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Home » Culture and Criticism

Blue Velvet

Submitted by on July 6, 2009 – 9:15 PM30 Comments

hopstickDavid Lynch is, for me, an odd case.Everything he's doing in a given film, the nods to and lifts from noir, the dreamy callbacks, the pointed ugliness in the candy coating, I can get behind in theory.In fact, it usually works better for me than it should, given that all of it seems sophomoric and self-conscious when it's written down together like this, but Lynch has very good narrative tempo, and I can count on most of the actors to prevent too much tonal flailing.

In practice, though, it doesn't come together.I want it to come together; I want to go where Lynch is taking me and feel uncomfortable, but also watch everything very closely, the way we do when something isn't quite right.What he's doing, putting sand in our oysters, triggering the response before the flight-or-fight, is a neat trip as long as it works.The problem is that it only works for so long.He'll have me, and then he'll go a little too far, add one thing too many, and lose me, and after that, I'm really only watching for plot, which is kind of not really why we watch Lynch.

All of that said, Blue Velvet's bubble held longer than I expected it to, particularly because the opening sequence irritated me immediately.Behold my vintage font, designed to confuse you as to when the film takes place!Please note the seething soil beneath these pretty flowers!Look on in wonderment at the fate of this suburban grandee watering his lawn!It felt almost campy, like, where's the cut to the roly-poly drag queen?

Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern do such great jobs with the material, though, keeping their reactions real and thoughtful, that I bought it for a long time.It interested me; I liked some of the tricksy camera angles; Isabella Rossellini's line readings (and wig) border on the high-school drama club, but even that seemed to contain an homage to her mother and the staginess of an earlier era, so within the world of the film, I could live with it.And then: Dennis Hopper.

Uch.The character, the performance, the shiny-suited flunkies, the theatrical inhalations…too far.Too far, too much.The script needed to look in the mirror and take one thing off the character, but as written and acted, the minute Hopper went for the mask, I thought, aaaaaaaaand now I don't believe this anymore.

Hopper himself is the issue, because Dean Stockwell's character is just as kooky and absinthe as Hopper's, but that one worked for me, because Stockwell played it stoned and small.The Frank character is a type that wearies me anyway — I understand the power a murderous psycho can wield, I guess, but the ones that spend that much time fucking with people for the sake of it and gassing on about whatever obsessive who-cares, you have to wonder why anyone sticks around, because a gangster with that much free time is maybe not that great at his job — but to cast Two-Note Hopper is to guarantee that I won't care.He's not without his uses as an actor, but I had the same problem with him in River's Edge; he's dancing around with a plastic blow-up doll, for chrissake.You want that not to read as lazy kookoopants shorthand, you need to put it in the hands of someone who can give it some dimension, and Hopper is not that guy.

If I subtract him from the equation, it's a good movie; if I grade it on the steep curve of "compared to Wild At Heart," which I haaaaaaaated, it's a great movie.Alas, it went the way of all Lynch movies with me, namely juuuust a little too far.

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  • Jeanne says:

    You've just articulated perfectly the problem I've had with all of Lynch's movies, aside from The Straight Story (which if it came out that someone else directed it I would not be shocked at all, because it's so weird in it's non-Lynchianness.) Hopper's scenery mastication is often amusing, particularly in films that are already awful (see: Waterworld) but here, with the Lynch being weird for the sake of being weird thing going on, it really was too much.

    Isabella Rossellini sure was purty though.

  • sam says:

    speaking of Lynch, can someone please explain to me what the fuck was going on in Mulholland Drive? I swear, the reviews were almost all glowing, and I still have no fucking clue what that movie was about. I thought I did, but then the little people showed up.

  • lsn says:

    Heh. I don't think I've come out of a Lynch movie once without hearing someone say "… the fuck?!?"

    I loved Mulholland Drive, but I'd be pushed to explain it (Short attempt: Naomi Watts' character was a bit mental, having killed her lover, and living in a world of fantasy, with little people. Or something.). I really wish it had gone ahead as a series though, because there were so many elements that looked like they could have gone somewhere interesting. Well, to me at least.

