David Lynch, Still Disturbing After 20 Years
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
feb 26, 06NY Times
ONE of the very, very few rules about art you can take to the bank is that shock ages badly. But David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," unleashed on a largely unsuspecting public 20 years ago, is, I'm happy to say, breaking that rule as blithely and as decisively as, once upon a time, it broke most of the others. Even after two more decades of Lynchian eccentricity and sensual derangement — years, besides, in which the bar for serious outrage in popular culture has risen to a nearly unreachable height — "Blue Velvet" looks as odd and as beautiful as ever, and it's still a shock.
Film Forum in Manhattan is marking the movie's anniversary with a two-week run that starts Friday. This is a new print but the same old "Blue Velvet," because Mr. Lynch never revises past work; for him, that process would be as senseless as trying to fill in the gaps of a dream once it's been dreamed. What audiences will see, then, is exactly the nightmare that moviegoers of 1986 saw, in all its lurid and lyrical and stubbornly irrational glory, and context makes as little difference to the experience as it does to the experience of any powerful dream: when you wake up, it might take a minute to remember where you are anyway.
The signature line in "Blue Velvet," first spoken by its amateur-detective hero, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), is "It's a strange world" — a sentence that 80's viewers greeted with a you-can-say-that-again laugh, and that critics seized on gratefully, as perhaps the lone unimpeachably true statement that could be made about this movie. "Blue Velvet" is a mystery story — Mr. Lynch loves mysteries — but not precisely a whodunit: finding the single, inevitable thread of connection that makes sense of a baffling set of clues is pretty emphatically not the point here. For all the dense portent of the film's hushed, avidly watchful atmosphere, the plot is in fact extremely simple, as brutally functional as the lines in a child's drawing.
Jeffrey has come home from college to his native Lumberton, a small city where his father runs a hardware store; Mr. Beaumont, after collapsing on the lawn, is in the hospital, hooked up to ominous equipment, and Jeffrey takes over the family business. One day, walking through a field, he finds a severed human ear, moldy and crawling with insects, and dutifully informs the police, who thank him but then won't disclose anything about their investigation. The detective's daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), however, takes it upon herself to tell Jeffrey what she's overheard her father say about the case, and before long this clean-cut college boy is hiding in the closet of a weary-looking local chanteuse named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). There, he watches in fascination — and in maybe a shade less horror that you might expect — as Dorothy is insulted, beaten and finally raped by a vicious thug she calls Frank (Dennis Hopper), a drug dealer who has apparently kidnapped her husband and her son.
That's about it, as far as conventional mystery plotting goes: the solution, such as it is, is more or less nailed down in the first third of the picture. As "Blue Velvet" moves forward, though, deeper into the nighttime murk and daylit unease of Lumberton, it becomes clear (if anything is) that the movie's detective-story trappings were always just a means to an end — the director's scheme to lure a couple of appealing, normal young folks like Sandy and Jeffrey into the sick, strange world of the man called Frank. Mr. Lynch's idea, that is to say, is not to make new connections, as detectives do, but to sever as many of the old ones as possible.
That's what surrealists do. And one of the reasons, I think, that "Blue Velvet" seemed so startlingly fresh at the time is that there was not, to put it mildly, a vigorous tradition of surrealism in commercial American film.
About the only precedents for the deliberately disorienting method of this picture can be found in some of the later works of Alfred Hitchcock: in "Vertigo" (1958), "The Birds" (1963) and especially "Marnie" (1964), which shares with "Blue Velvet" a peculiar, awkward formality of tone and a raging undercurrent of psychosexual abnormality, and which was not embraced warmly by Hitchcock's usually loyal audience. Mr. Lynch had himself made just three previous feature films, only one of which — his brilliant debut, the low-budget black-and-white domestic horror fantasy "Eraserhead" (1977) — delivered Lynchian surrealism in its pure state. In the others, the delicately grotesque "Elephant Man" (1980) and the ungainly science fiction epic "Dune" (1984), his wilder fancies were held at least partly in check.
So for most members of the audience, "Blue Velvet" was a completely new kind of movie experience. Its sordid matter unnerved people less, I think, than its unfamiliar — hence vaguely threatening — manner. After all, most moviegoers had seen much more graphic violence than anything in "Blue Velvet," had heard a greater quantity of foul language in prestigious pictures like "Raging Bull" and had probably gazed, with some interest and maybe even some pleasure, on a naked body or two. (Though rarely, it should be said, on one quite so rawly and unglamorously exposed as Ms. Rossellini's is here.) What's tough to handle, particularly if you aren't used to it, is the volatility of the film's tone — the abrupt, unsignaled alternations between teen-movie sweetness and splatter-movie depravity, between brazenly sophomoric humor and abject horror, between innocence and the direst kind of experience.
And it's the innocence, finally, that makes "Blue Velvet" genuinely and uniquely shocking. Mel Brooks, whose company produced "The Elephant Man," once famously described Mr. Lynch as "Jimmy Stewart from Mars"; and there is something wide-eyed and wholesome and all-American about Mr. Lynch, which is real and is, it seems to me, the ultimate, improbable source of his work's power to disturb and appall.
The central question of "Blue Velvet," voiced with winning bluntness by Jeffrey, is "Why are there people like Frank?" Frank, played with insane gusto by Mr. Hopper, is such a one-of-a-kind monster of obscenity that the line might make you laugh: Are there people like Frank? But it's a sincere question, because in Mr. Lynch's imagination there are. Frank is, when you come down to it, a child's vision of adulthood, the cartoon embodiment of all the things a curious kid might picture grown-ups doing when they're on their own and out of sight: they do drugs, they curse a lot, they have parties with incomprehensible friends (like this movie's indelibly weird Ben, played by Dean Stockwell as the epitome of suavity), and, when the opportunity presents itself, they have fast, loud, ugly sex.
It takes a mighty innocent eye to see the world that way: a way that, although it generates monsters, also keeps everyday life interesting, surprising and perpetually strange. That's what all Mr. Lynch's movies are about, and why they have, in their demented fashion, a kind of Peter Pan quality: they're made by someone who has willed himself not to outgrow the immediacy and berserk randomness of a child's perceptions, and to take the really scary stuff along with the really neat stuff, just as it comes.
Mr. Lynch's Neverland, whether it's called Lumberton or Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive, is by design timeless, fundamentally impervious to the grown-up perspective that lets most of us assimilate our experiences into something like a traditional detective story: a narrative that explains the past and allows us to move (however dully) on. The world "Blue Velvet" creates is static, an imaginative city of simultaneity in which everything, good and bad, is present all at once.
Of course that's shocking. "Blue Velvet," which delighted many and repelled many others in 1986, is likely to evoke roughly the same mixture of reactions today, and 20 years from now, and on and on. There's no assimilating its dark-and-light vision, no explaining its real mysteries, and no handy term to categorize it: not "hip" (as might have been said back in the day), and certainly not "edgy" (as canny marketers have trained us to say since). Why are there movies like "Blue Velvet"? Because the world is strange, and the strangeness never goes away.