When I was younger and when things were starting to leave an impact on me during my middle school years, there was this next door neighbor that was always suspicious. This family lived in a multiplex, so it might not have been just one family that was causing the hullabaloo, but it was consistently one window in particular. Never could I recall specifics of what they shouted but I could tell there was so much hysterical laughing, argumentative conversations that turned into roughhousing and occasional crying that I could hear at night from my open window. It would have been a better idea to shut my window whenever I was unsettled by what I heard in the house next to me but curiosity took over, and after all, I never grew up in an unsavory community, but they felt like the people that did. It never got so bad that I had to get anyone involved to have a word with them but I was always intrigued by the people I considered to be evil.
During my first watch of David Lynch’s sensual Blue Velvet a few years ago, I couldn’t help but think about my formative neighbors. Though I never heard or saw specifics, what was most captivating was the fact there was one window into uncharted territory. I knew I was seeing something I shouldn’t have been, by this connection, the Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) protagonist makes all the more sense to me. His deep desire for investigation ultimately morally corrupts him when he finds a severed ear in a field. After returning it to his neighbor Detective Williams (George Dickerson) for possible evidence connected to something out of his control, he then meets Williams’ daughter Sandy, (the great Laura Dern) whom he becomes closer as Jeffrey strings her along for a descent into madness and evil in the dark underbelly that they never even suspected existed.
Though there is a mystery at the core of Blue Velvet, Lynch is never concerned with solving it – unlike Jeffrey. He evokes a sense of dread from said mystery, given the little that we know about it and the majority we don’t, which we can conjure up in our mind. From the eerie sounds in the apartment that Dorothy resides in, to the excruciating presence of Frank Booth and his gang, this all adds to the paranoid dream logic where this film lives. The ear is just something that propels the story but isn’t the absolute focus, like the murder of Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks, and how the characters react to the events becomes the attraction of the narrative. Though it’s not like Lynch loses interest in the complications with Dorothy and the investigation surrounding the ear, he adds so much of what we now consider “Lynchian” (while he discovers it himself).
However, what exactly is “Lynchian”? With context among his entire filmography, it is easy to spot but difficult to define. It has become such an important adjective in film history that it’s even been recently added to the dictionary, though never having any other filmmaker successfully take direct influence without feeling like they are. Blue Velvet is really the initial set up for what we call a David Lynch movie. Such as picture perfect, banal portraits of America with brewing darkness underneath, unusual moments otherwise adding to an unsettling atmosphere or the deconstruction of storytelling itself. It’s the part of the film where you begin to uncover hidden evil in a place where there seems to be none. In hindsight, it feels fairly simplistic and as if it’s lacking in any real depth on the surface. Lynch being the individual to take on this idea turned it into something extraordinary and not only makes it not just your typical erotic thriller, but lays the groundwork for his career to come.
This is maybe my fourth time seeing the film and I still can’t figure out when this takes place. Blue Velvet came out in 1986, yet it fits right into the cinema of 1955, adding to the disorientation in this place Lynch creates that never seems to evolve – even in 2019 the fictional “Lumberton” may look the same. A lot about the worlds Lynch envisions may never change, never causing concern for Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart or even Mulholland Drive to feel rooted in a place or time absolutely, thus being labeled “dated”. For instance, there is this moment in the film when Jeffrey and Sandy go to a party, the two begin to slow dance and the music transitions from Rockabilly to an Angelo Badalamenti track that sounds like something almost ethereal and operatic. What some may see as stylistically indecisive, it further emphasizes the dream logic that David Lynch so famously operates in. The world is a strange place and Blue Velvet knows this, magnifying how purity and repulsion collide is a story that never grows too old.
Evil is always a big theme with Lynch. It all started with Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth, which still remains one of my all-time favorite performances in any movie. He is never just evil, he’s nightmarish without motive or explanation. Shouting things like “daddy wants to fuck” and “don’t fucking look at me” with arresting intensity, controlling a room whenever he inhales on his disturbing oxygen tank. It’s implied why he is terrorizing the Valances’ at times – it could be that Dorothy’s husband got into some shady dealings with Frank and his now paying the price for a mistake he made. Frank could have just been infiltrating Dorothy’s family to get to another person that her husband happens to be connected to someone more powerful, but it never matters. Lynch is just never interested in the inner workings of the criminal underbelly disguised with the Americana outer shell but that it is at least there and well alive, with Frank Booth being the embodiment of the devilish, despicable people that live among those that choose not to believe in their existence. He’s a difficult man to give screen time to, no doubt, especially with thirty-three years of hindsight, in the current Me Too era, Frank Booth is both easier to process with his sinister behavior and a blatant reminder of mistreatment of innocent victims.
If there is any scene that captures Frank Booth in all his most disturbing and monstrous, it is in the scene in Ben’s (Dean Stockwell, making many decisions to make this bit part his own) apartment when Jeffrey is taken for a joyride. The repertoire between Ben and Frank is never played like they’re cool or confident criminals, but the strange and sleazy low lives that they are. Lynch never attempts to glamorize these people, instead he opts for the opposite in the production design of the apartment itself. Women of all sizes and unusual fashion are present to linger in observation, an impromptu karaoke which puts Frank Booth into a dazed trance and Jeffery who is in a state of fear from his world colliding with the unexplainable.
Like if Frank ever stepped foot into Jeffreys hardware store, it would feel as though the wind changes and the normal suddenly becomes abnormal. Many things here feel out of place, thus lending itself to David Lynch’s signature dream logic. For example, when the scene ends, Frank and his goons don’t just walk out the door to get into their car, but vanish into thin air. It’s such an odd choice that betrays all rules of time and sense yet it’s coming right after some truly inspired moments that can only be thought of as dreams manifested. The scene is only eight minutes of a two-hour movie but never failed to get lost in everything else going on or stick out as a bizarre outlier.
Blue Velvet has a singular spot in pop culture but still has a conversation going in 2019. With Roger Ebert famously tearing the film a new one during its initial release and serving as a comeback vehicle for both Denis Hopper and David Lynch, the film had a lot going for it even in 1986. Never particularly cleaning up at the Oscars (only scoring best director, congrats David Lynch on your honorary Oscar) or made a splash as a novelty that year in the box office, but it never had to. The Lynch catalog is so idiosyncratic that it becomes more of a preview of what’s to come, we just didn’t know what it was Lynch exactly wanted to focus on in his films. The accessibility also helps, with the film dipping into surrealism at times, unlike others like Eraserhead or Inland Empire which can make the viewer feel the need to perform mental gymnastics in order to grapple with a vision unlike anything else. It is a strange world out there – reality and dreams coexist sometimes, even in the most ordinary of places.