When I first saw David Lynch’s masterpiece back in 1986, the undulating blue velvet curtain at the beginning — Is it cloth? Meat? Is it really blue? Like every detail in the film, it’s psychically overcharged — was enough to convince me that the director had bounced back from his career low, Dune (1984). The first scene, in which a middle-aged guy collapses while watering his lawn, and the subsequent spurting hose and snapping dog and sudden zoom below the grass into a realm of warring insects made me realize that this was a different kind of movie. By the time I got to Dennis Hopper’s first line as Frank (“It’s daddy, shithead! Get me my bourbon!”), I knew that Blue Velvet was a film people would be talking about in 20, 50, 100 years. The curtain would lift to reveal some of its secrets but never all.
NOW YOU DON’T: Watch for that beetle at the end.
Which is appropriate for a film about cinema’s basic principle, voyeurism. Not that Lynch’s clean-cut hero, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), would admit he’s a peeping tom. He’d insist that he indulges in his amateur sleuthing not for kicks but to get to the bottom of things. Returning home after his father, the unfortunate in the opening scene, has gone down with a stroke (Oedipus alert), he finds a severed ear in a vacant lot. “I’m seeing something that was always hidden,” he tells girl-next-door Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) as he draws them both into a demi-monde of drugs, sexual anarchy, and mayhem that, regarded outside of the nightmarish context of the movie, today seems rather naive. “I don’t know if you’re a detective,” she tells him, “or a pervert.” Oh, she knows all right. This detective/pervert business is great for getting the babes.
Like Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), the lounge singer/despondent mother reduced to being a sex slave for the polymorphously infantile Frank. Jeffrey hides in Dorothy’s closet (he got into her apartment by claiming to be an exterminator, inspired perhaps by the bugs under the lawn in the opening scene) and watches as Dorothy undresses and dons her blue velvet robe. Then the voyeur’s greatest fear — or desire — befalls him: exposure, and then some.
Having watched Blue Velvet a dozen or more times, and being a film critic, I can be more reflective during some of its more outrageous and harrowing moments. Dorothy, even as she wields a butcher knife and starts snipping at Jeffrey’s extremities, brings to mind Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, a reasonable enough comparison since every Lynch movie, probably every movie made since 1939, alludes to that ur-text.
And that’s not just because Lynch’s Dorothy also wears red shoes. It goes back to that early shocker, the severed ear. As the camera descends into its orifice, the whorls resemble the whirls of the cyclone that transports Dorothy to Oz. And when Jeffrey re-emerges from the ear, it’s a kind of reverse of Oz, as the darkness and the shadows of Frank’s world return to the candy colors of Jeffrey’s restored normality.
And so, the happy ending. The bluebird of happiness that Sandy had earlier predicted in a scene of astounding, and apparently unironic, mawkishness does return, and it holds in its beak an ugly, writhing beetle. The blue velvet curtain drops again, and, like Jeffrey, we’ve seen something that was always hidden and is now hidden again.