"Blue Velvet"’s mystery of masculinity: How David Lynch's masterwork reshaped American consciousness

The 30-year-old dreamlike crime classic "Blue Velvet" was way ahead of its time -- and still is

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 28, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Kyle MacLachlan in "Blue Velvet"   (MGM)
Kyle MacLachlan in "Blue Velvet" (MGM)

Right about the midpoint of David Lynch’s 1986 breakthrough “Blue Velvet” — and given Lynch’s structural obsessions, it may literally be the midpoint — there is a brief sequence that captures this powerful, disorienting film and all its themes in miniature. It begins when Frank Booth, the psychotic, charismatic antihero played by Dennis Hopper, turns and looks at the audience (he certainly isn’t speaking to any specific person) and announces, “I’ll fuck anything that moves!” Then Frank disappears, literally. The room where he’s standing, in a dreary apartment Frank has described as “pussy heaven,” is seen empty for a second or two.

I don’t know if I have the shot order right, but then the scene shifts and we get a number of shots in rapid succession: the double yellow line on a rural highway; the front grill of Frank’s Dodge Charger; Frank’s sweaty face, looking demented or ecstatic; the face of our hero, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), looking nervous; the movie’s femme fatale, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), wedged between two guys in the back seat; and the speedometer as it nudges above 100 mph. The bad guy, the good guy, the dangerous girl and a fast car on a midnight ride. All the most alluring, addictive and ambiguous elements of American cinema, in about six seconds.

I’m old enough to remember the impact “Blue Velvet” had on its initial release, and I was already old enough then to have screwed-up relationships. I was mad because my then-girlfriend went to see it with another guy, so I was determined to have a bad opinion of the film: Oh, sure, a dreamlike, perverse and erotic crime thriller from the director of “Eraserhead,” starring the counterculture hero of “Easy Rider” and the gorgeous daughter of a legendary Italian filmmaker! How good could that be?

To make matters worse, one of my roommates, a crazy, chain-smoking French girl I never successfully slept with, came home from seeing it completely freaked out, and electrified, and made me stay up all night so she could tell me what a horrible and amazing experience it was. I tried to fact-check this anecdote with another ex-roommate, who was then her boyfriend, and he reports that she actually walked out of the movie after the scene when Jeffrey hides in the closet and watches Frank and Dorothy have kinky sex that’s right on the border between consensual BDSM and rape. So he was mad at the time, and now he’s going to be mad at me for saying that I wanted to sleep with his girlfriend, 30 years ago. This is how “Blue Velvet” messes up people’s lives.

Anyway, at some point I went to see “Blue Velvet” myself, however resentfully, and of course I was traumatized and blown away. In terms of alternative culture during the Reagan year — not just independent film but fashion and visual art and overall psychic Zeitgeist — there was before “Blue Velvet” and there was after. Consider Frank’s immortal line of dialogue: “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!” We are still dealing with the effects of that decades later, when recent college graduates in Williamsburg and Austin and Echo Park know that they are supposed to drink the crappy, watery beer with the awesome logo design, but don’t really know why. (Heineken is of course much better beer. Hell, Coors is better beer.)

Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” which came along eight years later, was both a more popular film and more widely imitated. It was easier to imitate, for one thing, but I don’t think “Pulp Fiction” has anywhere near the mysterious psychological profundity of “Blue Velvet,” or that its effects were ultimately as far-reaching. Lynch and Tarantino are far more different than similar, but there is certainly some overlap: Both translated a set of arcane 20th-century artistic and cinematic references into the language of post-boomer pop culture, and both created works that became poles of an ambiguous new American canon.

Lynch often talks in interviews about his love for “movies that make you dream,” often referring back to 1960s European art films his fans quite likely have not seen. (This is shorthand, but if Tarantino is the offspring of Jean-Luc Godard, Lynch’s parentage leads to Bergman and Fellini.) In one sense, that’s Lynch’s admission that he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing or why he’s doing it when he makes a film.

