30 Years Ago, David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ Dismantled Suburban Serenity

It’s been thirty years since David Lynch pulled back the curtain on idyllic suburbia, exposing a toxic sort of madness and mayhem in his early masterpiece, Blue Velvet. And he doesn’t take long getting right to the point.

The opening scene  is a Norman Rockwell portrait come to life, a neighborhood bathed in soft focus sunshine with emerald-green lawns outlined by white picket fences. It’s Lumberton, the sort of small town you’d see in 50’s magazine adverts; but as we push in on a man watering his lawn, everything begins to fall apart. The man falls down, having some sort of nondescript attack, and Lynch’s camera pushes past this man writhing in pain, beyond the blades of pristine grass, showing us a world of screeching insects and grub worms crunching and digging in the soil.

And it’s all you need to know. From here on out, now that Lynch has dropped such a clear-cut metaphor on us, all bets are off. He will show us the dark side of suburbia here, but the on-the-nose nature of this opening sequence allows him the freedom to unleash hell on the audience. That way when Jeffrey, our hero played by Kyle MacLachlan, finds a severed human ear in the middle of a field, that robust metaphor in the opening triggers our consciousness; this is the darkness seeping through the underbelly.

We learn that the man on death’s door in the opening scene is Jeffrey’s dad, and Jeffrey is back home to tend to his father’s hardware store while Pops is on the mend. But then he finds this ear, and he takes it to the cops, and they tell him there’s nothing to see here. Move on. Jeffrey knows better, and with the help of the Detective’s daughter, Sandy (Lynch regular Laura Dern), the kids begin their own investigation, and it leads them into a hellish photo negative of the halcyon world in which they were raised.

This disturbing other world involves lounge singer Dorothy Vallens, played by Isabella Rossellini, whom Jeffrey has a bizarre encounter with after she discovers him hiding in her closet. But more frightening, and more of an issue here, is one Frank Booth, played with an expected brutal madness by the late, great Dennis Hopper. You see, Frank is Dorothy’s “keeper” of sorts, an unhinged madman with a rogue’s gallery of buddies and a serious addiction to both nitrous and sexual deviancy; and when Frank gets wind of Jeffrey’s presence, he takes Jeffrey down a wormhole of insanity in a way only David Lynch can perfect.

My relationship with David Lynch has been an odd one. At least it has on my end, I seriously doubt he has any clue of my thoughts on his work. I find Lynch to be incredibly brilliant and incredibly frustrating in just about the same breath. There is a love hate with his work I cannot escape, no matter how hard I try. His work in the 90’s, from Twin Peaks to Wild at Heart to Lost Highway, somehow manages to be rewarding on a number of cinematic levels while simultaneously proving to be maddening on some profound levels. It took me time, maturity, and multiple viewings to appreciate Blue Velvet as the work of brilliance it most certainly is.

Here is a film that hammers its point home in the opening scene, then works upward and outward from there. It pushes the madness up from the ground, and into the forefront, and the way it casually corrupts Jeffrey manages to be a subtle shift in our hero’s arc in the midst of such in-your-face thematic elements. Lynch lets us know his plan at the beginning, but he doesn’t tell us the means to which he will reach these ends. He unleashes bizarro hell on us in a number of characters and scenes, none more memorable than Dean Stockwell’s rendition of “Candy Colored Clown”:

This is the very epitome of what makes David Lynch a master of emotional manipulation. It drops in the midst of a world unraveling, and the nightmarish sheen of the moment – namely the under lighting of Stockwell – is “Lynchian” to its core. These are the moments in Blue Velvet that separate it from so many Suburbia-is-dark tales that came in its wake, all the way up to Sam Mendes’s American Beauty and beyond.

Blue Velvet was hailed upon its release, almost exclusively. Except for the Godfather of film criticism. Yes, Roger Ebert had some issues with Blue Velvet upon the film’s release, namely with the degradation of women on display in the ritualistic rape scene in the middle. In his one-star review (!), Ebert had this to say:

Rossellini is asked to do things in this film that require real nerve. In one scene, she’s publicly embarrassed by being dumped naked on the lawn of the police detective. In others, she is asked to portray emotions that I imagine most actresses would rather not touch. She is degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera. And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film.

He has some points here, but perhaps he didn’t know the mood on set, the way Lynch and Rossellini could barely keep their laughing in check during the rape sequence. Because they knew the dark, dark satire at the core of what they were saying. It may have been ahead of its time, but the years have caught up with Blue Velvet, and it is no more dated now than it was in 1986.

What makes this film forever relevant is the performance of Dennis Hopper, channeling all his own manic and problematic (at some times throughout his career) energy to create an iconic villain without a single redeeming factor. It’s pure evil, an its the catalyst for the entire film once Jeffrey is forced out of Dorothy’s closet and pushed into Frank’s unstable world.

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.