The Straight Story – 8 – Blue Velvet

Now, that the disaster that was Dune was behind Lynch there was one more thing about that project that he had to confront: the fact that he now had a blank canvas provided by Dino de Laurentiis as a recompense for the trials and tribulations of that project. One in which de Laurentiis says nothing except the budget (6 million), how much Lynch is monetarily paid, and how long the movie has to be (2 million). Otherwise he fucked off.

So by “confront”, I meant totally took advantage of and gave us one of his most inspired pictures, his most definitive as an artist, and, in my humble opinion, his most accessible, even considering the mild namesake of this retrospective series.

I also think it is Lynch’s most overrated with many publications’ cinematic canons ranking this high above his other works. I adore Blue Velvet but I don’t think it’s his best when his filmography includes such exciting autopsies of psyche, celebrity, and film language as Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr., and Inland Empire, all muhfucking masterpieces, I tell you hwat. So I don’t mean to put Blue Velvet down when I say it just has superior company. Especially when appreciating that making it must be the most open he’s felt in years. And most especially for how the strokes Lynch took part in led to his first Oscar nomination for Best Director.

It must’ve been a great grace for Lynch, a director known to have troubles with producers and studios (and many times to bounce back as seen by the recent news that Twin Peaks is returning with EIGHTEEN GOT DAMN EPISODES instead of the originally contracted nine), to finally get a chance to stretch his muscles all the way out without any studio head telling him to calm down in a manner that he’d feel obstructed by. It’s any auteurs complete dream to get this chance and Lynch made every frame count in an unforgettable manner with Blue Velvet, so let’s start digging under the dirt to find out why.

As young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan proving to be Lynch’s greatest surrogate but not yet the greatest collaboration of their careers) returns to Lumberton to be beside his father after he suffers a stroke, he decides to take the short way home and for his troubles finds something in the lot he cuts through. Something that looks like and is confirmed to be, once he brings it to the attention of detective John Williams (George Dickerson), a severed human ear. This fascinates Jeffrey and Williams’ daughter Sandy (the constantly brilliant Laura Dern – forgetting to add her to my favorite actress list is an oversight) enough to get them sleuthing about in the underworld of their otherwise idyllic town and Jeffrey himself digs under enough to expose himself to the violent and dangerous life of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and her frighteningly wretched abuser Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper in the performance he was born for), who rapes her physically and psychologically in the most nightmarish form of sociopathy you could possibly conjure – sky’s gotta be the limit.

I think this is where I ought to state what makes such a Blue Velvet such a cornerstone of Lynchian canon for me (I mean, other than just the simple fact of its affect on both Lynch and de Laurentiis’ careers), even if it isn’t even in my top 3 David Lynch works. I may have rushed through it, but the movie’s opening montage of happiness and suburban serenity to Bobby Vinton’s soothing and idyllic version of the titular song (originally performed by the The Clovers) does a pleasant yet fisted job of showing us how nice and lovely and soft the town of Lumberton is meant to be. It’s so insistent that even before the end of the montage digging us into the insect-fested dirt and grime beneath the green grass and yellow flowers, we already kind of get an eerie feeling of unease just from how it shoves this in our hands, complete with a fourth-wall breaking fireman waving at us and children crossing a street in slow motion that feels a little more voyeuristic than should be comfortable.

Boom! We go organically but suddenly from this Peyton Place town to blackened nightmares of Raymond Chandler without much ceremony and that silver-plated providence of an underbelly sicker than the undoubtedly infected ear underneath this happy happy place of dreams is probably not originated by Lynch at all (and given the hour I’m typing this, I’m not sure I’ll be able to recall its origins – for the record, the furthest back I can think is Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, since this idea is noir in its DNA) but Blue Velvet is the film that took that and provided it in its most unambiguous form and from there, many films and especially TV Shows (Twin Peaks is one we’ll get to, but Veronica Mars is my favorite example of this) began taking charge of this template and using it for whatever “dark story” they wanted to tell. It was perfect for that.

Lynch, while taking care of that aspect of the film enough, doesn’t seem 100 hundred percent interested in maintaining that duality of the Reagan-dream-town. Because once we meet Frank, I don’t know whether to attribute it to Hopper’s hopping madness that lingers well after he exits a scene or Lynch just always maintaining a sense of tension even in the daylight hours (particularly when Beaumont has to juggle what secrets to keep from Det. Williams and Sandy) that we just never ever go back to that idyllic fantasy until the very end of the film (and to be honest, I’m not even sure I’d call it too idyllic – there’s something about the final close-up of the Robin that feels… very ominous). It’s much too dangerous of an atmosphere now to get all the smiling muscles up.

Still, that’s just fine by Lynch, since ’round the middle is where he really gets to showcasing his usual aesthetic – a scene with a cameo by Dean Stockwell as a friend of Frank’s is every bit the sort of shit you’d expect to see from Lynch if Eraserhead or Twin Peaks was your very first hit of his stuff; underhead flashlight lighting to puts shadows in places they don’t belong on faces we don’t want to see (otherwise Lynch mainstay for the first half of his career, Fred Elmes, sticks to naturalism with a lean towards darker moody lighting when moments center particularly on Rossellini. The daylight scenes already have poppy colors to themselves in saturated greens and clear whites and reds, but when we get to seeing Dorothy singing in the nightclub… it all just swirls together in blues and reds that you need to pay attention to see where it begins and ends. I’d also accredit that last part to some top-shelf makeup work); semi-cryptic dialogue that is only more alarming when you figure out what it means; mysteries within the mise en scene that you could try to connect but won’t get an answer to – and it’s all more for the sake of display or service to the atmosphere than actual overall service to the movie as a whole.

But it’s still a complete movie and it’s still Lynch at its core, only more digestible than usual. MacLachlan provides naivety the entire way through without feeling two-dimensional, which is quite an impressive feat. Hopper provides perhaps the single most memorable character from ANY Lynch film by just letting himself go all out, even if it isn’t the best performance in a Lynch film. Angelo Badalamenti is still steady and fine, but I will say this is the most uninteresting score of his for Lynch that I have encountered yet.

Maybe I’m just too much of a snob, since I love Lynch more when he’s working for himself and we all just get to tag along, but this is definitely his most mainstream picture and I’d certainly recommend it as a palate tester, but if you want harder stuff, this isn’t the place you go for Lynch. This is the appetizer, never the main course.

3 thoughts on “The Straight Story – 8 – Blue Velvet

  1. For me as well, Blue Velvet is excellent but doesn’t quite the visceral effect on me of his later films. It’s the last of his movies to feel so restrained and measured. Even The Straight Story has a more flowing, impressionistic feel to it (assisted by Badalamenti’s gorgeous, yearning score).

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