It has now taken me about a decade to come around on David Lynch. For years and years, ever since my film consciousness matured late in high school, I knew David Lynch was a director I needed to seek out and take in. Over a decade later, I still could not see what made him such a profound filmmaker. I had created an impenetrable wall between my own film sensibilities and the career of David Lynch, and for some reason I found this troubling. Lynch has always been celebrated as a visionary and a daring director with a keen, original eye and a willingness to test the limits of viewer endurance. These descriptions of his work are what kept me coming back and keep me trying again. Ask me what makes Darren Aronofsky so great and I could go on for an hour. If you want me to tell you why I think Paul Thomas Anderson is the greatest modern filmmaker, I can do that. I recognize the greatness of other American directors like Scorsese and Stone, but the fringe ideas of David Lynch and his nightmarish realities just would not take. It grew frustrating to want to like and understand Lynch, but not have the capacity to do so and not understand why. David Lynch had become my white whale.
At least once a year I will revisit a film from Lynch’s catalogue, and get the same results: boredom, confusion, frustration. But over this last year, as my own film catalogue has expanded exponentially and the dedication to reading everything I can regarding film theory has intensified, I decided it was time to give Lynch one more chance. It just so happens that Blue Velvet, Lynch’s illustrious American masterpiece, is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year. It seems like a sign of sorts, as Blue Velvet reaches the ever-important threshold of twenty five and can now be considered a true classic, that I should give it, and Lynch, one more shot. And besides, despite the shock value of Blue Velvet, it is arguably one of Lynch’s more accessible films as it does not veer off course into dreamscapes.
I tried to watch Blue Velvet twice before. The first time I turned it off. The second time, I found myself doing dishes while it played in the background. This time I focused. I studied the picture, examined every scene, and everything began to fall into place. I could see, right there in front of me, the genius of this man who had been such a frustrating nemesis of my film life! This is exactly what people have been talking about this whole time; Lynch has his finger on the pulse of something most directors never even consider. Blue Velvet exists to shock us, and to make us feel uncomfortable about everything we know to be true in Small Town, America. Imitators may have diluted Blue Velvet over the years, but consider this film in 1986 and you will see its power.
For all of its complexities, the visual artistry of Lynch displays the stark division of suburbia right at the beginning. Blue Velvet opens on an idyllic suburban city, Lumberton. This is a charming, peaceful little suburb where the sun shines all day, dogs bark, flowers bloom, and lawns are perfectly manicured. Lynch plunges us into a Norman Rockwell portrait of Middle America. But as we sweep along these wide suburban streets, we stop on a man watering his yard. The man suddenly has a seizure of sorts and falls to the ground wincing in pain. From this accident Lynch pushes his camera into the manicured lawn beneath this man, deep under the blades of grass and into the dark recesses of the soil. Here is a land of creeping, crawling bugs as big as monsters on the screen, devouring each other. Very rarely is the opening shot of a film the best, but in Blue Velvet Lynch sets the stage with a brilliant metaphor right from the start.
The son of the man who suffered the attack is Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan), who upon leaving his father’s hospital room discovers a severed human ear in a nearby field. He takes the ear to the police, who feebly attempt to locate the owner of the ear. On his own accord, Jeffrey and Sandy (Laura Dern), a high school girl with a crush on him, begin doing some amateur detective work. Their gumshoe investigation leads them to “the other side of the tracks” in town, to an apartment building where a lounge singer named Dorothy Vallens lives. Jeffrey decides to get his way into her apartment to try and uncover the mystery of the ear. On his second visit he is caught snooping by Dorothy, who turns the tables on Jeffrey in some odd and unforeseen ways.
Dorothy, played wonderfully in a daring and immodest performance from Isabella Rossellini, is being threatened by a man named Frank Booth, a sadistic, gas-huffing sadist who is holding her son and husband hostage so she will be his sex slave. This is the fulcrum in Blue Velvet, where things begin taking a strange turn and the façade of suburbia is ripped off its hinges. Jeffrey develops a strange and sad relationship with Dorothy, but it isn’t long before Frank Booth discovers Jeffrey at her apartment and takes him on a joyride into the bizarro underbelly of Lumberton, USA.
Booth is played by Dennis Hopper in a role which would revive his stagnant career. As a stark-raving madman, there is no better actor than Hopper. Booth takes Jeffrey and Dorothy to his friend’s house, where things somehow, some way, get even stranger. His friend, Ben, is played by Dean Stockwell, and is a madman on the other end of the spectrum from Frank. The room is full of characters in the background, a bevy of overweight women inexplicably sitting motionless on couches, and when Ben goes into a lip-synched rendition of a Roy Orbison tune, you realize Lynch has created a certain type of nightmare, a hell of his own creation. Barriers are broken in this scene and the film gels under the certainty of Lynch’s peculiar vision, where we suddenly feel as if anything is possible and nothing is off limits.
Blue Velvet was a celebrated film in 1986, earning Lynch an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Of course, the film itself was far too strange to nab any statues (not much has changed in that department over the years), but has since been recognized as an important film in the pantheon of American cinema. It is a dark and challenging film that is not for everyone – not for most if you want to get right down to it – but for those willing enough it is a powerful and steadfast example of Lynch at his strongest. It is a wonderful moment when the light bulb goes on, where I suddenly realized Lynch’s films are to be taken on their own merit. They belong on no list, in no category other than their own.
It is most definitely time to go back through Lynch’s work.