Blue Velvet (1986) David Lynch
Written by David Lynch
Produced by Fred Caruso, Richard A. Roth
Music by Angelo Badalamenti
Cinematography by Frederick Elmes
Amazon streaming (rental)
The David Lynch Project Part V
With some films, you lose track of exactly how many times you’ve seen them. I can’t tell you for sure how many times I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon or The Bridge on the River Kwai or even Ghostbusters, but I can tell you very distinctly about the three times I’ve watched Blue Velvet.
I first saw the film when I was 24, and – much like Jeffrey Beaumont – didn’t know very much about the world at all. I found the film mesmerizing and shocking and my friend Terry and I discussed it for days. In my 30s I watched it again and wished I hadn’t, perhaps because I didn’t want to revisit some of those disturbing scenes. Remembering that feeling, I was hesitant to watch it again as part of my David Lynch Project with my friend K. I watched it again last week and discovered much about how I’ve changed in the nearly 30 years since the film’s release and what the film means to me artistically and spiritually.
(Fair warning: this may be quite long-winded and many spoilers will follow.)
One of David Lynch’s favorite subjects or themes to explore is that of the dark, brutal world that hides beneath the sanitized, “white picket fence” facade of American towns. All is not as squeaky clean and innocent as it seems. We see this in the opening images of blue skies, beautiful flowers, a friendly neighborhood fire engine, complete with a waving fireman and a Dalmatian. All is well until we see a man watering his lawn, having what looks like either a heart attack or an aneurysm. The camera follows him as he falls to the ground, going deep into the grass to the teeming bugs and beetles fighting and killing each other. It may be somewhat heavy-handed symbolism, but it’s effective.
Another of Lynch’s favorite themes is that of nostalgia, frequently using the backdrop of the 1950s, which is directly connected with the “innocent facade” theme mentioned above. Lynch is sending us visually mixed messages here with many of the cars on the road being contemporary models of the period mixed with older cars. When Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) pulls up to Sandy’s (Laura Dern) high school, we see a number of girls (practically all of them) in dresses and skirts, yet they mostly have hairstyles from the 80s. This abundance of dresses could also be Lynch’s way of reinforcing that this is a very conservative community with a school enforcing a strict dress code.
More than the styles of cars, hair, and dress, the characters of Jeffrey and Sandy behave like characters straight out of a 50s movie, or more to the point, like characters you’d find in the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books. (You see a similar type of “detective” plot in Mulholland Drive.) Jeffrey and Sandy share a sort of innocence, and naivety about the world and how it works, although they both understand that Jeffrey’s plan to find out more about Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rosselini) carries the potential of danger.
Yet – after his initial encounter with Dorothy and his voyeuristic introduction to Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) – Jeffrey asks Sandy “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?” Jeffrey seems confused by what he’s seen and while we could explain this confusion by thinking “Wow, Jeffrey really doesn’t get out much,” there’s much more to it. Not only have Jeffrey and Sandy led very sheltered lives, they also seem to subscribe to the belief that people are basically good and that while there may be evil in the world, such evil is so far removed from them that it doesn’t register on their radar. Even being the daughter of a policeman hasn’t really prepared Sandy for anything like this. Later, when Sandy’s father Detective Williams (John Dickerson) warns Jeffrey not to involve Sandy in his “investigation” in any way, we get the feeling that Williams has expended great effort to keep Sandy away from the nastiness of life, even in seemingly calm Lumberton.
Blue Velvet is filled with scenes that were at the time quite shocking. They still are in many ways, especially if your background was anything like Jeffrey’s. Maybe that was why I had such a strong reaction to the film when I first saw it; I was about as innocent as Jeffrey. Even now, Frank’s first scene is difficult to watch and fills me with unease and revulsion. (More on this in a moment.) Several other scenes are difficult to watch but the scene that’s the most devastating to me is a very simple one.
