A Detective and a Pervert
By Jonathan Pacheco
There are critics out there who have no interest in watching any film more than once, but I’ve always been of the mind that a film worth watching is worth watching twice. So while I borderline-abhorred Blue Velvet when I first watched it back in college, I always knew it was a film I’d re-visit someday. Twenty-five years ago, David Lynch created a challenging, controversial and passionate film — that much I could tell even while I found it uncomfortable and uninteresting. I’m thankful that I did indeed take a second, fresh look at Blue Velvet because now I see the film in the context of Lynch’s entire career, which, for me, helps to illuminate the film’s strengths while it also shines a bright spotlight on its flaws.
College-age Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) returns home to Lumberton, a wholesome “Anytown, U.S.A.” seemingly stuck in the 1950s, to visit his ailing father. While walking through a field on his way back from the hospital, he spots a severed human ear hidden in the grass. With no regard for his own health, he picks the thing up with his bare hands and delivers it in a bag to Detective Williams (George Dickerson), a friend of Jeffrey’s father and himself the father of Sandy (the always-dependable Laura Dern), a cherubic high school beauty and the physical representation of love, goodness and virtue in Lynch’s film. With her help and a bit of inside information, Jeffrey decides to investigate the ear-severing himself, mostly out of thrill-seeking curiosity.
His strange, erotic journey eventually leads him into the arms of Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), a nightclub singer under the control of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a local criminal with a knack for kidnapping, a gas inhalation addiction, a proclivity for depraved and violent sexual abuse and a blue velvet fetish. He’s really something else. At one point, Sandy, speaking of Jeffrey almost in awe, confesses to him, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” By the end of the film, we can gather that Lynch wants us to believe he’s a bit of both, and in that sense he represents the film itself, which is simultaneously a neo-noir mystery and a twisted erotic tale. An intriguing mix, but one that Lynch can’t quite balance. Not to say that Blue Velvet is unsuccessful — seeing it again and having a better grasp of Lynch’s style and what I feel his intentions are, I “get” the director’s brand of zany humor as it comes across when mashed against visually and aurally nightmarish sequences and disturbing subject matter. When Lynch contrasts such polar opposites, when he includes jokes about “morning wood” in a film with scenes of sexual abuse, I know that it’s not to “take the edge off sex and violence” as Roger Ebert claimed in his highly unfavorable review. Instead, as we’ve seen throughout the years, Lynch works like a chemist, mixing elements at different doses, curious to see what reactions he can produce. His blend of ironic clichés with uncomfortable harshness is intentional and in no way cowardly, as Ebert implies.
I feel, however, that the chemist is simply off on his measurements in this experiment. The way he juxtaposes the campy and the disturbing feels unrefined, showing promise, particularly in the opening and closing sequences, but also immaturity; just think back to some of those low-hanging radio gags. (And that’s not even getting into his awfully basic usage of color semiotics.) Compare his attempts here to, say, the two dance sequences of 2006's Inland Empire. Lynch’s intentions with that film and those sequences may not be the same as in Blue Velvet, but his success in creating moments bizarre enough to conjure his desired mix of emotions but not wacky enough to remove you from the film suggests a maturity and mastery of his now-patented approach.
And that’s the thing about watching Blue Velvet in 2011: though it contains its own triumphs — such as he funny, frightening and unreal scene at Ben’s place (a scene that does find just the right mixture of contrasting tones) or the absolutely full-throttle and deservedly iconic performance by Dennis Hopper — we’ve seen Lynch use many of the same techniques and ideas in his other films since this one, sometimes with greater success (Twin Peaks, with its comparable theme of the dark underbelly lurking beneath a wholesome society) and sometimes with similarly mixed results (the should’ve-been-brilliant Lost Highway, with its noir-ish peek into kinky sexuality and its consequential murder). Mulholland Drive, to me, represents a sort of culmination of all these attempts, and in some ways is the film that Blue Velvet perhaps could’ve been. It’s a mystery for both the characters and the viewer. It’s a romance of confusing and conflicting sexual thoughts and identities. It’s sleek, sexy, perplexing, frightening and unnerving in ways that Blue Velvet only showed the potential to be. And it all works in practically perfect harmony. I understand why Blue Velvet is considered a cult and beyond-cult classic, but seen in the context of Lynch’s greater works, it loses so much of its remarkableness, simply serving as an interesting case study in which one can see the development of the David Lynch we now know.