“Blue Velvet” bears more resemblance to normal narrative cinema than several of the Lynch movies that followed it, including “Lost Highway,” “Mulholland Drive” (subject of this legendary exegesis published on Salon) and the nearly impenetrable “Inland Empire.” It has a hero and a villain, a blonde and a brunette, and a slowly unfolding criminal mystery that almost makes sense. But the seeds of those ambiguous, shape-shifting and often nightmarish later works are clearly visible in “Blue Velvet” now, and its similarity to a classic American crime movie is deceptive. “Blue Velvet” treats crime cinema as a dream spun from the collective American unconscious; it both evoked the dream state and shaped the dreams of everyone who watched it.

I recently watched the spectacular 30th-anniversary digital restoration of “Blue Velvet” at New York’s Film Forum, where it opened this weekend. (Other cities and dates will follow, and it’s safe to assume a home-video rerelease is in the works.) I think I saw the film on VHS at some point in the ‘90s, but I hadn’t seen it projected since the original release. Yes, the cars and the hairstyles look dated — Frank Booth’s American-hoodlum wardrobe remains timeless — but even after 30 years of quotation and emulation, “Blue Velvet” is as powerful and strange as ever. It doesn’t feel contemporary, exactly, but it never did. Lynch’s vision of polymorphous, perverse, gender-blurred sexuality was far ahead of its time in 1986, and remains so in a different register today, in our neo-Puritan age of terminological caution and mandatory sensitivity.

Rather than write another review of one of the most discussed and debated films ever made, I bounced a few questions and observations off my friend Martha P. Nochimson, a critic and scholar who knows Lynch and has interviewed him numerous times. Martha has published two outstanding books that illuminate his life and his films: “The Passion of David Lynch,” on the director’s early years, up to and including and foray into Hollywood with the 1990 “Wild at Heart,” and “David Lynch Swerves,” which focuses on the later, more disorienting works that followed. Even where I disagree with Martha’s opinions or interpretations, or especially then, she compels me to see things in this director, and his 1986 masterwork, that I hadn’t seen before.

Martha, I will start with the obvious observation that in “Blue Velvet,” David Lynch employs or evokes many of the symbols or plot devices of film noir, but the end product barely resembles noir at all. There is a hero drawn into the criminal underworld, a good girl (fair) and a bad girl (dark), a charismatic but dangerous antihero. I could go on: the bad girl is a nightclub singer, the bad guy has a fast car that expresses sexual potency, there’s an elaborate criminal scheme that makes no sense, and for unexplained reasons the protagonist descends into creepy erotic obsession. What do you see in the film that helps Lynch both fulfill all these conventions of American crime cinema and also leave them behind?

Applying the conventions of noir to Lynch loses both the poetry and originality of Lynch and the power of noir. The dark, dangerous woman and the fair, nurturing girl are longstanding literary conventions -- but not of noir. The essential femme fatale of noir is not always dark. Does the name Elsa Bannister strike a familiar chord? [She is the title character played by Rita Hayworth in Orson Welles’ “The Lady From Shanghai.”] And there aren't always the dark and light pair. See the same film for reference, and many more.

The noir hero tends to be world-weary and deeply scarred when he meets the femme fatale. [Whereas Jeffrey Beaumont, the character played by Kyle MacLachlan in “Blue Velvet,” is innocent and unworldly.] But what is constant in noir is that all the problems of the world are linked to female sexuality. The opposite is true in “Blue Velvet.” The darkness Jeffrey finds is in masculinity -- Frank and his minions. Nor are Sandy [Laura Dern] and Dorothy [Rossellini] neatly polarized. Dorothy is sensual but overwhelmed. Sandy is naive but strong, and has her own connections to darkness. That's where she emerges for Jeffrey.

