Blue Velvet (1986)
Blue Velvet (1986) is screenwriter and maverick director David Lynch's artistically bizarre cult film. It is an original look at sex, violence, crime and power under the peaceful exterior of small-town Americana in the mid-80s. Beneath the familiar, peaceful, 'American-dream' cleanliness of the daytime scenes lurks sleaziness, prostitution, unrestrained violence, and perversity - powerful and potentially-dangerous sexual forces that may be unleashed if not contained. A controversial film often criticized for its depiction of aberrant sexual behavior, the surrealistic, psychosexual film was a throwback to art films, 50s B-movies and teenage romances, film noir, and the mystery-suspense genre.
Although highly ridiculed and disdained when released as an extreme, dark, vulgar and disgusting film, it also won critical praise - Best Film of 1986, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Dennis Hopper) and Best Achievement in Cinematography (Frederick Elmes) by the National Society of Film Critics. It also received a sole nomination for Best Director from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The plot line of the nightmarish film, a combination of Marquis De Sade sexual fetishism and a Hardy Boys mystery story, is fairly sketchy. An innocent, small-town college student (MacLachlan) in a sleepy town discovers a severed ear, and then finds himself embroiled on the dark side of town (beyond the white picket fence). He witnesses, first as a voyeur, a sexually-depraved, blackmailing relationship between a monstrous, loathsome, nitrous-oxide sniffing kidnapper (Dennis Hopper) and an abused/brutalized mother and fragile nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini). In some ways, the two male leads represent the two dichotomous sides of life (e.g., light/dark, normalcy/aberration, attraction/repulsion, innocence/experience, perversion/love, virtue/base desires, etc.) that struggle for dominance. After the hideous crime of violated innocence is revealed, the vision of the innocent girl-next-door (Laura Dern) is restored - the "Blinding Light of Love."The Story
The film's credits (viewed with fluid, scripted type-lettering) play above a slowly undulating blue velvet, fabric backdrop as Angelo Badalamenti's sensual string score floridly plays. The film dissolves into an unnaturally brilliant, visually lush, boldly colorful opening with patriotic hues (bright red, white, and blue) and a nostalgic, dream-like view of a clean, conforming, pastoral America a la Norman Rockwell.
From nearly cloudless, clear aqua-blue skies, the camera tilts and pans slowly down to a clean white picket fence, in front of which are planted perfect, budding blood-red roses and yellow tulips. 60s teen idol/crooner Bobby Vinton sings his rendition of the title song "Blue Velvet" (a song of longing for a woman, written by Lee Morris and Bernie Wayne). Idyllic small-town images are presented in silent slow-motion, with hyper-realistic light and color. A bright-red fire engine truck tranquilly glides down the suburban US street - a friendly fireman on the running board waves with a dalmatian next to him. At a school cross-walk, children are safely allowed to walk across the street by a uniformed, matronly crossing guard holding a Stop sign.
Outside one of the houses [the Beaumont house], a paunchy man effortlessly waters his bright-green lawn with a hose. His wife is inside seated on the couch, watching a daytime mystery/film noir on television (an image of a hand holding a pistol fills the screen). The husband finds that the snake-like hose is kinked and wrapped around some of the shrubbery, causing the hose faucet spigot to hiss loudly and leak water under the increased pressure. Then, the scenes of the superficial, ideal American dream in the green garden (of Eden) suddenly explode. He spasms and grabs his neck as he experiences a heart seizure and stroke, falling on his back to the ground and squirming around in agonizing pain - but still gripping the hose, phallically curled around him. Water wildly sprays from the hose into the air, causing a dog to jump about on his chest and playfully snap and drink at the stream of water shooting upward. An innocent small boy in white diapers (and eating a popsicle) waddles down the driveway to look at the man on the ground, also unaware of what has happened.