  • Todd K says:

    @sam: Mulholland Drive is about a woman named Diane Selwyn, played by Naomi Watts, who comes to LA with dreams of stardom, but lacks the talent and screen presence to realize those dreams. She becomes the lover of a more talented and beautiful actress named Camilla Rhodes (Laura Elena Harring), and gets a few crumbs thrown her way in the form of bit parts in Camilla's films. But Camilla grows bored of Diane and ends their relationship (which also will likely end Diane's marginal film career, sending her into porn or tricking or minimum-wage work). She even cruelly humiliates Diane by inviting her to a swanky party and announcing her engagement to their latest director (Justin Thoreaux) in the crassest, most juvenile manner. Shattered and vengeful, Diane hires a hitman to do away with Camilla, whom she still loves and idolizes. Once the deed is done, she is tormented by guilt and flashbacks, and commits suicide.

    Between the murder-for-hire and the suicide, Diane has a dream featuring herself and some of the other people in her sad Hollywood life. In the dream, she is called Betty, and is everything she wishes she were in real life: kind, generous, talented, appreciated. Camilla is renamed Rita, and is everything Diane wishes *Camilla* was in real life: loving, docile, submissive. Camilla's director boyfriend remains a director.

    There is, of course, a good deal of plot in the "Diane's dream" section that is the first portion of the film, including cameos by a waitress named Diane Selwyn and a mob moll named Camilla Rhodes (names we later will discover are the "real-life" names of Betty and Rita). But Mulholland Drive as a totality is quite straightforward. It certainly is an easier read than the same auteur's Lost Highway and Inland Empire. One just has to realize that it consists of an inner film and an outer film, and that the last third of it — rather than the rug being pulled out from under us and the film going off the rails into the incomprehensible — is actually the "truthful" portion. Some people by then have gotten so engrossed in the "inner" film (Diane's dream, which in retrospect becomes poignant) that they're frustrated when it stops in its tracks and she wakes up.

    Blue Velvet is one of my favorite films, Hopper and all. It had such an effect on me when I saw it as a teenager. I had seen films even earlier that I still am comfortable calling "great," but BV was the first time I was conscious of a director conjuring up a completely original world from a synthesis of influences and things that came from his own imagination. Lynch can seem willfully obscure, but for Blue Velvet, The Straight Story, and Mulholland Drive, and the best of Twin Peaks (including all the episodes he personally directed), I will forgive him much.

  • Drew says:

    @ Todd K: That's a fantastic explanation, but the movie still makes no damn sense to me. I've never seen Blue Velvet, or most of Lynch's movies, although I stumbled upon Wild at Heart flipping through cable channels late at night once. I didn't hate it the way Sars did, but I didn't quite get that one either, save for the rather blatant allusions to The Wizard of Oz.

    I dunno. Lynch isn't a director who's work I seek out. The Straight Story was a wonderful surprise, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, but every time I see one of his movies, I can't help but think of that flashback episode of The Simpsons where Homer's watching Twin Peaks. Cut to a man slow dancing with a horse underneath a tree that has a stoplight hung from one of its branches, and Homer says, "Brilliant. I have NO idea what's going on." That pretty well sums up my reaction to just about anything with Lynch's name on it.

  • EB says:

    I'm pretty sure I read that Lynch originally intended for the Hopper chracter to be huffing helium. So remarkably, Hopper actually toned the character down a bit.

  • Mary says:

    Thank you, Todd K! I will have to rewatch Mulholland Drive now that I can make a bit more sense of it. I thought there might be a thread of continuity, but remembering it was Lynch, I gave up.

  • Lis says:

    Since we're explaining Lynch movies here, can someone pretty pretty please explain to me what the hell was happening in Lost Highway, because the whole turning into Balthazar Getty thing made my brain melt… I even watched it twice in a row once and I still have no clue what happened in the whole movie. It's like I've never seen it. WHY? How do you go to sleep one person and wake up another person, and it's not like he's imagining the whole thing because they even let him out of JAIL because "Hey, you're not the dude we arrested last night… hmm, wonder what happened. Oh well, you're free to go" GAH!

