Continuing my compulsive pursuit of David Lynch films is Blue Velvet. Now, this is a classic and arguably Lynch’s most acclaimed film. It’s also probably his most controversial. After what I had seen so far, to say I had high expectations for this film would be an understatement. While I did enjoy it and found it interesting, it did fall short of them unfortunately. I can see some of the good things and bad things in it, and ultimately would say it’s definitely worth anybody’s time, however if I were the one who decides these things I may not have classified it as a classic.
Blue Velvet, like so many of the director’s works, is the story of hidden evil and perversion under a conventional American town. The story starts as Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), discovers a severed ear in a field behind an apartment building. The effort to discover the mystery behind the ear leads him to a seedy underworld of sexual deviancy, kidnapping, and murder. He is torn between the two sides of his life, represented by a local high school girl Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) and nightclub singer Dorthy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini).
He soon discovers that Dorthy’s husband and young son have been kidnapped by gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Frank keeps Dorthy as a sexual slave in exchange for the lives of her husband and son. She is sad about not having them, and probably even suicidal, but also recognizes that she likes being brutalized. When Jeffery stumbles into the picture, even though he’s trying to help her, she wants to be treated in a similar way (though it clearly is voluntary in this case).
In his infamous condemnation of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that the darker side of the story was not shown the respect it deserved because it was made fun of by the lighter side of the story. For my part, I don’t really see the lighter part of the story disrespectful as much as I find it more boring. I think the film would have been much stronger than it is if it had, as Ebert writes, “continued to develop its story in a straight line, if it had followed more deeply into the implications of the first shocking encounter between Rossellini and MacLachlan” and “made some real emotional discoveries.” The most powerful scene in the film for me was when MacLachlan is thinking back on what Rossellini has had him to do her, and cries in horror at the darkness within himself. But this horror quickly goes away by the end of the film, as everything is returned to normal. The robins come out, MacLachlan has Dern, Rossellini has her son, and no one seems to be at all bothered by the discoveries they made about themselves and their town. I’m merely wondering how this could be. MacLachlan was clearly disturbed before, why isn’t he now? Even though he killed Hopper, darkness still lives on within him, but I suppose he doesn’t recognize it and maybe that’s part of Lynch’s point. While I should try to criticize the movie on the basis of what it does show rather than what it doesn’t, I confess I would have liked to have seen what MacLachlan and Rossellini’s characters do with what they’ve found out about themselves. I would have liked to have seen them confront it as MacLachlan does in his crying scene, but instead they ignore it.
Another way of putting it: I wasn’t as disturbed by this film as I thought I would be. I have read a good deal about it, so while I didn’t know the specifics as much I knew it was supposed to be disturbing. I don’t really blame this on over hype, though I will grant that that could be party responsible. There are parts of this movie that are disturbing, but the movie on the whole, ending the way it does, barely even scarred me. I’m pretty sensitive so this shouldn’t be happening. I realize this is completely my own reaction and will not necessarily translate to others, but I have a feeling that maybe some will feel the way I do. Lynch takes things pretty far in this film, but somehow not far enough. He doesn’t stick with it to make sure we fully feel the gravity of the evil he’s trying to depict and the magnitude of its discovery. The hidden evil in Blue Velvet is relatively easy to hide. (This sort of relates to what I was saying in my review of Twin Peaks about how the evil there has more depth and is ultimately more powerful, and therefore is able to be explored more.)
Aside from that, the most annoying thing about this movie is that Lynch takes such great pains to be understood. He does keep using motiffs throughout, but most of the them are incredibly obvious. My favorite things about Lynch’s films are the absurdity and the multiple interpretations. Here he is very obvious about what he’s doing. Take the robins for example. Laura Dern’s character relates a dream in which the robins symbolize love, and she comes right out and explains the whole thing. So when (SPOILER ALERT) robins show up at the end of the movie, and she reminds us, again, that they symbolize the triumph of love. Thanks for the news flash. The titular blue velvet and the song that goes with it are repeated over and over again, and again it’s pretty obvious that its a symbol of the sexual perversion that Hopper’s character embodies.
Blue Velvet is most definitely a good film. In agreeing with Ebert, I wouldn’t go as far to give it only one star as he did. However, I also wouldn’t quite call it great, because it delivers so much less than it could have. It obviously works for a lot of people, and that’s great, but I wanted more. It’s definitely worth anybody’s time to watch, I wouldn’t warn anybody off it, but it could have been more.
“It’s a strange world.”
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