Still THE ONE, for so many, and in such a variety of ways. This was Lynch’s true “coming out” party as an artistic master. “Eraserhead” was just a warm-up. “The Elephant Man” provided mainstream acceptance. “Dune” was the ambitious misfire. But with “Blue Velvet”, David Lynch had arrived. For some, he would never surpass it(for me, he has done that once, since). And yet others are still shocked and appalled by it. The renowned Siskel & Ebert infamously disagreed on it in 1986(Ebert panned it vociferously, while Siskel staunchly defended the film). At the time, no less than Woody Allen, whose own “Hannah and Her Sisters” was considered a major contender for the Best Picture Oscar that season(it was nominated, but ultimately lost to Oliver Stone’s “Platoon”), championed “Blue Velvet” as “the best American film of the year”. Martin Scorsese agreed. Among its many accolades, the National Society of Film Critics ordained it 1986’s finest feature, as well as naming David Lynch the year’s Best Director, along with bestowing the Best Supporting Actor crown upon the head of the iconic Dennis Hopper. But the film was considered so shocking, and the audiences were so polarized, that Oscar was uncertain what the heck it should do about the year’s most talked about movie. It eventually couldn’t deny Mr. Lynch’s helming prowess, and nominated him for the Best Director award(his 2nd nom, “The Elephant Man” being the 1st—he would lose to Oliver Stone). Hopper wasn’t ignored, but the Academy ultimately chickened out, and penciled him in for Best Supporting Actor for the basketball drama, “Hoosiers”, instead(Michael Caine would end up winning for “Hannah and Her Sisters”). It’s much easier to say it now, then it was 28 years ago…”Blue Velvet” is a masterpiece. Plain as the nose on your face.
But “Blue Velvet” is far more concerned with ears than noses, and the plot proper truly gets underway, when our hero Jeffrey Beaumont(Kyle MacLachlan, continuing his relationship with Lynch after the failure of “Dune”, and ahead of the wild initial success for the duo with 1990’s debut of “Twin Peaks”)comes across a severed one in a vacant lot. He finds it upon leaving the hospital, where he’s just visited his Dad, who is recovering from a major stroke. That stroke is the centerpiece of the astonishing opening sequence of “Blue Velvet”, which begins with images of a man watering his lawn, while friendly fireman wave from their truck, and children are led across the street by a kindly, old crossing guard. It culminates with the watering man falling to the ground while holding his neck in pain, while his dog laps water from the now wildly spurting hose, and an army of bugs seethe and clamber under the grass where the victim has fallen. It’s a mesmerizing auditory and visual feast, enhanced by Bobby Vinton’s version of the song “Blue Velvet” getting things underway. You’ll never be able to listen to that ditty quite the same way again. What follows is two hours of a vision of simple, small-town Americana, and the seedy, disturbing underbelly of that deceptive “paradise”. The college-aged Jeffrey, gathers and presents the ear to police detective Williams(George Dickerson), and later happens upon the officer’s high school senior daughter, Sandy(the marvelous Laura Dern, who we will focus on again in the upcoming Lynch Ledger entries #5 & #10). When Jeffrey and Sandy start snooping around the case of the amputated ear, we are introduced to a troubled lounge singer(a remarkably courageous, Isabella Rossellini), and then a disturbed gas-inhaling psychopath(the incredible Mr. Hopper). There are also allusions to a kidnapped child, a physically tortured husband, underground drug deals and police corruption. It’s an unconventional, yet unforgettable vision and mystery.
There is a scene in “Blue Velvet” featuring the flamboyant Ben(an awesome Dean Stockwell), lip-synching Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” into a light bulb, while a weeping Frank Booth(Mr. Hopper)looks on, that is haunting, jaw-dropping and astonishingly framed. The eccentric Brad Dourif(most famous for his Oscar-nominated turn as young Billy Bibbett in 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”)and “Eraserhead” Jack Nance are on board as members of Frank’s posse—completing an eerie trio of eccentric weirdos(onscreen, and some would say, in real life too). This is a motion picture that practically begs to be seen in widescreen. I wish that I’d experienced it in a theater when it opened just ahead of my 21st birthday, but instead I encountered it on a VHS tape, months later, when “Blue Velvet”‘s buzz was still at a fever pitch. Truth be told: I was shocked by it, I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t appreciate its quality. I felt safe with my feelings, because a giant like Roger Ebert had denounced it publicly. But I couldn’t get the film out of my head in the following months. So, I watched it again. And again. And again. I’ve easily seen “Blue Velvet” over a dozen times to date. Ebert was wildly off-base, I realized soon after my first watch. “Blue Velvet” is genius. Lynch provided the screenplay for the film, as well. And it would mark the first time that David collaborated with Angelo Badalamenti for the music score for one of his works. Mr. Badalementi would remain with Lynch for all of his major releases, except for 2006’s “Inland Empire”. The cinematography of Frederick Elmes has also often been singled out for effusive praise. And after my recent re-watch, I found that “Blue Velvet” is still disturbing, haunting and powerful. It retains all of its magic. And even as its reputation for quality has been cemented(and even enhanced)in almost three decades, I’ll bet there are hordes who would still be unable to handle it. The degradation that Rossellini’s Dorothy Valens character suffers at the hands of Hopper’s Frank Booth alone, is more than enough for most. It is squirm-inducing. But if you are a true cinema enthusiast, there is absolutely no way you can ignore “Blue Velvet”. You have to unravel it, you are required to unlock its symbolism, and you must pay it its earned respect. Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese have tipped you off in advance. “Blue Velvet” is a brilliant work-of-art. Grade: A+
next month’s Lynch Ledger Entry: 1990’s “Wild At Heart”