In Blue Velvet, for the first time since his late-‘70s cult classic Eraserhead, director David Lynch unleashes his perverse imagination in all its teeming, poetic force. At once funny and luridly beautiful, this almost indescribable movie (it’s playing at the Nickelodeon, the Harvard Square, and the Circle) is like a Hardy Boys adventure refashioned in a cruel parable of erotic awakening. Part open-ended mystery, part surrealist dream, it has passages of great hypnotic power, and it operates according to rules so elusive you may be puzzling them out weeks after you’ve seen it. From the opening shots, Lynch establishes that we’re in the hands of an obsessive imagemaker. The small town of Lumberton, North Carolina, is presented as a series of candy-coated visual jokes: blood-red flowers looming against a white fence against a perfect blue sky; a man watering his garden in the sunshine, looking like something out of a 1956 civics-class film; an eerie slow-motion shot of a firetruck gliding down a pastoral street, a fireman offering a friendly wave. This is the spotless, incorruptible America of Normal Rockwell, of a thousand Life-magazine photographs, and though it’s been years since even kids grew up with this unsullied a vision, you quickly sense you’re in a world of myth, archetype, imagination. Then, in one shocking gesture, it’s violated. The man in the garden keels over from a stroke, and before anyone can attend to his grotesque heavings, a dog bounds up and frantically tries to drink [a portion of the original text is missing from our archives] takes leave of the scene and burrows into the grass, zooming up next to a swarm of furious, buzzing insects: the hidden apocalypse in our own back yards.
DREAMLIKE: Blue Velvet
In a sense, the entire movie is a plunge into the grass, into the kinky-violent underbelly of clean-living, middle-class America. Like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet immerses you in kind of a voluptuous comic anxiety; its power – and its joke – is that it keeps making you peer around the corner to glimpse things you may not want to see. Eraserhead was a fix of raw, crystal-pure surrealism. This one actually has the surface appearance of a normal movie – albeit a severely warped one. The hero, Jeffery, a naïve young college student, has returned to Lumberton to help care for his father (the fellow with the hose), who runs the hardware store in town. Jeffrey is wandering through a field one day when he stumbles upon something out of Salvador Dalí land: a human ear. Tantalized by the mystery of the severed appendage, which appears to have come from a murder victim, he decides to investigate and, with the help of a local police detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), makes his way to the apartment of a masochistic chanteuse named Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini). It’s there hiding in the closet (like a voyeur), that he is drawn into something terrifying and irresistible. Slinking around the apartment in her black underwear and red heels, the fleshy, exotic Dorothy catches Jeffrey peeping from the closet. After pulling him out, she seduces him at knifepoint, ordering him to take off his clothes but not to touch her. She gets down on her knees and begins to fondle his bare body, but before they get very far, a strange visitor sends Jeffrey scampering back into the closet. Dorothy, it seems, is under the thumb of this man – a local psychotic greaser, Frank (Dennis Hopper), who may have kidnapped her husband and child, and who uses her to fulfill his sicko desires (which make the usual whips and chains look like kid stuff). Jeffrey is at once lured and repelled by this dark new world of twisted sexuality. Later on, when he’s alone again with Dorothy, she asks – in the low, inviting tones of a European femme fatale – whether he wants to do “bad things,” and before he can answer, she begs him to hit her – the doomed romantic request of a lost soul. His compliance is a sign that the threatening forces he sensed in the apartment exist in himself as well. Blue Velvet has just enough story for viewers to convince themselves they’re watching a rational movie: a cracked, kinky, coming-of-age “thriller” about a boy who gives in to lust and gets caught into a vortex of strange criminality. Yet it’s the way this story is finally absorbed and dissolved in Lynch’s dreamlike moods that gives the film its haunting undertow. Blue Velvet is less a narrative than a kind of perverse fantasia; its situations, culled from the collective storehouse of pop cliché, are assembled in a skewed way, so that they make sense only according to the peculiar logic of the unconscious. Frank catches Jeffrey in Dorothy’s apartment and takes him on a “joyride” – an angry, protracted journey into the night, leading from one hellishly bizarre setting to the next. Is Frank just bats, or does he want something from Jeffrey? And How did Dorothy ever get into his clutches? These questions aren’t answered, because they’re meaningless. The characters are figures in an allegory of sin and redemption, innocence and dread. Lynch isn’t always able to sustain the trancelike mood the movie depends on. Blue Velvet is a little scattershot; sometimes its subtle disengagement is hypnotic, and sometimes it’s just flat. And there’s a precociousness at its center: Lynch rips the sunny cover of an America most people who’ll see his film haven’t believed in for years (if ever). When he’s hot, though, he teases the audience like a postmodernist Hitchcock – he weaves a cinematic crazy quilt out of fear and desire.