Retro Film Review: Blue Velvet (1986)
In 1990 I stumbled on some Bosnian weekly magazine which featured the article about the best and most influential movies of 1980s. The article was based on the Top 10 poll conducted among the young film critics of former Yugoslavia. I was more than pleasantly surprised to see two entries - movies that I happen to adore and consider very special, unlike most of the audience, which forgot them, or mainstream critics who rejected them because of the content or some other petty controversies. One of those two masterpieces was Conan the Barbarian, 1982 fantasy epic by John Millius. The other one was Blue Velvet, dark, disturbing thriller made in 1986 by David Lynch.
At the time, Lynch was hardly known outside the critics' circles, mostly because of his "artsy" reputation, brought by Eraserhead, his extremely disturbing debut feature that later developed a cult following among alternative cinema aficionados. His reputation of director who likes disturbing content and revolting images was strengthen by his first two mainstream movies - The Elephant Man and Dune. The latter one turned out to be commercial disaster, and the jury is still out whether because of Lynch's unconventional style, or meddling producers. One of those producers, de Laurentiis, should be forgiven for that transgression, because two years later he atoned to the movie lovers community by giving Lynch another chance. It was more than that - the chance was used by Lynch who made Blue Velvet, very personal film that proved not only the best in his opus but also one of the best movies of the decade. Blue Velvet, unfortunately, didn't became popular by itself - Lynch had to make his ground-breaking TV series Twin Peaks first; he became a household name, attractive enough for general audience, and thus brought attention on his earlier work.
It isn't surprising that those who had enjoyed Twin Peaks have the same feelings about Blue Velvet. The movie and the TV series have a lot in common, but most noticeable of common elements is a subject - small all-American town that hides some sinister secrets. The plot of the movie begins in Lumberton, small town inhabited almost exclusively by middle-class people who live in suburban idyll. One of those people is Mr. Beaumont (played by Jack Harvey) who suffers stroke, and his young son Jeffrey (played by Kyle MacLachlan) must visit him in hospital. While returning from one of such visits, he finds a severed human ear in a field. He picks it up and brings it to Detective Williams (played by George Dickerson), his close neighbour. Detective is very grateful for that find, but, being the by-the-book policeman, declines to satisfy Jeffrey's growing curiosity by providing information about investigation. Sandy (played by Laura Dern), Detective's young and attractive daughter, seems to be more helpful by giving some hints to Jeffrey. Those hints mostly concern Dorothy Vallens (played by Isabella Rosselini), beautiful and mysterious bar singer who lives on the wrong side of tracks. Armed with that knowledge, Jeffrey decides to begin investigation of his own and devises daring plan to sneak into singer's apartment and observe. However, that plan misfires, because Dorothy discovers Jeffrey hiding in her closet and takes him at knife- point. Scared, embarrassed but also aroused, Jeffrey is suddenly forced to hide again, because Dorothy gets another visitor. That visitor is Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper), sick, violent and extremely dangerous man who loves sadistic sex and uses blackmail in order to make Dorothy "doing things" for him. Despite the shock, and against Sandy's better judgement, Jeffrey decides to investigate further, bringing his own life and life of his dearest in danger.
One of the reasons why Blue Velvet seems to be so appealing to so many people – at least those who are way behind their teen years - is the fact that it takes some very universal subject - loss of innocence. But such subject is here explored in a very personal story, with a lot of autobiographical elements. Even the title seems to be very symbolic - borrowed from a song by Bobby Vinton, that used to be huge hit in 1963. That very year symbolised the loss of innocence for entire generation, especially Americans who had to experience the trauma of JFK assassination. That event and that year symbolised the fading away of the idealised, idyllic America embodied in small towns and white picket fences, that we see in beginning of the movie; it was replaced by dark, violent world of depravity, confusion, violence and corruption of Vietnam and Watergate. Lynch as an artist probably didn't care much about trials and tribulations of those times - but his personal confusion and painful transition to maturity corresponded with similar, although more collective experiences of other people who used to live in those times. However, in order to make movie as personal as possible, Lynch deliberately decided to be ambiguous about time period. That was acquired with a very detailed work of production designers Patricia Norris and costume designer Gloria Laughride - apart from hairstyles, this movie could have taken place in early 1960s without anyone noticing it.
