By J.D. Lafrance
By 1984, director David Lynch was on top of the world. He had received critical acclaim and eight Academy Award nominations for The Elephant Man in 1980 and was on the verge of releasing his next film, Dune (1984), an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel. Many speculated on how this young auteur would be able to translate such a complex text to film. Dino De Laurentiis, who poured over $50 million into the project, was hoping that it would become the next Star Wars (1977).
If anyone could pull it off, it was the man who brought us that cult classic, Eraserhead in 1977. Dune promptly flopped. Critics despised it and crowds stayed away in droves. To his credit, it was not all Lynch’s fault. Studio executives moved in, took away final cut privileges from Lynch, and tried to condense over four hours of footage into a barely watchable two-hour film. The result was an unorganized, if not visually stunning motion picture that seemed like highlights of Herbert’s book.
Drained from such a harrowing ordeal and frustrated over the whole mess, Lynch took some time off to develop a more personal project that he had been working on while filming Dune. Surprisingly, De Laurentiis decided to give Lynch another chance, but only with the stipulation that he take a cut in his salary and work with a reduced budget of only $6 million. In return, the young director could have total artistic freedom and control over the final cut. Lynch surprised everyone with his hauntingly beautiful ode to small-town America, Blue Velvet (1986).
“In a way, this is still a fantasy film. It’s like a dream of strange desires wrapped inside a mystery story. It’s what could happen if you ran out of fantasy.”
– David Lynch
The brilliance of this film is apparent right from the opening montage that begins with the image of blood red roses in front of a stark white picket fence and continues with a fireman waving from his truck, to a crossing guard motioning children across a street. Everything is heightened in color and slowed down to an almost surreal level which invokes the feeling of being trapped, as one critic observed, in a “nightmarish image of small-town life in America.” Lynch reinforces these romantic images of 1950s Americana with Bobby Vinton’s classic version of “Blue Velvet” playing on the soundtrack. By using colors and music to create a dreamy, nostalgic mood, Lynch draws us into his strange world.
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) has returned home from college after his father suffers a stroke. While walking home from the hospital one day, he finds a severed ear lying in a field. The ear, for Lynch was like “finding a ticket to another world you know, it would change your life.” The ear draws Jeffrey into a mysterious world of intrigue and dangerous characters.
There is Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), an exotic looking singer who is involved in a bizarre, sadomasochistic relationship with local psycho Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a man of truly frightening proportions. To aid Jeffrey in his adventure, he enlists the help of Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the beautiful girl next door, whose father just happens to be the detective in charge of investigating the severed ear. As the film progresses, Jeffrey is torn between the dark, seductive world of Dorothy and the safe, wholesome world that Sandy represents. The mystery culminates when these two worlds inevitably collide.
Blue Velvet‘s origins ultimately lie in Lynch’s childhood – a period of his life spent deep in the forests of Spokane, Washington. For Lynch, there was a definite “autobiographical level to the movie. Kyle is dressed like me. My father was a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture in Washington. We were in the woods all the time. I’d sorta had enough of the woods by the time I left, but still, lumber and lumberjacks, all this kinda thing, that’s America to me like the picket fences and the roses in the opening shot. It’s so burned in, that image, and it makes me feel so happy.”
Clearly this fascination with wood translates over into the film with not only the name of the town Lumberton, but also a scene where a truck transporting huge logs goes by the camera to gorgeous shots of tree-lined streets that all contain echoes of Lynch’s childhood memories. The director would delve even deeper into the forests of his childhood with Twin Peaks, which also contained numerous references to wood and trees.
If Lynch’s childhood memories inspired the setting of Blue Velvet, the actual story of the film originated from three ideas that crystallized in the filmmaker’s mind over a period of time. Ideas for Blue Velvet had begun to form in Lynch’s head as early as 1973 but at that time he “only had a feeling and a title.”
After finishing The Elephant Man, he met producer Richard Roth over coffee. Roth had read and enjoyed Lynch’s Ronnie Rocket script but did not think it was something he wanted to produce. He asked Lynch if the filmmaker had any other scripts but the director only had ideas. “I told him I had always wanted to sneak into a girl’s room to watch her into the night and that, maybe, at one point or another, I would see something that would be the clue to a murder mystery.
Roth loved the idea and asked me to write a treatment. I went home and thought of the ear in the field.” The idea of sneaking into a girl’s room survived the many drafts and changes to appear in a scene where Jeffrey sneaks into Dorothy’s apartment one night. However, Lynch took the idea one step further and Jeffrey evolves from being more than just a voyeur to an actual participant in the very mystery that he is fascinated by.
The image of a severed, human ear lying in a field has since become one of the most striking visuals of the film. “I don’t know why it had to be an ear. Except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body a hole into something else … The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind so it felt perfect,” Lynch remarked in an interview. For the filmmaker, the severed ear was the perfect way to draw Jeffrey into a secret world that lies at the heart of Blue Velvet.