  • Margaret in CO says:

    I can't say I've ever finished one of his movies. I have tried to watch this one so many times & I tend to lose interest & wander away to do something else. I should like it though, I love everyone in it, (even Hopper) but the movie just doesn't hold me. I thought it was just me, because I have friends who think he's a god, so I'm glad to know that an intelligent savvy woman isn't enamored of these films either.

    (Just looked at his filmography & I've seen "Dune" start-to-finish, but otherwise that was pretty much a list of movies of which I've only seen the beginning.)

  • Tisha_ says:

    @ sam: I didn't see Mulholland Drive, because I did see Lost Highway, and I swear to GOD that movie gave me my first migrain. I mean, can anyone explain that one??? Because, I watched it, and I can read the plot from IMDb (After a bizarre encounter at a party, a jazz saxophonist is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to prison, where he inexplicably morphs into a young mechanic and begins leading a new life.) but I'm still saying, "WTF?"

  • Sharon says:

    Todd K, that was a fantastic explanation of Mulholland Drive! How about a similar break down of Lost Highway for us mystified moviegoers?

  • C. says:

    Lynch's films only make sense to me as dreams taking place in the 1950s. They all have that dream-logic, the way you're involved in a seemingly coherent plot "….and then all of a sudden we were in this diner and the guy from the hotel was there, randomly, and we were ordering pie…." The have a frustrating yet alluring allusiveness, a way in which they seem to make sense as a set of symbols but fail to make sense as a series of authentic human interactions, and so you're watching and the emotions feel real and your mind kind of grasps at the whys and wherefores of how the characters behave but then something happens that seems not only random but impossible, with the abruptness and inexplicability of a dream…."and then I was walking in a field and there was this ear…."

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Frank is huffing helium. I give Lynch credit for making that clear just the once and then not pushing that part of it, but there's too much other shit going on there — the song, the smeared lipstick, the scrap of fabric.

    I also give Lynch credit in this way: I don't think he's being tricksy. He's genuinely interested in telling this kind of story and fitting together narrative pieces that seem like they can't be fit. He doesn't seem to be fucking with form for the sake of it, and the sincerity of the investigation counts for something.

    I "get" it. I just don't care for it, a lot of the time. Is that because I've seen this done by other filmmakers without any feeling for the characters, just to try to come off as weird and dark? Possibly. Is that because I consider dream sequences lazy storytelling just generally? Possibly. But this is why it's hard for me to just say "I hate Lynch movies," because I don't; I'm glad someone is doing what he does. But it's like trying to have a conversation with a fire truck going past.

  • CJB says:

    I adore Mulholland Drive — it's one of my favorite movies and I've seen it multiple times, and I never get tired of it — but I could barely get through Blue Velvet. Despite all the bizarreness and Lynchiness I found it, well, boring, whereas I couldn't take my eyes off the screen during Mulholland Drive. I'm not sure why MD grabbed me so much, but it did. The first time I was mystified (though enraptured), but once I got the dream thing down (there was a terrific article in Salon at the time explaining it) I enjoyed it on a whole different level.

    Could be because I saw Mulholland Drive on the big screen and Blue Velvet at home on my crummy TV. But I do think it had a lot to do with Dennis Hopper and that character for me, too. I just remember getting very weary of the whole thing about halfway through, and I've always felt I should give it another shot, but I never seem to get around to it.

  • Jen S says:

    Sars, I now have a mental movie in my head of you trotting beside a little red fire engine, yelling desperately: "And THEN Kyle MacLachan hides in the closet and Dennis comes in with a GAS MASK and…hey, stop wailing!"

  • Margaret in CO says:

    Is it just me, or does that pic of Dennis Hopper look like he's telling a campfire story, with the flashlight under his chin, all "…and then, when he dropped her off at home, there was a HOOK HANGING ON THE HANDLE OF THE CAR DOOR!!!!"
    Hee – it's cracking me up!

  • Todd K says:

    I only saw Lost Highway once, near its release. Lynch was going through a worrisome phase at the time, and while there were intriguing elements *in* Lost Highway, my ultimate judgment was that it was his third miss in a row, following Wild At Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. I was one of many in 1997 who thought he may have lost his way, and would never deliver on the promise of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. And then he made two back-to-back great films that could not have been more different: the lovely, elegiac The Straight Story and the deepest and most rewarding of his "dream puzzle" pieces, Mulholland Drive.