With directoral insight, the camera moves from above ground and burrows into the lush, thick green grass for a closer view of a terrifying, diseased underworld within the placid-seeming universe. Penetrating below, it finds a swarm of hungry, ugly black bugs - a metaphor for the perverse, horrible evil that lurks beneath the idyllic surface of picture-perfect life. A few warring, ravenous beetles - ugly insects - are in a ferocious, predatory, and cannibalistic fight for life, amplified aurally and visually.
The next shot is the welcoming billboard of the town: "Welcome to Lumberton," and a slow pan views the waterfront of the logging town. A jingle from the local radio station plays a chorus of "Lumberton," and while the sounds of a chain saw and falling timber play, the radio announcer ominously invites the locals:
It's a sunny, woodsy day in Lumberton, so get those chain saws out. This is the mighty W-O-O-D. At the sound of the falling tree, it's 9:30. There's a whole lot of wood out there, so let's get goin'.
As the radio advertisement plays, the next scene displays a handsome young man dressed in a dark coat jacket casually walking along a road in a woodsy area. He boyishly picks up a rock and throws it into a vacant field. In a hospital sickbed, the man who suffered the seizure - Mr. Tom Beaumont (Jack Harvey) is hospitalized. Unable to speak, he is connected to a oxygen-mask breathing device (a foreshadowing!) and his head is held perfectly still and incapacitated [in sexual terms - he is emasculated]. His son, the clean-cut, all-American boy/trekker Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is ushered into the room to see his father - he grasps his father's hand. Beaumont painfully tries to communicate with his son, but his words are incomprehensible and inhuman and no words are spoken during an awkward silence.
After his short visit to the hospital, Jeffrey walks moodily back along the same route. He returns to the open field near the woods where, as he goes to throw more rocks, he discovers a severed and decaying human ear (covered with crawling ants) in the tall grass.
After plopping the ear in a brown paper bag that he finds, he promptly delivers it to the Lumberton Police Department, specifically to Detective Williams (George Dickerson), one of his neighbors, located in office 221. (A college student, Jeffrey is home from school/college to visit his father, the local hardware store owner, while he recovers from his debilitating stroke.) The ear is taken to the coroner's office for forensic study. In the coroner's office while the ear is examined on a medical dish, the coroner explains what can be determined in a detached, clinical manner:
...Sex, blood type, whether or not the ear came off a dead person. Also, it looks like the ear was cut off with scissors.
The film cuts to the next scene - a sharp pair of scissors cuts a "POLICE LINE - DO NOT CROSS" yellow tape, as officers rope off the wooded area and search for more clues.
That night in his own home, Jeffrey descends down a dark staircase from his brightly lit bedroom at the top of the stairs. He enters the Beaumont living room where his mother (Priscilla Pointer) and Aunt Barbara (Frances Bay), who is knitting, are watching another mystery on television (an ominous image of a man's legs climbing a staircase). There is little communication between Jeffrey and his mother - she is immersed in her own fantasy world. He tells them that he is going out to take a nocturnal walk around the neighborhood, but not "down by Lincoln," after being admonished by his aunt against wandering there - the dark side of town.
As he walks along the dark neighborhood street, sombre music plays as the trees above him display mysterious shadows. The camera zooms in for a gigantic close-up of the severed ear and descends slowly into the disembodied, dirty ear, as if entering a conduit to probe into its depths (like spiraling into a conch shell or into a brain), accompanied by a loud roaring sound on the soundtrack - a visual clue to the impact of sounds and aural observation.
[The camera motion signifies Jeffrey's feverish, dream-like descent into his own subconscious. From this point until the end of the film, Jeffrey takes a psychic, internal journey through his own dark side of desires and fears.]
