Out There and in Here
by Pauline Kael
“Maybe I’m sick, but I want to see that again.”
—Overheard after a showing of Blue Velvet.
When you come out of the theatre after seeing David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, you certainly know that you’ve seen something. You wouldn’t mistake frames from Blue Velvet for frames from any other movie. It’s an anomaly—the work of a genius naïf. If you feel that there’s very little art between you and the filmmaker’s psyche, it may be because there’s less than the usual amount of inhibition. Lynch doesn’t censor his sexual fantasies, and the film’s hypercharged erotic atmosphere makes it something of a trance-out, but his humor keeps breaking through, too. His fantasies may come from his unconscious, but he recognizes them for what they are, and he’s tickled by them. The film is consciously purplish and consciously funny, and the two work together in an original, down-home way.
Shot in Wilmington, North Carolina, it’s set in an archetypal small, sleepy city, Lumberton, where the radio station’s call letters are WOOD, and the announcer says, “At the sound of the falling tree,” and then, as the tree falls, “it’s 9:30.” Not more than three minutes into the film, you recognize that this peaceful, enchanted, white-picket-fence community, where the eighties look like the fifties, is the creepiest sleepy city you’ve ever seen. The subject of the movie is exactly that: the mystery and madness hidden in the “normal.” At the beginning, the wide images (the film is shot in CinemaScope ratio: 2.35 to 1) are meticulously bright and sharp-edged: you feel that you’re seeing every detail of the architecture, the layout of homes and apartments, the furnishings and potted plants, the women’s dresses. It’s so hyperfamiliar it’s scary. The vivid red of the roses by the white fence makes them look like hothouse blooms, and the budding yellow tulips are poised, eager to open. Later, the light is low, but all through this movie the colors are insistent, objects may suddenly be enlarged to fill the frame, and a tiny imagined sound may be amplified to a thunderstorm. The style might be described as hallucinatory clinical realism.
When Mr. Beaumont, of Beaumont’s hardware store, is watering his lawn and has a seizure of some sort—probably a cerebral hemorrhage—the water keeps shooting out. It drenches his fallen body, and a neighbor’s dog jumps on top of him, frisking and trying to drink from the spray. The green grass, enlarged so that the blades are as tall as redwood trees, is teeming with big black insects, and their quarrelsome buzz and hiss displaces all other sounds. When Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), home from college to be near his stricken father and take care of the store, walks back from a visit to the hospital, he dawdles in a vacant lot and spots something unexpected in the grass and weeds: a human ear with an attached hank of hair, and ants crawling all over it. The ear looks like a seashell: in closeup, with the camera moving into the dark canal, it becomes the cosmos, and the sound is what you hear when you put a shell to your ear—the roar of the ocean.
Jeffrey’s curiosity about the severed ear—whose head it came from and why it was cut off—leads him to Lumberton’s tainted underside, a netherworld of sleazy interconnections. A viewer knows intuitively that this is a coming-of-age picture—that Jeffrey’s discovery of this criminal, sadomasochistic network has everything to do with his father’s becoming an invalid and his own new status as an adult. It’s as if David Lynch were saying, “It’s a frightening world out there, and”—tapping his head—“in here.”
Wholesome as Jeffrey looks, he’s somewhat drawn to violence and kinkiness. But he doesn’t quite know that yet, and it’s certainly not how he explains himself to Sandy (Laura Dern), a fair-haired high-school senior and the daughter of the police detective investigating the matter of the ear. She has become Jeffrey’s confederate, and when she questions the nature of his interest in the case he speaks of being involved with “something that was always hidden,” of being “in the middle of a mystery.” Sandy tantalizes him with what she’s overheard the police saying, and he tantalizes her with the strange, “hidden” things he learns about. During their scenes together, an eerie faraway organ is playing melodies that float in the air, and the sound italicizes the two kids’ blarney. It’s like the organ music in an old soap opera; it turns their confabs into parody, and tells us that they’re in a dream world. Sometimes when Jeffrey tells Sandy what he thinks is going on it’s as if he had dreamed it and then woke up and found out it had happened. Jeffrey himself is the mystery that Sandy is drawn to (perhaps the tiny gold earring he wears is part of his attraction), and you can’t help giggling a little when she turns to him with a worried, earnest face and says, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” She’s still a kid; she thinks it’s either/or. Jeffrey is soon withholding some of his adventures from her, because they’re not just mysteriously erotic—they’re downright carnal, and, yes, he’s smack in the middle of it all. He has been pulled—with no kicking or screaming—into the inferno of corrupt adult sexuality.
Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is soft and brunette and faintly, lusciously foreign; she has had a child, and she’s enough older than Jeffrey to have the allure of an “experienced woman.” A torch singer in a night club outside the city limits, she wears a moth-eaten mop of curls and lives at the Deep River Apartments in musty rooms that look as if they’d sprouted their own furniture. The gloomy walls—mauve gone brown—suggest the chic of an earlier era, when perhaps the building was considered fashionable (and the elevator worked). Sandy has told Jeffrey that the police think Dorothy Vallens is involved in the mutilation case, and have her under surveillance. Jeffrey puts her under closer surveillance. The moviemaker doesn’t do any interpreting for you: you simply watch and listen, and what ensues rings so many bells in your head that you may get a little woozy.
Hiding in Dorothy’s closet at night, Jeffrey peeks at her through the slatted door while she undresses. She hears him and, grabbing a kitchen knife, orders him out of his hiding place and forces him to strip. When he has nothing on but his shorts, she pulls them down and begins fondling him, but sends him back into the closet when she has a caller—Frank the crime boss, Mr. Macho Sleazeball himself, played by Dennis Hopper. Frank is an infantile tough-guy sadist who calls her “Mommy,” wallops her if she forgets to call him “Daddy,” and wallops her harder if she happens to look at him. All this seems to be part of their regular ritual; he demands his bourbon (as if he’s sick of telling her), has her dim the lights, and he takes out an inhaler mask (for some unspecified gas) to heighten his sensations during sex. (The gas is probably a booster to whatever drugs he’s on.) He also uses a fetish—the sash of Dorothy’s blue velvet bathrobe. Jeffrey, in his closet, doesn’t make a sound this time; he’s transfixed by what he can just barely see. It’s like a sick-joke version of the primal scene, and this curious child watches his parents do some very weird things. After Frank leaves, Jeffrey attempts to help the weary, bruised woman, but all she wants is sex. She’s photographed in a clinch, with her face upside down and her ruby lips parted in a sly smile that exposes her gleaming front teeth—especially the one that has a teasing chip, as if someone had taken a small bite out of it.
When Jeffrey comes to see her again, he knocks on the door. She greets him eagerly—almost reproachfully—with “I looked for you in my closet tonight.” (That line is a giddy classic.) The third night, they’re on her bed after a round or two of intercourse. Trying to overcome his reluctance to hit her, she asks, “Are you a bad boy … do you want to do bad things?” We know the answer before he does. He’s having trouble breathing.
Isabella Rossellini doesn’t show anything like the acting technique that her mother, Ingrid Bergman, had, but she’s willing to try things, and she doesn’t hold back. Dorothy is a dream of a freak. Walking around her depressing apartment in her black bra and scanties, with blue eye-shadow and red high heels, she’s a woman in distress right out of the pulps; she has the plushy, tempestuous look of heroines who are described as “bewitching.” (She even has the kind of nostrils that cover artists can represent accurately with two dots.) Rossellini’s accent is useful: it’s part of Dorothy’s strangeness. And Rossellini’s echoes of her mother’s low voice help to place this kitschy seductress in an unreal world. She has a special physical quality, too. There’s nothing of the modern American woman about her. When she’s naked, she’s not protected, like the stars who are pummelled into shape and lighted to show their muscular perfection. She’s defenselessly, tactilely naked, like the nudes the Expressionists painted.
