via near-blinding primary colours and picture-perfect lawns. This idyllic image doesn’t last long before we’re treated to an artful pan into the underworld of the insects slithering beneath the earth. In this same way we will be shown the visceral secrets inside the town and it all starts with a severed ear found in a field – a portal from which we don’t emerge for nearly 75 minutes.
Sounds like a pretty good daydream: Perhaps what’s most interesting is the idea of dreams and fantasy in Blue Velvet. In his classic style, Lynch does not hold back in this regard. Kyle McLaughlan plays Jeffrey, a young college man who loves nothing more than a mystery. He pops into town for a family emergency with his distinctly ‘80s earring and skinny tie and sweeps up the strangely ‘50s-skirted Sandy played by Laura Dern. Before long they’re both embroiled in a masochistic mystery surrounding a simmering Isabella Rossellini (Dorothy Vallens). Though Rossellini’s agents famously dropped her after this role, it is arguably her signature performance for which she is most well-known.
For many, the most striking and memorable scene of the film is Jeffrey’s experience peeping through Dorothy’s closet slats. What he sees, and what we see through his eyes, is an uncomfortable interaction between Frank – a man who has kidnapped her husband and child in return for violent sexual favours- and Dorothy. Frank is erratic, shouting, demeaning, both physically and sexually abusive. Dorothy seems passive: aware, but unafraid. She has obviously experienced this before and is managing her own internal conflicts.
In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek refers to Dorothy’s apartment as “…one of those hellish places which abound in David Lynch’s films – a place where all moral and social inhibitions seem to be suspended: where everything is possible. The lowest masochistic sex, obscenities, the deepest level of our desires that we are not even ready to admit to ourselves; We are confronted with them in such places.” Of this scene specifically, he speaks of “a kind of a strange interlocking of fantasies.” This is the key to why the movie resonates so deeply, and remains relevant to this day. The shocking combination of Jeffrey’s peeping tom/Oedipal fantasy, Frank’s drug-fueled sadomasochism, and Dorothy’s broken desire strike a cord. Surely we all know someone like Frank, Dorothy, or Jeffrey. Dennis Hopper, holding fast to the wagon of sobriety after a severe cocaine and alcohol addiction, identified so strongly with the role that he told Lynch “I AM Frank.” His eerie performance showed this to be true as he is a formidable villain here. At the same time, he impressively manages to draw our empathy. When it comes down to it, we are Jeffrey, voyeurs from our couches and theatre seats, our view obstructed by our limited vision and experiences. Facing these raw, ugly desires as an audience causes us to subconsciously reflect on our own.
In dreams I walk with you: Following this scene, it comes across as rather trite at first when Jeffrey asks Sandy, “Why are there people in the world like Frank?” and she replies (seemingly unaware of his emotional distress) with a story of a dream she had about birds and their ultimate representation of love. Lynch taps into the subconscious: the fantasy dream world that we work so hard to keep secret, the places where things don’t make sense, and the questions we are afraid to ask loom heavily. Again, Žižek refers to the idea of the dreams in Blue Velvet: “It starts with ‘dreams are for those who cannot endure, who are not strong enough for reality’, it ends with ‘reality is for those who are not strong enough to endure or confront their dreams’.”
Whether one believes that dreams have special meanings or symbolism, it’s generally understood that they’re a way for our subconscious to work through the craggy landscapes of our daily lives. Much like in a dream, symbolism in Lynch’s films could be discussed for weeks. Lynch himself has said, “If you could put into words the symbolic equivalent to most of my visual concepts, no one would probably want to produce my films. I don’t know what a lot of things mean. I just have the feeling that they are right or not right. My work is full of abstract ideas but they are ideas I know about. My first inspiration is life, therefore everything makes sense because it is linked to life.”
It may seem bold these days to live and create by feeling, but Lynch adds a much-needed perspective to cinema in this way. We spend so much of our time trying to control our feelings and our thoughts as we go about our lives. Perhaps we need an outlet such as this, a time and place to work those things out while under the trance of the light of the screen. So, does it make sense that David Lynch creates out of soul and feeling, connecting with us on a different level, and that is why we are still so moved by his work today? I suppose like anything else, that depends on who you ask. Even so, I suspect we might be having this same conversation 30 years from now.
Featured Image: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group