At Detective Williams' home after knocking on the front door and being greeted by Mrs. Williams, Jeffrey is ushered into the detective's study, where a girl-next-door portrait of the police detective's daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) is on the desk - her first image in the film. Although curious, Jeffrey is stiffly told, in hard-boiled dialogue, to keep quiet and secretive about his grisly anatomical find (is the strangely elusive Detective knowledgeable of the corruption, or only protective of his family and other law-abiding citizens?). He is not to ask any more questions until the confidential case is solved:
Detective Williams: Well now Jeffrey, you found something which is very interesting to us. Very interesting. I know you must be curious to know more. But I'm afraid I'm gonna have to ask you now not only not to tell anyone about your find but also not to ask more about the case. One day, when it's all sewed up, I'll let you know all the details. Right now, though, I can't.
Jeffrey: I understand. I'm just real curious like you said.
Detective Williams: (confiding) I was the same way myself when I was your age. I guess that's what got me into this business.
Jeffrey: It must be great.
Detective Williams: It's horrible too.
Outside in the darkness, Jeffrey hears a voice from the blackness asking:
Are you the one that found the ear?
Girl-next-door Sandy emerges wearing a billowy pink dress - a true vision of innocence. She comes up to him, remembering him from Central High School where she is a senior and he was a recent graduate. Coyly and without her father's knowledge, she reveals secrets of her father's police affairs to Jeffrey. She tells him "bits and pieces" about what she has learned about the investigation of the severed ear by eavesdropping - using her own ear to learn mysterious details about corruption teeming around them:
Sandy: There are a couple of cases I get mixed up on...but one thing that keeps coming up is this woman singer. She lives in an apartment building that is real close to your house. It's also close to the field where you found the ear.
Jeffrey (naively): It's a strange world, isn't it?
Sandy's information urges Jeffrey forward into the mystery. She explains that they had the woman "under surveillance" for a couple of months, but it is presently not her father's case. Sandy offers to show him the woman's apartment building that is close by, further encouraging his curiosity and ultimately leading him into contact with the "woman singer." While leading him to "Lincoln St." (where Jeffrey had earlier promised not to go), a group of rowdy guys in a passing car shout suggestive taunts at them.
Sandy points out the brick building where the singer lives on the 7th Floor. The camera pauses on the street sign. (Their attempts to investigate the underlying mystery, like amateur Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys-style sleuths, confront them with a variety of kinky, nocturnal, repellent, inhuman (insect-like) characters, an unsettling universe inside the head of the ear that is their only piece of evidence.)
In an obvious parallel to Frank Capra's film It's a Wonderful Life (1946), the scene of George Bailey and Mary walking along together after the school dance, Jeffrey walks along the peaceful night-time sidewalk with Sandy. [The film parodies typical 50s teen romances, portraying Jeffrey's and Sandy's good-natured friendship along suburban sidewalks, in his convertible, and in a local malt shop/diner.] When they pass one of the houses on the street, Jeffrey can only recollect grotesquely about a strange old school friend -
Jeffrey: I used to know a kid who lived there...he had the biggest tongue in the world. (They laugh together)
Sandy: What happened to him?
Jeffrey: I don't know. He moved away. All my old friends are gone.
He also tries to impress Sandy during their walk with his quirky charm by performing a humorous "chicken walk."
Inside Beaumont's Hardware Store the next day where Jeffrey works while his father is hospitalized, Jeffrey is delighted by one of the store employees Double Ed, who can see and has a photographic memory and knows the location of every item in the store - although he is blind and taps with a white cane. He demonstrates his secret method of deducing how many fingers Jeffrey holds up in the air. Jeffrey also yells out to one of the other employees, asking to borrow a bug-spraying rig. Ed tells him: "If you want to spray for bugs Jeffrey, it causes us no pain."
That afternoon in the bright daylight, Jeffrey pulls up in his red convertible outside Central High School as schoolkids leave the area, recognizing Sandy with a group of her girlfriends. Alongside the curb, he calls out to her: "Are you hungry or thirsty or both?" She tells her girlfriends to promise not to tell her football-playing boyfriend Mike because "it's not what you think." Sandy gets into Jeffrey's car to join him and again play out their innocent attitudes, as they fall into unacknowledged love:
Jeffrey: I don't want to cause any trouble.
