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Blue Velvet (1986)

by on 2011/03/15

“You saw a lot in one night. It is a strange world.”

* * * *

As with many other reviews, this one has served as an opportunity for me to, well, re-view a video I’d seen before . . . a second chance for a critical treasure I didn’t appreciate the first time.

For Blue Velvet, that second chance is readily given. I may be mixed on the efforts of David Lynch, but his tenure on TV’s Twin Peaks has won him, at least in my mind, the benefit of the doubt.

Even if I wasn’t familiar with that landmark series, his reputation precedes him. I expected a twisting darkness from the moment the scene was set, regardless how idyllic. The scene in question is Lumberton, a small town with a terrible secret burrowing around inside it.

Young adults Jeffrey Beaumont (Dune’s Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy Williams (Jurassic Park’s Laura Dern) collaborate on investigating a mystery. The discovery of a severed ear, plus clues from Sandy’s detective father, lead them to reclusive singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini of The Saddest Music in the World).

What begins as curiosity becomes something more perverse. The two discover links between Vallens and several sinister characters, portrayed by actors Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings), Dennis Hopper (Land of the Dead), Jack Nance (Twin Peaks), and Dean Stockwell (CQ). Their suburban underworld seethes with abuse, extortion, kidnap, torture, and dumbfounding musical excursions.

It begins conventionally enough, but surrealizes with the “progress” of its protagonists. To pigeonhole Blue Velvet would be futile, despite a similarity to other Lynch works. Symbols or motifs you’ll find: candles and curtains, diners and nightclubs, jazz and sad divas, earnest young heroes, and corruption in a quaint little town of yesteryear.

And then things unreally weirden as they go. Jeffrey’s descent is reflected in the viewing experience itself. Plot oddities and narrative devices get backup from production, with a craft as wonky as its attendant iconoclasts. Swearing and violence beget a performance art segue. Intercut clips flicker briefly. Visible elements suddenly vanish in mid-shot from the frame. Exodiegetic sound dies on a footage cut.

What does it all mean? Does it “mean” at all?

While our eyes are engaged, our ears provide another front for Lynch’s assault on our mind. Aesthetically, it’s a mix of impressive orchestrals, quaint pop standards, seedy jazz, and the tweaking of each, as suggested by the story. Angelo Badalamenti provides the musical accompaniment (and a Slow Club piano cameo as well).

The idyll prompts the most upbeat, sore-with-the-smiling ditties. Subcultural diversions demand a darker edge. The return to a paradise — now false with a fall from innocence — brings the sound of a circus to the score. Revelation, redemption, and transformation inform the ethereal apocalypse of singer Julee Cruise’s contribution.

Had I actually seen this movie before? The question isn’t just a figurative one. Most of it seemed new to me. Maybe I abandoned it partway through its first run. Maybe I just forgot. It’s not an easy piece to enjoy. I’m still not sure I do. But I also doubt enjoyment was Lynch’s goal. Blue Velvet doesn’t outdo the evil found in its filmic forbears, but it comes close, certainly outmatching them for strangeness. It might even shock you into unconventional thought, assuming it doesn’t traumatize you first.

* * * *

Rated R for adult situations, disturbing scenes, language, nudity, and violence

121 minutes

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