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The Resolution of Opposites: Blue Velvet at 20

The Film Forum recently hosted a screening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in honor of the 20th anniversary of the film’s release. A Lynch screening draws a crowd as eclectic as one of the director’s films. Punks love Lynch. Professors love Lynch. They come to be served up a mystery. Not simply by genre, but by robust content.

Alternately enticing and repellent, genuine and hokey, highbrow and vulgar, Blue Velvet builds through a series of polarized dynamics. The intrigue of a detective story pulls the audience in. Gauche comedy and over-the-top performances induce an uncomfortable distance. This push and pull creates a constant negotiation with the audience. Momentum builds as we follow just a little further around each narrative turn.

Mystery, more than any other genre, showcases the intellect. The detective assembles clues and the audience attempts to outguess the investigator before the third act reveal. We’re Watson to the hero’s Sherlock Holmes, uncovering the clues right alongside the characters. Blue Velvet abandons these rules. Rather than sidekick, we ride along as parent, psychologist and neglected girlfriend of Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont.

Jeffrey, like his writer/director, possesses a sincere love of mystery. Neither Beaumont nor Lynch follow their investigations through any logical method. Both prefer the fugue state of exploration—peeking through the closet door at a world that doesn’t quite make sense yet. The naked, sensitive receiver replaces the traditional left-brain masculinity of the detective genre.

Though there’s plenty for the mind to chew on, we experience the world through Jeffrey’s senses. This is a movie you feel.

This film marks a sea change for David Lynch, following nearly a decade without final cut or directorial control. He soaks the screen in evocative, high-contrast colors. Like a painting, Blue Velvet evokes an emotional landscape. Neither the story or performances rely on the rational. Blue Velvet shifts between expressionist splatter and portraiture. The audience’s relationship to the film is in constant flux; the visual presentation astonishes in its consistency. The images evoke a hologram: all components are so specifically attuned to this otherworldly universe that any fragment contains the whole.

Blue Velvet owes much of its disquieting power to the meticulous attention to the audio track. The sound team included Lynch and longtime collaborator Alan Splet (Academy Award Winner for The Black Stallion and nominee for the overlooked Never Cry Wolf). The project also marked the first collaboration between the director and composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose name has become synonymous with David Lynch films. Badalamenti brought Julee Cruise, who lends her angelic voice to the soundtrack. The real sonic treasure comes from Roy Orbison whose “In Dreams” haunts the darkest and perhaps most transcendent moments in the film.

These disparate forces create more than a disposable date night thriller. In 1986, critics viewed Blue Velvet as clever deconstructionism. Lynch blends two 1950’s worlds that never truly existed —the wholesome utopia of The Cleavers and Donna Reed with the wet noir terror of Sunset Boulevard and Night of the Hunter. Though post-modern in construction, the film avoids glib self-awareness. The director doesn’t simply tear apart what’s come before or remix it for a new audience. Lynch postulates an alternative for what a film can be.

Where other directors took lessons in symmetry and pacing from Kubrick and Hitchcock, Lynch took feeling. Though both directors fought reputations of technique trumping emotion, both were masters at manipulating how the audience feels. Blue Velvet echoes the palpable lust and jealousy that permeated the screen in Lolita. And that moment in Psycho when your allegiance changes from Janet Leigh to Anthony Perkins. Lynch captures these evocative impacts and can summon them at will. The emotional currents that drive the film stick with us 20 years on.

David Lynch appears far less self-conscious about his place in the film world than his contemporaries, preferring the much richer context of art history. He began his career as a painter. Fond of dark, moody landscapes, the young artist felt confined by the limits of the medium. He wanted his paintings to move. In his first short, Six Figures Getting Sick, Lynch hand painted images directly onto film to be projected onto sculpture.

Blue Velvet has more in common with the director’s rich, non-cinematic oeuvre than any thriller or neo-noir before or since. The offbeat dissociations of narrative recur in works like the BAM produced Industrial Symphony No. 1 and the director’s book of photography, Images. As in film, Lynch presents just enough story to encourage the audience to look deeper. Blue Velvet became the template for Twin Peaks, another small town “filled with secrets.” The director’s latest efforts outside of film—the flash series Dumbland and episodic Rabbits stories—can be found at All evoke Lynch’s trademark aesthetic: The terror and charm of a hidden world right before our eyes.

As a young man, Lynch left America to study under Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. The planned three year expedition lasted fifteen days. Kokoschka wasn’t there. Bounced back to the US, Lynch moved in with the family of a high school friend. To earn his keep, Lynch was charged with the task of painting the house. He began with the second story washroom, painting the entire room with a one-inch fan brush. The endeavor took three days, including an entire day spent painting the contours of the radiator.

He was young. He didn’t really know what he was doing. He pressed on and painted this upstairs bath in his own, distinct manner. He ended with a rich and densely layered finished product.

This is the essence of Blue Velvet. The film ripples with vibrant experimentation. Trial and error informs every scene. Lynch may not always have the right answers or wield an exacting command from the director’s chair, yet by the curtain’s fall of Blue Velvet, we’ve watched the artist find his voice.


Patrick Levell


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2006

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