    So I would not want to venture an explanation of Lost Highway without giving it another look. As I hinted above, I do consider Lost Highway and Inland Empire his two most difficult films to penetrate. This doesn't mean I think people should avoid them. Inland Empire, indeed, is incredibly challenging — three hours long; deliberately low-tech, smeary and "un-pretty" in its look; full of bewildering shifts in tone, character, and milieu. But the individual scenes are never less than absorbing when they're going on, and the best passages bear the unmistakable stamp of an artist working at the height of his powers: within the same scene, the viewer might be amused, unsettled, confused, terrified. No one else could have been responsible for such scenes as Grace Zabriskie's "neighborly visit" with Laura Dern, or the one near the end in which the homeless people ignore the dying woman and carry on their banal/bizarre conversation about bus schedules and a prostitute with a pet monkey. Laura Dern gives a remarkable performance (or, perhaps, several remarkable performances).

    @Sars: I actually have one Blue Velvet criticism of my own. One becomes aware very quickly that plot is not Lynch's principal concern, to put it mildly, but he's *really* careless with the crime story in BV. Which is fine — it's only there to give Jeffrey something else dark and dangerous to get drawn into, besides the S&M with Dorothy. The film would not have worked as well if Frank were just an abusive lover. But I've seen BV complete a dozen times, and I still can't account for all of the criminals' movements at key points in the film, or even some basic dynamics. Is "The Yellow Man" in fact a corrupt cop? Or is he only pretending to be corrupt, with Det. Williams's knowledge? Det. Williams clearly knows about The Yellow Man's dealings with Frank: he quietly tells Jeff not to "blow it" when Jeff is alarmed to see The Yellow Man in the Williams house. But this is left ambiguous. (So ambiguous, in fact, that Pauline Kael, who loved the movie, was unsure whether Det. Williams himself might be in on the criminal conspiracy.) Why does Frank ultimately kill The Yellow Man? For that matter, why (and when?) does Frank kill Dorothy's husband, Don? Was Don also in some way involved in Frank's criminal activities? Or did Frank simply wander into The Slow Club, become obsessed with Dorothy, and abduct her husband and son for leverage? And while Jeff and Sandy are on their date, as nearly as I can tell, Frank beats up Dorothy at her apartment, kills Don and The Yellow Man there, and then…I have no idea, but it necessitates putting on "the well-dressed man disguise," which itself is never really accounted for, before…returning to Dorothy's apartment to try to kill Jeffrey? Perhaps the criminal story is what Hitchcock called "ice-box talk" — the stuff you only think about later.

    I was interested to learn that one of the famous scenes in BV had its seed in Lynch's childhood. He and his brother were walking down a street of their little hometown in Montana when they saw a naked woman who was in some kind of altered mental state. It frightened them both, and made them feel they were seeing something they should not be seeing; David even began to cry. I think Lynch succeeds in getting a lot of this feeling into the Dorothy scenes. She's naked a lot of the time, and Rossellini is a beautiful woman, but there's nothing "sexy" about it — Lynch deliberates makes her seem overexposed and defenseless, like someone undergoing a particularly humiliating and invasive medical exam.

  • Laura says:

    The opening of "Lost Highway" is the most terrifying piece of cinema I have ever seen. I watched the movie late one night in my grandparents' creepy spare room, sipping cheap beer with my boyfriend, and I spent the entire movie with my feet tucked under me in the chair because oh my god, it's so dark in the house and someone else is in there and you're being secretly videotaped and AAAIIIEEE!! Absolute heart-pounding tension for like half an hour with no relief. Lynch's films take you someplace, a kind of visual tone poem that sometimes resorts to outrageous metaphor. For me, that's enough.

  • Erin W says:

    What a weird coincidence–I just saw Blue Velvet for the first time this week. I didn't like it, either, mostly because I was expecting a really good mystery and everything plot-driven was totally back-burnered for the theatrical weirdness you're all talking about. (It was also my first Lynch, incidentally.) I wanted cleverness and aha!s and all I got was creepy sex and 50s nostalgia.

