Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini in "Blue Velvet" (MGM)

“David Lynch should be shot": Looking back on the madness and chaos of "Blue Velvet" and Ronald Reagan's '80s

That was an actual test-card response to Lynch's creepy '80s classic, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year


Dennis Lim
March 26, 2016 10:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from “David Lynch: The Man From Another Place”

David Lynch’s films have rarely fared well at test screenings, and Blue Velvet triggered some of the worst early reactions of his career. One response card read: “David Lynch should be shot.” (Producer) Dino De Laurentiis was unfazed, but the negative feedback lowered expectations considerably, which may have worked to Lynch’s advantage. When Blue Velvet opened on September 19, 1986, in fifteen American cities, some of the most influential critics were effusive in their praise. J. Hoberman proclaimed it “a film of ecstatic creepiness” and lauded its “boldly alien perspective” in the Village Voice. In the Chicago Tribune, Dave Kehr raved: “There isn’t anything else quite like it, and it’s pretty wonderful.” The detractors were no less vociferous. Roger Ebert’s one-star review in the Chicago Sun-Times bemoaned its “sophomoric satire and cheap shots.” In the New York Post, Rex Reed pronounced it “one of the sickest films ever made.” Pro or con, the reviews tended to make things personal, as befits a film that was unmistakably “charged with its maker’s psychosexual energy,” in Hoberman’s words. Ebert accused Lynch of being even more sadistic than the psychopathic Frank Booth in submitting Rossellini to all manner of on-screen humiliations. In her New York Times rave, Janet Maslin wrote that the film confirmed Lynch’s “stature as an innovator, a superb technician, and someone best not encountered in a dark alley.”

Blue Velvet became an instant cult film, a lightning rod for think pieces, and as more people saw it, the reactions grew ever more polarized. The conservative journal National Review branded the movie pornographic, “a piece of mindless junk.” The Christian Century named it the magazine’s film of the year, praising its serious treatment of sin and evil and even invoking Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Lines formed around the block in New York City and Los Angeles; there were reports of mass walkouts and refund demands. A Newsweek article, headlined “Black and Blue Is Beautiful?”, described the clamorous scene at theaters. A man fainted at a Chicago screening; after having his pacemaker checked, he went back to catch the ending. Outside a Los Angeles cinema, two strangers got into a heated disagreement, which they decided to resolve by going back in for a second viewing. For Hopper, Blue Velvet was the crowning achievement of his latest comeback from Hollywood exile. While Frank Booth is remembered as one of his defining roles, he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for playing the town drunk in that same year’s much tamer sports movie Hoosiers. Rossellini had by far the riskier part, as the reactions made clear. Her agents at ICM dropped her upon seeing the film; the nuns at her old school in Rome called to say they were praying for her. (After the media storm subsided, Lynch and Rossellini confirmed that they were a couple. He separated from Mary Fisk in 1987.)

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“It’s a strange world,” the people of Lumberton keep telling one another, and the lasting impression is that it never gets less strange. So too with Blue Velvet. The critical enthusiasm at the time of its release — many reviewers put it on their year-end lists — propelled Lynch to a second, even less probable Academy Award nomination for directing. He lost to Oliver Stone for Platoon, which also won Best Picture. Yet Blue Velvet has weathered the passage of time better than any other Oscar nominee that year, possibly better than any Hollywood movie of its decade. The shock of the new fades by definition, but if it has hardly done so in the case of Blue Velvet, that may be because its tone remains forever elusive. To peruse the early reviews is to sense the emergence of the slipperiest of sensibilities, one that no one quite knew how to talk about. To encounter or revisit the film now, decades later, is to realize that we still don’t.

The stiff acting and stilted dialogue inch Blue Velvet just past the realm of realism into a space without signposts that gets more disorienting the longer you stay in it. MacLachlan modeled some aspects of his straight-faced, bright-eyed character on his director — Jeffrey wears his shirts buttoned to the top — and he also sounds an awful lot like him, especially when he gets excited. (“There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience.” “I’m in the middle of a mystery.”) The difficulties of interpreting Blue Velvet are best illustrated in the night scene in the car opposite the church, when Jeffrey poses his pained rhetorical questions about the existence of evil and Sandy responds with her dewy, evangelical vision of the robins bringing love and light. Are they serious? Is Lynch? Some journalists asked him if the characters’ exaggerated sincerity was meant to be funny. “You can’t help but squirt out a laugh,” he told the Village Voice. “These days to be cool, you don’t say stuff like that out loud. It’s almost more embarrassing in a certain way than Frank stuffing blue velvet up Dorothy.”

