One of the great films of the ’80s, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is being re-released in a new print.
Among the influences Lynch acknowledges upon his work are the films of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, the work of Franz Kafka, and Philadelphia, where he lived for a short time with his first wife and young child. Eraserhead was the film most directly influenced by these experiences, but Blue Velvet is also marked by them. ‘There were places there,’ says Lynch, ‘that had been allowed to decay, where there was so much fear and crime that just for a moment there was an opening into another world. It was fear, but it was so strong and so magical, like a magnet.’
Returning home to visit his sick father, college student Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) finds his own opening into another world, a Dali-esque ear complete with crawling ants. After handing it to the police, Jeffrey becomes obsessed with sensual cabaret singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), whose involvement in the ensuing mystery is at first unclear. Gradually drawn into the cruel, night-time world presided over by sadistic criminal Frank (Dennis Hopper), Jeffrey and his innocent girlfriend Sandy (Laura Dern) discover the festering corruption lurking behind the white picket fences of small town Lumberton.
Through a bold use of expressionistic camera angles, saturated colours and creepy music, Lynch evokes a violently surreal world where logic is skewed, song lyrics have the impact of bullets, and sexual desire is perverted into a fetishistic power game pregnant with Freudian symbolism. The extremity of the images provokes a primordial fear that fascinates even as it repels.
At the same time, humour and irony are essential to any understanding of Lynch’s surreal and allusive cinema. Feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden hit on something when she wrote in Village Voice: ‘his film [Blue Velvet] and his personality seem caught in the contradiction between the naivete of America when he was a teenager and contemporary perversity.’ Tension and contradiction are, of course, essential elements of irony, in which what is meant is the opposite of what is said. Meaning is created by the tension between the two, like a metal object quivering between the opposite poles of a magnet. In Blue Velvet, the obviously stylised ‘blue skies, red flowers, white picket fences and green grasses’ of the Lumberton suburb where Sandy lives are no more ‘real’ than the tawdry blue velvet and sensual red lighting of the Slow Club where Dorothy Vallens sings. Each is characterised by a hyper-reality so excessive that it becomes an ironic parody of itself. And on another level, are we not, like the voyeuristic Jeffreyoin whose guilty peeping we are later implicatedopulled this way and that by the polarised attractions of pure innocence and corrupt sensuality? Seen in this murky light, the ‘truth’ about Lynch and his films is revealed not by peeling away the polite surface to reveal the seething corruption beneath, but by the tension between his wry smile and his characters’ writhing psyches.o. U.S.A., 1986. Colour. Panavision anamorphic. Dolby stereo. 120 mins.