    Also, I found Kyle McLachlan's character really ineffectual for a protagonist. He just sort of wandered in and out of everything.

  • Michael says:

    I agree with just about everything you said about Blue Velvet, especially Two-Note Hopper (Jeanne, I am totally stealing "scenery mastication" to add to my existing go-to lines of "Chewed more scenery than Godzilla on a Hollywood backlot" and "More ham than a Hormel cannery"). I even more agree with you on Wild at Heart, which would have been bad enough to have seen in a regular setting, let alone a blind double date in Osaka. My head hurts just thinking about it.

  • Sandman says:

    I have an extremely limited track record of being able to watch David Lynch movies – so far, I've only got through Dune, which might be the least Lynchian of David Lynch movies (maybe it's Lynch-Lite?). Sars' essay here and the subsequent comments make me think I should give at least some of the others a try. I will say that the effect of Dune appears to have been typically Lynch-tastic in at least one respect: when I was leaving the theatre, the audience was essentially divided into two groups, with one – those who hadn't read the book – scratching their heads and saying "… the fuck? And why was Sting wearing a blue vinyl bathing suit?" Those who had the read book could be heard to mutter, "… the fuck? That wasn't in the book! OMG, freaky bald chicks? Also, why THE HELL was Sting wearing a blue vinyl bathing suit?"

    I don't know if Todd K. feels like taking a swing at Dune or not. I hardly dare ask, but maybe he can explain the blue vinyl bathing suit thing, where others have failed. ("They tried and DIED." Hahah!)

    Also: Dennis Hopper is annoying. The End. (Hopper in Apocalypse Now? Eeeyack.)

  • Todd K says:

    @Sandman: Dune I have never seen, partly because I do sci-fi only grudgingly, and partly because it seems to have made everyone unhappy: critics, Herbert fans as well as the unwashed, Lynch himself. I have thought about watching it out of some completist's sense of responsibility…which is what kept me going to the theater year after year to see Woody Allen movies I knew weren't going to be good, until Curse of the Jade Scorpion cured me. It just never has happened.

    I'm not sure Dune stands alone as the least-Lynchian Lynch, though. Some people would nominate the G-rated humanism of The Straight Story. I still remember all those bemused "Disney To Release David Lynch Film" articles ten years ago. While I can't speak for Dune, The Straight Story *is* full of his earmarks — the deliberate pace, the wry humor, the keen eye and ear for small-town eccentricities but also small-town lyricism, plus the presence of some of his recurring actors (and his composer, and other members of his team).

    I would say his output can be broadly divided into two categories: the ones that are obvious "David Lynch films" because they feature what everyone expects from him, some combination of vamps, thugs, weirdos, innocents, sexual perversion, mystery and grotesquery, dualities and blurring of identities (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, the whole Twin Peaks franchise, Wild At Heart, Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire), and a shorter list of films that seem less characteristic because he has turned outside for his source material (The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, based on real individuals and events; Dune, from a science-fiction novel).

  • Georgia S says:

    I love most of the Lynch I've seen (Dune and Fire Walk with Me excepted). I can't say that I can fully explain Lost Highway, but here's one thing that I think makes the film make MUCH more sense: apparently Lost Highway was inspired (in part) by the OJ Simpson trial. Basically, I think Lynch is trying to understand the psyche of someone who murdered his wife (and knows he murdered her), and yet, because the act is so heinous, believes there's someone else out there who committed the crime. What the audience is witnessing on screen, then, is a man (Bill Pullman) undergoing the process of doublethink, or autohypnosis. So, I guess you could say that once Pullman turns into Balthazar Getty, the film is (here we go again) an elaborate dream sequence.

  • Naomi says:

    Blue Velvet was my favorite movie, until I saw Inland Empire. To me, a lot of David Lynch's movies felt less like dream sequences than twisted fairy tales, full of casual evil and intrepid everymen tasked to fight it. I always thought of BV as the story of Jack and the Beanstalk: a chance discovery leading to an awareness of a world beyond the hero's imagination, the careful messing with an evil presence until sudden discovery and forced confrontation, the broken elevator at the apartment necessitating a lot of climbing … but that's just me.