Ebert’s review faulted the film precisely for combining both kinds of embarrassment: encouraging laughter one minute, subjecting characters and viewers to obscene brutalities the next. The incursion of humor was taken as proof of an ironic stance, which in turn signaled subversive intent or a cynical detachment from the material. But things are never so clear-cut in the Lynchian universe, where sincerity and irony can coexist without canceling each other out. If anything his natural instinct is to combine them, nest one within the other, twist these familiar categories together until new registers of feeling materialize. In 1993, three years before he published Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay on the deadening effects of television on literary fiction and the tyranny of “institutionalized irony,” a language and a lens that had become our default mode of communication. Lynch, without exactly intending to, was already resisting this mode with Blue Velvet. This is a particularly tricky film not for an audience that doesn’t recognize irony, but for one that can see only through irony.

Blue Velvet is a critical theorist’s dream, a dark comedy of category confusion. “Hello, baby,” Dorothy greets Frank, who snaps, “It’s Daddy, you shithead.” Within minutes, he’s calling her “Mommy” and moaning “Baby wants to fuck.” What is left to decipher when everything has been declared? An emblem of the postmodern moment, the film was also several steps ahead. It seemed to demand a new way of understanding narrative art, one that had little to do with traditional identification or protective irony or the sifting of symbols and metaphors for deeper meanings. What usually lurks on the level of subtext is here elevated to the status of text. When Jeffrey says he’s “seeing something that was always hidden,” he’s also voicing the modus operandi of a film that is rife with signs yet impervious to decoding. Blue Velvet leaves the unnerving impression that it has done for us the work of analysis without so much as scratching the bright, shiny surface.

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Lynch would engineer more decisive temporal ruptures in his later films, but Blue Velvet represents his most haunting manipulation of time in cinema, a palimpsest through which multiple eras and genres are visible. On the most obvious level, cars and interior decor, wardrobes and hairstyles all seem to have drifted in from different decades. Jeffrey’s skinny tie and pierced ear, which goes unremarked, are very much of the 1980s, but Sandy and her classmates favor the long skirts of a more conservative time. Beyond such period markers, the movie also activates a host of archetypes from old Hollywood genres, slightly warped in their transposition to the present. Jeffrey on occasion resembles a film noir patsy, just as Dorothy evokes a femme fatale; Sandy, meanwhile, could have wandered out of a Sandra Dee vehicle.

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The stars came with their own cultural baggage. The method actor who veered closest to madness, Hopper was a one-man history of the counterculture, born to be wild, as Easy Rider’s signature anthem puts it. Frank seethes with the cumulative rage and mania of all the hell-raisers who preceded him, from the juvenile delinquent in Rebel Without a Cause to the ranting lunatic in Apocalypse Now. Rossellini’s resemblance to her mother is impossible to miss from certain angles, even more so when she speaks in that husky alto. The sense that she is acting out scenarios that were expressly forbidden, maybe never even dreamed of, in the Hollywood heyday of Ingrid Bergman, who played her share of masochists in films like Gaslight and Notorious, lends the sex scenes a ghostly Oedipal charge. Free-floating signifiers abound, redolent of national myths and traumas. Dorothy is apparently named after the heroine of The Wizard of Oz, a parallel-universe urtext and a touchstone for Lynch; Hopper, as Lynch pointed out to some interviewers, was from Kansas. Dorothy lives in the bad part of town on Lincoln Street (an ominous close-up lingers on the street sign), and Frank Booth seems to be named for the sixteenth president’s assassin.

