By John H. Foote
New Criterion Blu Ray Release
“… in dreams, I walk with you …” – Roy Orbison, “In Dreams”
The first time I saw David Lynch’s’ darkly hypnotic, nightmarish Blue Velvet, it felt like I was watching the dream of someone else. This haunting, surrealistic nightmare of a film cannot merely be watched, like all great works of art, it must be experienced with every sense of your being. Lynch peels back the psyche of Norman Rockwell America and exposes the horrors and rot, the intense corruption that exist beneath all beauty to expose an ugliness which stands alongside by that beauty.
Like Martin Scorsese’s astonishing Raging Bull (1980) the director telegraphs in the first frames of the film the major theme of the picture.
Among the most controversial, dark films of the eighties, Blue Velvet is the masterpiece of director David Lynch. Having directed the cult classic Eraserhead (1977), Lynch was handpicked by producer Mel Brooks to helm The Elephant Man (1980) for the comedian’s production company. He delivered a brilliant film that earned eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. Now a success, the studios came calling seducing the filmmaker to direct the big budget science fiction epic Dune (1984). The experience was living hell for Lynch, and the film was a miserable failure, sending Lynch back into independent cinema where he had always been most comfortable. Reeling after Dune, he settled on making Blue Velvet, which brought a seismic shift to American cinema and his career.
The sky is impossibly blue, the clouds few, but fluffy, the white picket fences are immaculately painted, the lawns green and well trimmed. Water drips from a hose being used by a man watering his flowers. Suddenly he grabs his arm in distress and pain, the pain increasing as he drops to the ground, victim of a heart attack or stroke. The water continues to jet out of the hose, a dark playfully snaps at the jetting water, the camera closes in and we are plunged into the world underneath ours, teeming with insects preying on one another.
The Rockwellian beauty, this Americana of this small town will be peeled back to explore the corruption existing just below the surface.
Young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) will never be the same.
Home from college to be with his mother while his father recovers, Jeffrey finds a human ear in a field covered with hungry bugs. Doing the right thing he takes it to the police where he meets a local detective who takes a shine to the young man. Soon, Jeffrey is spending time with the detective’s willowy daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) and they discover they have much in common, being snoopy and amateur detectives among what they share.
Jeffrey’s snooping lands him in dire danger when he stumbles into a strange kidnapping, becoming friends and kinky sexual partners with the victim, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) and the dangerously psychotic man holding her husband and child hostage, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Frank takes drugs liberally, drinks alcohol constantly and on his hip carries a can of nitrous oxide, from which he inhales deeply, taking him to new heights of manic ecstasy. Hiding in Dorothy’s closet, Jeffrey watches Frank rape her, ferociously like a rabid animal, the feelings enhanced by the drugs. In another scene Frank watches Dorothy sing in a nightclub and weeps at the beauty of her, unable to contain his emotions. But when he catches them together, Jeffrey knows he is now in grave danger and given what he has witnessed, he realizes the danger he has put Dorothy in.
They go on a joyride to a bizarre den of overweight hookers kept by the effeminate Ben (Dean Stockwell) known for being “suave”. In one of the most electrifying and forever haunting scenes I have experienced, Ben pops a pill into Frank’s mouth, grabs a workman’s light and begins to lip synch Roy Orbison In Dreams, gently swaying to the music as the drugs work their way through Frank. Ben knows precisely when to stop, and does, leaving Frank to take Jeffrey out to beat him to a pulp. This sequence is harrowing in its dreamy quality. Frank is assaulted by Jeffrey in the car, causing the madman to pull over. His henchman grab Jeffrey and hold him as a tape is inserted into the car’s cassette player. An overweight woman climbs on top of the car and begins a languid strange dance to In Dreams. Frank begins kissing Jeffrey, his lips painted bright with lipstick. He shows Jeffrey his muscles, and suddenly begins beating him to a bloody pulp, as the music continues, and the strange dance continues on the roof of the car. Only in dreams…
The plot becomes stranger with disguises, police involvement in the kidnapping, and Dorothy badly beaten, stumbling naked down the street to Jeffrey, making clear to virtuous Sandy, the two have been intimate.
