Blue Velvet (1986)

Directed by David Lynch

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I feel like I just watched Blue Velvet through a prism or some kind of obscured window, like I was peaking in on my neighbors and straining to hear what was being said.  It’s a confusing movie, but it makes enough sense for you (or just me) to feel like I’m the one who missed something.  The story is about a sort of murder investigation that contains some kind of police corruption, crazy criminals, forced labor and rape and an odd character at the center of it all who’s affinity for mysteries makes this whole thing even more mysterious.

The movie takes place in a small town that, during the day, is bright and colorful, like the type of American Dream living you saw on 1950s/60s advertisements where everyone’s smile is a little too big, and everything is a little too bright.  It’s as if director David Lynch looked at those advertisements and thought they were all hiding something, that every actor in every photo was in on the con, so he made this movie where no one feels innocent, and everything feels a little too dirty.

The movie opens with this idyllic little town.  Everything is cheery, but then an older man watering his lawn suffers what turns out to be a stroke and collapses to the ground. In the moment, however, it’s not entirely clear what ails him.  The hose catches around a plant, causing the flow of water to jam and leading to an aggressive leak.  This could be metaphorical or it could be some kind of secret force killing the man.  I wasn’t sure, but knowing this to be a David Lynch movie, I was prepared for the answer to be anything and everything.  When the man falls to the ground, unconscious, a dog licks away at the house he still holds as it spouts water, and a baby that looks like it just learned to walk comes waddling over to his body.  It’s a creepy portrait, but it’s exciting nonetheless.  I don’t know what it says, but I know I want to know more.

The man is the father of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a college student who will return home to see to his father in the hospital.  While walking aimlessly through a field (in this small-town America, like most, there is a lot of strolling), Jeffrey comes across a severed ear.  He takes it to Detective John Williams (George Dickerson) with an odd serenity and curiosity about the possible murder.

Later, Jeffrey meets the detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), and she gives him a few clues about what she’s heard regarding the ‘murder.’  Jeffrey runs with the information, leading him to the apartment of a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), and things get more weird from there.

I realized I should probably stop spoiling all these movies, not that anyone is necessarily reading.  Recapping the plot of a movie is the most laborious aspect of writing these posts.  Roger Ebert never recapped the entire movie.  He just told you as much as you needed to know and then discussed other qualities of a film and whether or not an audience might like it.  So I’ll try to do something like that.

Blue Velvet is more about Jeffrey than the mystery behind the severed ear.  Jeffrey gets involved with most Sandy (a wholesome, middle America small-town girl) and also with Dorothy, who is burdened with guilt, fear and the torment of a criminal who feels like he could double as the villain in a Batman movie.  That man is Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), and his motives are never clear.  He’s twisted in a lot of ways, violent and weirdly sexual, but sexual in a way that you can never tell if he’s looking for physical gratification or psychological relief.

The real strangeness of this film lies in its characters and what they want.  I still think Jeffrey might be the strangest of them all.  Dorothy and Frank have their odd sexual quirks (one scene involves Dorothy performing oral sex on Jeffrey while she holds a kitchen knife to him), but the obvious danger never scares our protagonist away.  And he’s not determined in a heroic sense, because he’s sure as shit scared, but he’s drawn to all of this.  Sandy expresses fear to him, saying she feels bad for getting him involved in this because she didn’t realize how deep he was willing to go, but Jeffrey doesn’t care.  He feels a bit like an untrained psychopath, not yet dangerous but not headed anywhere good.

So Lynch raises a bunch of questions about all of these characters and their range of evil.    Several of the characters, in the end, are hardly evil, but their vagueness of intentions always keeps them at arms distance.  I never felt like I was supposed to identify or even root for Jeffrey or anyone else.  Even the responsible detective John Williams starts to look a little malicious, even within his calm exterior.  No one is above suspicion.

But in the end, the plot of the film feels very ordinary.  There is some drama, a climax, a resolution, etc.  The weirdness merely fits into the plot construction rather than adding to or taking away from it.  This feels like David Lynch’s version of a crime movie rather than a story he desperately wanted to tell (like perhaps Mulholland Dr.).

So I suppose the clear resolution of the film confused me most of all.  I was ready for this film to go in any number of directions, even to just end without letting us know clearly what happened, but then all the loose ends were tied up.  In some ways this could and did feel a little cheap, but then the story just feels way too simple.  Jeffrey puts together his theory of what’s happening between Frank, Dorothy and the severed ear incredibly quickly, and he turns out to be right.  He tells Sandy what he knows just as he’s telling us, and I sure as hell didn’t follow what was happening the way he did.

So, to me it feels like David Lynch didn’t care one bit about the plot or the ear or any of the supposed mystery.  I could feel his focus, his attention to detail in moments like when Jeffrey wakes up one morning and we see the camera pan up to some sort of clay animal jaw (I really don’t know what it was) on the wall.  Or the scene where we meet Jeffrey’s family, these two old ladies who live with him, and about whom the relationship with Jeffrey is unclear.  For all I know, they could’ve been a lesbian couple that adopted Jeffrey or two friends that stole him as a child, and he still hasn’t caught on yet.

There was a creepiness and a strange sense of something huge going on that was never discovered that made me not care so much about Frank and Dorothy and whatnot.  That idea of idyllic small-town America with something creepy underneath is what I find most engaging about this film, and I’m torn between wondering if David Lynch didn’t do enough with that idea or did so much that I just missed it all.

Blue Velvet is a bit of a cult film, from what I understand.  It’s controversial, I suppose, in the amount of sex it shows, but from the point of view of someone in 2017 I would hardly consider the sexual acts too racy for a movie goer.  I mean Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie, right?  I haven’t seen it, but I doubt the odd intimacy of this film is much different from that one.

Man, I still don’t entirely know what I just watched.  Lynch does a great job painting portraits that make you want to know more, but he doesn’t always seem to give you that more information.  He unsettles you and then pretends to settle you back in (with a sense of catharsis), but that settling, in this case, felt forced and a little manipulative, like he wanted you to know that there is still shit going on.

 

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