Directed by: David Lynch.
Music by: Angelo Badalamenti.
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern & others.

We live in an age where the term ‘cult’ has become a cool cultural byword, but seems difficult to actually achieve. Studios are inevitably resistant (moreso than ever) to take chances on stories that seem tailored to confuse and sideline huge possible audiences, though they often pursue original things to say.

In brief ‘Blue Velvet’ seems to succeed based on a simple truth – It is human to feel an odd pull towards that which should repel. What you get with every David Lynch production is a masterclass on how to construct film iconography, the language of moving image, and the genuine forced evolution of the medium. You can see his influence in other directors like Lars Von Trier, Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick and even video game directors like Masashi Tsuboyama.

 

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It arrived straight off the back of one massive success in the form of ‘The Elephant Man’ from 1980 (notably his most conventional film), and the huge sprawling Sci-Fi epic ‘Dune’ that received a near-fatal panning in 1984. Some more risk-averse creative might have taken their foot off the gas a little, given the divisive nature of such work – but Lynch was just getting started.

Here is a brief plot overview, but if you wish to be unspoiled please skip past the italics:
Jeffrey is a college student, returning to his logging hometown of Lumberton in North Carolina. After visiting his father in the local hospital, he finds a severed human ear in a field as he walks home.

Taking said rotten ear to local police as possible evidence of a crime, he meets Detective John Williams and his daughter, old childhood friend Sandy. She lets slip about the ear case and a woman suspected to involved, Dorothy. Jeffrey takes a strange turn from curious to obsessive, he tracks Dorothy to her apartment and steals her spare key.
Both Jeffrey and Sandy visit The Slow Club, where Dorothy works as a singer. Here, as she performs the song ‘Blue Velvet’, we meet local heavy Frank Booth for the first time, clenching a scrap of the same material mentioned in the song.

Checking her apartment for clues, Jeffrey is caught and seduced by Dorothy. Jeffrey has to hide in the closet as Frank enters and forces Dorothy to be degraded, as Frank has kidnapped her family in order that she act out his horrific desires, his creepy huffs of gas flavouring the terror.

 

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Jeffrey meets with Sandy tries to comfort him in his shaken state, by recounting a dream of Robins that she thinks symbolises hope for humanity, but their encounter ends with a stilted intimate tension.

Jeffrey spies on Frank’s movements for a few days, including two of his associates who visit him regularly, calling them the well-Dressed Man and Yellow Man.  Jeffrey and Dorothy are caught having sex by Frank – who takes the two back to his crime partner Ben’s apartment, where her son is held captive. Jeffrey watches Dorothy molested and he is beaten savagely in a lumber yard by Frank (somehow triggered by Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’).

Trying to warn the police, Jeffrey goes to Sandy’s father at his home, who warns the young man to avoid getting involved further.After discovering Dorothy beaten and naked outside a dance they both attended, Jeffrey senses that events are escalating. His instincts are right, and returning to the apartment finds both Dorothy’s Husband and the Yellow Man dead, with Frank disguised as the Well-Dressed Man fast approaching.

Using the Yellow Man’s police radio and taking his gun, Jeffrey calls for help and hides in the same closet he first saw Frank from. The monster barges in, leering that he heard the call for help through his own police radio. Frank fires chaotically around the apartment, forcing Jeffrey to leap out and shoot him in the head.

Jeffrey and Sandy start their relationship proper, and Robins begin to appear all over town. During a wrapping-up montage, we see Dorothy is reunited with her son.

 

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While this sounds for the most part like a fairly usual noir setup packaged in the small town iconography, the really remarkable aspects of this film are in the execution. Starting with a picket fence sounds like classic Americana, but the slow deliberate cinematography along with the excellent old pop soundtrack gives this an immediately disjointed quality.

We would see this style find an even more pronounced outlet in his TV series ‘Twin Peaks’ (1990) with same lead actor Kyle MacLachlan and similar small town setting. In fact, what I don’t see talked about is how perfectly the casting of MacLachlan fits the theme and tone. He looks for all the world like the quintessential American matinee idol, but he almost always seems to pick strange roles.
This meshes well with Isabella Rosselini, formerly a model, whose slightly amateurish performance as Dorothy would sink the film were the tone different, but here it is revelatory. Dennis Hopper’s manic, over-the-top energy is arresting, as I’m sure he would have chewed up any dark ideas that Lynch could throw at him. He clearly understood exactly what his fellow director was gunning for, and gives it with aplomb.

The combination of fractured/disjointed performances, old classic music choices and glassy camerawork shouldn’t work at all – it should be a mess. But Lynch knew what few mainstream test audiences got and most critics did following it’s release: that this kind of tonal and thematic mismatches form a kind of subconscious logic. We even enter and emerge from Dorothy’s Husband’s severed ear as bookends to the film, as we also travel into and out of the film’s heart of darkness.

 

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Now, the risky pacing and odd delivery are done for obvious reasons, but that doesn’t mean they always land. The frequent instances of Jeffrey being seduced or being part of romantic tension carry less weight because of the jarring way dialogue is delivered and dispassionate method of filming. We may feel as uncomfortable as the director intends us to, but it does make those scenes less believable as a result. Several other instances of emotion are hampered in the same slavish dedication to the film’s style, though admittedly it is easy to see why the consistency is maintained.

It may not have been his biggest film, but arguably ‘Blue Velvet’ could easily be one of Lynch’s most influential. Lars Von Trier’s films, such as ‘Antichrist’ arguably rely heavily on those same symbolic, addled qualities to create tension and a sense of altered reality in equal measure. That same sense of strange also influenced the disconnection and psychological terror Tsuboyama employed in the revered video game ‘Silent Hill 2’ – even going far as to partly recreate the famous ‘hiding in the closet’ scene from the film, as the game’s protagonist hides from a terrifying and abusive enemy.

 

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With the much-touted return of Twin Peaks in 2017, which will inevitably feature the same feel and visual themes like Dorothy’s theatrical red curtains (which have appeared in many Lynch projects since), the lasting power and influence of ‘Blue Velvet’ will no doubt persist.
It is still disquieting, uncomfortable, shocking and impossible to turn off once you start it.

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