    @Todd K: I agree, The Straight Story is so David Lynch. I loved the lawnmower-speed tracking shots of the broken yellow lines on the street, a geriatric version of the strung-out ones in the opening of Lost Highway (which I hated) and in Twin Peaks.

  • Sandman says:

    @ Todd K: Hey, Curse of the Jade Scorpion cured me of the need to see Woody Allen movies, too. (Well, nearly – I watched Match Point in a weak moment.)

    Your comments about Dune are very interesting, partly because, as you lay them out, I can see that Dune might have attracted Lynch's notice because many of his favourite themes appear to be there: grotesqueries (esp. with wonky sexual overtones), the interaction of the innocent and the perverse, assorted vamps and thugs, drug-induced alterations of consciousness, dream states, blurred identity. The whole idea of what identity means is fairly central to Dune, actually. I always understood that what Lynch was unhappy about was that the theatrical release of the film had all sorts of cuts for length that made an already tangled story completely impenetrable.

    I think what some lovers of the book might have found hard to take is the atmosphere of jittery paranoia which pervades the movie. I'm not sure it's present in the book. That, and the whispery, voice-over narration; the inclusion of the characters' unspoken thoughts works in the book, but becomes comically heavy-handed and intrusive in the film. (A further question is whether any of the various versions of Dune is truly science fiction, but that's for another comment. It certainly could be more science-y; and I'm no scientist.)

  • Sandman says:

    And I still don't know why poor Francesca Annis and Siân Phillips had to be got up like egg-bald versions of Spanish duennas.

  • Jenno says:

    @Sandman and others who struggle with Dune: To understand David Lynch's "Dune," you really have to go to his source material, which is Frank Herbert's novel (no, you can't get out of reading it — Wikipedia is not going to give you enough to go on). It's like Todd K says, the films that come from somewhere other than Lynch's brain sort of stand apart, and I don't think you need to have the same grasp of Lynchian visual language to "get" them. In fact, if you bring that particular eye to "Straight Story" and "Elephant Man," you'll find yourself searching for things that aren't there.

    "Dune," like almost all films made from novels, is not a faithful rendering. But if you've read the novel, then the characters, locations, and plot *will* make sense, even if they're not how you visualized them or even how Herbert described them. Some characters are marginalized, events are compressed, altered, invented, or left out, but on the whole it covers the first "Dune" novel. The line "they tried and died" is in the book — there was a religious ritual only performed by women, and a prophecy that one day a man would come along who could do it too, and many pretenders to the legend died in the attempt. Paul Atreides would ultimately succeed. As for Sting's bathing suit, well, if you're the director and you cast a body like Sting's in that role, wouldn't you include a scene where you show it off? And then telegraph the sick nature of the Baron's relationship with his nephew by having the Baron lick his lips and say "Feyd, lovely Feyd"?

    I read Dune a few months before I saw the movie in the theater, and it made perfect sense to me. But then I'm not the type to have a conniption when movies aren't identical to books or vice versa — I'm OK with each version standing on its own. Dune has gorgeous production values, even if its special effects haven't aged so well. It might not be popular with uber-Herbert fans, and it is flawed in that you cannot get into its universe without prior knowledge, but it's one of my favorite films, just for its overall texture (again — reeeeally don't care that it's not identical to the book). I still covet the shell-raincoat that Jessica wore when she met the Reverend Mother at the door. But I love "Dune" as a sci-fi adaptation, not as a Lynch film.

  • Todd K says:

    Even if you've seen it before, it never gets old.

  • Richard Keena says:

    Blue Velvet is actually the only Lynch film I like (well, that and Dune, but only when I'm drunk), mainly because Dennis Hopper is so creepy in it. That guys always good. Have any of you seen Mad Dog Morgan? I just downloaded the uncut version on iTunes. I haven't seen the theatrical cut, but teh uncut one was amazing. It's got that whole spaghetti western feel to it, but it's in Australia, and it looks incredible.

  • Sandman says:

    @ Richard Keena "… Dune, but only when I'm drunk…"

    Well, there's a thought.

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