The white picket fences are too bright. Flowers in the gardens boast blindingly electric hues, with retina-burning roses richer than Technicolor blood. Our introduction to David Lynch’s postcard-perfect suburbia is an eerie, hyperreal landscape that looks as if the 1950s have been freeze-dried and begun to crack. It’s one of these verdant, impeccably manicured lawns that the owner of Beaumont’s Hardware is watering one morning when he clutches his chest and collapses, the family dog rushing up to happily lap from the hose while its owner writhes in agony. Lynch’s camera creeps up close, then closer still, burrowing beneath the grass to discover a noisy network of insects violently thrashing at each other just under the surface of this idyllic smalltown community. It was morning in America. Now it’s dark.
I was eleven years old when Blue Velvet was first unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences in 1986, and I can still remember how adults used to lower their voices slightly when talking about the film, often smiling like they were getting away with something. The Reagan years were not a particularly adventurous era for American cinema and Lynch’s kinky coming of age story had struck a nerve with those left cold by genially insipid box office champs like Crocodile Dundee or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’ll spare you the laborious details of the scheme via which a neighbor friend and I –after the film’s release on home video the following year– conspired to get a VHS copy into our possession and find a parent-free zone in which to view it. But when the movie was over we rewound the tape and watched it again.
Because it’s all about watching, isn’t it? Kyle MacLachlan’s stuffy young stud Jeffrey Beaumont comes home from college to care for his ailing father in the sleepy town of Lumberton, USA and finds himself embroiled in a sordid, psychosexual mystery. But first he finds an ear. “Yes, that’s a human ear all right,” deadpans George Dickerson’s Detective Williams, making note of what Jeffrey picked up while walking home through the field behind their neighborhood. (It’s the left one, in case you were wondering. Looks like it was removed with scissors.) Lynch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes can’t help creeping up close again, the camera coasting along contours of cartilage before disappearing into the ear canal. It’s a warning to viewers not to look too closely. You might not like what you learn.
Jeffrey’s snooping leads him into a plot straight out of a sleazy dime novel, in which Isabella Rossellini’s tortured torch singer Dorothy Vallens is being held as a sex slave by Dennis Hopper’s psychopathic Frank Booth. The oft-abused word “iconic” is actually applicable to Hopper’s performance, with his slicked-back hair, serrated line delivery, soft spot for ‘60s ballads and of course, the gas mask he huffs when sexually aroused. The actor had been on the outs in Hollywood since the previous decade, having done a spectacular job of immolating his career using drugs and alcohol as accelerants. Newly sober and hungry again, the ferocity of Hopper’s performance was instantly indelible. Frank is as funny as he is frightening, a raging id monster curdling into twitchy fits of boyish shame, shouting the mantra “Don’t you f—king look at me!” (It became a running joke that Hopper’s Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Hoosiers that year was actually for Blue Velvet, but the Oscar producers couldn’t find a thirty-second clip in which Frank doesn’t yell the f-word.)
Young Jeffrey Beaumont gets caught looking, more than once. Our preppy college boy turns out to be quite the voyeur, peeping through the slats of Dorothy Vallens’ closet late one night, first to her disgust and then eventual desire. The movie’s centerpiece sequence, in which Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, is one of the most boldly transgressive in modern movies, a terrifying tightrope walk of appalling abuse and illicit longings that famously sent viewers fleeing from their seats during screenings. Thirty-five years later it’s still almost impossible to sit through and even more difficult to look away from. Blue Velvet speaks to something primal about moviegoing itself: we’re all in that closet with Jeffrey. If we didn’t like to watch we wouldn’t be at the movies in the first place.
“I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” sighs Laura Dern’s Sandy, daughter of Detective Williams and golden-haired angel of the piece. Lynch gives her a hero’s entrance, stepping out of the shadows to the sounds of a Shostakovich symphony, as if heralding the start of a creative collaboration that’s still going strong more than three decades later. (Isabella Rossellini may have become his romantic partner during the making of the movie, but Laura Dern became his muse.) She’s tasked with the movie’s most bizarre monologue, recounting a dream about robins set to soaring Angelo Badalamenti synths that’s as unironic and straight-faced sincere as anything Lynch has ever filmed. Dern often embodies this kind of goodness and purity in his work, never more so in Blue Velvet where she’s first seen literally emerging from the darkness. “You’re a neat girl, Sandy,” our young Beaumont beams.
Sandy’s the girl that Jeffrey kisses on the dance floor and brings home to meet his mom. It’s with Dorothy that he does all the other stuff. Rossellini’s performance is one of the bravest I’ve ever seen in an American movie, even more remarkable coming from a former model in only her second film role, bringing the baggage of Hollywood royalty being seen onscreen so naked and abused. Some critics thought Lynch crossed a line, most notably Roger Ebert, who objected to the film’s uncomfortable humor in his infamous one-star review. “She is degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera. And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film.” (Roger had a habit of getting a little scoldy and paternalistic on behalf of actresses sometimes. His similarly finger-wagging Fast Times at Ridgemont High review began, “How could they do this to Jennifer Jason Leigh?” I often think of that and smile considering the kind of roles Leigh has gravitated toward for the rest of her career.)
To tell the truth, I’ve never really had a handle on Blue Velvet’s crime plot with the missing drugs and crooked cops, and I still don’t understand why Frank has to walk around wearing that ridiculous disguise. But none of that stuff matters in the slightest, as what’s important is the feeling that the movie is luring you somewhere secret, seamy, and forbidden. It’s the rockabilly Hieronymus Bosch party with Dean Stockwell in kabuki makeup lip-syncing Roy Orbison into a utility lamp. It’s a place where Jeffrey Beaumont learns things about himself that he didn’t want to know, and he finds that he likes them. Blue Velvet will endure for as long as people like to watch. Or until the robins return.