But for all the mismatched period details in Blue Velvet, the film has a special relationship with the American midcentury, with what Lynch has called “euphoric 1950s chrome optimism.” “From the ’20s up to 1958, or maybe 1963, are my favorite years,” Lynch has said, adding, “The ’70s, to me, were about the worst! There can be things in the ’80s that I love — high-tech things, New Wave things which echo the ’50s.” It wasn’t just Lynch: The 1950s obsession was a 1980s phenomenon. Blue Velvet came a year after Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, the highest-grossing film of 1985, which sent teen idol Michael J. Fox, a clean-scrubbed Kyle MacLachlan type minus the dark side, via time machine three decades into the past. Having assimilated the postmodern tendency toward pastiche and the pop art trope of repurposing the relics of mass culture, the zeitgeist was especially prone to backward glances, sometimes quizzical but mostly fond and even longing. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), both set in prelapsarian times, anticipated the nostalgia cycle. By the 1980s, most major American directors had made their contributions. High school reunions serve as jumping-off points for Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986), bracketed by Fredric Jameson with Blue Velvet as a quintessential “nostalgia film,” and Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), in which a middle-aged woman winds up trapped inside her seventeen-year-old self. Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction fables Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) fused two strains of Cold War nostalgia, combining alien fantasies with Norman Rockwell imagery.

The postwar years marked a watershed in the development of the American self-image. With the rise of mass media and consumer culture, the country’s ideas of itself were being shaped and disseminated on an unprecedented scale. From the vantage point of the 1980s, the 1950s was both a cultural lodestone and a memory bank with plenty of recyclable imagery. This wave of boomer nostalgia crested under the auspices of a movie-star president who promised a return to the values of an earlier era and himself personified that era’s popular entertainment. It has become critical custom to consider Blue Velvet as a Reaganite text. Reagan, a hologram-like president who sometimes confused Hollywood and actual history, also had his Lynchian aspects. Reviewing the 1942 drama Kings Row, in which Reagan had his breakthrough role, Pauline Kael could just as well have been describing Blue Velvet: “The typical nostalgic view of American small-town life turned inside out: instead of sweetness and health we get fear, sanctimoniousness, sadism, and insanity.” In one of the ghastlier twists in Kings Row, a garish tale of secrets and lies in the titular town, Reagan’s character loses his legs to a vindictive surgeon. The macabre one-liner he delivers upon waking, postamputation, provides the Lynchian title of the future president’s 1965 autobiography: Where’s the Rest of Me?

The year Blue Velvet was released, Jean Baudrillard published America, a postmodern update of de Tocqueville’s sociological travelogue. “America is neither dream nor reality,” Baudrillard wrote. “It is a hyperreality . . . a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved.” He also called it “the only country which gives you the opportunity to be so brutally naive.” At first blush the Reagan presidency and Blue Velvet, opening with a sequence that is the very definition of aesthetic hyperrealism, may seem to tell similar stories about America. There was a strong ideological bent to Reagan-era nostalgia, which is premised on pretending the 1960s never happened. Some have concluded that the politics of Blue Velvet are similarly reactionary. But the film doesn’t indulge in nostalgia so much as induce the inexplicable chill of déjà vu. The return to the past goes hand in glove with the return of the repressed.

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Lynch has used the phrase “neighborhood story” to describe several of his films, including Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, and even the planned sequels he wrote for Dune, which would have taken place in more hermetic worlds. Reagan often invoked the sentimental concept of neighborliness. He reminisced about growing up in small-town Illinois, where “every day you saw a neighbor helping neighbor.” In the picture-book America of his imagination, wholesome values like patriotism were in the air: “If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood.” In his famous “Evil Empire” speech, Reagan quoted the biblical injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In Blue Velvet Dorothy introduces Jeffrey to Frank as “a friend . . . from the neighborhood.” For the rest of the film, Frank calls him “neighbor,” a word that becomes more absurd and menacing with each utterance. A long joyride scene culminates with Frank smearing Jeffrey’s face with lipstick and warning him to stay away from Dorothy, in the process giving a terrifying new spin to what it might mean to love one’s neighbor: “Don’t be a good neighbor to her. I’ll send you a love letter. Straight from my heart, fucker . . . You receive a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever.” The neighborhood in Blue Velvet is a variable environment, a relative space. Jeffrey finds the ear in a wasteland “behind the neighborhood.” When Sandy tells Jeffrey where Dorothy lives, she says, “That’s what’s scary, it’s so close.” The point of this neighborhood story is that whatever Jeffrey fears is “so close” it may already lie within him.

