David Lynch is a director who leaves big vivid fingerprints all over his work. I haven’t seen Eraserhead and it’s been a very long time since I watched The Elephant Man, but I am a fan of the (original) Twin Peaks and expressed my adoration for Mulholland Drive early in this series. He is the type of creator who must be discussed when his work is under review because of how inextricable his unique aesthetic is from his films. Lynch gives me the sense that he is a born desert artist that seems to have learned to survive with less hydration — as if everything is seen as a hazy mirage and you can’t quite trust your senses, like Georgia O’Keeffe. In truth, he was raised as a nomad, wandering up and down both coasts with his family before settling in Virginia during his high school years. I don’t have a good reason to associate him with desert peyote trips, I guess, but I really do.
What’s clear is that Lynch occupies a neat spot on the directorial timeline from a 2021 vantage point. There are traceable threads back to paragons of direction, from Orson Welles to Stanley Kubrick to Alfred Hitchcock. In addition, and likewise Lynch’s influence can be seen within the works of other contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers or his freaky-Disneyfied cousin, Tim Burton. Blue Velvet is a critical step on the ladder of Lynch’s career — a second collaboration with Kyle Maclachlan and a deeper exploration of seedy dreamscapes underpinning our outward consciousness. The piece feels in some ways like a launch pad for his most notable piece of work, Twin Peaks.
Like Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet takes place in a logging town and the narrative is launched as the result of an unexpected discovery and a spirited, dogged, at times even jaunty, investigation by Maclachlan. The story is scattered like breadcrumbs throughout a pin balling trajectory of idyllic, saccharine, 1950s, small town propaganda masking the residents’ drug fueled penchant for disregarding sadistic sexual cruelty and violent crime. These extremes are woven together so tightly that they are at once emotionally jarring, and ubiquitous, as creepiness seeps into every fiber.
In some ways, this is an exploration of literal utopic perceptions in American history — like the Donna Reade / Leave it to Beaver portraits of decades past. To me, it feels like Lynch is longing for a time when he too could buy into those fallacies before experiencing the disillusionment of adulthood.
The opening sequence communicates this most directly — picket fences, rose bushes, and writhing insects just beneath dirt. Jeffery Beaumont, the kindhearted college boy who found an ear and brought it to the police station, respectfully flirts with the detective’s daughter, Laura Dern as Sandy Williams, and pulls her into the scheme to continue the investigation on his own. They slow dance and meet at a diner and she frets over her boyfriend finding out she’s spending time with a different young man. This could be a film in and of itself, a gentle exploration of the power of love and how that can lead to unexpected “bad” behavior. And yet, while walking this straight and narrow path, Beaumont takes a risk that breaking into Dorthy Vallens’ apartment will help him achieve justice, only to find he is exposed to depravity that might have been unimaginable the day prior. This collision of excitement and terror is escalated when Vallens holds a knife to his throat and forces him to have sex with her, saying she wants a “bad boy” and begging him to hit her.
Vallens and Williams are the representative poles at the two moralistic extremes of Lumberton. Normally, I would expect a director to contrast these women as part of a Madonna/whore vision of how women should occupy screen space — but I don’t think that’s true of Lynch. In Blue Velvet he creates multidimensional women who are virginal and sadomasochists but they also share qualities with their opposite. Sex occupies a similar place in the American psyche, it is omnipresent in our culture and yet there are decades and regions in this country where sexual acts are feared and reviled, and others when it is celebrated and treasured. This confusion is often deeply ingrained in our upbringing, and is prevalent throughout Lynch’s work. He has a deft hand at illustrating how women are caught in the middle of being trained to deny desire while still remaining sexualized objects.
I think it would be difficult for me to write about any piece of Lynch’s work without bringing up his preoccupation with dreams. As I mentioned above, the mystery at the heart of Blue Velvet is delivered in small structural moments between dream-like scenes. Even the scaffolding itself is dream like, there is a mixing of joy and fear, and right and wrong, that is reminiscent of some of my most vivid dreams. The film unfolds with a pervasive sense of uncertainty. The moments of idealism, most especially the opening and closing scenes, are creepy because they contained exaggerated sweetness and perfection, like a Norman Rockwell painting. The scenes with Frank Booth are especially disturbing because they feel as if they were pulled from the deepest recesses of our collective consciousness — the places we repress so vehemently during the waking hours, our mind is only able to explore them without our consent.
I was surprised to find that Roger Ebert gave the film a one star review and was dubious of critics who hailed the film as a masterpiece. His main complaint was that Lynch was too campy, and seemed unwilling or unable to lean into the really emotionally challenging moments in the film without bailing at the last second to return to the safety of humor and satire. I rarely disagree with Ebert but I think that tactic allows Lynch to craft the atmosphere of a dream and wiggle his way into our psyches.
When I find myself hanging between sleeping and wakefulness I experience this whirlwind where everything is in question and joy and terror overlap, friends can seem untrustworthy, and truths I always know about myself become questionable. Part of the magic of this film is that Lynch allows us to question if that dream state of being is any less “real” than our waking life, just as we can ask the same question about things we feel, think, and say when we’re on drugs or drunk or hungry. How can we separate our real mind and self from those dark crevasses of what we want to deny but are still there within us, spying on us through the slats of the closet door? How can Beaumont? How can Lumberton? Lynch makes us look - and then reminds us that it’s always there in us, even if we don’t want to see it, even in our most righteous moments.