Jeffrey, commuting between Dorothy, the blue lady of the night, and Sandy, the sunshine girl, suggests a character left over from Our Town. (He lives in an indefinite mythic present that feels like the past—he’s split between the older woman he has sex with but doesn’t love and the girl he loves but doesn’t have sex with.) Kyle MacLachlan is in just about every scene, and he gives a phenomenal performance. As the hero of Dune, he may have been swallowed up in the sand, but here he’s ideally cast. His proper look is perfect for a well-brought-up young fellow who’s scared of his dirty thoughts (but wants to have them anyway). And when Jeffrey and Laura Dern’s Sandy first meet and they make each other laugh, you relax with them and laugh, too, because you know that the two performers are going to work together like magic. Laura Dern brings a growing-up-fast passion to Sandy’s love for Jeffrey, and she has an emotional fire that she didn’t get to demonstrate in Mask or Smooth Talk. Lynch takes a plunge when he stages the high-schoolers’ party that Sandy takes Jeffrey to: the two of them begin to dance and begin to kiss, and can’t stop kissing. “Mysteries of Love,” the song that they’re dancing to, is scored using an organ, but now the organ isn’t mocking them—the music swells to do justice to their feelings. The sequence may recall Sissy Spacek’s romantic whirl at the prom in De Palma’s Carrie, but the tone is different: we’re being told that these two are not going to let go of each other, that they’re moving into the unknown together. And the song, with lyrics by Lynch and music by Angelo Badalamenti (who wrote the score), carries the emotion over to the later scenes when Sandy’s belief in Jeffrey is tested. (The movie may frighten some adolescents, as Carrie did, though the violent images aren’t obtrusive; you don’t quite take them in at first—it’s only as the camera is pulling back from them that you see them clearly.)
As the uncontrollable Frank, in his slick leather outfits, Dennis Hopper gives the movie a jolt of horrific energy. Frank is lewd and dangerous; you feel he does what he does just for the hell of it. (He uses his inhaler to heighter the sensation of murder, too.) And as Ben, one of Frank’s business associates, Dean Stockwell is a smiling wonder; you stare at his kissy makeup, the pearly jewel that he wears halfway up his ear. his druggy contentment. Frank refers to Ben as “suave,” but that’s not the half of it. Miming to Roy Orbison’s song “In Dreams,” about “the candy-colored clown they call the sandman,” he’s so magnetic that you momentarily forget everything else that’s supposed to be going on.
Actually, it’s easy to forget about the plot, because that’s where Lynch’s naïve approach has its disadvantages: Lumberton’s subterranean criminal life needs to be as organic as the scrambling insects, and it isn’t. Lynch doesn’t show us how the criminals operate or how they’re bound to each other. So the story isn’t grounded in anything and has to be explained in little driblets of dialogue. But Blue Velvet has so much aural-visual humor and poetry that it’s sustained despite the wobbly plot and the bland functional dialogue (that’s sometimes a deliberate spoof of smalltown conventionality and sometimes maybe not). It’s sustained despite the fact that Lynch’s imagistic talent, which is for the dark and unaccountable, flattens out in the sunlight scenes, as in the ordinary, daily moments between parents and children. One key character is never clarified: We can’t tell if Sandy’s father (played by George Dickerson) is implicated in the corruption, or if we’re meant to accept him as a straight arrow out of a fifties F.B.I. picture. Lynch skimps on these commercial-movie basics and fouls up on them, too, but it’s as if he were reinventing movies. His work goes back to the avant-garde filmmakers of the twenties and thirties, who were often painters—and he himself trained to be one. He takes off from the experimental traditions that Hollywood has usually ignored.
