Minding the Gap: Blue Velvet

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April 7, 2011 by abbyo

This is a new segment which I’m hoping will replace “Shot-for-Shot,” which has been getting tougher and tougher to put together in the time I have. I’ll be exploring my cinematic blind spots, and reporting the results. Let me know what you think!

As much as I love writing about movies, there’s a lot I haven’t seen. I never got a formal education in the medium, so my blind spots are so big they’ve practically got their own zip codes. I try to remedy this as much as I can, but a lot slips through the cracks.

Of the many gaps in my viewing experience, the most embarrassing is David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” a movie that, upon its release, scooped up a cornucopia of critical acclaim. It remains a source of inspiration for many filmmakers today. I have no excuse for not having seen it until now. But I’m glad I finally did, not only because it was a weight off my critical conscience, but because “Blue Velvet” is a damn fine movie, full of multilayered themes and uniquely odd symbolism.

If, like me, “Blue Velvet” is a glaring blank for you, I’ll fill you in on the details. Kyle MacLachlan is a college student coming home to look after his hospitalized father. One day, while walking around town, he discovers a human ear lying on the ground. He takes it to the cops, but decides to do some investigating on his own, with the help of a detective’s daughter, played by Laura Dern. His search leads him to nightclub singer Isabella Rossellini, who’s being held sexually captive by nasty criminal Dennis Hopper (who also enjoys getting high on nitrous oxide). Hopper’s kidnapped her kid, and uses Rossellini for abusive sexual favors whenever he wants.

Being a David Lynch movie, “Blue Velvet” is steeped in brilliantly twisted nostalgia. Characters have names drawn from classic American iconography—for example Rossellini’s character Dorothy Vallens (Dorothy like the Wizard of Oz, Vallens like Ritchie Valens of “La Bamba” fame). There’s also a gorgeous “Leave it to Beaver”-like aesthetic covering everything from clothes to cars to interior decoration, making the film’s eventual descent into chaos and graphic violence all the more shocking.

And, being a David Lynch movie, “Blue Velvet” is chock-full of symbolism that you can interpret any number of ways. There are representations of evil, hope, oppression and more oedipal complexes than a Greek tragedy. But despite all its darkness, what I saw was a movie that, in a deeply subversive way, is about the triumph of love and hope in a world full of hidden evils.

We’ll start with one of the prevailing symbols of the movie: bugs. The first scene of “Blue Velvet” starts with Jeffrey’s (MacLachlan’s) father watering the manicured lawn of the family’s home. He suffers an injury—perhaps a stroke, it’s never explained—and collapses. The camera then descends below the evenly-cut grass to display a nest of nasty-looking insects, a metaphor for the seedy underbelly of society Jeffrey will later experience. When Jeffrey scopes out Rossellini’s apartment for the first time, he comes in the guise of an exterminator which, in a way, he will later become, eradicating the threat posed to Rossellini by Hopper.

After Jeffrey first encounters Frank (Hopper), he has a conversation with Sandy (Dern) about his discovery that Frank has kidnapped Dorothy’s child, and abuses Dorothy as a kind of ransom. He asks, exasperated, “Why is there so much trouble in this world?” Sandy responds with a dream she’s had about the world being covered in darkness, with light and love being brought by a flock of robins. It’s a lovely image, and I think it’s no coincidence they’re parked in front of a church during this scene. This dream later comes into question when Dern, just after proclaiming her love for MacLachlan, discovers he’s been having sex with Rossellini. But one of the final images of the movie is a robin, that symbol of love and light, with an insect crushed in its beak.

Of course, that journey from light to darkness and back is difficult, and one that leaves many people permanently scarred. Sandy’s experience is the most jarring. In the course of one night she sees her worldview crumble like the walls of Jericho. She maintains her integrity, but it takes an emotional toll. Both she and MacLachlan come out just fine on the other side, but Rossellini doesn’t do so well. She’s been putting up with Frank’s abuse so long that she kind of likes it; it’s the only intimacy she knows anymore. When Rossellini semi-forces MacLachlan to have sex with her, she demands that he slap her around, much to his dismay. The last scene shows her reunited with her child, but she doesn’t seem too content. One gets the feeling she may never be.

With any movie notorious for its shocking elements, it’s easy to get hung up on images that bother you instead of why those images are there. “Blue Velvet” contains odd sexual behavior and some truly disturbing violence. But they present a stark contrast between the picket-fence world of American idealism and the twisted underbelly we’d like to forget about, but can’t. They also represent, in an extreme way, the maturation in sexual attitudes and general outlook all young people go through: being exposed to harsh realities, questioning what we know, and adapting accordingly. “Blue Velvet” is odd, certainly, but I’m convinced there’s a sound reason behind every choice David Lynch made. That kind of conviction is impressive.

Random observations:

-I love Laura Dern in this movie. She’s the moral center, but not whiny or overbearing. She manages to be both well-meaning and cool. And she and MacLachlan have great chemistry together.

-Dennis Hopper is also amazing. He’s terrifying and hilarious, often at the same time. Say what you will about the man’s career choices, he was never dull.

-Another odd repeated theme in this movie: Beer brands. Jeffrey likes Heineken. Sandy’s dad likes Bud. Frank? Well…Frank likes PBR. A lot.

Extra link: Isabella Rossellini’s “Green Porno” and “Seduce Me” series, possibly even more bizarrely sexual than this movie.

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2 thoughts on “Minding the Gap: Blue Velvet

  1. Great critque…indeed one of the great movies of our time, and I really enjoyed reading your take! Rock on!

    -The Eye (http://theeyeoffaith.com)

  2. […] But David Lynch would also seem to have a pretty strong connection to this film. This movie’s occasionally bizarre, stilted use of language and sound, and its cryptic appearance and awkward dismissal of characters are both hallmarks of Lynch’s work. And there’s one very striking image in “Pierrot,” of a man with a pair of scissors stuck through his throat, which Lynch seems to have put his own weird spin on in “Blue Velvet.” […]

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