The Cathode Ray Mission: Blue Velvet
Blue Velvet stands in my mind as one of the most distinctly American works of art ever crafted, and I think that much of the terror it invokes is tied directly to this sense of cultural identity. Written and directed by David Lynch, Blue Velvet released in 1986, the middle of the Reagan years, when we as a country were committed to looking back to the culture and politics of the past to try and recapture a mythical time when things were better, in spite of the existential threats looming out of frame. Back to the Future, which precedes Blue Velvet by a year, serves as the most explicit embodiment of this desire, and many of the images and symbols the two films evoke are similar.
Blue Velvet’s opening sequence is really all you need here, as it is highly instructive in establishing this urge, in addition to being one of the most jarring and deeply unsettling opening sequences committed to film. The camera tilts down from a crystal clear blue sky and lingers on a white picket fence with roses growing in front — the evocation of idyllic small-town America could not be more obvious. A series of shots dissolve into one another that support this thesis: the firemen drive by, waving at the camera in what should be a comforting show of camaraderie but instead feels vaguely threatening, due to the lack of an embodied subject being waved to; a crossing guard halts traffic, guiding young schoolchildren across the street; an older woman sits on her couch, sipping tea and watching television; an older man waters his garden. The peace is very suddenly and sharply disrupted in the next series of shots, cutting between a close-up of the water hose’s nozzle straining under the water pressure, and the man tugging at the hose, trying to fix a kink. The man then clutches at his head and collapses to the ground, the hose spraying uncontrollably, as an unattended toddler approaches and a small dog climbs over his prone body, snapping its jaws at the water spraying from the hose. These images don’t make sense in the context we have come to understand this setting, creating an uncomfortable dissonance trying to understand their logic and meaning. The sequence concludes with a dive down, through the grass, underneath the dirt, towards a cacophonous swarm of beetles scuttling over one another in the dark. Hard cut to a billboard, “Welcome to Lumberton.”
David Lynch is who I would consider to be America’s greatest cinematic export. There are surely other American directors that are worthy of acclaim and ascension to the pantheon of film history, but there are few whose work is so totally indicative of the culture they emerged from, and fewer still that are able to depict that culture with the vision that Lynch does in nearly every single work of his. America markets itself as a land of dreams, so it’s fitting that Lynch’s work takes the same approach, creating bizarre nightmares where people do not act like people in the real world, but nonetheless speak to some greater truth about existence; oftentimes, to reach that level of truth requires a rejection of reality as we would recognize it. Twin Peaks is for my money the prime example of this, season 3 in particular. But Lynch’s approach to art has created an unfortunate sort of critical response that treats his filmmaking like a puzzle to be solved to figure out what it all means, as though he has an idea for a specific interpretation that will only become visible if you stand in the right position. This is how you get four-and-a-half hour long videos “explaining” Twin Peaks, whatever that means, as though you need a degree in quantum physics to get sufficient meaning out it. This is also indicative of a larger problem with modern media consumption, the cottage industry of “explaining” more challenging media, often taking the form of pointing out what happened in the plot. There is a dearth of media literacy, an inability in the modern media consumer to let questions remain unanswered, and to let an experience with art be a continually shifting phenomenon that does not rest with an ultimate interpretation, a book that can be closed forever. Blame the surge of films with twist-endings from the 90’s through the 2010’s, or blame big budget studio filmmaking for being afraid to ever demand more out of the audience than sitting in a seat for 3 hours; I don’t know when exactly this change occurred, or if it’s not even an identifiable change from media consumption of the past but just made more prominent due to the internet, but criticism is worse for it.
This is a digression, though; Blue Velvet, in comparison to some of Lynch’s more obviously surreal work, is a lot easier to comprehend — nobody is putting together hour-plus essays explaining the plot beats or the character changes. It’s an incredibly simple plot: man suspects something fishy is happening in small town, man investigates, man gets caught up in the underbelly, man fights his way out, normalcy returns. This is not a bad thing, I would much prefer a simple plot well-executed over a complex plot poorly-executed, even if I can appreciate the ambition of the latter. So I suppose the question is, what makes Blue Velvet stand out? High degree of craftsmanship aside (Lynch gets a lot of credit for being a weird filmmaker, but we should acknowledge that he is incredibly good at it as well), I think where I settle on it comes back to the opening sequence. Blue Velvet knowingly exists within a particularly American cultural, historical, and cinematic context, and it preys on the assumptions that we have about each one and inverts them, constructing the myths and showing their falsehood.
