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Blue Velvet: Special Edition

MGM Home Video

Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern,
and Dennis Hopper

Written and directed by David Lynch

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

In his excellent deconstruction of David Lynch for Premiere magazine in 1996, David Foster Wallace attempted to define the term "Lynchian":

An academic definition … might be that the term "refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment with the latter." But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Potter Stewart-type words that's definable only ostensively — i.e. we know it when we see it. Ted Bundy wasn't particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victim's various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread, was thoroughgoingly Lynchian.

Lynch's disturbing, sensual, sickly funny masterwork Blue Velvet — his defining film — fascinated and repelled audiences on its release in 1986. Closer in tone to his freaky first film Eraserhead than to either his mainstream debut The Elephant Man or his follow-up fiasco Dune, audiences were simply unprepared for the experience. Although Lynch's distinctive style has become recognizable and less shocking over the years (and served as inspiration for such diverse directors as Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Todd Solondz, Terry Gilliam, and the Coen brothers), at the time of its release it was stupendously shocking because there had never been a mainstream Hollywood film even remotely like it. Many critics roundly condemned Blue Velvet in a way that made it sound like they were more disturbed by their own reactions to the film than by the film itself (Roger Ebert wrote that "The movie is powerful, challenging and made with great skill, and yet it made me feel pity for the actors who worked in it and anger at the director for taking liberties with them"), and it's commonly held that only Pauline Kael's enthusiastic review in The New Yorker convinced audiences to give Blue Velvet a second look — saving the film from box-office oblivion. After all the uproar, Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and Lynch and actor Dennis Hopper were honored with awards from the L.A. Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. Many years later, Blue Velvet isn't the shockfest that it once was. But it remains an audacious, uneasy examination of the rotting underbelly of small-town America, combining elements of film noir with a Preston Sturges innocence, all seen through a film of Buñuelesque surrealism.

The memorable opening of Blue Velvet introduces us to the idyllic town of Lumberton, where fresh-faced urchins stay in the crosswalks, firemen merrily wave from their hook-and-ladder truck, red roses line brisk, white picket fences, and neighbors enjoy the blazing sunshine as they hose down their impossibly green lawns. The view then plunges downward, through the turf and into the muck below, where monstrous beetles battle and screech — beneath the Norman Rockwell suburbia lies ugliness and violence . The story follows college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who's returned to his hometown when his father is hospitalized after a heart attack. Walking through a field near his home, Jeffrey finds a severed human ear. He takes it to a police detective who lives in his neighborhood (George Dickerson) and meets the detective's teenage daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). Curious about the ear, Jeffrey enlists Sandy to help him investigate and the two discover that the ear belongs to the kidnapped husband of a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini); Dorothy's husband and young son have been kidnapped by a man named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who's holding them, it appears, as a way to control Dorothy, whom he brutalizes sexually. The deeper Jeffrey digs into the mystery, the closer he becomes to both Sandy and Dorothy — and eventually finds he's gotten in over his head, his adventure culminating with a terrifying late-night "joy ride" with Frank and his minions, and a violent, disturbing resolution.

*          *          *

Blue Velvet is such a unsettling film because of the way Lynch keeps the viewer in a constant state of anxiety. We enter the plot through a side door — the kidnapping has happened already, we don't understand why it's happened, we don't understand the way Dorothy is reacting to it, we don't know who Frank is or even why he's so dangerous (unexplained business regarding Frank, a dirty cop and a drug deal turned deadly only add to the sense that we're actually taking part in a subplot, not the main story). We experience everything through Jeffrey, accepting at face-value that he's a good, clean lad who just wants to try his hand at a little Hardy Boys sleuthing. But once we've identified with him, Jeffrey turns out to be a voyeur with a hankering towards the perverse. He's something of a cipher, a blank slate that could be filled in with either darkness or light — the darkness being Dorothy, who demands Jeffrey's help yet refuses to go to the police, and who's discovered that she actually likes Frank's kinky violence — and Sandy, the "good girl" who first appears to Jeffrey out of the darkness, emerging into a warm bath of light, and who shares her dream where "thousands of robins were set free, and they flew down and brought this Blinding Light of Love." The more over his head Jeffrey finds himself, giving in to Dorothy's demands of "hit me" as foreplay and spying on Frank's creepy warehouse headquarters, the more we squirm. Because unlike conventional movie mysteries, we don't know for sure that Jeffrey will save the day and choose the nice girl; like Jeffrey, we're in completely unfamiliar territory, a dark place where bad people don't make any sense, ears can get cut off for no explicable reason, and sex is as grotesque as it is erotic.

