Beneath the surface of small-town serenity lies a dark domain where innocents dare not tread and unpredictability is the norm.
It is the haunting realm of Blue Velvet.
David Lynch is a fascinating filmmaker because he seems entirely incapable of producing anything mediocre. His films are either brilliant (say, The Elephant Man or Mulholland Drive) or they suck (Dune or Wild at Heart). I can't think of a Lynch film that I'd describe as "okay." It's like his approach is so from-the-gut and relatively intellectually unstructured it's up in the air whether or not all the pieces will come together; each time he makes a movie he's shooting dice—he either wins magnificently…or craps out.
Blue Velvet is Lynch's finest work. It's as narratively coherent as The Elephant Man, and as personal (which for Lynch means delving into his own subconscious) as Eraserhead. It's all the uniqueness that makes Lynch an interesting artist, in perfect balance in a single film. If someone asked me what David Lynch is about, I'd answer by showing him Blue Velvet.
Facts of the Case
College student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlin, Showgirls) returns to his hometown of Lumberton when his father collapses and must be hospitalized. While home, Jeffrey discovers a severed human ear in a field and begins, with the help of Sandy Williams, a local high school girl played by Laura Dern (Jurassic Park), to play amateur detective. His gum-shoeing leads him to third-rate lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini, Immortal Beloved). Jeffrey discovers that Dorothy's husband (the former owner of the ear) and son are being held hostage by a psychopath named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider) because Frank's in love with Dorothy and will do anything to have her.
In the film's iconic scene, Jeffrey hides in Dorothy's closet, watching through the slats of the door as Frank abuses and ritually rapes her while sucking amil nitrate from an tank stashed in his leather jacket (although Oscar-nominated for his performance in Hoosiers, shot the same year as Blue Velvet, it was really his frightening performance as Frank Booth that began the renaissance in Hopper's career).
Repulsed by and sexually drawn to Dorothy, sickly fascinated by the fact some part of her actually enjoys Frank's abuse, Jeffrey soon gets in way over his head. He's discovered by , who bristles at the boy's presence in the singer's life, is menacing and threatening, dragging Jeffrey into his underworld existence.
David Lynch is a hard nut to crack because he's more concerned with his personal experience of the world than he is in the mechanics of narrative. At their worst, his films tend to be so bogged down in the inner workings of his own head that they're relatively meaningless to anyone who happens not to be David Lynch. They're chock full of symbols that have visceral resonance but lack the intellectual meaning that unites them with conventional models of theme and narrative. Narrative arcs often arrive at dead ends; I'm still convinced it wasn't until somewhere towards the middle or end of the first season of Twin Peaks that it dawned on Lynch the audience out there in TV land were watching because they believed he was going to tie up all the weirdnesses and convolutions and give them narrative closure like proper TV shows always do. That's when things got scary for him. He didn't purposely deceive anyone; he was just being David Lynch—the weirdnesses and convolutions are what it's all about for him.
Blue Velvet works because it so perfectly balances Lynch's idiosyncrasies with recognizable and comfortable narrative constructs, specifically film noir. In many ways, it moves like a conventional detective story. Jeffrey Beaumont is our surrogate (just as, say, Sam Spade is our surrogate in The Maltese Falcon): we learn the facts of the case as he does. The details encountered in our progress through the narrative, however, are anything but conventional. Images of a severed human ear cast away in a field and teeming with ants, or a Jack Russell terrier snapping at water coming out of the garden hose gripped by Jeffrey's collapsed father, or Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap) in creepy pancake makeup and lounge-lizard clothing lip-syncing into a lamp, or the bad cop literally dead on his feet are certainly bizarre but, within the solid footing of noir, have the effect of adding authenticity to the film—they're so strange and dream-like they feel true. In other words, the noir elements of Blue Velvet give us the orientation we need to fully experience its Lynchian peculiarities. The Lynchian peculiarities, on the other hand, challenge our expectations of conventional noir, adding levels of interest (and strangely, reality) to a structured and well-known form.