Near the end of the film, after Dorothy wanders naked around Jeffrey’s yard in a daze at night and is taken to Sandy’s house, Jeffrey tries to calm Dorothy. She’s obviously been tortured physically and emotionally, but she clings to Jeffrey, which causes intense confusion in Sandy as she looks on. We see this in her face, but when Dorothy – still clinging to Jeffrey – turns to Sandy and says softly, “He put his disease in me,” Sandy realizes the implications of those words, and her look of confusion turns to one of absolute horror. That moment conveys the thought that everything Sandy has ever known, every bit of good in the world (and in Jeffrey) has been ripped away and replaced with something so vile and horrific, something that was good that’s now hopelessly tarnished and broken forever. None of them can ever go back to the way things were.
I weep at that scene. Not only has something that was good (Sandy’s relationship with Jeffrey) been forever violated, but Sandy’s entire worldview has been trampled on, over and over. There’s no going back, there’s no way she’ll ever see Jeffrey – or the world – in the same way again. She feels horror, hurt, betrayal, disgust… Innocence has been lost. Actually more than lost: brutally murdered.
All of this is devastating to Sandy, who has seen so little of the world. Contrast her life with that of Frank Booth. Booth’s first appearance is so unusual and shocking you’ll never forget it. This was no doubt one of the scenes that offended Roger Ebert so much because of its horrendous treatment of women in general and Dorothy in particular. Frank clearly has some real issues (far too many and too complex to explore here) and we watch as Jeffrey watches from the closet, stunned.
This scene is important not only in setting up the finale of the film, but in capturing in microcosm the problem of abuse and what to do about it. Jeffrey watches the scene play out just as we do. We want Jeffrey to do something to make it stop, but he doesn’t. The scene is powerful in that Lynch uses it to create an unbearable level of tension and suspense, but also to force us to examine our own lives and ask ourselves what we do when we see people violated.
Evil does lurk in Lumberton, as it does in your town and mine. It lurks everywhere because it lurks in the hearts of people everywhere. Jeremiah 17:9 says that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (ESV) The ISV translates “desperately sick” as “incurable.” This goes against how most of us think, but the Bible states this because man is fallen (Genesis 3). Does this mean everyone is evil all the time, and as evil as they can be? No, grace intervenes. I know that many people reading this will not agree and as I said in my “About” section on this blog, I’m not out to convert anyone. I’m just examining films and graphic novels according to my Christian worldview. But you don’t have to look very far in this world to know that something is wrong, that things aren’t the way they should be. I don’t think this is necessarily a point Lynch is trying to make, but it’s a point I can’t ignore. As hard as Blue Velvet is to watch, it does convey the idea that we live in a messed up world, that evil is out there. Things do end well for Jeffrey and Sandy* as well as for Dorothy and her son, but something acted on those horrible conditions to make them turn around into something good. Grace and mercy were needed. Someone who could save them had to arrive.
I have this conversation with other Christians all the time: On the one hand, every Christian has to determine what they can and can’t watch, what is offensive and what is not, what is sinful and what is not. On the other hand, to know what grace is, what mercy is, what salvation is, you have to know how bad things can get to make you realize you need grace, mercy and salvation. Blue Velvet shows that there’s evil in the world and that innocence can be lost, stolen and even destroyed, but it also shows that there’s grace and mercy as well.
There’s so much that can and has been said and written about this film – its characters, themes, use of lighting, music, etc., and I’ve certainly pontificated here enough to test anyone’s patience, so I’ll bring this to a close. Blue Velvet was released two years after Dune, Lynch’s debacle of epic proportions. Reviews at the time were mixed, but now, almost 30 years later, many consider Blue Velvet to be a masterpiece. I think it’s Lynch’s second best film, and quite possibly a masterwork. (The Blu-ray relase of Blue Velvet contains some 50+ minutes of “lost” footage and deleted scenes, although I have not seen them.)
* One of the only weaknesses I find in the film is in Sandy’s willingness to forgive Jeffrey so quickly. You could say, however, that Sandy’s forgiveness of Jeffrey is the forgiveness of youth, one she should probably would not have been to quick to hand out had she been five or ten years older.