The writer George Saunders has said that art’s job is not to believably recreate reality or even impart a message but to craft a “kind of black box [that] the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another.” What the artist puts in that box could be anything, so long as it evokes something “undeniable and nontrivial” in the audience. In his book Catching the Big Fish David Lynch said that when he came up with Blue Velvet all he had “was red lips, green lawns and the song–Bobby Vinton’s version of Blue Velvet. The next thing was an ear lying in a field. And that was it.”
To give a detailed summary of Blue Velvet would be pointless – you could easily read the film’s entire plot on Wikipedia and know nothing important about it. But to sketch it out briefly: college boy Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his hometown and is drawn into a mystery. Simple.
More important is how Blue Velvet feels, how it oscillates violently between dream and nightmare. Two different universes seem to coexist inside the same town. The first is Norman Rockwell’s imagined 1950’s, a cheery, sexless place that revolves around milkshakes and chastened dates, even though it’s 1986. It’s populated by Jeffrey’s crush Sandy (Laura Dern), his ailing father and the good-natured police detective who tells him not to worry about the severed human ear he found. The second town is a hellscape of rape, murder and sadomasochism populated by people like lounge singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) and Frank (Dennis Hopper), a psychopathic gangster who could be Lynch’s most evil creation. The film’s not so much about the particulars of the plot as how Jeffrey finds himself caught between these worlds. A good American boy who spies through a closet door into a world of sex and violence and sees something he likes, even if he can’t understand why.
Blue Velvet is hypnotically beautiful, but it’s not an easy watch. Not only do horrible things happen, they are lingered on. The film doesn’t even give you the relief of judging or condemning these horrible acts. Instead it presents violent scenes with a cold remove, often following them up with scenes of sumptuous beauty. Roger Ebert, one of the few detractors of the film, said that “The sexual material in Blue Velvet is so disturbing, and the performance by Rossellini is so convincing and courageous, that it demands a movie that deserves it”. He claimed that the movie was beautifully crafted, but too clever for its own good. “Blue Velvet is like the guy who drives you nuts by hinting at horrifying news and then saying, “Never mind.”” But it would be a mistake to think Lynch himself was that removed. For him, it seems, the movie is extremely personal. “When I was little,” Lynch said, explaining the inspiration for Isabella Rossellini’s character, “my brother and I were outdoors late one night, and we saw a naked woman come walking down the street toward us in a dazed state, crying. I have never forgotten that moment.”
Early in the film, before such images of raw horror, it feels like Lynch is setting up archetypes rather than characters – the schoolgirl ingénue, the amateur gumshoe, the mysterious woman. But as the film progresses a rot sets in, eating away at some of the archetypes’ familiar exteriors, revealing something horrifying and unknowable. Lynch violates the unspoken agreement between director and audience by robbing us of any of the tools we might use to make moral or aesthetic sense of the film. The writer David Foster Wallace argued that this is what gives Lynch’s best films such primal power:
…in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We’re defenseless in our dreams too.)
Come join us this weekend to enter the black box Lynch has created. The dream might not be real, but when you emerge from the darkness you will feel changed.