Blue Velvet (Director: David Lynch): For my second Blind Spots post of the year, I chose David Lynch’s 1986 film noir freakout Blue Velvet, partially because I’d just read some good reviews of the Blu-ray, including “lost” footage left out of the final version of the film. For the record, I haven’t yet watched any of this footage, nor any of the other supplements, including the “making-of” documentary. I think it’s best if I record my first impressions while they’re fresh and unsullied by too much analysis. There will be plenty of time for that later, I assure you.
I haven’t seen very many Lynch films at all, but I’m familiar enough with his style that nothing in Blue Velvet really came as a surprise. I did notice how the art direction is intentionally evasive when it comes to locating the film in a particular time and place. The town of Lumberton is really an amalgam of various periods in American history from the 50s to the 80s, but the opening shots of a literal white-picket fence evokes the period of the 1950s most obviously. We begin with Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returning home from college to help run the family hardware store after his father suffers what appears to be a stroke. He’s a clean-cut kid, but the presence of an earring in his left ear hints at some submerged non-conformity (and tips us off that we’re not actually in the 1950s). When he finds a severed human ear in a field near his home, he reports the find to the police. Detective Williams treats him a bit like a child and tells him to forget about the case, but Jeffrey has a morbid fascination with figuring out what happened.
So does Detective Williams’ pretty daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), who tips Jeffrey off to the police department’s ongoing surveillance of a singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Soon Jeffrey is breaking into Dorothy’s apartment and seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing. As he continues to pursue the mystery, he tries to keep Sandy out of danger even as he’s drawn into ever-darker scenarios.
At one point, Sandy expresses her worry and says, “you must really love mysteries.” Jeffrey tells her he loves being “wrapped up” in a mystery. Then he says, “you’re a mystery, and I like you.” Compare this “aw shucks” Andy Hardy behaviour with his growing obsession with the unstable Dorothy. It’s like the two women represent two kinds of mystery. Sandy is an unknown, but at some point, he’ll discover the limits of her depths and touch bottom. With Dorothy, who just might be insane, the mystery is unsolvable. She’s an endless riddle and so a perfect object for obsession. Jeffrey can explore the mysteries of his own dark side when he’s with Dorothy or the strange and violent people around her.
Later in the film, our apparent villain Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) mutters to Jeffrey, “you’re like me.” Which makes the circularity of the ending (including the repetition of the shot of the white picket fence) interesting as an obsuring device. It’s like we’ve fallen into deep sleep, confronted our nightmares, then resurfaced only to forget everything we’ve seen.
I find it interesting that I’ve used “deep water” metaphors in each of the preceding two paragraphs in attempting to describe the film’s puzzlements.
Apart from those thoughts, I enjoyed the film’s extremely mannered style. When characters are being “good,” the acting is melodramatic, but when they’re bad, they’re often incoherent and loud, or the film heightens the viscerality by the use of repetition or odd sound design. The score even uses dramatic cues at key moments, making the whole thing seem like a Douglas Sirk-directed Sam Spade caper, if Sam Spade was played by one of the Hardy Boys.
While I enjoyed the film’s style, I feel that Blue Velvet won’t give up all or even most of its secrets on one, or even two viewings. So it’s a good thing that the Blu-ray transfer is so gorgeous to look at. And while I want to resist, I’ll probably take a look at the supplemental features and extra footage at some point.
And now that I’ve finally watched the film, I can go and enjoy my friend Nicholas Rombes’ fascinating project over at Filmmaker Magazine, in which he’s writing about the film, one frame at a time. He’ll likely have more to say about one image than I do about the whole film at this point, but I’m looking forward to digesting his insights now to see how they affect my appreciation.