Our David Lynch: Surreal Marvel comes to a close with Blue Velvet, widely regarded as his masterpiece (among a slew of already great and shockingly original films.)
Blue Velvet review by Trylon volunteer Michael Popham.
David Lynch’s trippy Blue Velvet is set in Lumberton, North Carolina, a small town that’s sleepy and dull and as corny as a Bobby Vinton song. The normalcy of this place is conveyed so skillfully that we accept at face value the town’s obvious absurdities (such as the fact that it can somehow support a nightclub where a full-time lounge singer warbles La Vie En Rose to a packed house every night). Lynch isn’t creating the kind of manic nightmare landscape we saw in Eraserhead, but the guy is still in surrealist mode. This is a funhouse mirror version of red-state America, and you are advised not to fully believe anything you see.
As the movie begins we meet Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan), a college student who’s been called home to help out with his ailing father’s hardware store. This scenario doesn’t promise much in the way of adventure, but Jeffrey’s daily walk to the hospital takes him by a vacant lot, and he finds (in a very Lynchean moment of stark incongruity) a severed ear lying on the ground. Scrounging up a paper bag, he scoops up the ear and hurries to the local police station. The detective on duty listens to Jeffrey’s story and then peers into the bag. “Yes,” the detective confirms solemnly. “That’s an ear, all right.”
The line always gets a laugh from audiences and the humor seems intentional, a reminder that we shouldn’t take this stuff too seriously. While Blue Velvet is ostensibly a drama – at times a harrowing one – Lynch keeps signaling that on some level the movie is, like life itself, a mordant joke.
Jeffrey is clearly excited to be involved in a real live mystery, as though he has found himself in one of the Hardy Boys novels he no doubt devoured as a kid. But there’s an ominous undercurrent to it all: The Mystery of the Severed Ear is a little dark for the Hardy Boys, isn’t it? And girl-next-door Sandy (Laura Dern), who’s become his reluctant sidekick, isn’t sure why he wants to sneak into the apartment of beautiful lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosalini), who is connected, somehow, with the crime. “I can’t decide whether you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy tells him.
“That’s for me to know,” Jeffrey deadpans, “and for you to find out.”
But Jeffrey doesn’t know, not really; that’s another mystery he’s working on. Like Archie from the comic books, he’s torn between Betty and Veronica, a good girl and a bad girl, unsure of which one he wants, and too naïve to know which one he ought to want. In any case, he is wholly unprepared for the world he’s stumbling into – a world of voyeurism, kidnapping, sadistic violence, brutal sex, drug abuse, psychopaths with mommy issues and, most nightmarishly, people who prefer Pabst Blue Ribbon to Heineken.
This dark, seedy world undergirds the hometown that Jeffrey thought he knew. The manicured yards and tree-lined streets are no longer able to hide the corruption and predations of the world, which seem suddenly ubiquitous, threatening to soil everything good and pure. The evil is personified by the monstrous but weirdly sentimental psycho Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, in an uber-methody performance). In the end, Lumberton can no longer protect Jeffrey from the world and he must learn to confront the evils of the world himself.
The phantasmagoric Eraserhead (1977) was Lynch’s first feature, and while its appeal was strictly limited to the art houses, it got Hollywood’s attention. With The Elephant Man (1981) and Dune (1984), Lynch was careful to keep his inner weirdo in check as he reached for some measure of mainstream respectability. But Blue Velvet was a watershed of sorts. It proved that Lynch’s unique take on the world could appeal to middle-brow sensibilities; and it proved that in movies, as well as in so many other areas of life, it’s best to just be yourself.
Michael Popham toils by day in the Membership department of Minnesota Public Radio. By night he writes about film at The Horror Incorporated Project.
Blue Velvet screens Friday and Saturday at 7:00 & 9:15, and Sunday at 5:00 & 7:15. Tickets for the Lynch films have been selling out! So purchase your tickets in advance to guarantee a seat.