The third idea that came to Lynch was Bobby Vinton’s classic rendition of the song “Blue Velvet,” and “the mood that came with that song a mood, a time, and things that were of that time.” This song proved to be such a favorite with Lynch that he not only has Vinton’s version in the film but Dorothy also sings it during one of her performances at the Slow Club. The song continues the blue velvet motif that appears throughout the film from the curtain or robe of velvet in the opening credits to the piece of material that Frank carries with him. There is something unsettling, yet also beautiful about the texture of velvet that Lynch’s film uses quite effectively.
Once these three ideas came to Lynch, he and Roth pitched it at Warner Brothers who showed interest in the project. So, Lynch spent two years writing two drafts which, by his own admission, “were horrible!” The problem with them was that “there was maybe all the unpleasantness in the film but nothing else. A lot was not there.
And so it went away for a while.” After his experiences with Dune, Lynch returned to Blue Velvet and much to his surprise, “all the right ideas came to me right away, as if they had been on my mind all that time.” He wrote two more drafts before he was satisfied with the script. Conditions at this point were ideal for Lynch’s film: he had cut a deal with De Laurentiis that gave him complete artistic freedom and final cut privileges. Blue Velvet was also the smallest film on the De Laurentiis’ roster and so Lynch was left alone for the most part. “After Dune I was down so far that anything was up! So it was just a euphoria. And when you work with that kind of feeling, you can take chances. You can experiment.”
Blue Velvet clearly demonstrates Lynch as an artist at the top of his form. This is due in large part to the exceptional crew he assembled for this film. Long time collaborator, Alan Splet (who had worked with Lynch ever since Eraserhead) contributed the complex sound scheme that ingeniously complements Lynch’s images. This is evident in the unsettling “moaning hallways” of Dorothy Vallens’ apartment building that seem almost organic in nature due in large part to Splet’s disturbing soundscape. Splet also shines in the film’s surrealistic montages where sound and image are distorted to a nightmarish level.
Frederick Elmes‘ lush cinematography is also a crucial element to the unique look that permeates Lynch’s films. As film critic Pauline Kael observed in her review of the film, Elmes’ photography gives Blue Velvet “a comparable tactility; real streets look like paintings you could touch.” This look is Lynch’s trademark style and harkens back to his other fascination: painting. Lynch’s background lies in the fine art of painting and as a result Blue Velvet contains scenes that have a still life quality to them.
In contrast, Elmes’ technique evokes classical Hollywood cinema in the way scenes are lit and staged and yet they effortlessly slip into surrealism with the aid of Lynch’s often absurd situations. The perfect example of this blend is the famous “joyride” sequence where Frank takes an unwilling Jeffrey and Dorothy to Ben’s (Dean Stockwell), a place where obese women sit passively while Ben, complete with Kabuki white make-up and “suave” demeanor, lip-synchs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” In this scene, Elmes combines film noir lighting with a dark color scheme that enhances and establishes the eerie, dream-like mood synonymous to all of Lynch’s films.
Lynch got the idea to use “In Dreams” while he was rehearsing scenes from the film with Kyle MacLachlan and Isabella Rossellini in New York City. Lynch heard Roy Orbison’s “Crying” while on a cab ride through the city. He had originally planned to use Orbison’s “Crying” for the scene at Ben’s with Dennis Hopper singing along with it – not Dean Stockwell. Lynch bought a Greatest Hits album of Orbison’s and after hearing “In Dreams” decided to use that song instead.
Hopper kept putting off memorizing the song and so Lynch got Dean Stockwell (who had been good friends with Hopper from way back) to help him work out the song and memorize the lyrics. On the day they shot the scene, Hopper still hadn’t memorized the song. Lynch remembers that, “we were rehearsing and Dean said, ‘I’ll stand here and kind of help Dennis if he needs it.’ So we started playing the music and both Dennis and Dean began to sing ‘In Dreams.’
All of a sudden Dennis stops singing and looks at Dean – who’s continuing to sing. Dennis is solidly in character and he is moved by Dean’s (Ben’s) singing. There was the scene in front of me. It was so perfect.” This bit of improvisation also led to another memorable moment – the “microphone” that Ben uses when he sings “In Dreams.” Originally, Stockwell was going to use “a small candle-style table lamp,” but when he rehearsed the scene, Lynch remembers that, “he picked up a work light that was hanging on a nail on the wall. He turned it on and flipped the long cord like a microphone cord and obviously it couldn’t have been more perfect.”
Blue Velvet also marked the first time Lynch worked with composer Angelo Badalamenti who provides a seductively lavish score. To complement Elmes’ classical Hollywood look, Badalamenti’s score mimics the melodramatic soundtracks of Douglas Sirk’s films with its dramatic swells during intense moments and calm lulls with romantic interludes. Blue Velvet would mark the beginning of a long-lasting partnership with Badalamenti who has since composed the music for almost every subsequent project that Lynch has done.
The film’s excellent ensemble cast is another area that the film excels in. Lynch has a real knack for reviving the careers of seasoned actors and Blue Velvet is no exception. Who could forget Dennis Hopper’s memorable role as the helium-inhaling, demented criminal, Frank Booth? You never know what is going to happen when Hopper appears on screen and it is this unpredictability that really separates Frank from other screen villains.
