Blue Velvet (1986) is in some ways one of David Lynch’s most accessible works: it has a more conventional, linear narrative than many of his other projects, it can be understood as a thriller, and it fits into the film noir tradition. Audiences have a framework for processing the film’s scenes of brutality and perversity. For instance, upon its initial release, Gene Siskel compared it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
Yet even if elements of Blue Velvet make it feel more familiar and explicable than Eraserhead (1977) or Mulholland Drive (2001), one never really gets comfortable with the film, and it remains difficult, even after all these years, to feel any one way about it. Blue Velvet is at once hauntingly gorgeous and supremely ugly, a film that provokes impassioned analysis and debate even though it steadfastly resists any single interpretation or verdict. “It’s a strange world, isn’t it?” the film’s young protagonists, Jeffrey and Sandy, repeatedly ask each other as they work their way into, and then back out of, the twisted criminal underbelly of their seemingly sleepy small town. The film, like much of Lynch’s oeuvre, answers that question with a resounding “yes,” not simply because Jeffrey’s amateur sleuthing leads him to Frank Booth, a man who represents the bizarre depths of human depravity, but because Lynch consistently evokes a dreamy, sinister mood via mundane objects and actions.
One striking example of Lynch finding strangeness and menace in the mundane occurs in the midst of a sequence in which Frank kidnaps and ultimately tortures Jeffrey after discovering the latter’s involvement with a local nightclub singer, Dorothy Vallens. In this scene Frank meets up with his apparent accomplice Ben, played by Dean Stockwell. Once a cherubic child actor in films like the Gene Kelly musical Anchors Aweigh, here, as Ben, Stockwell appears in lipstick with his face powdered white, and he wields a long cigarette holder like Norma Desmond. Seemingly for Frank’s benefit, he puts on an impromptu performance, using a light bulb for his microphone as he mimes Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” for all assembled, including a mystified and miserable Jeffrey. One of Frank’s henchmen holds Jeffrey in place as if by the scruff of his neck, clutching the back of his jacket.
The scene is hypnotic, hilarious, and deeply unsettling: in Lynch’s hands, a mimed pop song feels like a harbinger of doom – or perhaps a missive from another world. Lynch is a master of defamiliarization, the artistic tactic of making the familiar seem strange. As a result of that mastery, he can make us leave the theater different than when we came in – jumpier, maybe, or more curious, but also a little more alive, more attuned to the uncanny that exists within the everyday, the strangeness that makes up our very strange world.