By Christian DiMartino
David Lynch is a filmmaker unlike most.
I have been a devotee for many years, and when we lost him in 2006, it was a great loss to the filmmaking world. Oh yeah, he isn’t dead- he’s alive and well actually, and just received an honorary Oscar this year- but he retired from directing after 2006’s Inland Empire, a film I have yet to see, but from what I’ve seen, is so bizarre that it doesn’t come as a surprise that he financed it himself. Perhaps the reason why he left the business is because he sensed that an original voice like his was going to struggle from here on out. Flash forward 13 years, and unless your movie features an Avenger or you’re intending on remaking a Disney classic, getting your voice out there is a bit tricky. The man was, perhaps, onto something.
Imagine releasing a movie like Blue Velvet today. Quite simply, it couldn’t be done. In fact, in 1986, nobody wanted to touch it, so it would have even less of a chance of being made now. Yet, by some miracle, it was. What a treat it must have been to experience this hypnotic work of psychotic beauty on the big screen. What a treat it is, nonetheless, to experience this hypnotic work of psychotic beauty from the comfort of my living room.
I have seen Blue Velvet maybe four times. The first time was while I was on a Lynch-kick. I liked it, but like most, I left it wondering, “what the hell was that?” The second time, it was probably background noise. The third, I began to find my love for it, and yet it was visit #4 that left me with a different impression: This just might be Lynch’s masterpiece. Some could argue The Elephant Man, I might argue Mulholland Dr. (which I’ll certainly review sometime soon), but Blue Velvet, in particular, is a special one.
Blue Velvet is a film designed to elicit a response from you. That response may be disbelief, terror, disgust, repulsion, confusion. Yet watching it a few weeks ago, I found myself with a response that I didn’t know was there: laughter. It isn’t because what happens onscreen is funny, necessarily. Rather, often times what happens onscreen is so insane that perhaps the only way to react to it is to laugh. In this particular case, I was watching it with my roommate, who had never seen it, and the bafflement on his face, mixed with what was happening on screen, caused me to chuckle on multiple occasions. That isn’t to discredit Lynch in any way- this is a work of art that is open to any and all responses. Lynch himself, according to the film’s star Isabella Rossellini, couldn’t contain his laughter while filming Dennis Hopper’s first scene in the film. The scene is, by no means, funny, but again so bonkers that the creator himself couldn’t contain himself.
Enough about that though, now to the details. The film is set in what I suppose is the 50s, and part of the genius of Blue Velvet lies simply in this setting alone. The opening scenes follow a very bright, sunny, 1950s-ish town, filled with corny, happy folk. The film ends in such a manner too, and the genius of this approach lies in the fact that when the madness of the story creeps in, it throws its viewers off-guard because who would expect something this wild and disturbing in the 1950s? Exactly.
Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffery is out wandering this small town one sunny afternoon when he spots a severed ear lying in the grass. He reports it to the police chief, but Jeffery is no doubt intrigued by it. He soon teams up with the police chief’s daughter, Sandy (a very young Laura Dern). It begins as morbid curiosity- like something out of a Nancy Drew novel- until soon Jeffery is caught in the middle of the mystery. He meets Dorothy (Rossellini), a lounge singer who has a connection to the severed ear.
We soon learn that the ear belongs to Dorthy’s husband, and that a madman (an understatement) named Frank (Dennis Hopper) is holding her husband and child hostage. We also learn that they are being held hostage so then Dorothy can be Frank’s sex slave, of the sort. It is Frank’s introduction to the film that is arguably the strangest, or maybe in Lynch’s case, the funniest. We witness Frank beat her, hump her, have sex with her, clip scissors in front of her face, role play, etc. Turns out though… she’s into it. What’s interesting about this aspect though is whether or not Dorothy is actually into it, or if she has just been at this charade for so long that she’s grown to convince herself she does. In either case, Jeffery is more than in too deep, and is soon entangled in not just Dorothy’s life, but Frank’s madness.
There is a lot to say about Blue Velvet– I mean, shoot, I’m pushing 1,000 words already- but I’ll say what must be said. Blue Velvet is a magnificent achievement in the way that it casts a spell on you, and it holds you under it throughout. Lynch has a gift with such things, and this is one of his finest showcases. The cinematography is dreamlike and gorgeous, not to mention, Lynch is such a craftsman and an artist that only he could’ve dreamed up scenes as perfectly bizarre as when MacLachlan is getting pummeled, set to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Actually both uses of “In Dreams”- the first being whenever Dean Stockwell lip-syncs it with a lamp in his hand- are a wonder.
Lynch’s screenplay is also funnier than I remember too, but a lot of that, perhaps, lies in Hopper’s performance. Hopper gives the best performance of his career here, without a doubt. This is one of the greatest marriages between actor and character you may ever see. Every second that Hopper is onscreen is either terrifying, or hilarious, or both. On previous viewings, I was more than terrified of him; I believed that this was how Hopper actually behaved in the real world. Watching it this time, he is of course frightening, but here he really cracked me up, because this character is not only so nutty, and not only has the best lines, but you can tell that Hopper is having the time of his life.
Blue Velvet, like Mulholland Dr., is very much an experience of the senses. One may leave both films wondering what the hell they witnessed. Yet Lynch has a gift for creating images that will linger in the mind long after the credits roll. You might not like it, but forgetting it isn’t an option.