However, Lynch was not sure he wanted Hopper to play the role (future Lynch film psycho Robert Loggia auditioned for the role). Lynch remembers, “Dennis Hopper’s name had come up in meetings before, but as soon as it did, it was shot down because of his reputation. Not because he wasn’t right, but because his reputation was so strong that it was just out of the question.
And that was sad, because he had been off everything for over a year and a half and no one really knew that. So his manager told me that Dennis was totally different and that we could phone the producers whom he had just worked with to check.” In fact, Hopper was so set on this role that Lynch remembers getting a call from the actor who said, “’I have to play Frank because I am Frank.’ Well that almost blew the deal right there. But he was truly great to work with.” It is interesting to note the effect that this role had on Hopper’s career whose villainous roles had been patterned after his classic turn in Blue Velvet.
Lynch also revived the career of Dean Stockwell who appears in a scene stealing cameo as Ben, Frank’s “suave” partner in crime. The “joyride” scene where Frank and company visit Ben is a classic moment where Stockwell’s effeminate character and Hopper’s macho psycho meet. The two veteran actors clearly enjoy their characters and it shows in their performances as they play their roles to the hilt. “I loved that role, but I knew going in that it was going to be a risk because it was so strange a film and everybody in it automatically got caught up in the strangeness.” Stockwell remembers. The result is a truly unsettling, yet somewhat humorous scene as we are never sure what is going to happen next due to Hopper and Stockwell’s unpredictable behavior. This uncertainty only heightens the terror of the scene as we wonder if Jeffrey will live to see its conclusion.
Lynch not only has the ability to resurrect the careers of veteran actors, but discover new talent as well. Fresh from his role in Dune, Kyle MacLachlan is a dead ringer for the director, adding an interesting autobiographical twist to the film. MacLachlan expertly captures the inner turmoil that Jeffrey struggles with throughout the film and manages to hold his own against such great actors as Dennis Hopper.
This role would cement the young actor’s place as a Lynch regular, most notably appearing as the beloved Special Agent Dale Cooper in the Twin Peaks television show and feature film. Laura Dern also turns in an excellent performance in what could have been a one-dimensional girlfriend role. Dern’s performance has a depth that suggests, much like all the other characters, that she harbors some deep, dark secret, kept in check by her all-American purity. She is the perfect contrast to Isabella Rossellini’s mysterious, femme fatale character.
Lynch admits that, at the time, he “didn’t even know Isabella Rossellini was an actress. I just happened to meet her in a restaurant in New York and we discussed the movie. I told her I was casting it, not even realizing she was an actress. Then a week later I was looking at a copy of Screen World and I found a picture of her from a film she did with the Taviani brothers, and I said, ‘Good night! She’s an actress!’ So I got a script to her that afternoon, and she loved it instantly. She felt that she knew Dorothy and that she knew the part. So, because of her attitude and because I felt she was right in every way, it happened.”
The film was supposed to have a limited release, playing predominantly in film festivals all over the world. However, after several successful screenings in Europe, De Laurentiis told Lynch that “maybe a wider audience will like this film.” And so, a sneak preview was organized in the United States, at a theater that was supposed to be showing Top Gun (1986). It did not go well. In retrospect, Lynch thought that this screening was “actually a good thing because he (De Laurentiis) didn’t have high expectations after that. So whatever came was frosting on the cake. And it was one of his most successful films that year.”
It has been more than 25 years since Blue Velvet shocked and divided audiences with its peculiar vision of America. Many critics loved the film, some declaring it one of the best films of the 1980s. Almost the same number hated it. For every Pauline Kael who gave it a favorable review, there was a Rex Reed who thought it to be “one of the sickest films ever made.” Critic John Simon even went so far as claiming the film to be pornography which, as he put it, “pretends to be art, and is taken for it by most critics, has dishonesty and stupidity as well as grossness on its conscience.”
Yet for such vehemence, Blue Velvet has endured. Its legacy is widespread. Many articles and essays have been written about Lynch’s film since its release in an attempt to unlock many of the film’s mysteries and symbols that are buried throughout. Its look and mood has influenced many films since.
One only has to look at Lynch’s own career with Twin Peaks, a tamer, televised version of Blue Velvet, to see that the auteur has had a difficult time surpassing this watershed film, but in recent years he’s come very close with films like Mulholland Drive (2001). He proved with Blue Velvet that just when everyone had him pegged, he released a film that established him as a director with real talent and the ability to create a world with fascinating characters that eerily mirrors our own.
Alaton, Salem. “An American Nightmare.” The Globe and Mail. September 19, 1986.
Borden, Lizzie. “The World According to Lynch.” Village Voice. September 23, 1986.
Bouzereau, Laurent. “Blue Velvet – An Interview with David Lynch.” Cineaste. 1987.
Breskin, David. Inner Views: Filmmakers in Conversation. Faber and Faber, 1992.
Chute, David. “Out to Lynch.” Film Comment. October 1986. 32-35.
L’Ecuyer, Gerald. “Out of Bounds.” Interview. 1986.
Lynch on Lynch. Ed. Chris Rodley. Faber and Faber, 1997.