Directed by: David Lynch
Starring: Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell
Blue Velvet (1986) is probably the last David Lynch film—apart from the atypical The Straight Story (1999)—that was at least more or less accessible to the general public. Taken at face value, it has a fairly straightforward story line and works as a singularly bizarre crime/drama. Its strangeness captured the public’s imagination, as did the gonzo performance of Dennis Hopper as the foul-mouthed and perverse Frank Booth (a role Hooper disturbingly claimed at the time was him). Looked at more deeply, it’s one of the most subversive films of the 1980s, delving into the corrupt underside of the then-idealized faux innocence of the 1950s with an almost alarming ferocity.
The film sets its tone from the very onset with its slow-motion valentine to small-town America—set to Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet”—that looks for all the world like something Ronald Reagan would use for a presidential campaign. The shift comes when something goes wrong with these idyllic images and an elderly man (Jack Harvey) suffers some kind of seizure while tussling with a garden hose. Upon his collapse, the camera literally burrows into the ground, revealing what lies beneath this unreal surface. The bulk of the film explores this hidden world.
The opening also sets up the plot, since the man is the father of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who comes home to the sleepy town of Lumberton owing to his father’s never clearly defined illness. It’s on his way from the hospital that Jeffrey makes an unsettling discovery—a human ear lying in a grassy field. (The film—which was shot in Wilmington and Lumberton—here establishes its North Carolina cred via a Sundrop bottle lying near this grisly discovery.) As someone told me at the time the film came out, “From there it gets really weird.” They weren’t kidding.
Jeffrey calls in the police who agree that, yes, it’s an ear. The whole thing arouses Jeffrey’s curiosity, and with the not-entirely-willing aid of Detective Williams’ (George Dickerson) daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), he proceeds to play detective (it’s not without meaning that Lynch once referred to the film as “The Hardy Boys Go to Hell”). What he finds is a strange woman, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), in a strange apartment on the “wrong side” of town. She’s a nightclub singer who is being held as some kind of hostage by a twisted character named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who is better seen than described. There’s an allure to all this darkness, and Jeffrey is slowly pulled into the corruption that lies beneath the surface of the picture-book community.
What’s remarkable is that Lynch got away with the film. It has—at least in Lynch terms—a reasonably straightforward narrative. By that I simply mean that it’s possible to follow—as long as you don’t ask too many questions and don’t need all the blanks filled in. This, however, does not keep it from being just downright strange in every other capacity. And it’s not just that the story line is odd. The whole feeling of the film is off-balance and sinister. The time period is unsettled. It more or less seems to be taking place in the present day, but it mashes together elements from several eras. Never mind that it seems the height of improbability that Lumberton would have a nightclub with a chanteuse, it has one with a chanteuse singing into a microphone that might be from the 1940s. All of it creates an atmosphere that’s at once penetrating and nebulous. And if you think it has a happy ending, where the status quo has been restored, take a close look at the robin (the symbol of happiness established by the film) and think again.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Blue Velvet Tuesday, July 6, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.