Blue Velvet

April 8, 2011

The camera tilts down from a clear-blue sky into some brilliant red flowers. A man is watering the lawn on this small-town afternoon. It is a quiet scene, yet the rhythms of the editing lend a sense of foreboding. The water is spitting out of the hose with alarming power and, as the pressure builds, the man is stricken and falls to the ground.

Whereupon the camera seems to descend into the lawn; leaves of grass loom in huge close-up, and then the camera burrows into the ground itself, revealing a nest of battling beetles. Fade to black.

Something strange is going on in Blue Velvet, and two minutes of film have not yet passed. This startling opening sequence sets the peculiar tone for the rest of the film, which turns out to be possibly the weirdest major film of the past decade.

It’s from writer-director David Lynch, whose previous films were Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Dune. Lynch has one of the most vivid imaginations at work in films today, and he sets it free in this bizarre mystery.

Moments after the opening, the stricken man’s son (Kyle MacLachlan, the Yakima kid who starred in Dune) is walking across a field. He’s been called home from school, he can’t help his incapacitated father, and he has nothing to do. While looking for pebbles to toss at something in the field, he sees something else in the grass: a decomposing, severed human ear.

He should let the police handle it, but he’s clearly inspired by the thought of pursuing a mystery. He enlists the aid of a doubtful girl (Laura Dern) who helps lead him to the pivotal figure in the mystery, an extremely sultry chanteuse (Isabella Rossellini), who wears tawdry makeup and warbles off-key renditions of songs whose titles contain the word “Blue.”

It would be bad form to reveal much of the plot, but the trail eventually leads to a sexual psychopath, played by Dennis Hopper. (Hopper, of course, is famous for his nutso roles, but this time his performance is genuinely frightening.)

Even though the plot takes some strange turns, the uniqueness of Blue Velvet comes from its disorienting tone. Interspersed among the hypnotic suspense scenes are sequences of (apparently intentionally) ludicrous dialogue and oddly stylized behavior.

For instance, when Dern tells MacLachlan that her vision of hope is linked with the arrival of robins, Lynch stages the conversation in front of a glowingly lit church, with inspirational music. The scene skirts self-parody. (I don’t think Lynch means us to take this straight. If he does, it’s an even stranger film than I thought.)

The clashing of tones seems to come from Lynch’s attempt to discover a new kind of film, wherein the narrative reflects back on the nature of film itself. At the same time, he conjures up images—such as the burrowing of the beetles in the opening—that consistently draw us deeper into dark, exotic, disturbing territory. The only close comparison I can think of for this sort of thing is in the work of the perverse Spanish master, Luis Buñuel.

Blue Velvet will probably provoke derisive laughter in some viewers, and excitement in others. It will, however, provoke something. For those adventurous enough, it will supply a jolt not quite like any you’ve felt before.

First published in the Herald, September 1986

You see Blue Velvet for the first time, and then you go write about it, and you do the best you can. It certainly felt like a movie people were still going to be talking about 25 years later, which was part of the excitement of watching it for the first time—that realization of how significant it was. I watched it 3-4 years ago while preparing for a lecture, and it held up as an American classic, just the right blend of mystery and mystery. It stacks up at my other website as the best film of 1986, where I say a couple more things about it.