David Lynch, a name that is for many film enthusiasts the epitome for weird, surreal, and bizarre, surprised many people when he had characterised himself as a Boy Scout from Missoula, Montana. He is also known as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” or “Jimmy Stewart on acid”—a very polite, happy-go-lucky, enthusiastic individual, who unironically uses words and phrases like “Golly!,” “Holy jumping George!,” “Howdy!” etc., and who just happens to have a vivid imagination that has been the basis of nightmares for many of his viewers. Contrary to popular belief, Lynch is not the type of a guy who, for instance, chops off his fingernails in his grandmother’s basement and then puts them in his dinner salad, but is somebody who is actually trying, through foundations, meditation recommendations and charity work, to promote, and achieve without a hint of irony, peace and prosperity. But Lynch’s worlds are full of such contradictions, full of idealists who also happen to be scoundrels below the surface, and Lynch is fascinated with the dark and perverse facet of the human condition, but also on the profound and gentle side of humanity, a soulful aspect of his work that doesn’t get nearly mentioned as the former one. The oblique and mysterious nature of Lynch’s work draws many to become obsessed with finding a universal explanation or an enlightened meaning to his films. But Lynch insists on never revealing what the abstractions in his films “mean,” and he suggests to his viewers that they also try to find out for themselves more on an intuitive than a rational level as to what the disturbing visuals, the labyrinthian plots and the unreliable characters truly convey. Lynch claims that everybody is a detective, but it is also important to note that Lynch’s movies are not merely a puzzle to be solved: they are to be experienced, after which a powerful cinema-going epiphany may come out of his best work. This set of essays will try and derive certain interpretations and explanations of Lynch’s ideas, but they are in no way to be understood as definitive or let alone indicative of what the director himself was thinking. Every reader should be an autonomous detective indeed.
After an 11-year break from filmmaking, Lynch returns for, as he puts it, an 18-hour feature divided into 18 parts, called Twin Peaks, which sounds familiar to pretty much anyone remotely acquainted with the man’s work. Lynch’s cult television show that originally aired in 1990 and 1991 and revolutionized television storytelling returns, against all odds, for a special event series starring Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper. Very little is known about the plot or the characters, apart from the fact that it is indeed happening again, 25 years after the murder of Laura Palmer, the teenage homecoming queen whose death has set the plot of the old Twin Peaks into motion. A 200+ cast list has been released, including newcomers such as Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Tom Sizemore. This mammoth project for a 71-year-old Lynch will, therefore, serve as a jumping point for Cinephilia & Beyond to go to the past and explore his ten feature films, starting from the debut film Eraserhead in 1977, all the way to Inland Empire in 2006. His short film, web, commercial and television work will not be included, with the clear and notable exception of Twin Peaks itself, which is an essential component for this retrospective.
This is how creativity ignites itself in David Lynch’s mind—by listening to Bobby Vinton’s version of the 1950s song Blue Velvet, an admittedly schmaltzy little ditty, but nevertheless a seemingly comforting and soothing song, although there is also something undeniably creepy and deceptive about it, reeling just below the surface, which provides Lynch with the following associations and ideas: green lawns, red lips… and a severed ear in the field, providing a literal, orifical gateway into a perverse world of twisted mysteries that comprises his fourth feature and, for many of his fans, his definitive masterpiece.
As a painter who was enamoured with the work of the Irish painter Francis Bacon, no stranger to disturbing and creepy, with its depictions of slaughterhouses, disfigured faces, and skeletal fragments of the soul, it comes to no surprise that Lynch was always fascinated with what is underneath all the superficial beauty, beneath the boring social niceties, and below the pedestrian facets of suburban cleanliness—a world which may be closer to a Francis Bacon painting than one hopes it would be.
Blue Velvet opens with the most famous of Lynchian metaphors, as envisioned in one of his first ideas triggered by the eponymous song: a green lawn with flawlessly red roses and blindingly white picket fences, only to discover a sea of sliming insects beneath it, accompanied by Alan Splet’s always reliable sound design that gives it that extra character of creepiness. The peaceful, the serene, the mundane may linger on the surface, but there is darkness and horror to be found, patiently hovering just below. This theme is reflected in every pore of the fleshy, grotesque mood of the film. Take the lead character of Jeffrey Beaumont, a figure which seems like a very nice, earnest person to be around, but whose morbid curiosity and a penchant for voyeurism take him to dark places of manipulation and perversion. Kyle MacLachlan, here a dozen times more comfortable and in control of his craft than in Dune, brings to life in a non-judgmental, ambiguous manner the character of Jeffrey, somebody who surrenders to his bizarre and kinky tendencies, exploiting one traumatised woman that is on the verge of sanity, deceiving the other who is slowly but surely falling in love with him, all the while playing detective in a dangerous game that gives him more to bite than he could ever chew.
