This is the second in a series of analysis retrospective articles I’ve done for The Metaplex (the first was Django Unchained), and, time permitting, I hope to publish a new one every week.
A friend of mine was first exposed to David Lynch in college during a film class, where the professor screened the first fifteen or twenty minutes of his 1986 masterpiece, Blue Velvet. In true Lynch fashion, the opening moments alone cast a spell of oddness, and my friend sat mesmerized. What he saw sets up the film’s plot, although the plot is often the least important thing in this film. Jeffrey, despite his earring and cool-cat ‘80s ties, is a typical small-town guy, and he’s home from college to visit his sick father in the hospital, who in the opening scene we see suffering a violent stroke. On the walk back from the hospital, he discovers a rotting human ear beneath a canopy of tall grass, and, captivated by the frightening implications of his find, he picks it up, puts it in a brown paper bag, and hurries to the local police station to get to the bottom of the mystery. From the first ten minutes, he positions himself as a makeshift Hardy Boy, down to his boyish looks and overeager attitude. He eventually becomes trapped by his own curiosity, and he propels himself deeper and deeper into the mystery, and as danger continues to mount, he still can’t help himself with the mystery.
This opening segment, like the rest of the film but especially here, has an unbelievable specificity in what’s shown and how. It doesn’t take the first few scenes for the attentive viewer to notice Lynch’s dense cinematic language, just the first few frames. The opening shot is of a curtain dissolving into a bright, blue sky that sets up the heightened and theatrical nature of the film. It also sets up one of the film’s most prevailing questions: is any of this real? The shot pans down into a low-angle close-up of red flowers sitting in the lawn in front of a glossy white picket fence. The high key lighting makes the flowers simply glow with oversaturation, and the artificiality of the image gives the shot a dreamlike quality, almost as though the flowers are trying to make their beauty seem genuine but can’t. This is a good metaphor for Blue Velvet’s setting as a whole—including the town and the mise-en-scenes inside different buildings. The film’s second shot continues to exaggerate its setting, as a bright red fire truck drives past the camera with one abnormal twist: a man, ostensibly a fireman, stands on the side of the fire truck, and, two shots into the film, David Lynch already breaks the fourth wall. He stares right into the camera, waving with enthusiasm, and, to add to the strangeness of the scene, a Dalmatian is sitting on the fire truck’s sidestep right next to the man. A few stylistically strange shots follow until one is not like the others. So far, Blue Velvet has been an ostentatious display of small town Americana perfection, but shot seven is a medium shot of a TV showing, of all things, a revolver. Alongside the shiny, smiley little town, there is danger.
The opening scene’s most cathartic moment is suggestive of these same ideas, albeit much more obviously. As Jeffrey’s father uses the hose to water the lawn, the camera cuts to the leaking hose faucet, it suddenly has the terrible ambience of a gargling storm drain from Gehenna. The hose instantly contorts itself like a suicidal snake, and as the pressure continues to rise and rise, Jeffrey’s dad suffers a stroke. The camera moves downward and into a thicket of grass, and as it gets closer the sound becomes increasingly diluted and perverse, eventually becoming an abstraction of a beast’s roar crossed with a misfiring furnace. The biting sound of disgusting insects clamoring atop one another digging in the dirt fills the sound mix, and ants are shown as great giants dominating the frame—a not so subtle metaphor for the seedy underbelly that rests just beneath the thin veneer of this small town. Insects are one of the film’s recurring motifs, and they’re given a second close-up when buzzing around the cut off ear.
And, as if he hasn’t thrown enough at viewers in the opening two minutes, the shot immediately following the malevolent ants (I love this can be a sentence) is of a huge wooden billboard saying “Welcome to Lumberton”, just as the cheery jingle of a radio program exclaims “Logs, Logs, Logs!” Lynch begins his film with spectacular bravado, moving in seconds from establishing a distinct and palpable otherworldly tone into depicting the gruesome fall of a patriarch, then into pure surrealism, and, finally, into campy comedy.
He’s not afraid to quote the old greats, though. Blue Velvet’s opening musical cue is a big homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s famous composer, Bernard Herman. In fact, Blue Velvet shares an awful lot with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and not only in their mutual fascination with surrealism. Both Vertigo and Blue Velvet are deeply concerned with ‘the male gaze’. In literary criticism, the male gaze refers to the tendency of a narrative to be the total realization of a man’s point of view, with implications ranging from the objectification of women to the implicit narcissism of this trope. In one of Brian De Palma's many homages to Hitchcock, Body Double, which has the plot of Vertigo and Rear Window combined, he personifies the male gaze by devoting a large section of the film to the porn industry.