Sandy: I'm here, aren't I?
Again, Sandy shows her willingness to sneak around, keep secrets, and pursue mysterious things behind other people's backs. The camera is positioned in the back seat of the convertible as the couple drives to the local Arlene's Diner. A large, log-carrying truck roars into view in front of the diner. Seated in one of the restaurant's booths, Jeffrey consults with Sandy, telling her of his strategy to take risks and learn more in life:
Jeffrey: There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience. Sometimes, it's necessary to take a risk. I got to thinking. I'll bet someone could learn alot by getting into that woman's apartment. You know, sneak in, hide, and observe.
Sandy: Sneak into her apartment?
Sandy: Are you crazy? Jeffrey, she's possibly involved in murder. This is givin' me the creeps.
Jeffrey convinces her to settle down because he has devised an assaultive plot to get into the woman's apartment on Lincoln St. Disguised as a pest-control exterminator with a bug-spraying rig, he will eventually find a way to open a window that he can crawl into later. Abetted by Sandy who will knock on the door and pose as a Jehovah's Witness carrying 'Awake' magazines, the woman's attention will be diverted while Jeffrey jimmies open the window. Sandy's conscience makes her skeptical and she questions their illegal, risky 'breaking and entering' into the apartment - because "it is too weird." But she is also intrigued by his daring and willingness to sleuth and investigate:
Sandy: I don't know. I mean, it sounds like a good daydream, but actually doing it is too weird. It's too dangerous.
Jeffrey: Sandy, let's just try the first part. No one will suspect us. Because no one would think two people like us would be crazy enough to do something like this.
Sandy: You have a point there.
At the Deep River Apartments on Lincoln St. before Jeffrey (wearing an exterminator's uniform) heads off for the entrance, Sandy tells him the singer's name: "Dorothy Vallens, Seventh Floor. Look on her mailbox for the number, bright boy." After learning her apartment number (#710) in the dark lobby, he notices that there is a cardboard sign pasted on the elevator: "Elevator Out of Order Please use Stairs" - a neon sign hums and blinks. Jeffrey makes the long climb up the stairs and knocks on her door. Opening her chained door only slightly at first, a tired, sultry, glossy red-lipped and red-dressed Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini, daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini) lets him in to spray the baseboards in the creamy white kitchen. The apartment is decorated with a few green houseplants - its walls are a lurid pink color. Other colors are rich dark crimson reds and dirty browns.
Another knock at the door causes Dorothy to comment: "Grand Central Station," but it is not Sandy. A man dressed in a yellow sports coat (a suspicious looking man later called 'The Yellow Man' who wears a Yellow Jacket - a veiled reference to a dangerous flying insect - Fred Pickler) stands there for a moment and eyes him suspiciously. Dorothy identifies the exterminator to him: "It's only the bug man." (Appropriately, Jeffrey is a bug exterminator, presently killing real insects but later choosing to exterminate 'human insects' or criminal underground, nocturnal gangsters.) When she takes the stranger to the door, Jeffrey spies a duplicate spare apartment key hanging in the kitchen and quickly takes it to let himself back in later that evening.
The next step in Jeffrey's plan is to ask Sandy to accompany him at 8 o'clock that night as a decoy date (without boyfriend Mike's knowledge) - to watch Dorothy perform in a sleazy nightclub. They go to the Slow Club on Route 7, decorated on the outside by a pink neon sign and antlers. Sandy and Jeffrey clink glasses of Heineken beer and toast to "an interesting experience." On stage while bathed in the blue fog of stagelights, "The Blue Lady" nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens with painted sensuality (she wears a blue velvet dress, bright aqua-marine blue eye shadow, bright red lipstick, and a black wig) performs a sexy, slow rendition of the title song "Blue Velvet," singing into a 1930s-style Art Deco microphone.