Culturally and historically, I explained earlier some of the context of the film’s production and exhibition. Blue Velvet released at a time when nostalgia for a lost time in America was high, where people had impressions of white picket fences and healthy lawns and neighbors waving hello to each other. The myth of small town America is a strong one, as it seems to promise a sense of community that coexists with capitalism free of exploitation or competition. Blue Velvet creates this feeling in the first thirty seconds, but continues to build it out during the daytime. Everybody knows Beaumont’s hardware store and Arlene’s Diner, even the police are members of the community. Even the title, “Blue Velvet”, is a relic from the past. Much like the beetles underground, however, there is a darkness hidden away that continues to churn. The “small town with dark secrets” subsect of storytelling has a long history prior to Lynch (one of my favorites being Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, an obvious predecessor to much of Lynch’s work), but they all operate by upending similar beliefs that have been ingrained about small-town America. Bad people do live here, bad things do happen here, and probably a lot more than you’re willing to admit. In Blue Velvet, these bad things are represented by Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper in one of the most deranged performances I’ve ever seen. Frank’s actions are truly vile, and his operations lie underneath some of the critical infrastructure of Lumberton, namely through the complicity of the police. He is a very powerful man with little to inhibit him; only by using his systemic advantages against him is Jeffrey able to kill him.
The difference between the daytime scenes and the nighttime scenes is incredibly stark, in ways that you can probably predict. During the day, Lumberton is a peaceful place, and Jeffrey and Sandy (Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern) spend their time eating at the diner and coming up with plans to investigate what’s up with Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). At night, Jeffrey gets caught up in the spiral of sex, drugs, and violence that Vallens is trapped in. The familiar, comfortable locales of the high school and the hardware store are replaced by industrial environments and strange drug dens (and, of course, Lynch’s favorite setting, the mysterious and alluring nightclub). This sharp difference in tone and content creates a sense of cinematic dissonance, like we’re watching two very different movies whose coexistence feels perverse in some way. Jeffrey and Sandy’s relationship feels like something out of an old teenage love story. MacLachlan and Dern are very classically attractive actors, and their formal treatment is evocative of an old Hollywood-style of filmmaking, from their costuming to their dialogue to even the way they are staged and lit. Sandy stepping out of the shadows and into the light is jaw-dropping in its own right, but it’s also incredibly reminiscent of a number of other introductions of leading women of the past. Similarly, they are rarely physically intimate, and the moment of greatest intimacy between them, a dance at a house party, represents a major moment in their relationship. However, this chaste, anachronistic relationship runs parallel to Jeffrey and Dorothy’s, which is characterized primarily by Dorothy’s sadomasochistic sexual urges, which Jeffrey hesitantly indulges in. The camera is much more intimate with them, placed much closer to their bodies and even taking Jeffrey’s point of view on occasion. The lighting creates higher contrast, the colors are cooler, and Jeffrey behaves like a much older person than he is. The fingerprints of Hitchcock can be seen all over this part of the film, but even those are taken and transformed into something darker and more gruesome than Hitchcock’s normal fare. The Freudian aspects of the Dorothy-Jeffrey-Frank relationship are worth digging into by someone with more knowledge on the subject than me, but needless to say it fits with a particular kind of psycho-sexual story that littered the 80’s and 90’s under the label of ‘erotic thriller.’
The dissonance between these two cinematic modes is never clearer than the scene following the house party. Jeffrey and Sandy leave after dancing, and shortly after are pursued by a car driving recklessly after them. Initially we are made to think it’s Frank in pursuit, but the driver reveals himself to be Mike, Sandy’s previous boyfriend. Mike may as well be a character from an entirely different movie. He gets Jeffrey to pull over and wants to fight, his posse of friends egging him on. Jeffrey resists, refusing to leave the car, and Sandy asks Mike to leave them alone. Suddenly, in the background of the shot, Dorothy appears, completely naked and dazed, and stumbles towards the two cars. Jeffrey notices her, and rushes out, leading her into the car. Mike, at this point, is struggling to understand what’s happening. Any desire he had of fighting earlier is completely gone; all he can do is apologize, not for anything in particular, but more out of an instinct that the situation is wrong, and he does not know what else to do. This convergence of the two worlds, the two parallel films, is unexplainable. It is difficult to make sense of the fact that these two parallel realities exist alongside one another, but they do. The psychic damage caused by the encounter only goes one way, however — Mike is left blubbering and insensible at seeing the other side, but Dorothy is unaltered, lost in her own world. The loss of an innocent impression of the world is swift and permanent.
Blue Velvet is not a horror film, although it plays in that formal space occasionally; but Blue Velvet does get at something horrifying, which is the irrevocable loss of the world that we thought we lived in. The ending is essentially a replay of the beginning, showing Jeffrey’s neighborhood in a state of peace after the defeat of Frank. A robin perches on the windowsill with a beetle in its mouth, recalling both the opening and Sandy’s dream about the world of darkness out of which exploded a flock of robins delivering love. I think that this is meant sincerely; David Lynch is not a person prone to cynicism, or to making fun of his characters. Sandy’s dream, for as cheesy as it may be, I think speaks to a genuine belief of Lynch’s that darkness can be overcome and love will rule the day in the end, which the ending sequence seems to reassert. Things appear to have returned to normal, but the price of that normalcy can’t be forgotten. For as lovely as the world may appear on its surface, there are people like Frank resting just underneath, coming out at nighttime and turning dreams into nightmares once more.