Revisiting Blue Velvet, what’s most striking is how this is really the start of Lynch’s career proper. Admittedly, a great many will tout Eraserhead as his masterpiece (I’m not one of them), and in perma-hallucinatory form it certainly sets up his stool, both tonally and audibly, but its sprawling doodle of a severely-leaking cranium doesn’t provide the insight into his subsequent approach to narrative that Blue Velvet exemplifies. And The Elephant Man and Dune, as merit-worthy as the former most definitely is, are high class director-for-hire affairs; it’s as if, no sooner had he begun his career proper, than he took a decade out before resuming his magnificent obsession. It was worth the wait, though, because Blue Velvet is his true masterpiece.
It’s impossible to watch the picture now without the marbling effect of his subsequent forays taking informative hold, most notably Twin Peaks. There’s the obsession with drapes (colour not withstanding), logging (Lumbertown), the darkness beneath the veneer of white picket fences (albeit that micro-interrogation of elements, found in the bugs in the opening scene here, combined with the omni-present – when there isn’t a lush, mournful or melodramatic score over the top – auditory rumble/disturbance, runs uninterrupted through Eraserhead and The Elephant Man), the demonic force of inexplicable evil, both personified and as pervasive atmosphere (Frank here, Bob in Twin Peaks), Angelo Badalementi’s synths, Julee Cruise’s vocals (and dialogue, “Now it’s dark”), the facility for the uncanny tableau (most notably when Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s apartment to find the yellow man slumped upright, having taken a gunshot to the head, and her earless husband dead in a waxwork death throe), and a thing for psycho-erotica that would only be trounced in the disturbing stakes by Fire Walk With Me. And then there’s Kyle MacLachlan.
Lynch’s oddness would be allowed the luxury of time to embed itself on a TV show, but it’s in abundance here, from his riveting of ’50s wholesomeness to the seedy and unseemly present day, so manifesting in a very different way to the nostalgia (Back to the Future) or looney tunes satirical swipes (Gremlins) that had manifested on screen over the previous couple of years when referencing the world of three or four decades prior. Lynch has one of the supporting characters (George Dickerson’s Detective Williams) speak entirely as if he has stepped out of the Eisenhower era infotainment, with stiff, nuance-free cadence (“Yes, that’s a human ear, alright” he says to Jeffrey, without a trace of irony; at the climax, after Jeffrey has shot Frank in the head, and Williams bursts in too late, he offers a redundant “It’s all over, Jeffrey”).
Lynch’s isn’t throwing straight-up non-diegetic sequences at the viewer, yet he’ll give us a plain-as-mud fake “robin” (with a real bug in its mouth) to symbolise Sandy’s dream that the world was dark, “when, all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free” (“I could never eat a bug” advises Aunt Barbara). Dorothy (Isabella Rosellini), after their first encounter, tells Jeffrey “I looked for you in my closet tonight”, as if he might be magicked there every evening. And, in a Lynch universe of moving paintings and backwards-talking little people, that wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.
Jeffrey (MacLachlan) is a Lynch alter-ego, infested with the eccentric insights and attitudes of his creator. A creator likely to give commentary on the enormous tongue of an old school friend, or inform his Aunt Barbara (Frances Bay) “I love you, but you’re going to get it”. It’s interesting to see how self-assured MacLachlan is here, in only his second role, and telling how, even though Jeffrey is the innocent, and in way above his head, MacLachlan doesn’t play the character as transfixed and terrified on being plunged into Frank’s world.
Mainly because Jeffrey wants this adventure, this twisted rites of passage, having come home from school to a small home town with big ideas on his mind (After Hours has nothing on Jeffrey’s night out with Frank). And, for all that Jeffrey ponders “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?”, perhaps he has his answer when Frank attests “You’re like me”. Perhaps Jeffrey’s insatiable inquisitiveness, his capacity for exploring the limits, is what leads to a Frank? Otherwise, Jeffrey would have rejected the invitation “I want you to hurt me”, and wouldn’t have slipped into the demonic, slurred parallel reality that is their sadomasochistic entanglement (and which conforms to Frank’s visage during the earlier assault). Of course, the manner in which Dorothy repeats Frank’s railings on Jeffrey also suggests something almost communicable.