Like most of Lynch's films, Blue Velvet gains from repeated viewings, becoming perhaps even more disturbing as things that were once obscure are better understood. Insane, ultra-violent Frank Booth, sucking God-knows-what from his oxygen mask and screaming "Baby wants blue velvet! Baby wants to fuck!" is a man in love — as he watches Dorothy sing the title song in a run-down nightclub, he gently fondles the square of fabric that he cut from her robe when he sexually assaulted her earlier, tears running down his cheeks. He's kidnapped her husband and son as a way of keeping her for himself. Driven to madness, Dorothy believes herself to be trapped, but she's a voluntary prisoner who's become addicted to the pain and dominance of their relationship, and she attempts to form the same sort of relationship with Jeffrey. Sandy is the optimist, the symbol of hope — but she's also a voyeur, roping Jeffrey into trying to solve the mystery by feeding him information she's gotten eavesdropping on her father, attracted to the darkness in Jeffrey as she hangs back, watching him take all the risks.

Blue Velvet features a number of what would become trademarks of Lynch's movies, like nighttime roadways, '50s-style cars and architecture, logs and timber, and oddball slo-mo scenes with the sound distorted to an animalistic roar. Certain set-pieces have a singular knack for burning into the memory long after you've seen the film — Frank's sucking off his nitrous tank as he demands that Dorothy spread her legs and "Show it to me"; the claustrophobic "joy ride" in Frank's big black muscle car; Dorothy kneeling in front of Jeffrey and pulling down his boxers as she holds an enormous kitchen knife; and Dean Stockwell as Frank's (never explained) friend Ben, made up with mascara and lipstick, lip-synching Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" while using an industrial work-light for a microphone.

At the end of the film, Sandy looks at Jeffrey and asks, "Life is strange, isn't it?" — which, depending on how you look at it, is either ironic or a supreme understatement given all that they've been through. But it serves as an anti-climactic coda and really is the key to Blue Velvet — yes, "life is strange," Lynch seems to be saying. Strange and beautiful and violent and roiling with secrets if we dig deep enough to find them. He also seems to suggest that, perhaps, digging for them isn't an especially good idea. Blue Velvet wrings out the viewers' expectations and emotions, causing some to reject it, showing as it does the maggot-infested underside of the human condition. Whether you embrace it or reject it, Blue Velvet is an amazing film — intimate, surreal, true and distinctive. And, despite what Roger Ebert thought, it's one of the very best American films of the 1980s.

*          *          *

MGM Home Video's DVD release of Blue Velvet: Special Edition is a great package, offering a stunning new anamorphic widescreen transfer (2:35:1) supervised by Lynch, as well as room-filling Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. And it really is an unbelievably gorgeous transfer — absolutely no noise or scratches, and the colors are breathtaking, from the deep, sensual blues to Dorothy's firetruck-red lipstick and high heels. The sound is exceptional as well; this is a disc that makes it well worth having a decent audio system to better appreciate Angelo Badalamenti's rich, moody score and Lynch's intricate use of ambient sound.

Extras include the 70-minute, eight-chapter "Mysteries of Love" documentary , offering new interviews with MacLachlan, Rossellini, Dern, Hopper, cinematographer Frederick Elmes, producer Frank Caruso, and editor Duwayne Dunham (Lynch, famous for hating to deconstruct his films, is represented by talking-head clips from 1987 interviews); a fascinating "Deleted Scenes Montage", which aren't really deleted scenes at all — Lynch's original version of the film was more than four hours long but the original footage is MIA, so still photos taken during production have been assembled to approximate ten scenes that appeared in earlier drafts of the script; a quick Siskel and Ebert review from 1987 (Gene loved it, Roger hated it); an extensive photo gallery featuring behind-the-scenes photos, production stills, different versions of the theatrical poster, and work by photographer Peter Braatz; chapter selection (which isn't usually a big deal, but Lynch has gone on record saying that he hates that feature, so it's a pleasant surprise to find it here); and the theatrical trailer and two TV spots. The package also lists a "collectible booklet," but it's really just a standard insert with a few brief notes. The keep-case is enclosed by a glossy slipcover.

— Dawn Taylor

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