It’s a strange world; or rather, it’s a strange neighborhood in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Lynch’s microcosm, in which a small town carries the horror of a maniacal detective story, acts paradigmatically to disclose the psychosexual turmoil of the human mind. The opening scene posits a white picket fence, saturated roses, a gleeful fireman, and a fatherly figure watering the garden. It’s the American dream in its cinematic realization. Yet in typical Lynch fashion, this idyllic scene is threatened by a freak accident. The man watering the garden collapses to the ground and the camera descends to his level, submerging the viewer in the grass, where bugs squirm as an assertion of the ensuing uneasiness.
The collapsed character is the father of the film’s main subject, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan). Hospitalized, Jeffrey’s father is immediately removed from the evolution of the film, an Oedipal eviction that permits Jeffrey’s inquisitive discovery and the film’s psychoanalytic inspection. While wandering home from a visit to the hospital, Jeffrey finds a severed ear. Immediately, he brings the ear to the local police station and gives it to Detective Williams (George Dickerson), who counts it as evidence in an ongoing investigation. With Jeffrey’s curiosity piqued—as well as the viewer’s — key characters begin to reveal themselves.
Jeffrey ventures to the detective’s house that same evening in an attempt to learn more about those involved. However, his inquiry is unfruitful. As Jeffrey leaves, the detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern) emerges from the shadows. Her immediately charming behavior situates her as a catalyst of change. She is a blonde and beautiful high school senior with an aptitude for investigation and attentiveness. Sandy gives the name of Dorothy Vallens, a nightclub singer with a reputation, and hesitantly situates herself as an accomplice in the unfolding narrative. Further investigation on Jeffrey’s behalf reveals the criminal Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who may be holding Dorothy’s husband and son hostage.
After gaining entry into Dorothy’s apartment, the Oedipal undercurrent that runs throughout the entirety of the film attains its strongest grounding. Dorothy becomes the mother figure, which is referenced both allegorically and quite literally. When she appears later in the film, beaten and disillusioned, Sandy’s begrudging ex-boyfriend asks, “Is that your mother?” But it is through Jeff’s peeping gaze, forced through the slits of a closet door, that the Freudian “primal scene” takes place. The sexual activity (a series of submissive/dominating dialogues, threatening gestures, and rape) between Dorothy and Frank posits the two as a couple. Dorothy assumes the role of the mother and Frank the father. Incidentally, Jeffrey becomes the child.
Here, an intricate exchange and evolution of gazes draws feminine and masculine figures into a push and pull of dominant and submissive roles. The cinematography situates a complex reversal of roles through a series of close-ups. Jeffrey’s voyeuristic gaze, like that of the viewer, attains the dominant, observant role. But this is threatened when Dorothy discovers him hiding in the closet. Brandishing a phallic kitchen knife, she takes control, forcing him to strip and intruding instead on his privacy. The tables have turned again, however, when Frank arrives and Jeffrey is forced into the closet. The dominant, masculine figure represented by Frank is menacing and violent, yelling, “Don’t look at me!” as he attains the assertive role by allocating visibility.
To complete this Oedipal configuration, Lynch develops a sexual relationship between Jeffrey and Dorothy, and pits Jeffrey and Frank against one another as brutalizing foes. This “family,” in its deranged assimilation, further implements small-town, familial ideals: Frank consistently returns to Dorothy’s home after work, the three visit friends who engage in song and dance, and they drive together to the outer reaches of the town. All the while, Sandy receives information from Jeffrey, though much of it is delayed and piecemeal. She remains passive yet not ineffectual. Her moment of realization and retribution comes later in the film, when Jeffrey must discern two love interests—two motherly figures.
When Dorothy appears naked and beaten, a victim of Frank’s violent and deadly rampage, she allows herself to be consoled by Jeffrey. In her state of disillusionment, she expresses her love and care for him. However, all this occurs in the company of Sandy, who is aware for the first time of their covert, perverse relationship. She is in a double bind of awareness and aloofness, of support and antagonism. One of her earliest inquiries to Jeffrey, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” is persisted with dire circumstance. Yet Sandy’s involvement within the film remains at a loss. While Jeffrey’s unconscious behavior is divulged, made manifest, and examined, the heroine remains an enigma. Her affirmation rarely surmounts action. Slapping Jeffrey in his moment of confession, then, may come as a surprise, for it is one of the few moments when Sandy is given authority.
Regardless of this missed opportunity for feminist appropriation, Blue Velvet remains one of David Lynch’s most iconic works. It maintains its intrigue thirty years after its initial release, for it both exemplifies and separates the cinematic ideals of the legendary filmmaker. Blue Velvet maintains the terror of urban industrialization from films like Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980). The film furthermore foregrounds the intrigue of small-town America in Lynch’s later television series, Twim Peaks (1990-91). In this case, Kyle MacLachlan maintains his boyish intrigue as one of Lynch’s preferred subjects.
Blue Velvet continues to mystify. The film carries the darkest undertones of neighborhood sociality and pulls them to the forefront with a menacing, primal energy. To embrace those friendly neighborhood ideals that bookend the film, we must not only be aware of the insects that lurk within the grass, but the criminals who work within city limits and, most importantly, our own subconscious threats and desires.