When all is settled, when the plot has been resolved, the camera is close on Jeffrey’s ear, gently pulling back to suggest the events have taken place in his mind. Only in dreams.
Was it all a Dream? If so clearly it is a nightmare from the darkest recesses of the brain.
The great strength of David Lynch as a filmmaker has always been his patience and his unbridled fearlessness. He is unhurried in his narrative, allowing the story to unfold almost leisurely, with sudden jolts to shock the audience. His characters, or rather the characters that populate the Lynch universe are bizarre, the strangest gallery of people you will encounter in a film.
Though very much a form of noir, Blue Velvet is equally a horror film, with Booth the most terrifying of monsters because men like him exist. They walk the streets, psychopaths, sociopaths, purely evil men who take what they want from anyone who gets in their way. Lynch cast Hopper, fresh from rehab after the actor boldly told the director, “I am Frank.” He was indeed.
Hopper delivers one of, if not the greatest portrayals of evil ever put on the screen. When film historians write about the great villains in cinema, Frank Booth will top the list. Seething with rage that he does not likely understand himself, Frank’s rage is dangerously explosive, and uninhibited in every way. Other people exist for his pleasure, his needs and to him are likely not even real. His rape of Dorothy is horrifying, truly, but then we watch him weep with tenderness watching her sing. How can he harm one who brings him such deep joy? And yes, he is violent, beating Jeffrey senseless, slicing an ear off Dorothy’s husband as warning, murdering a corrupt cop when he is found out and he is on the path to killing Jeffrey too. It is his unpredictability that is terrifying, the never knowing what is coming next. And when he turns on the small tank of gas strapped to his hip, mayhem is coming. How the Academy did not nominate him for what was easily the years finest supporting performance I will never understand. Shame on them.
As the curious and dangerous Ben, former child actor Dean Stockwell, like Hopper is a revelation. Watch his facial expressions, the way he purses his lips, uses his eyes, almost flirtatious yet make no mistake he is as vile and violent as Frank. His lip synch performance will haunt you long after you have seen it, an astonishing scene, beautifully portrayed by Stockwell. He too might have been nominated for his short, electrifying scene. Try as you might you cannot take your eyes off the character.
Both Laura Dern and Isabella Rossellini are superb as two very different women who enter Jeffrey’s life, one representing what is good, the other representing darkness, mystery and sexual delights. Jeffrey is as surprised and horrified to discover Dorothy taps into his unknown love for rough sex.
Kyle McLachlan is very good as Jeffrey, very much the Lynchian character within the film. The last thing he expects is to be drawn into a terrible, dangerous world such as this. It is through Jeffrey’s eyes we experience the story and the actor is outstanding in the film.
However, the fury, the seething hatred for humanity Hopper brings to Frank dominates the film, overwhelming the other actors, who, as good as they are Hopper blows off the screen. Rarely has a supporting performance so completely dominated a film with the sheer force of performance. Nothing is overdone, no where does anyone go over the top, every aspect serves the unique vision of David Lynch.
Critics were split down the middle on Blue Velvet, some hailing it the work of art I believe it is, but Roger Elbert hated it, attacking Lynch for exploiting his actresses. Blue Velvet won the awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics for Best Supporting Actor and was nominated for a single Oscar, Best Director.
This new Criterion Release delivers a crisp, stunning print of the film, remastered, supervised by Lynch. The disappointment comes in the so called found footage, which I had hoped would contain more Hopper, but over fifty minutes we see just two minutes of Hopper. That, however is the single disappointment in this superb release of this stunning film.
In the years since the release of the film, I think I have seen the film fifteen times, perhaps more. Though I think I know what it is about, and have done my best to explain here, there are absolutely aspects I will have missed. However, that is the true beauty of Blue Velvet, there is something fresh, new, each time you screen it.
It remains extraordinary.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.