When I originally put together the list of the neo-noirs I was planning on including in this retrospective, I had put down two David Lynch titles: Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001). Unfortunately, Mulholland Dr., one of my favorite films of the aughts, had already been covered by the site when we attempted the film club, so I didn’t want to whip a dead horse by covering it again. Having promised I’d watch Lost Highway with a friend, I was at a loss as to what to watch. I scanned my DVD shelf, my eyes momentarily meeting with Blue Velvet (1986), and I began to mentally scratch my head. I hadn’t watched the film in nearly a decade, not since being forced onto a David Lynch kick brought on by the theatrical release of Mulholland Dr. in high school. For some reason, I never had the urge to return to it, not as I had with other Lynch films at least. I felt that he had nailed the neo-noir better in the latter title and that the evil that lurks in a small town was more fully explored in Twin Peaks (1990-1991). Still, was that an adequate reason for not revisiting the title? Self-critique won out over existing prejudices and I’m glad it did; I had underestimated Blue Velvet.
The film begins with what has become a famous sequence of shots, cut to Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet.” We see peaceful, inviting glimpses of Lumberton, USA (Blue Velvet can be defined, like The Last Seduction, as a film soleil): crimson colored roses against a virginal picket fence and a fleet of firefighters riding on the side of a fire truck, waving towards the citizens enjoying the beautiful day. The camera begins to settle in on one man, Mr. Beaumont (Jack Harvey), watering his lawn. Lynch cuts to the other end of the hose, connected to the side of the house, leaking water, allowing the sinister dripping sounds to overcome Vinton’s crooning and perverting the meaning of the song. Beaumount grabs his neck, suffering a stroke, and falls to the ground, becoming a macabre fountain thanks to the hose. The camera continues down into the green grass around the fallen man, disclosing insects devouring the soil. The message is obvious; despite appearances, there’s something rotten in Lumberton and it ain’t the wood.
Lynch then settles on our protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), the college-aged son of the fallen gardener who has come home to be close to his family. While walking home from visiting his father in the hospital, Jeffrey finds a severed ear in a vacant lot. He brings the ear to police detective Williams (George Dickerson) who promptly tells Jeffrey he’ll take care of everything and that the young man should stay away. Jeffrey, curiosity sparked by his grim find, appeals to Williams’ daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), for more information. Sandy tells Jeffrey that her father is looking into a lounge singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) who might be connected with the case. The two teenagers begin to observe Dorothy, climaxing with Jeffrey hiding in her closet in order to glean more information. Jeffrey, ignoring the proverb “be careful what you wish for,” gets more than he bargained with when the sociopathic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) shows up for his dame.
This turn of events essentially establishes Frank and Dorothy as Jeffrey’s parents. [Note: I’m not the first person to embark on this interpretation as it appears that psychoanalytic film theorist Laura Mulvey provided such a reading. While I haven’t read her piece, that is the inherent danger of reviewing a classic film. I assume the BFI monograph by Michael Atkinson also hits this reading pretty hard, as it’s hard not to notice it. That said, if you want some deeper analysis after finishing this, I’d encourage you to go there.] Jeffrey’s mother (Priscilla Pointer) is shown watching television, withdrawn from the family, barely registering the fate that has befallen her husband. His father, absent in the film from the moment Jeffrey finds the ear to the moment order is restored at the end, remains bedridden in the hospital. Yet, despite his sexual attraction to Dorothy, Jeffrey becomes their son. When Frank originally shows up at the house they share the following exchange:
DOROTHY: Hello, baby.
FRANK: Shut up! It’s Daddy, you shithead! Where’s my bourbon? Can’t you fucking remember anything?
Lynch sets up the two adults as mother and father in the exchange, cementing Jeffrey’s role in the perverted family in a later scene. While Frank continually refers to Jeffrey as a neighbor, Frank feels a bond with the boy, lecturing him on manners after a trip to Ben’s (Dean Stockwell). After Frank beats him, yelling “Be polite!,” Jeffrey submits, prompting Frank to tell his crew that “I can make [Jeffrey] do anything I fuckin’ please…he’s just like me.”
Frank’s words have more truth to them than he’ll realize. Jeffrey, drawn into Dorothy’s arms and her bed, finds himself hitting her, just like Frank, when she demands it. With his actual father incapacitated, it seems to us that Jeffrey has lost his moral role model for navigating this “strange world.” The relationship between the three of them quickly becomes Oedipal as Jeffrey feels the need to defend and sexually possess his mother (Dorothy) and kill his father (Frank). During a hellacious road trip to the country, Frank begins to sexually assault Dorothy. Jeffrey stands up to Frank, punching him in the face, unleashing Frank’s horrifying vengeance and Dorothy’s defensive pleas. In order to restore order for Dorothy and Jeffrey, Frank needs to die at Jeffrey’s hands, his ultimate disavowal of his symbolic father.
If you haven’t already come to the conclusion, let me make it obvious: Blue Velvet is a dark film. Like most noir, we are alienated from the events because of a lack of moral guideposts. In this case, it hits closer to home. Opposed to most noir films where the alienation is linked to the excesses of the city, Blue Velvet brings that very feeling to our own backyard while hitting our raw nerves with taboo after taboo, running the gauntlet of rape, sadomasochism, and patricide. Yet, in the end, the message feels socially conservative with a critical wink (no doubt tied to the Norman Rockwell aesthetic that Lynch begins and ends the film with): An intact nuclear family is a moral family. After all, if Mr. Beaumount hadn’t suffered a stroke and ended up in the hospital, his son never would have found the ear, setting off the entire chain of events in the film. Sure, Lumberton may have remained rotten, but no one would have known about it and, as the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. Or is that the sentiment that Lynch is criticizing? Like most of his films, it’s open to interpretation and that’s the beautiful but terrifying aspect his juxtaposition of form and content; we have to think for ourselves.
For those of you catching up, below is a list of the titles I’ve already covered. In the meantime, here’s a hint for the next one: The last two films in the retrospective featured the leads of a seminal 1960s film; the forthcoming review features one of their co-stars. What is the title of the next film in the retrospective?
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.