Dark: a word that is so over-used these days, it has become one of those sound-bite clichés. But it might have been invented to describe a film like ‘Blue Velvet’. Because the dark side is certainly what this film delves into: both psychologically and sexually.
I saw ‘Blue Velvet’ in a cinema in London when it came out in 1986. I cannot remember which one; in fact, I could hardly remember where I was when it finished, because this was a film that took me somewhere else. I felt light-headed and strangely affected when I walked out of the fantasy arena of the cinema, onto the pavements of the London streets. Reality seemed to be a thin veil. I wondered what was really behind the curtain.
And ‘Blue Velvet’ takes you behind the curtain more than any other film.
The opening mise en scene is small town suburbia; a slow motion ride through the weirdness of normality. Vivid high definition close ups of flowers, a passing fire engine, and children crossing a road. Then a man hosing his lawn has what looks like a heart attack. The next cut, we see a dog, frantically and comically, trying to catch the water that spurts from the hose pipe. It illustrates that, in suburbia, things can suddenly take a turn for the worse: a kind of foreboding signal for the story that is to follow.
Then the camera takes us into the blades of grass; to an extreme close up of something at first you cannot make out…as it pans back, you realise it is a severed ear: of a human. It is a shot accompanied by white noise that drowns out the opening signature tune of Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’.
The absurdist psycho-drama begins from here.
Who does the ear belong to?
Kyle McLachlan plays the reluctant college boy ‘detective’ Jeffrey Beaumont, driven more by his own curiosity than anything. He follows a trail that leads ultimately to a hidden world inhabited by twilight people: criminals who operate in their couldn’t-give-a-fuck underworld of ruthless drug dealing.
Dennis Hopper plays the psycho-disturbo Frank Booth, a violent man given to sexual liaisons with a nightclub singer Dorothy Valens, a slinky noir woman, played by Isabella Rossellini.
There are certainly elements of film noir in this movie: it is there in the low hue lighting of the nightclub scene where Isabella croons ‘Blue Velvet’ in a sensual-surreal way; the Raymond Chandler on a bad acid trip atmosphere of the film hardly ever lets up.
Film noir is there in the character of Frank too. His brutalist sado-masochistic persona updates the archtype of the disturbed male character of the noir genre.
‘Blue Velvet’ also skirts and flirts with the blurred line between the moral and the immoral – that sexy evil vibe you get from film noir is evident in the film’s sub-text. It is almost pornography in parts – the fetish Frank has for donning an oxygen mask during sex, is both compelling and grotesque. You as a viewer, are as much the voyeur as Kyle McLachlan is, who witnesses the sexual tryst between Frank and Dorothy from the wardrobe. The character of Frank is diabolical. He is the personification of cold, shark eyed evil. It is Hopper who lingers in the mind after your imagination has been ransacked by the film’s almost relentless psycho-sexual tension.
Isabella Rossellini brings a sensuality and vulnerability to her character role as Dorothy Valens. She is an almost inverted version of the femme fatale you get in film noir: not inherently bad or scheming, but the kind of woman you would not want to get mixed up with, as Kyle McLachlan does. In fact, he cannot resist her: she arouses something in him that he perhaps never knew was there. Ending up in bed with her, the love scene takes an unexpected twist when she begs him: ‘hit me’. The look of confusion and horror on McLachlan’s face mirrors our own as an audience. Are we to feel sympathy for her or revulsion? Lynch manipulates our emotions all the way through the film in this way.
Laura Dern. How have I got this far in without mentioning her? She plays the innocent verging on geeky character of Sandy Williams , a polar opposite contrast to Rossellini’s sulky half-lit persona. Dern is all pained eager to please smiles whereas Isabella’s smiles are merely a mask for pain.
Comedy of the absurdist kind is never far away in Lynch’s films: in ‘Blue Velvet’ there is a scene where McLachlin is in the car with Dern and she starts to go into a monologue about a recurring dream she has in which all the robins in the world disappear, but that her hope is that one day, they will all come back. It is delivered with such dead-pan sincerity that it becomes hilarious. (Well, I laughed, anyway)
Are the robins meant to be symbolic? Or is Lynch planting an absurdist joke into our heads? I have a feeling it is the latter: Lynch uses this scene to give us some light relief from the weirdness of the film – the result being, that it only makes it weirder. This is a master ironist at work here, not a philosopher.