Like Blue Velvet, Reagan insisted that “there is sin and evil in the world,” at a time when the growing secularization of the American mainstream had paved the way for the rise of a politically powerful religious right. As the critic Nicholas Rombes notes in his close reading of Blue Velvet, Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech — could this have been the one that struck a chord with Lynch? — even shares some of the movie’s concerns. “We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil,” Reagan said, “or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin.” Jeffrey uses plainer language: “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?” Lynch, who tends to depict moral forces in absolute terms, is often thought to hold a worldview as Manichean as Reagan’s. This fits the standard description of Blue Velvet as a kind of exposé, a film that peels away the facade of normality to reveal a rotting underbelly, just as the camera moves past the grass to discover the bugs beneath. But this greatly oversimplifies the moral scheme of a film that, like so many of Lynch’s, thrives on oppositions — or, to be more precise, on the ever-shifting gaps between things and their opposites, which can widen and narrow and even disappear without warning. “I’m not crazy. I know the difference between right and wrong,” Dorothy tells Jeffrey, sounding positively crazed.

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Lynch has said that “contrast is what makes things work.” The stark binaries in his films — good and evil, darkness and light, innocence and experience, reality and fantasy — are not exactly pitted against each other, but combined and recombined for their potential for disorientation, as reflections that heighten the overall hall-of-mirrors effect.

Blue Velvet could have taken an even darker turn. In one filmed scene that never made the final cut, Dorothy, clad in her blue velvet bathrobe, leads Jeffrey to her rooftop. She removes her red shoe — an obvious reference to the film version of The Wizard of Oz — and throws it off the building. She threatens to follow, leaning over the ledge for a few heart-stopping moments, before Jeffrey pulls her back from the brink. Dorothy’s suicidal impulses are more muted in the finished film: We hear Frank ordering her to “stay alive,” and she screams, “I’m falling,” as she’s driven off in an ambulance. Blue Velvet ends with order restored — Frank dead, Dorothy reunited with her son, Jeffrey and Sandy together — in an epilogue that has the suspiciously heightened feel of the prologue. The filmmaker Douglas Sirk, whom the painter David Salle once termed “the first hyper-real artist,” perfected the “unhappy happy ending” in his Technicolor weepies of the 1950s. Sirk staged his studio-mandated finales for maximum dissonance, often by calling attention to their flagrant artifice.

Almost every review that mentions the manifestly fake robin that shows up at the end of Blue Velvet has described it as mechanical — incorrectly, as it turns out. The story of the robin is so bizarre it could have fit right into the movie. Lynch wanted a real bird, but as Elmes remembers it, the animal wrangler came up short: “The robin they brought us was molting, a ratty-looking bird. It didn’t even look like a robin.” Word got back to the production that a school bus full of kids in Wilmington had struck and killed a robin and that the driver had decided to have it stuffed for the school’s science department. (Could this be the source of the non sequitur scene of wailing kids in a school bus in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me?) The robin was not in fact mechanized but freshly taxidermied, dropped off at the set on its way back to school. Lynch glued the bug to its mouth and animated the bird by attaching wires that he was pulling off-screen.

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Explaining the creepiness of dolls and waxworks, Freud described the uncanny as that which disturbs the boundary between the living and the dead. ( Just a few scenes earlier, in a gruesome tableau in Dorothy’s apartment, Detective Gordon, the man in the yellow suit, was standing upright, suspended between life and death, with a hole in his head but one last shocking spasm left in him.) Elmes recalled that from behind the camera, he told Lynch that the bird he was attempting to puppeteer looked too mechanical: “And he’d say, ‘Yeah, it’ll be great. You’re going to love this!’ Clearly that was his vision for the robin.”

Excerpted from “David Lynch: The Man From Another Place” by Dennis Lim. ©2015 by Dennis Lim. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest November 2015. All Rights Reserved.


Dennis Lim

Dennis Lim is the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

MORE FROM Dennis Lim

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Blue Velvet Books David Lynch Dennis Hopper Editor's Picks Movies Ronald Reagan

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