In Vertigo and Blue Velvet, the male gaze is shown through voyeurism. Each character spies on a female character they are sexually attracted to, and the camera fetishizes their body. Look to the entire closet scene in Blue Velvet or the P.I. sequence in Vertigo. In both films, the voyeuristic behavior of the protagonists is exploited. Jeffrey’s caught, but it doesn’t end there. Lynch eventually confronts the male gaze in two key ways. The first is through sexual violence and sadomasochism—the ultimate objectification of women. The red velvet curtains that sway in Dorothy Vallens’ apartment are symbolic of this, as though they were bewitching phantoms, at once representing lust and rage. Isabella Rossellini’s wounded character, Dorothy Vallens, illustrates the consequences of the male gaze to a tragic extreme, not only in how her character relates to Jeffrey, but how the manic criminal Frank abuses her. The second is in how Jeffrey becomes an object of Frank, with Frank turning him into a fetish object.
Lynch never has a shortage of ways to damage his characters, so it’s only fair he has just as many to damage the audience. One of his most powerful devices as a filmmaker is how, in key scenes, he slows down time with missing frames to give movement a jagged rhythm. This is seen briefly in the opening sequence as a dog drinks from the hose, and again during one of the film’s graphic sex scenes. It's hard to pin down what makes this so terrifying, but it's probably to do with what makes the uncanny valley so creepy. When robots and motion capture try to make the inhuman look human and fail, our brain registers there's a certain absence. Similarly, this device changes human motion into movement that is at once animalistic and mechanical, and it is horrifying. He returns to this device (among many others from Blue Velvet) frequently in his series Twin Peaks, and it scared the pants off the nation during its brief run. Moments like these are one of many things that gives Blue Velvet its bizarre and unsettling quality, and there will be many further examples in this analysis.
What gives Blue Velvet it's mysterious and iconic tone is that the world itself is a mystery. Instead of being divided by dream and reality, like Vertigo, the film has different shades of the surreal. Blue Velvet is made of two dreamlike states: the manufactured reality of small town America, and the nightmare that festers in America’s heart. The same artificiality of the opening seconds persist, shown by using a comic jazzy score to play during the daytime sequences, with all the cheeky gladness of an episode of Leave it to Beaver. Many of these scenes have a strong comedic tone, especially in how Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern purposefully over-emote during almost conversation they have. But a change overcomes Jeffrey when he roams into the night: Kyle MacLachlan’s performance changes. He becomes dour and self-serious, with all of his usual Boy Scout charm nowhere to be found. Just like a comic jazzy score tells audiences that the authenticity of perfectly manicured lawns and ideal family homes are all a big joke, the same devilish ambience heard in the opening scene underscores the nightmare scenes.
A small detail that sometimes gets overlooked by viewers: certain characters have a degree of clairvoyance. When Laura Dern’s character, Sandy, emerges from the dead of night and is greeted by bright lighting that makes her pop out of the frame, a surreal plot element to itself, she instantly knows who Jeffrey is. When Jeffrey asks how, she responds, “I just know. That’s all.” At first, this seemed to be an innocuous contrivance for the pair to seem fated together, and indeed this might still be the case. However, note another character, the blind man at the hardware store. Without error, he can always guess the exact number of fingers Jeffrey holds up. There are more subtle examples throughout, and although these details are small, they operate under a certain dream logic that contributes to the setting’s otherworldly atmosphere.
In a paradoxical way, the binary dream worlds of Blue Velvet are Lynch’s way of representing reality as accurately as he can. He exaggerates the qualities of each side, but he sees them as real. He wrote Jeffrey to as well, and his main dramatic arc is questioning how the nightmare has corrupted the idyllic reality of small time life. But Jeffrey answers his own question. His dominant (usually daytime) personality is characteristic of the same things as the waving fireman and the over-lit flowers. In the diner with Sandy, he is bewildered that evil as pure and frightening as Frank can exist in a beautiful town like his, and yet, he eagerly enters the land of the perverse. While there, he is curious, eager, and most of all hungry to go further. This is Lynch’s way of alerting the audience to what seems to be one of his main points—dramatic character change, often for worse, is a consequence of incentive. It would be easy to write Jeffrey’s off as sexual, but it’s not that simple.
As much as anything else, Blue Velvet is about identity. Jeffrey has allowed himself to take on the thrilling persona of a capable private investigator, one of the all time great protagonists of American Cinema. That makes Blue Velvet a sort of neo-noir, but that’s the closest it comes to easy categorization. About halfway through the movie, Jeffrey summarizes what might be the defining quality that drives every noir hero, from holly Martins in The Third Man to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. He says "I'm seeing something that was always hidden. I'm involved. I'm in the middle of a mystery. And it's all secret." He's asked, "And you like mysteries that much?" Without hesitation, he responds, "Yeah."