The most nightmarish sequence in a film that already feels like one long, bad, bizarre dream, is the sequence where Kyle is kidnapped by Hopper and his gang of psychos and taken to taken to a road house cum brothel, where he meets the effete drug dealer and pimp Ben, (actor Dean Stockwell) who plays his role with what I can only describe as camp menace. In the background, drugged out whores sit on chairs with their silent clients. The mise en scene is one of the most memorable in cinematic history. The atmosphere of sleaze, impending horror and sheer fucked up weirdness is hard to define.
He then ‘performs’ for Frank, by miming to the Roy Orbison song ‘In Dreams’. The juxtaposition of the song, with Kyle’s impending fate – doubtless a torturous, horrible death – at the hands of Frank and his weirdo gang, is probably the most disturbing scene in cinema of the last 30 years or so.
Kyle is then taken to a deserted place where he is beaten up, has lipstick smeared to his face, as Frank inexplicably kisses him. It is a lion-like display of sadistic male dominance and it makes us flinch because we hardly comprehend the unfathomable sick depths of this character.
Music heightens the film’s surreal atmosphere. The method of using music as an ironic juxtaposition predates Tarantino’s famous use of ‘Stuck in the middle’ in ‘Reservoir Dogs’.
Songs from an ‘innocent age’ of pop music, suddenly take on a new and twisted depth: we hear the shadows in the music more than ever. In ‘Blue Velvet’, Orbison’s song becomes a motif for Frank’s sick mind.
It is a scene that both exhilarates and horrifies, you want to look away, but you can’t look away: again, it is like Lynch is making us voyeurs of some De Sade nightmare world.
On a technical level, the film excels too.
The way it is shot brings to mind some of Hitchcock’s camera angles; taking us to places we might not expect to be taken. The noir qualities of the film I have already mentioned: the blue lit nightclub scenes and the low light of Dorothy’s apartment and the way the camera lingers on her lips as she smokes a cigarette all add to the noir atmosphere. And of course, the notorious sex scene with Dorothy and Frank, adds a sado-masochistic quality only barely hinted at in classic noir films from the forties and fifties.
The scenes are shot and framed beautifully; the feeling we get is one of hyper reality: everything seems real but surreal at the same time. The cinematography is beautiful and that terribly over-used word: iconic. Each frame tells its own story, each edit pumps up the adrenalin and tension.
Did I mention the script and the screenplay? Brilliant on both counts: crafted to engage and shock, to intrigue and keep us on the edge of our seats – or more accurately, our nerves.
We know while we are watching it: this is a film destined for classic cult status. It is almost the cinematic equivalent of hearing the Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus in Furs’ for the first time: you are somewhat shocked by the audacity of the subject matter.
You never forget it.
And I haven’t: ‘Blue Velvet’ is one of those films I return to, as if to test if it has stood up to the passage of time. Was it really as good as I initially thought it was?
As Frank might have said:
Bio: Alan Savage Born in Middlesbrough, June 1959. Had mis-spent youth playing in bands, notably Basczax (pron: Bassax) and The Flaming Mussolinis.The latter band were signed to Portrait, CBS and released two albums. Fame and fortune did not beckon. Got to 30s and then attempted to go all sensible by studying Law at Teesside University. Led to nowt. Recorded a solo album in 1995 ‘Songs from the wilderness’. Led to nowt again. By the late 90s, gave up the ghost with music and trained to become a teacher. Became and teacher and still is one. Of English language and literature. Currently teaches as a middle school teacher in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in an International school. Music and writing always went hand in hand -continued to write sporadically. Returned to making music in 2010 – recorded four albums worth of material as a (reformed) Basczax, FootPump, Dada Guitars and Dub Estate. Most of this music is in various places all over the internet. Poetry and verse continues to be an obsessive interest. Writes all kinds of poetry – some humourous, some serious, some for the hell of it. It’s only words as the Bee Gees once sang.