Jeffrey Beaumont is the linchpin (or, more accurately, Lynchpin) of the whole film. He's not only the detective, our surrogate for the noir narrative, but also Lynch's surrogate, the vehicle through which the director unveils his subconscious musings. Because of this dual function and our narrative identification with him, Jeffrey enables us to get past Lynch's solipsism and actually connect with the film. Since Lynch is far more fascinated with expression of the visceral than of the intellectual, the success of the film is contingent on the success of Jeffrey as a character because it's our identification with Jeffrey that enables Lynch to produce in us the emotional response he's looking for. By working at Jeffrey through narrative and film technique, Lynch manipulates our empathy with nearly the expertise of Hitchcock (in the Siskel & Ebert review included on the disc, Gene Siskel says Blue Velvet had the same emotional impact on him as Psycho, making him feel like he was getting in way over his head—he's right on the money). Hitchcock understood in a way Lynch doesn't (based on the his inability to deliver consistently top-notch work) that once he'd gotten an audience to identify with a particular character, he could lead (or mislead) them, manipulate them, produce the emotional responses he wanted. When Jeffrey's spying on Dorothy through the slats of her apartment's closet, we're voyeurs too. We see the world through his eyes. Consequently, when psychopath Frank Booth tells Jeffrey, "We're the same," he's saying it to us, too. Is it creepy and chilling? Hell, yes. But it's the essence of Lynch's world: creepiness and perversion and violence aren't aberrations; they're presence below the surface of civilization is constant. You can explain that to someone intellectually, but it's much more effective to make him feel it in a below-the-belt, hard-to-articulate way.
Blue Velvet: Special Edition presents the film in a brand new anamorphic transfer supervised by Lynch himself. It's a beautiful image throughout, with rich colors and deep blacks (vitally important in noir, of course). There are very minor blemishes here and there, but nothing to complain about. I didn't own MGM's original release of Blue Velvet but gave it a rent so I could compare image quality. As the original was also anamorphic, there's not a great increase in quality with this new release. Overall, the Special Edition is slightly sharper, but the colors are also slightly more muted. Basically, it's a wash.
The new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is a little Lynchian joke, I think. Although technically a 5.1 track, the surrounds are entirely inactive throughout the film. Like refusing to allow chapter stops in some of his films, adding a new 5.1 track that doesn't use surrounds is one of those little artsy jabs Lynch likes to give us, and that would be fine except for the fact this is the second release of this film on DVD and some might buy it specifically for a soundtrack upgrade. You're not going to get it. While I'm not a fan of creating 5.1 branching where it didn't originally exist, it might have been nice in this case to be immersed in Alan Splet's robust sound design, all the layered and creepy ambient noise. With the exception of Lynch's little prank, the soundtrack is solid, my only complaint being minor instances of distortion in isolated pieces of dialogue that are probably inherent in the source recording.
What separates this release from the previous is the extras. They begin with a new 70-minute documentary called Mysteries of Love, a high-gloss look back at the production of the film. It's divided into seven sections that can be accessed individually, or the entire documentary can be viewed via a play-all option. We get recently shot talking-head interview segments with stars Kyle MacLachlin, Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern, and Dennis Hopper, as well as producer Fred Caruso, cinematographer Frederick Elmes, and editor Dwayne Dunham. Lynch, either unavailable or unwilling to participate, appears only in archive interviews that look fairly contemporary to the film (one is dated 1987). While longer than most making-of documentaries, Mysteries of Love is still fairly standard in terms of content (i.e. stars sitting in front of stylish drapes talking about how they never imagined at the time that they were making a classic, then calling Lynch a genius). If you're expecting a piece that peels away the many layers of Blue Velvet and makes you look at the film in a whole new light, this ain't it.
Next up is a deleted scenes montage, a series of still images of scenes cut from Lynch's original four-hour rough-cut of the film. Major fans of Blue Velvet have long wondered about the longer version and these stills are all that's left—the original footage has never been found. There are a total of ten excised scenes. Most appear to have warranted removal (e.g. there's an entire scene of Jeffrey at college, receiving the phone call that his father is in the hospital—it's just not necessary). Some are fascinating, though, like "A Gift from Frank," which involves Dorothy's husband's other ear. All in all, the photos are nicely presented, connected with smooth dissolves that give a genuine sense of movement, and backed by tonally-appropriate music from the soundtrack; a little gem for hardcore Lynch fans.
The Siskel & Ebert review is next and contains only the decision portion of the review, excluding the initial discussion. It's likely included because the two split on their opinions and pretty fairly represent the hot/cold reaction of most of the film-going public.
The photo gallery is divided into three sections: "Lumberton, USA" (the most extensive), "International Posters," and the most fascinating, "Peter Braatz Photos," a series of more artsy, mainly black-and-white stills taken by photographer and filmmaker Peter Braatz during the shoot.
