So: the film unearths the dark underbelly of small-town American life, yes, but there is more to it than that. Rather than locating its crime and horror in an outside location, the film finds the dark side at home, in Lumberton, literally in the family garden. Blue Velvet’s reinterpretation of familiar places (home), familiar stories (the crime film or film noir) and familiar characters (the smalltown boy, the girl next door) makes banal things look perverse. As several writers have pointed out, this is precisely a dramatisation of the uncanny: making the familiar look unfamiliar. A phantasm of American family-values ideology, Blue Velvet’s sunny small-town world has been dubbed ‘Lynchtown’ by critic Michel Chion, and it can also be found in several of Lynch’s other works, especially his 1990–91 television program Twin Peaks. It is well known that the places Lynch dramatises are often amalgams of his childhood home – Spokane, Washington, in particular. But Lynchtown is more an imagined place than a real place; Lynch masterfully exploits the cinema’s ability to create uncanny locales that feel one step removed from reality, and the point seems to be this: in Lynchtown, despair is all the more horrible because it is found at home. What’s more, the evil in Blue Velvet is not merely personified by the town psychopath Frank Booth, who rapes and kills and cuts off ears; the same drives are also revealed inside Jeffrey, who, like Frank, hits Dorothy during sex. ‘You’re like me’, Frank says to Jeffrey, and this is the truth that makes Jeffrey cry.
For years, the film was vilified by feminists for its depiction of violence against women – and from a certain perspective, rightly so, for the film does not apologise for its characterisation of Dorothy Vallens, a woman who is brutally abused, and seems to enjoy it. The film has been criticised for dramatising all the masculine biases of the Oedipal dynamic: Dorothy functions primarily as a spectacle (she performs in a nightclub, she is spied on by Jeffrey), and she embodies every cliché about mysterious, incoherent femininity. Sandy, on the other hand, may be intelligent and just as interested in solving the crime as Jeffrey, but she is so buttoned-up and square that she functions as Dorothy’s opposite, the other half of the film’s all too familiar binary construction of woman as either virgin or whore. On the other hand, this too can be interpreted as part of the film’s encounter with the familiar – the virgin/whore dynamic is not questioned by the film, for certainly Blue Velvet makes no pretence at political consciousness, but rather this familiar constellation serves as the stable ground of stereotype, if you will, that allows the film to take its viewer into forbidden realms of sexual desire and dread.
The question remains, however, whether Blue Velvet’s use of familiar, even cliché motifs is ironic or sincere, and this point of tension is where the film most seems to confound audiences in the current moment. Many viewers today feel that the film’s depiction of the sunny side of life (the neatly mowed lawns, Sandy’s dream about the robins) is merely a parody, and they find the mechanical bird with the worm at the end of the film to be a mocking joke that subverts the conservatism of this robotically happy world. However, some critics have questioned this interpretation, arguing instead that while the film does contain some irony, it is mostly sincere, that Sandy’s dream of robins is not a parody but a genuine alternative to the horror of Dorothy’s life. At least one film scholar has perceptively tied this sincerity-in-irony tone to a post-punk aesthetic that conjoined the profane and the sincere: ‘Lynch’s films were among the first to move beyond postmodernism’s ironic, parodic appropriation of historical genres and narrative conventions … to this day readings of Lynch as ‘ironic’ persist because irony has become the dominant form of reading in [our] culture’. 2 In other words, even though one can easily interpret Blue Velvet’s happy ending as ironic, it might be more intriguing to instead consider the implications of the film’s potential sincerity. Again, such a reading privileges Lynch’s interest in clichés, banality and improper fantasies. As irony moved into the mainstream by the 1980s, Lynch was already way ahead of the irony game; although there is currently much disagreement on this point, it has become apparent to some viewers today that this is a film that disturbs with its sincerity.
Finally, one cannot discuss this film without mentioning its soundtrack. From the moment Jeffrey Beaumont first discovers the severed ear in a vacant lot, this film announces itself as concerned with sound. Sound effects are hugely important in this film, but even more innovative is the film’s use of music. Pop music soundtracks had become increasingly common since late 1960s films such as The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) made them popular. In the 1980s, films such as The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985) and Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutsch, 1986) used pop music to quickly evoke a teenage emotional landscape; in these films, the audience is moved in synch with the music. In contrast, Blue Velvet uses music against the grain, so to speak, evoking a familiar mood in order to reinterpret it. When Ben lip syncs ‘In Dreams’, for example, the wistful sadness of the melody and lyrics take on a sinister, sexually ambiguous element due to Dean Stockwell’s enigmatic performance. Lynch did not invent this technique, but borrowed it from Kenneth Anger’s seminal experimental film Scorpio Rising (1964), which had revolutionised the use of pop music in film decades earlier. Blue Velvet uses songs from a previous era, a practice that is much more common now than it was in the 1980s (see The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005), or any of Wes Anderson’s films). All the major songs in Blue Velvet, in fact, were popular in 1963 when Lynch was 17 years old, which adds to the film’s strange sense of nostalgia. While most movies today still use music as an ancillary element, a backdrop that merely accompanies the visuals, Blue Velvet’s music is anything but subordinate to the images; rather, Lynch uses music as a discrete component that is just as crucial in shaping the film’s meaning as the visuals. This use of pop music as counterpoint has rarely been equalled in commercial American cinema.
1. Laurent Bouzereau, ‘Blue Velvet: An Interview with David Lynch’, Cineaste, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1987, p. 39.
2. Nicholas Rombes, ‘Blue Velvet Underground: David Lynch’s Post-Punk Poetics’, in Erica Sheen and Annette Davison (eds), The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions, London, Wallflower Press, 2004, p. 72.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. Director: David Lynch. Producer: Fred Caruso. Screenwriter: David Lynch. Cinematographer: Frederick Elmes. Editor: Duwayne Dunham. Music: Angelo Badalamenti. Cast: Kyle MacLachlan (Jeffrey Beaumont), Isabella Rossellini (Dorothy Vallens), Dennis Hopper (Frank Booth), Laura Dern (Sandy Williams), Hope Lange (Mrs Williams), Priscilla Pointer (Mrs Beaumont), George Dickerson (Detective John Williams), Frances Bay (Aunt Barbara), Ken Stovitz (Mike), Brad Dourif (Raymond), Jack Nance (Paul), Dean Stockwell (Ben), J. Michael Hunter (Hunter), Jack Harvey (Tom Beaumont), Dick Green (Don Vallens), Fred Pickler (The Yellow Man), Philip Market (Dr Gynde).]
Michael Atkinson, Blue Velvet, London, BFI, 1997.
Michel Chion, David Lynch, trans. Robert Julian, 2nd ed, London, BFI, 2006.
Lynne Layton, ‘Blue Velvet: A Parable of Male Development’, Screen, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter 1994, pp. 374–92.
David Lynch, Lynch on Lynch, ed. Chris Rodley, London, Faber and Faber, 1997.