Written by Andy Dimond

US, 1986. Rated R. 120 min. Cast: Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell; Music: Angelo Badalamenti, Chris Isaak, Roy Orbison; Cinematographer: Frederick Elmes; Produced by: Fred Caruso, Richard Roth; Written and directed by David Lynch.

One word appears with remarkable consistency alongside the name David Lynch. “Weird.” Granted, his subject matter and narrative style do often fall willfully outside the Hollywood norm, but that should not be allowed to overshadow his natural brilliance as a Hollywood craftsman. His first feature, Eraserhead – which does still strike me as an overdone slice of student-film surrealism – nevertheless rode to glory on Lynch’s uncanny instinct for the feel and flow of film imagery.

That mastery of black-and-white cinematography was again put to use in The Elephant Man, which, apart from its “odd” protagonist and a few dream sequences, is a classic Hollywood biopic, a descendant of the William Dieterle/Paul Muni cycle at Warner Bros. It (and more recently The Straight Story) proved beyond a doubt that if it interested him, David Lynch could be one of the best mainstream filmmakers of his era.

His next effort, Dune, was clearly intended to fulfill that blockbuster potential. But if Dino de Laurentiis wanted another Star Wars, what he got was a visually spectacular, fatally muddled adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling novel that managed to please no one: not Herbert’s fans, not Lynch’s admirers, and certainly not Dino’s accountants. Though critical rehabilitation may not be far off (a restored cut is slated for DVD release in January), the fact remains that Dune was received as an unqualified disaster.

Thus the artistic and commercial stakes could not have been higher when he decided to pitch Blue Velvet as his second film for de Laurentiis. Lynch secured final cut, and the creative autonomy denied to him on the epic Dune project, but with the condition that he make it on half the budget and salary he was asking for. The result: Lynch’s masterpiece, the film that would set the aesthetic and commercial model for every film after, the film where everything came together.

Praise is due to Lynch’s directing of actors (in a project with the potential to veer into high camp), to the actors themselves, and finally to the incredible casting. Isabella Rossellini inevitably lends a hereditary mystery and glamour to Dorothy Vallens: Ilsa if things hadn’t gone so well once the plane got in from Morocco. Kyle MacLachlan is exactly right as Jeffrey: boyish, likable, innocent but possessed of a dangerous curiosity. Many of the small parts are memorable as well; special mention is due to Quantum Leap hologram Dean Stockwell, stealing his scene as fey pimp Ben.

By far the most crucial role to cast was that of Frank Booth, and as with most aspects of the film, it was knocked out of the park. The legend goes that after reading the script, Hopper told Lynch, “I’ve got to play Frank. Because I am Frank!” (Disturbing as that identification is, it makes sense if you’ve read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls). Dennis Hopper as Frank is one of the essential movie villains, a peer of Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch.

Obviously, Blue Velvet is a triumph of color cinematography: the livelier-than-life suburban foliage; the genuinely scary ensemble of ruddy skin, piercing blue eyes and yellow suit that comprise Gordon; the toxic-womb pink of Dorothy’s apartment; and of course the sumptuous fabric of the title. But just as impressive is the editing. To flash from the doctor in the examination room saying “it looks like the ear was cut off with scissors,” to the police tape being cut at the crime scene, is not only a macabre joke but also a sly reference to the physical act of the edit itself, a complex visual pun worthy of Hitchcock. I also love the jump-cut that empties the room of Frank and his companions after he proclaims, “I’ll fuck anything that moves!” It makes him seem more than human, like some pure demonic force (George Stevens achieves a similar effect in Shane, when Jack Palance’s pure-evil gunfighter fades away like a wraith).

Ultimately, the formal perfections I have been emphasizing exist not for their own sake but to bring to life one of the richest, most complex works of imagination in cinema. Blue Velvet is one of those multifaceted artistic gems, a different film every time. View it once strictly as black comedy; you will laugh uncontrollably. Try it as a mystery and relish in Lynch’s inventive playfulness with the genre: the “well-dressed man,” the toilet/car-horn gag, and the “still life” waiting for Jeffrey in his final visit to Dorothy’s place. (I’ll bet you a large popcorn that no mug in the history of the crime film was ever before lobotomized by a bullet and left standing.) The director famously described his film as “The Hardy Boys Go to Hell,” a reference I find very useful—and not just because I freakin’ loved those books when I was eight. They belong to a great tradition of youth stories, where kids have to figure things out for the bumbling adults. Blue Velvet is in large part Lynch’s devilish musing on what these innocents might find if they looked too close. (As a side note, is there any better depiction of the interrelation of the detective genre and the Oedipus myth than the “primal scene” Jeffrey spies upon from Dorothy’s closet?)

The “child shall lead them” motif was appropriately popular after the baby boom (often judged as noir, Blue Velvet owes just as much to youth pictures like The Blob), and perhaps that accounts for the anachronism of the movie, set in a 1980s where gangsters listen to Bobby Vinton and Roy Orbison, where teenage girls hang posters of Monty Clift on their walls. Lynch seems to have recognized that in some sense the ’80s were the ’50s: an era of whitewashing, of denial, of suburban lawns concealing ravenous bugs. Just as that innocent postwar culture hid a world where black people could be humiliated and even killed while real-life Andy Taylors and Barney Fifes looked on, “Morning in America” did not come for the poor pissed on by “trickle-down economics,” for black neighborhoods ravaged by crack, for those dying of AIDS while a B-movie hero grinned from the White House.

And yet…. David Lynch was very publicly pro-Reagan, which earned him dinner with Ron and Nancy and a National Review cover story for Wild at Heart. He presents the dark underbelly of American suburban life—but in order to subvert it, or to reaffirm it as something to fight for? This is after all, the man who defined himself as “Eagle Scout, Missoula, Montana,” cultivating a corny-cool persona that proved the Huey Lewis theorem: square = hip. It is impossible to read the “happy ending” either as truly sarcastic, or entirely what it seems (thus the obviously mechanical robin, looking for a career comeback long after Mary Poppins). Is Lynch sincere when he seems ironic? Ironic when he acts sincere? It’s a delicate balancing act, but I can’t imagine the bizarre satire of Blue Velvet working without the heartfelt feeling he has for its world.

David Lynch has been accused, with some justification, of doing endless variations on Blue Velvet ever since (most recently with the Nancy Drew ingenue routine beautifully enacted by Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr., this time in corrupt L.A. instead of naïve Lumberton). But he got it right the first time, and created, in this critic’s opinion, the greatest American film of the 1980s.

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