The theatrical trailer and two TV spots round out the official supplements. The "Collectible Booklet" has two pages of content and is neither enlightening nor collectible so far as I can see (maybe I'll take mine on The Antique Road Show and see how much the guy from Sotheby's says it's worth).
There are also a few easy-to-find Easter eggs that include Elmes discussing the difficulty of finding a robin for the film's finale, Rossellini's defense against accusations Lynch is misogynist, and Lynch discussing his love of McDonalds and coffee shops.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"But Roger Ebert gave this film one star," you might be saying. That's right. Ebert seems to have two problems with Blue Velvet:
1) The perceived incongruity between the film's dark, fetishistic side and its ironic and humorous jabs at squeaky-clean middle-class America. The latter detracts from the former, according to Ebert, by being silly.
2) Lynch doesn't earn the right to degrade Isabella Rossellini by showing her nude and bruised on a front lawn with spectators gaping at her.
With respect to the first issue, I think Ebert is reading the film (and Lynch) incorrectly. Lynch isn't being ironic in presenting tropes of idyllic small-town America. It's not a Lynchian tendency to utilize that sort of postmodern irony. People who know Lynch or have met him say he uses words like "golly" and "gee" and "super" in his everyday speech. And he's not being a smartass when he talks that way; it's simply who he is. In the Mysteries of Love documentary, Dennis Hopper talks about how Lynch, when discussing the script, would refer to the f-word as "that word," but wouldn't actually say it. In other words, Lumberton isn't Lynch's irony-laced slap in the face at Americana. As Leave It to Beaver as it may appear, it's part of the way Lynch (honestly) views the world around him. What makes Lynch Lynch, though, is that the other half of his worldview is the dark, fetishistic stuff, the subconscious stuff of nightmares, the creepy stuff. The Americana pieces of the film don't get in the way of the dark material, rather in Lynch's world, the dark material is always part of the Americana; the two are inextricably linked. Certainly, on a psychological level it's disturbing that the dark material in Blue Velvet isn't completely isolated, but exists as a sort of ghetto right next door to the recognizable, comfortable, pretty world with which most of us are familiar. But without that dynamic, we're let off the hook, allowed to view the whole lollapalooza through the emotional distance irony provides.
With respect to the second issue, I'm of the opinion nearly all nudity in film is gratuitous. The nudity in Blue Velvet, however, is one of a handful of instances I can think of that's artistically warranted. Because of the context and execution, Rossellini's nude scene is mainly disturbing and upsetting (whether it's at all titillating is a matter of taste, I suppose); it represents the complete crumbling of her humanity. In other words, it ain't fun to watch. But should it be? In the Mysteries of Love documentary, Rossellini tells us the scene is based on a real experience of Lynch's. As children, he and his brother saw a battered, naked woman walking down the street. They weren't sexually aroused—they cried; it was frightening. It was this information that helped Rossellini play the scene the way she does. Ebert says it disturbs him to see Rossellini so degraded, then places the locus of blame for the scene's lack of artistic validity in Lynch's employing of postmodern irony. But Lynch isn't being ironic. As a result, the scene simply hits too far below the belt (note how Ebert always talks about Rossellini's degradation, never Dorothy Vallens', as if the images are too real, too upsetting to attach themselves merely to the character; they damage the actress herself). The difference between Blue Velvet and a film like Larry Clark's Bully (which Ebert gave four stars) is that Bully's nudity is disturbing only in an intellectual-construct sort of way: we know the characters' behavior is morally bankrupt and, therefore, we think it's disturbing. In Blue Velvet, thinking has little to do with it—we feel in our guts how disturbing the images before our eyes are. It's precisely because there is no intellectual or ironic distance between us and what we're seeing that it gets under Ebert's skin, though he tries to argue the opposite.
I highly recommend Blue Velvet; it's Lynch's best. Having said that, if you own MGM's original release of the film, you may want to stick with it instead of shelling out more money for the special edition. There's just not that much here to recommend a second purchase. True, it is a brand new transfer, and one supervised by Lynch himself, but the old transfer was already anamorphic and pretty darn good.
Blue Velvet: Special Edition is acquitted of all charges. It's a disc worthy of anyone's collection.
Due to the high quality of the 2000 MGM release, I am, however, issuing a restraining order on those who own it. Think long and hard about the pros and cons before coming within 100 yards of this new release.
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• New Digital Transfer Supervised by David Lynch
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