Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Blue Velvet



USA 1986
director / script : David Lynch
producers include : Dino De Laurentiis
cinematography : Frederick Elmes
editing : Duwayne Dunham
music : Angelo Badalamenti
lead actors : Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper
with : Dean Stockwell, Priscilla Pointer, George Dickerson, Hope Lange, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance
115-120 minutes

Re-released in the UK as an appetite-whetter for Mulholland Dr., Blue Velvets classic status is safer than ever. Its regarded as one time Lynch somehow got everything right: a dark, disturbing drama exploring the corruption and horror behind small town Americas white picket fences perhaps, according to some, the most savage cinematic critique of the Reagan era. Theres just one problem these descriptions don’t fit the film we see up there on the big screen. Supposedly an erotic, subversive psychological thriller, Blue Velvet is much closer to crazy comedy: a spoofy teen-noir, or an adolescents warped vision of adult movies.

Its difficult to keep a straight face, right from the early moment when college student Jeffrey Beaumont (MacLachlan) finds a decaying human ear in a field. He takes it to a cop neighbour, Detective Williams (Dickerson), and Williams daughter Sandy (Dern) tells Jeffrey that the ear is somehow connected with a case involving sultry nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini). With Sandys help, Jeffrey breaks into Dorothys apartment and spies on her as she’s visited by her brutal lover, Frank (Hopper) but he’s soon discovered, and finds himself drawn into a mysterious world of crime, desire and obsession

Hoppers ferocious performance is now the best-known aspect of Blue Velvet: Like Joe Pesci in GoodFellas, its an electrifying turn that lifts the film to a different level whenever he’s on screen (how amazing it now seems that Hopper was Oscar-nominated as supporting-actor for another 1986 release, the forgotten Hoosiers.) The gas-inhaling Frank is a scary figure, but just as Blue Velvet is a weird sort of thriller, he’s a very strange sort of gangster: how many crooks, in real life or movies, refer to drugs as drugs? What does Frank actually do?

We never understand what Franks nefarious schemes involve, and Lynch is equally hazy about the exact nature of his S+M relationship with Dorothy is he even aware of how much Dorothy comes across as loving and needing Frank, or rather a Frank, in her life? This is, in fact, a film which the wholesome Sandy could have made: intrigued by the idea of deviant behaviour, she knows very little of its reality.

This would explain why, when she and Jeffrey go to a high-schoolers dance, a slow, smoochy number is played almost as soon as they arrive such a track would normally be deployed right at the very end of the evening.

And, if the movie really is a product of Sandys imagination, this would explain the curiously detached way her initial, dull boyfriend Mike is presented though he’s mentioned often, we only actually see him twice: the first time he’s wearing an American football helmet, separated from Sandy (and her new world) by a wire-mesh fence. The second time, when he’s been ditched and chases after Sandy and Jeffreys car, Lynch only shows him in oddly reticent long shot.

By this point, Sandy has firmly moved on to the blank-slate Jeffrey (Jeffrey Nothing, he impulsively calls himself at one stage). Hes her surrogate – and ours too enabling her to dip her toes into the wider world, but while he endures a series of terrifying situations, he never actually comes up against any convincing version of experience, let alone corruption. Instead, he encounters ever more fantastical forms of innocence (Frank included) culminating in a blindingly optimistic finale which sees the bright picket fences of suburbia strengthened rather than undermined.

As a mature, complex drama, then, Blue Velvet is a non-starter. But we’ve had plenty of complex, mature dramas over the years: Lynch takes cinema further, into much stranger, more unfamiliar territory, and this is why his achievement hasnt dated over the years. For two hours he sustains an intoxicating mood of giddy psychological surrealism, balancing absurdity and horror; reckless emotional chaos and cold technical precision his crews technical contributions are flawless.

Its as if he’s free to transfer his preoccupations and neuroses directly onto celluloid, miraculously intact and unmediated by rational considerations. Even the most basic awareness of Velvet filming reveals the haphazardness of his methods (of major directors, perhaps only Lars Von Trier leaves as much to improvisation and chance) and while this network of visual and verbal clues appears to be an analysts dream, rational analysis is the last thing the film needs. Lynch probably neither knows nor cares what his work is about, and perhaps we should all start taking his familiar Jimmy-Stewart-from-Mars pubic persona at face value.

Blue Velvet is no more ironic than it is allegorical if the ending seems too happy to be true, that perhaps says more about our viewing habits and expectations than Lynchs intentions. Great directors don’t have to combine the psychology of a Freud with the street smarts of a Sam Fuller. Theres no shortage of ironic satirists in cinema these days: take Lynch literally, and you take him seriously. Watching Velvet and Mulholland, you realise its the only way this glorious, freakish talent makes any kind of sense.

28th December, 2001
(seen Dec-26-01, Filmhouse, Edinburgh)

For shorter review click here

by Neil Young

2 Responses

  1. […] less an authority than J.G. Ballard cited Blue Velvet as the greatest film of the decade and it’s a persuasive assertion, as a nightmare vision of […]

  2. […] less an authority than J.G. Ballard cited Blue Velvet as the greatest film of the decade and it’s a persuasive assertion, as a nightmare vision of […]