And Frank. In a sense, there’s a reason nothing Lynch has done since (though Mulholland Drive comes very close) has equalled Blue Velvet, because it commands you to sit up and take notice in such an unrivalled manner. Wild at Heart may have topped it in gaudy excess, but it’s Lynch’s equivalent of shouting, in capitals, where Velvet is fully of carefully positioned, deliberately-dealt punctuation marks.
Dennis Hopper, fresh from rehab, would reignite his career with this and River’s Edge, but he’d just as soon sink into self-caricature again, with the odd noble exception (True Romance might even be his one-scene masterpiece; certainly, the most empathic he’s ever been as a performer).
Rosellini has mentioned that she couldn’t understand how Lynch would be laughing away at the deeply disturbing “Baby wants to fuck” scene, but the truth is, it’s so extreme, so pushing the boundary of the absurd, that it is funny at times; whatever twisted place drug dealer Frank Booth is in doesn’t mean laughter as a natural defence mechanism isn’t legitimate (although who knows precisely what tickled Lynch).
Certainly, Frank’s later interactions are a deliriously threatening hoot, from his contempt for Jeffrey’s taste in beer (“Heineken! Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”) to his veneration of Dean Stockwell’s Ben (“Suave. Goddam, you’re one suave fucker”). Such is Hopper’s presence, from whatever he’s inhaling to his disappearing act (“Let’s fuck! I’ll fuck anything that moves!”), pretty much his every line here has entered the quotable lexicon (the only way to top it was to come back with a silent monster in Bob). Frank is a creature of Lynch’s ID environs, an arena that co-exists with our own that, Lovecraft-like, only partially extends into this one, and which he’d explore a great deal more of in the subsequent decade.
About the only thing more unnerving than Frank is Laura Dern’s face when Sandy witnesses the extent of chanteuse Dorothy’s relationship with Jeffrey. I don’t think I was ever that bowled over by Dern in this, but that’s part and parcel of Sandy. In contrast, Rossellini’s performance is extraordinarily raw and damaged, only occasionally punctured for relief (Mike’s reaction when she wanders on to the scene naked is to ask what Jeffrey’s mother is doing there, before breaking into wickedly funny sincere apologies; “I’m really sorry”).
And Dean Stockwell. Well, he really is fucking suave, coming on like Andy Warhol on laudanum as he mimes In Dreams and then illustrates he isn’t quite the doped-up luvvie we’ve assumed by landing one to Jeffrey’s gut. About the only unforgivable thing is casting Brad Dourif and having him do absolutely nothing.
Perhaps the real trick with Blue Velvet, something Lynch has been less bothered by since, is that, in having a solid narrative surround – such that Blue Velvet frequently plays with walking the line of the proficiently straight thriller (in particular the walkie-talkie climax) – all the other elements can comfortably group and unfold in whatever manner he chooses.
I don’t think he’s found such a comfortable format since. Not even Twin Peaks, where he fought against the procedural trappings in a manner that was ultimately the show’s undoing (to not have solved Laura Palmer’s murder was delusional thinking on his part – if he ever considered it would fly – not just for the studio, but also for viewers). There are elements here that don’t quite work (Frank’s disguise never seems entirely relevant), but the fact that the mystery is so thin doesn’t matter when everything else bears such darkly narcotic fruit.
As Jeffrey says twice in the course of Blue Velvet, “It’s a strange world, isn’t it?”; through Lynch’s prism, doubly so. The director leaves us on a note of order restored, of mothers reunited with children and Sunday lunch prepared by picture-perfect young lovers. But it amounts to restored order with robotic birds and yukky bugs, so it’s never, ever going to match that surface, white picket fence level (however mock-soothing the score is).
Rossellini said of the Lynch that he exudes what he is thinking, rather than articulating it, and there are times in his work where you are left merely baffled, rather than struck by his genius. Blue Velvet, by embracing melodrama, Hitchcock by way of Bunuel, with even a touch of Sirk, but drip-fed into a nightmarishly hyper-sexual dreamscape, might be the most accessible of his true “Lynchian” films, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still his best. And it really does feel like a movie made by Jimmy Stewart from Mars.