No matter how meticulous, the work on the production design and costumes was second in importance to the work of Frederick Elmes, photographer who had much more important task - of expressing Lynch's own obsessions through the precise use of lighting and colour. Most of the photography was good, especially in the scenes that used to shock some critics with its explicit and mercilessly precise depiction of violence and utter depravity. World, or to be more precise, underworld of Blue Velvet is dark, sinister place, but also a place where extremely bad and unpleasant things (unlike in cheap horrors) do come to light. It is an also world of sharp contrasts – between childlike innocence and violent depravity; boringly law-abiding citizens and interesting, but deadly villains; people who know the difference between right and wrong and those who get lost; angels and demons; Madonnas and whores.
Despite those sharp contrasts, Blue Velvet has characters who defy single- dimensional moral alignment. Jeffrey Beaumont, author's alter ego is played by Kyle MacLachlan, actor who made his character some kind of a prequel to his Agent Cooper personality in TWIN PEAKS. This young man wants to do the right thing, but at the same time he is curious, and that curiosity leads him not only to personal danger, but to the danger of losing his own moral compass. His motives might look noble from the outside, but from the inside they aren't so certain - idea to "sneak, hide and observe" could be explain by prosaic voyeurism (and Lynch himself hinted that in one of his interviews), and later with his obvious sexual attraction to Dorothy. Dorothy, played by Isabella Rosselini in the best known role of her entire acting career, is a woman whose character is something more than a simple victim - she is violated in an almost unimaginable way. That is symbolised in one of the shots in the final part of movie, when her nude body, that should have been attractive in any other context, actually becomes unbearable to watch. (That very sequence later enraged some critics who accused Lynch for downright sadism towards her female lead). Her own actions and feelings towards Jeffrey, that might look like a product of deranged mind on the road of depravity, are actually desperate attempt to find some sense, even in utter despair and evil. Dorothy's opposite is Sandy, young, blond, clean all-American girl, whose role in this movie is to be the voice of reason and the only link to the "normal" world for Jeffrey. But, her own motives are also unclear - she too seem to be thrilled by their investigation, and Jeffrey would never entered into adventure without her interference. Laura Dern, who plays Sandy, is very good in one of her first major roles. Her interaction with MacLachlan is simply unbelievably realistic; since the first time two of them meet, we are sure that they would end as couple.
Such great movie also requires a great villain. That role was given to Dennis Hopper, veteran actor and director who became his great renaissance as character actor in mid 1980s, mostly due films like Blue Velvet. If there was an example of role tailor-made for certain actor, Frank Booth is one of them. Hopper played him with such intensity that he managed to outshine almost anything in his career. From the moment he enters picture, we are certain that he means bad news - his menacing look, intensive use of vulgar vocabulary and, finally, outbursts of irrational violence. However, such evil attracts other evil - Frank has group of trusted henchmen, played by Lynch's own trusted merry men - actors like Brad Dourif and late Jack Nance. Role of Frank was so associated with Hopper himself, that he tried to find excuses for the character of Frank in some interviews, citing his love for Dorothy as a cause for all twists in the movie.
Blue Velvet was a more than good or very good film, it was an excellent film. Unfortunately, single element kept it from the top and deprived it of the cinematic perfection. That was the score of Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch's semi-official composer. Although good per se, the sentimental Badalamenti's themes were silenced by more popular and catchy songs of Bobby Vinton and Roy Orbison. But, despite that almost unnoticeable flaw, Blue Velvet still remains the movie that deserves to be adored and re-watched, same as masterpieces that actually reached the perfection.
RATING: 9/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on December 4th 1998)
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