There are descriptions of Blue Velvet as a coming-of-age story, something that may ring true only if this “age” is not maturity, but a release of all the filthy compulsions that is hiding within human beings, Lynch being the first in line. MacLachlan had used some of Lynch’s mannerisms and clothing choices for Jeffrey, adding to the presumption that this character holds some of the darkness Lynch discovers in himself and releases it into the ether while making some of his best work. Lynch has stated that film has a great way of giving shape to the subconscious—look no further than Jeffrey Beaumont for precisely that. Blue Velvet can also be observed as a meta-commentary on film viewers themselves; as Lynch puts it, “we are all voyeurs,” in the sense that cinema can serve not only as escapist entertainment but also a way to satisfy our hidden urges and desires, ambitions which one will never fulfil, or perversions which will forever remain locked with the exception of that one moment in the cinema where one with uncomfortable disgust and resilient fascination witnesses Jeffrey Beaumont hiding in the closet, intensely observing the sadomasochistic game between Dennis Hopper’s deranged Frank Booth and Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Vallens.
In a performance that gives a new meaning–both literal and figurative–to the phrase “giving it all away,” Isabella Rossellini depicts the biggest victim of Lynch’s grotesque underworld. Rossellini also compared the character of Dorothy to a Francis Bacon painting, likening her to a bloody carcass of an animal that resembles a human being, so often portrayed in Bacon’s work, due to the ragged and tortured look of a victim who is being bullied, raped, tortured, both physically and mentally, by admittedly one of the most unforgettable villains in American cinema. But the twisted thing about Lynch is that it is heavily implied that Dorothy enjoys this cycle of mayhem. It remains equivocal whether this is, in fact, a part of Dorothy’s nature or if this is an extreme materialization of Stockholm syndrome, and precisely this has drawn the flame of many critics to Blue Velvet, calling it a misogynist’s wet dream. Probably the most inflamed and emotional criticism came from the arguably most famous American film critic of the last forty years, Roger Ebert, whose outrage over the film (even though he turned out to be a fan of Lynch, especially Mulholland Drive) became so legendary it was even included as a special feature on the Blu-Ray disc of the film. But to call Rossellini’s depiction and Lynch’s handling of the character misogynist would be missing the point (not to mention it is a condescending generalisation to begin with)—in those subtle, “little” moments of Blue Velvet, Dorothy is much more of a caring, selfless human being than anybody else in the film (one should pay attention to Dorothy’s expressions and body language during the “In Dreams” sequence), and the ending to her story is the only one in the movie that doesn’t feel like it has the slightest tint of irony to it.
On the other side of the coin is Laura Dern’s Sandy, the girl next door who further brings Jeffrey down the ear of a sparse plot which brings the two young, amateur detectives into a web of murder, kidnapping and torture. Sandy is on the surface the light bearer of the film, literally pulling herself out of darkness in a very memorable movie entrance, symbolizing happiness and innocence, especially in a very faux-sentimental sequence where she describes a dream of darkness being beaten by “thousands of robins bringing a blinding light of love,” comforting a somewhat hypocritically, cunningly outraged Jeffrey who simply cannot bring himself to comprehend the amount of wickedness he had witnessed with Dorothy and Frank. But the “light bearer” does signify “Lucifer,” and although Sandy is anything but the Devil, the final scene of Blue Velvet shows a robin of love holding the insect tight, signifying a messenger that darkness comes with light in unison, and the two complete each other instead of one vanquishing the other. There has been a long debate as to how ironic the happy, tranquil scenes in Blue Velvet truly are—Lynch is arguably not that keen of irony as a stylistic choice (with the possible exception of Twin Peaks and its mocking of soap-operas, even though it embraces the artificial feel and dialogue of soap-operas at the same time)—but those scenes do reek of falseness and ignorance as much as they offer consolation and a sense of joy. The ending of Blue Velvet may therefore also signify the formerly idealistic characters of Jeffrey and Sandy growing to be largely indifferent and ignorant to the bug-infested world below them.
