I couldn’t remember many plot details from the first time I saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). I could remember my fear and being impressed by the consistency of the visual language of the film, impressed by the fear that strong parallel universe instilled in me. Despite my grim fascination, I also remember deciding to never watch it again.
Despite that decision here I am again. On second viewing I’m surprised I didn’t remember the horrible fake robins at the end. What is this, Mr. Rogers all the sudden? It wasn’t as scarring to watch this movie a second time even though it did manage to instill the same fear and disgust in me as before. Perhaps it’s because I’ve watched Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks (though I only got through the first four episodes of the recent season, four hours of my life spent angrily at the edge of my chair) as well as the film Fire Walk with Me (1992) and the other favorite Mulholland Drive (2001). I could see his pitfalls clearer this time around, know it’s not truth or verité that he’s peddling. Blue Velvet is about pretty much what Twin Peaks is about, minus the transcendental meditation and aliens.
The film opens with scenes of bucolic fifties suburbia, replete with a fireman waving from a gleaming red fire engine and accompanied by a dalmatian (I laughed out loud). This collage is shattered by a too-real scene of a man collapsing from what is either a heart attack or stroke while watering his lawn. We see the man now unconscious on his back in a growing pool of water, a terrier jumping on him snapping at the water still hissing out of the hose, as a toddler from next door ambles uselessly near. As if that weren’t hopeless or frightening enough, the camera then zooms down into the flooding grass, to reveal a dark world teeming with vague black beetles and ants.
Leaving behind the stupid fake robins and some of the more blatant imagery, Blue Velvet is a unique, manicured experience. The sound design, the lighting, the writing, everything does what it is supposed to do, and what it’s supposed to do is nuanced and individual, something I miss in a lot of films. I relished all the shots of wind-swept trees lit by lampposts at night, made my skin crawl the way it does in real life. Everything he places in the film brings you into this universe of volatile fumes, either from gasoline or drugs, where the simple lunacy of “normal teen living” collides head-on with lethal adults and writhing moral illness.
“There is disease lurking just under the surface of normalcy” is an almost comically common thesis for David Lynch, as it is definitely his thesis here and in Twin Peaks. In Twin Peaks (the original series, I can’t get myself to finish the recent season) Lynch’s horrifying sense of human/sexual reality is balanced by an odd slap-stick humor, and because of this I found the series riveting and enjoyable, if still disturbing. In Blue Velvet there is no room for developing fondness for the characters, there is no humor. It’s a bit like shaking hands with a dead fish.
However, my level of enjoyment is beyond the point. The palatability of Twin Peaks may make it the more insidious of the two works. Beyond the narrow simplicity of David Lynch’s thesis, he chooses perhaps the most unoriginal “disease” ever used in art – sexual violence towards woman – to be the backbone of his argument. For both these works, the permanent damaging or demise of a woman at the hands of a man overtaken by his own fetishes is the catalyst for the whole plot. In 2019, I just don’t think it tows the line anymore.
I am judging Lynch negatively for his choice of subject. Imagining new ways to scare people with old threats is not imaginative enough for me. I enjoy watching his work for his immaculate craftsmanship, and nothing more at this point in my life. I find his obsession with the legitimately strange actor Kyle MacLauchlan endearing.
The hero of Blue Velvet is Isabella Rossellini. She plays a singer named Dorothy Valens, who is being held emotionally and physically hostage by the on-the-nose-named mobster “Frank” (again, I laughed this time at that detail). She, and it seems only she, can give him the sexual experience he wants, and of course it’s strange and creepy and cruel. But Dorothy is not a common damsel in distress.
My introduction to Isabella Rossellini was her…series?... from 2008/2009 called “Green Porno,” an experimental Sundance project in which she portrays and explains various mating behaviors of different animals and bugs. Each episode is only about a minute long, but she, with simultaneous humor and sexy-seriousness, demonstrates all you ever wanted to know about how snails have sex. As distant as these mini-sodes are from Blue Velvet, I can’t help but recognize that same power and commitment to challenging normalcy that she brings to her role as Dorothy Valens.
The moment, the individual frame, that has stuck with me closest after this second viewing is the shot of Dorothy Valens’s coy mouth, with slightly chipped tooth, saying, “hit me.” It is revealed that, either by the influence of the dangerous Frank or by her own desires, Dorothy is a sadomasochist. It is not made clear whether she wants to be hit because of dire stress and self-loathing or if that’s just how she gets off. Considering my main complaint with David Lynch, this subtlety could prove a problem for me in my judgement. It is entirely possible that this is an ambiguity that Lynch wants the viewer to carry away, but considering that the anti-pathological term “BDSM” wasn’t even coined until a few years after the movie, I doubt that Lynch even considered that the desire for sexual pain wouldn’t be founded in trauma or mental illness. Maybe Rossellini wouldn’t have been factoring this into her character either, but her smile in that moment plays so slightly against the dharma of the whole movie. Just maybe she knew, as her character says, “I’m not crazy, I know right from wrong.”