Blue Velvet is a thoroughly American movie, in spite of the fact that the average American would likely turn it off after five minutes. But that’s America up there onscreen – a mythologized America dressed up in the gilded trappings of the fifties, its golden age. It’s the America of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, of vacuum tubes and TV sets, of classic cars and classic Coke, of Bobby Vinton and Roy Orbison, of green lawns, American Beauty roses, and white picket fences. But this is David Lynch, so it’s also the America of the bizarre and offbeat.
As is often the case with David Lynch, what happens in Blue Velvet is the least interesting thing about it. Which is not to say the story is weak; it’s well structured and well told. It’s just that Lynch is more interested in using the trappings of a Nancy Drew, Hardy Boy mystery to delve deeply into themes larger, and more darkly peculiar, than those in a classic whodunnit. Like the beetles violently writhing around beneath the surface of Mr. Beaumont’s manicured lawn, Blue Velvet is really about what’s hidden behind closed doors.
Blue Velvet takes place in Lumberton, a fictional town with strong ties to the logging industry, as its name suggests. Though filming was done in studio and on location in Wilmington, North Carolina, Lumberton feels much more like the American Northwest (though that could have more to do with its being so reminiscent of Twin Peaks, which was just four years off). Lumberton is technicolor in the daytime, and all shadows at night, when it’s thick with secrets and things hidden. At all times, Lumberton and its citizens are given to an eerie melodrama particular to David Lynch, whose version of small town America has soap flakes all over it, by which I mean to say it’s equal parts TV serial and filth.
Tom Beaumont (Jack Harvey) has had an episode (A stroke? A heart attack? “They’re doing tests.”), and so his son Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) is home from college. One day, walking through an open field on his way home from the hospital, he finds a human ear, sans human. Jeffrey puts the ear in a brown paper bag and takes it to the police station, where he speaks with Detective Williams, a neighbor, and turns over his discovery to the authorities.
The detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), becomes interested in the case and, subsequently, in Jeffrey, despite her football playing high school boyfriend and her best intentions to stay faithful. With blonde hair, blue eyes, and a penchant for pink, fuzzy sweaters, Sandy Williams fits perfectly into Lumberton and its fetishized version of America. She teams up with Jeffrey, and the two launch an ill-advised private investigation into the ear and its owner.
This leads them to Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who has both of her ears, but who also has a missing husband who is missing one ear. Naturally, there is more to the story, which figures heavily on Dorothy’s sinister friend, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who might have something to do with Dorothy’s husband and his ear and quite a bit else besides.
Frank is possessed of exaggerated villainy. He is an unstoppable force, given over to instinctive animal energy. He is something akin to pure evil, though less an archetype than primal craving incarnate. He is only one man – one man whose urges run roughshod over him, but one man nevertheless. He is not a proxy for humanity, not a narrative stand-in for the human condition, and yet the frantic passions he yields to are not his alone. In Jeffrey’s quest for “knowledge and experience,” Frank provides evidence that base desires exist in Jeffrey also, and that he could, if he allowed himself, yield to them also.
This is illustrated primarily by Jeffrey’s relationship with Dorothy, who is at first an object of mystery. And though mystery soon gives way to arousal, Jeffrey’s first instinct is to be Dorothy’s protector, even as he becomes her lover. Still, Dorothy is much older than him, and their relationship, born out of voyeurism, is almost immediately tainted by violence and danger. Though they both come to enjoy each other, Dorothy’s and Jeffrey’s relationship is marred by taboo. There is something “sick” about it. As Dorothy would have it, “He put his disease in me.”
Of course, in a town like Lumberton, heeding the call of the wild will relegate you to the fringes of society, to places like The Slow Lounge and “This is it,” Ben’s halfway home for social and sexual deviants. And on those fringes sex and violence are almost constantly present, and in all manner of forms – androgyny, homoeroticism, bestial lust, sexual battery, incest. This seedy underbelly is too much by the staid, buttoned-up standards of 1950s small town America, even by the standards of the mid-1980s, when the story takes place. As Sandy observes warily of Jeffrey, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” Society demands that there be a line, whether fine or broad, between “opportunities for gaining knowledge and experience” and criminal intent. And Jeffrey is somewhat recklessly exploring the precise dimensions of that line.
In that context, Sandy is Dorothy’s rival. Her age and her innocence mean that Jeffrey has found himself between two poles. His exploits with Dorothy and his confrontations with Frank mean that he is no longer the naive, innocent boy he was just days before, and yet his identity is not yet fixed. It is the threat and the terror that Frank and Dorothy embody that force him to choose, definitively, between Dorothy and Sandy, between who his desires tell him he can be and who everything else has told him he should be.
In the end, Jeffrey chooses light over dark. He chooses to be the All-American, which might sound provincial, if it weren’t for the fact that Sandy too must choose Jeffrey, after his own dark secret is publicly exposed, to be accepted or rejected by the one he loves. Now, almost thirty years later, I can’t help but think it all could have been more progressive, even as I can still marvel at how incredibly radical Blue Velvet is. It is and will likely remain, in so many ways, the front rank of the avant-garde.