That said, this movie is not the anti-noir either. When Lynch says that 90 percent of the time he doesn't know what he's found he's not kidding. That's how artists work. It's craftsmen-storytellers who intentionally work within and against conventions. For Lynch, there is only vision, and all he has seen or heard will be used by his vision. But to reduce “Blue Velvet” to familiar fragments that have gotten caught up in his vision is to be estranged from the film. And what is the vision of “Blue Velvet?” The mystery of masculinity, which reaches critical mass in Meadow Lane when Frank tells Jeffrey: “You're like me.”

Well, that’s one of the questions and challenges people keep posing to Jeffrey, which present an intriguing pattern and speak to the dreamlike quality of the film, and the dream logic of the storytelling. On this viewing, I felt strongly that the performances of the supporting cast — his older female relatives, or Detective Williams, the cop who is also Sandy’s dad, or Mike, Sandy’s ridiculous letterman boyfriend — are intentionally flat or blank. It has the effect of suggesting that those people don’t matter or aren’t quite real, and makes the four principal characters (Jeffrey, Sandy, Dorothy and Frank) stand out even more. One way to interpret the narrative, it seems to me, is that the severed ear Jeffrey finds in a field is like the rabbit hole of “Alice in Wonderland,” a portal or passage into a symbolic realm that may not be the same one where Jeffrey’s story begins.

Sandy asks Jeffrey, “Are you a detective or a pervert?” He does not answer the question. Dorothy Vallens asks him “Do you like me?” — but only after she has seduced him into sexual acts that, at least officially, he doesn’t want to perform. (The real question might be whether Jeffrey likes himself.) Frank asks Jeffrey whether he wants to go for a ride, and whether he has ever been to “Pussy Heaven.” (That one cracks me up, partly because of how profoundly unsexy Pussy Heaven turns out to be.) Again, the answers to both questions are officially no, but out in the audience we know better.

One of the oddest and most striking moments in the film comes when Jeffrey says to Sandy, “You’re a neat girl,” and she responds without hesitation, “So are you.” It takes a full beat before she corrects herself, and she seems confused about why she said that. You just mentioned “the mystery of masculinity” as the central issue. Sandy’s strange response suggests that Jeffrey is literally “unmanned,” and that this story presents a realm where heterosexual, monogamous norms of sexuality and gender have been overthrown. What gender is Jeffrey? Are his two female lovers different people or the same person? Is Frank straight, gay or bisexual? Is Dorothy abused and victimized, or a woman exploring her sexuality? Those questions don’t have answers, partly because Lynch never offers us any moral high ground or platform of narrative certainty from which to render such verdicts.

Let's go back to the line I quoted above. In the original script for “Blue Velvet,” what Frank tells Jeffrey before the beating in Meadow Lane is “You like me.” But in the filmed scene it sounds like, “You're like me.” Lynch was receptive to a happy accident that enlivened his art, and either re-recorded the line to make it clearer or kept the mistake.

Just as Lynch's artistry is founded on receptivity, Jeffrey's journey leads him to evolve a receptive manhood by following the images in his subconscious as he crosses the line that separates the flat, blank, normal people you mention from the depraved Frank. “Blue Velvet” depicts normality as an illusion that limits aggression by forbidding knowledge and vision.

Jeffrey will not have masculine identity like that of the darkly comic normal Detective Williams or Mike [Sandy’s boyfriend], with their pale frustrated aggressions. Mike even sounds like Frank manqué when he tries to get even with Jeffrey for taking Sandy away from him. But he won't develop the sadistic aggressions of Frank either, though he sees the attraction. Frank knows only the base lower depths of the subconscious. Jeffrey gains vision, by going through the depths to a larger receptive knowledge.

The beating in Meadow Lane liberates Jeffrey, instead of intimidating him as Frank intends. Both Lynch as artist and Jeffrey as detective expose themselves to being thought of as perverts as they build the architecture of visionary, receptive manhood, in opposition to the cultural myth that aggression and violence are the hallmarks of a "real man.”

The 30th-anniversary restoration of ”Blue Velvet” is now playing at Film Forum in New York, with further dates and cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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