The Devil is a familiar face in Blue Velvet. Dennis Hopper is Frank Booth, as he had famously stated to Lynch after he had cast him, worrying the innocuous Eagle Scout that although Hopper was obviously right for the part, it will be a problem to socialize or have dinner with the flamboyant director of Easy Rider, who did Blue Velvet after a stint in rehab. The notorious substance abuser was thus going, ironically enough, actively sober for a role which demanded of him to play the part of a monstrous, drug-crazed rapist (one fascinating trivia is that the infamous breathing mask was originally supposed to be helium, until Hopper convinced Lynch to switch it to nitrous oxide), kidnapper and outright lunatic. There was no method acting in this performance—unlike the improvisational, glassy-eyed madness of his character in Apocalypse Now, where Hopper babbles about fractions and Venus in a monologue that probably came from the innovative depths of addiction, Blue Velvet finds Hopper at both his most energetic and focused, finding the perfect balance between horror and hilarity; he is as frightening as he is downright hysterical, chewing the scenery but never going as far as not being convincing or credible enough for the viewer to know that Frank Booth is of this world. Only Dennis Hopper can make lines like “It’s Daddy, you shithead!” or “I’ll fuck anything that moooves!” seem that natural and fitting. Not to mention that there are even moments when Frank’s humanity comes to the forefront, symbolized literally with tears in blue velvet—an actor often says that he or she never judges the character, so no wonder Dennis Hopper looked at Frank and his journey as part of a love story.
Frank’s humanity is visible in what just might be the greatest scene in Lynch’s filmography, the villain being in a confusing, tearful and conflicted state when watching a lip-synced version of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams, performed by his mysterious pal Ben, the only person in the film towards whom Frank shows a modicum of respect. The In Dreams sequence, featuring the Roy Orbison classic being corrupted by a ghoulish Dean Stockwell, also featuring obese women, a very weird clownish, man-sized puppet, Dennis Hopper toasting to his “fuck,” and a never better utilized work lamp, is as successful an approximation of a surreal, senseless dream as Lynch or any other cinema surrealist had tried to achieve. It is creepy, funny, tense and, for other creative minds desperate to find something that is not derivative, devastatingly unique—which is what David Foster Wallace might have had in mind when he called Blue Velvet a true original (even though there are plenty of nods to Hitchcock: sweeping themes of voyeurism have their debt in Rear Window, a Lynch favourite, and Psycho, along with visuals in the vein of film noir by the way of Billy Wilder; or what the great English writer J.G. Ballard meant when he described Blue Velvet as “The Wizard of Oz” with a script by Franz Kafka and décor by Francis Bacon).
Lynch truly brought the mixture of music and visuals with Blue Velvet to a new creative level whose legacy influenced many filmmakers afterwards, from Tarantino to Paul Thomas Anderson. Blue Velvet also features his first partnership with the composer Angelo Badalamenti, which has in retrospect proved to be his most recognizable and fruitful long-term collaboration. Badalamenti, with his jazzy influences and dreamy soundscapes, proved to be a perfect match for Lynch’s tendencies, providing him each and every time with a musical score that had enriched the atmosphere and mood to the point where the two artists had become inseparable.
Even though the third act of Blue Velvet feels overbearing at times in its wallowing misery, and somewhat rushed in its plot resolutions, the movie as a whole shows Lynch at the top of his game, combining convincing character arcs, forever ingrained setpieces and the plain but clever metaphors in a film that indeed is the jewel in the crown of American surrealism, never failing to both shock and leave one in awe, depriving him or her out of their comfort zone and relishing in that fact while doing so. Blue Velvet is the perfect combination of Lynch working as a disciplined storyteller and conniving as an energetic madcap, inviting the viewer to step out of tasteful boundaries to discover cinematic gold just behind those white picket fences.
Written by Lovorko Marić
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: David Lynch’s screenplay for Blue Velvet [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection (available May 28, 2019). Absolutely our highest recommendation.
The majority of the photos below were taken on location during the production of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in 1985 by Peter Braatz & Umberto Montiroli © De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), 20th Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only. 30 years after the shooting of Blue Velvet, the classic film of David Lynch, the German filmmaker Peter Braatz revisits his original Super-8 material and numerous photographies, filmed 30 years ago on the set in Wilmington, USA: Blue Velvet Revisited.
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