This is his first film from his own original material since Eraserhead (which was first shown in 1977), and in some ways it’s linked to that film’s stately spookiness. Lynch’s longtime associate, the cinematographer Frederick Elmes, lighted both films, and he has given Blue Velvet a comparable tactility; real streets look like paintings you could touch—you feel as if you could moosh your fingers in the colors. There are also reminders of the musical numbers in Eraserhead. which were like a form of dementia. (Lynch used an organ there, too.) With Rossellini singing at the club, and vocalists like Bobby Vinton on the soundtrack and tunes layered in and out of the orchestral score, Blue Velvet suggests a musical on themes from our pop unconscious. There are noises in there, of course, and Alan Splet, who started working with Lynch when he was doing shorts and has been his sound man on all his features (Eraserhead was followed by The Elephant Man, in 1980, and Dune, in 1984), combines them so that, say, when Jeffrey walks up the seven flights to Dorothy’s apartment the building has a pumping, groaning sound. It could be an ancient furnace or foghorns or a heavy old animal that’s winded. The mix of natural sounds with mechanical-industrial noises gives the images an ambience that’s hokey and gothic and yet totally unpretentious—maybe because Lynch’s subject is normal American fantasy life. Even that fetishized blue velvet robe is tacky, like something you could pick up in the red brick department store on Main Street.
Blue Velvet is a comedy, yet it puts us—or, at least, some of us—in an erotic trance. The movie keeps ribbing the clean-cut Jeffrey, yet we’re caught up in his imagination. It must be that Lynch’s use of irrational material works the way it’s supposed to: at some not fully conscious level we read his images. When Frank catches Jeffrey with “Mommy” and takes him for a ride—first to Ben’s hangout and then to a deserted spot—the car is packed with Frank’s thugs, Dorothy, in her robe, and a large-headed, big-bellied woman in a short, pink skirt who has been necking with one of the guys. When Frank parks and he and his thugs start punching out Jeffrey, the pink-skirted woman climbs up on the roof of the car and, to the sound of that sandman song, dances aimlessly, impassively, like a girl in a topless bar. (She’s in her dream world, too.) In a later scene, a man who has been shot several times remains standing, but he’s no longer looking at anything: he faces a one-eared dead man sitting up in a chair, with the blue velvet sash in his mouth, and the two are suspended in time, like figures posed together in a wax museum, or plaster figures by George Segal retouched by Francis Bacon. Almost every scene has something outlandishly off in it, something that jogs your memory or your thinking, like the collection of fat women at Ben’s joint, who look as if they were objects in a still-life. Or there may be something that just tweaks your memory, like the worrywart old maid—Jeffrey’s Aunt Barbara (Frances Bay). Or a bit of comedy that’s underplayed, like the shot of Jeffrey’s mother (Priscilla Pointer) and Sandy’s mother (Hope Lange) getting to know each other and looking interchangeable. (The only scene that feels thin—that lacks surprise—is Dorothy’s lushly romanticized reunion with her child; for a few seconds, the film goes splat.)
It’s the slightly disjunctive quality of Lynch’s scenes (and the fact that we don’t question them, because they don’t feel arbitrary to us) that makes the movie so hypnotic—that, and the slow, assured sensuousness of his editing rhythms. This is possibly the only coming-of-age movie in which sex has the danger and the heightened excitement of a horror picture. It’s the fantasy (rather than the plot) that’s organic, and there’s no sticky-sweet lost innocence, because the darkness was always there, inside.
The film’s kinkiness isn’t alienating—its naïveté keeps it from that. And its vision isn’t alienating: this is American darkness—darkness in color, darkness with a happy ending. Lynch might turn out to be the first populist surrealist—a Frank Capra of dream logic. Blue Velvet does have a homiletic side. It’s about a young man’s learning through flabbergasting and violent experience to appreciate a relatively safe and manageable sex life. And when Sandy’s father, speaking of the whole nightmarish business of the ear, says to Jeffrey, “It’s over now,” the film cuts to daylight. But with Lynch as the writer and director the homily has a little zinger. Sandy, who may have watched too many daytime soaps, has dreamed that the morbid darkness will be dispelled when thousands of robins arrive bringing love—a dream that she tells Jeffrey (to the accompaniment of organ music twitting her vision). When a plump robin lands on the kitchen windowsill, it has an insect in its beak.
The New Yorker, September 22, 1986