David Lynch’s Landmark 1986 Exploration Of The Ugly Lurking Just Beneath the Pretty Retains its Bite
In 1986, the internet was a veritable tin can and a string, the geeky enthusiasm of a handful of scientists and military types. That same year, American movie screens were filled with a vision the net would soon help create. It may sound strange to say that David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is as prescient about our world in 2006 as any other work of art created two decades ago, but as Lynch’s upright young protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont notes, “It’s a strange world.”
The strange world captured in Lynch’s milestone, now in rerelease for its 20th anniversary with a brand-new print, is, at this distance, shockingly like the 1950s. Jeffrey (given guileless life by apple-pie Kyle MacLachlan) may stroll around his hyper-idyllic hometown in a très-’80s black suit, his hair styled in a sleek black flop, but he never utters a word you wouldn’t have heard Ed Sullivan say on the air. His relationship with sweet, blond Sandy (a baby Laura Dern) is enervated by weird Lynchian energy, but it barely cracks a hard G rating. They cruise around town in his folks’ big red convertible, have lunch at a diner, go to her high-school dance. Sandy has a poster of Montgomery Clift on her bedroom wall. You almost expect her to turn up wearing a poodle skirt.
But, infamously, on one of his strolls around town Jeffrey finds a severed human ear. The ear clues him in to a mystery, which leads him to enigmatic chanteuse Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini, utterly fearless). Before long, Jeffrey is trying to break into her apartment to look for clues. Sandy stares at him and says, “I can’t figure out if you’re a detective or a pervert.” You can almost hear Lynch smirking behind the camera.
Dorothy leads Jeffrey to his first stab wound, his first blow job, and his first experience of watching the utter debasement of another human being, the last courtesy of Frank Booth. In the early ‘80s, Dennis Hopper was on the verge of a future in the then-new field of straight-to-video; he seized the role of Frank Booth like a drowning man and created one of the most indelible performances of the last quarter century. Shadowy crime boss Frank hardly exhales without blurting a “fuck.” He is pure id, as crazed as he is brutal; though things have become vastly more transgressive on movie screens since 1986, Frank’s peculiar forms of intimate discourse still cause a seat-squirm. A sensible lad would’ve gotten a load of Frank and scampered back to his parents’ house and Sandy, but Jeffrey wants to get to the bottom of this unexpected small-town evil, and he wants to help Dorothy. And, while’s he at it, he wouldn’t mind having some fairly peculiar intimate discourse with her, too—and then scampering back to his parents’ house and Sandy, and then coming back for more.
The “mystery” that is the rationale for all these goings-on is fairly ridiculous. What makes Blue Velvet resonate still is Lynch’s vision of the small town with its friendly firefighters and picket fences and doting aunts and its drugs and brothels and freaks and mutilations and violent sex, not to mention the fact that sometimes the violent sex is kind of a turn-on for a clean-cut lad. As Jeffrey discovers, there are other worlds besides suburbia’s pleasant lawns, existing not apart from them but alongside them, inside them—just as the convenient shopping, information bazaar, and cute cat pictures of today’s net rub bytes with streams of kiddie porn and neo-Nazi rhetoric, all as close as your nearest laptop. Jeffrey discovers that no matter how peaceful a pre-lapsarian world may be, “knowledge and experience,” as he puts it, can offer a powerful lure. And he discovers that no matter how happy the ending, no one can gain knowledge and experience and not find themselves and their world transformed (cue Lynch’s animatronic robin). When it comes to contemporary society, with its jaded access to everything eating through standard middle-American moral veneer, Lynch was there even before the computer nerds who wired the world together knew what they had on their hands.