Blue Velvet: Warping Americana

Bobby Vinton’s classic 1963 song “Blue Velvet” plays as the film opens with a shot of beautiful, clear blue skies, white fences and radiantly colorful red roses before slowly cutting to different images portraying the simple, serene life of a small American town, everyone is warm and polite, it’s brightly sunny outside and inside old ladies smile as they watch their favorite television shows: the American dream. The first couple of minutes play themselves out very slowly and achieve an instantaneous sense of tranquil immersion, David Lynch in the opening of the film, and throughout it really, takes little things that symbolize America, whether it’s simply watering your lawn, specific brands like Coca Cola or Heineken, or classic songs, and creates a lively, recognizable setting with them; Blue Velvet’s Lumberton, USA is a place that is almost impossible to pinpoint, it embodies everything America and has an overwhelming sense of nostalgia to it so that one ever knows just when the story takes place: it’s in America, but where really, no one knows, and it’s in the past, but when exactly, again, no one it is in a way, America itself.

But this being a Lynch movie, the story soon takes a much darker turn, and twists and warps everything it momentarily glorified. A man trips on his hose, and the camera slowly moves away from him laying unconscious on the lawn to what hides inside the grass: insects violently fidgeting about. And the story starts. Blue Velvet stars Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey Beaumont, a college student who’s back in his hometown, who after visiting his father at the hospital, finds a severed ear on the ground while walking back home. Showing it to the police and then being asked to stay away from the case only rouses his curiosity, and alongside the police chief’s daughter Sandy (played by a young Laura Dern), he embarks on a quest to solve this mystery he discovered, a quest that leads him to disturbed lounge singers, extreme sexual perversion, dangerous criminals, and life-threatening incidents.

David Lynch’s body of work is as fascinating as it is diverse, sure all of his oeuvres share his trademark qualities of surrealism and weirdness, but if you were to compare Blue Velvet to something from his filmography, it would probably be Twin Peaks. In both works, Lynch creates a very immersive setting that comes to life with incredible attention to even the tiniest of details and makes one quite literally feel at home, plus, Blue Velvet shares the lead actor (among others), tunes by the amazing Julee Cruise, and a tendency to jump into nightmarish worlds: the setting is offered, at first in its most beautiful and wholesome image, and as the film’s antagonist constantly says, “Now it’s dark...”.

Blue Velvet is a bit of a genre bender, psychological horror meets neo-noir, a thriller meets a romance; this mishmash of genres hosts an even more diverse set of themes: from baring the beautified image of the American dream, to a dive into the depths of perverse sexual desires, a classic noir narrative of an everyday person getting drawn in into a web of crime with the classic figures of the femme fatale and a powerful villain, a classic narrative with a touch of Lynch, which is to say, everything feels like a dream half of the film, and in the other, like a horrible nightmare. The worlds of Lynch, and especially here, have an overall sense of theatricality to them, the radiantly colorful colors, the actors’ peculiar, the choice of songs, the camera angles, the often-exaggerated acting... they’re all qualities that go towards granting the picture an incredibly surreal and dreamlike nature, and even at its most hellish, it somehow still manages to feel orchestrated in the midst of the violent chaos.

The film enjoys stellar performances from all of the cast, but Dennis Hopper’s is a knock-out, and in my opinion, his absolute best. His character, Frank Booth, essentially a small-time hood in a small town, gains an incredible sense of danger under his menacing, frightening performance. His sexual perversion and violent tendencies coupled with his extreme mood swings make him deadly in an unexpected way, it really is a bone-chilling performance.

Blue Velvet is my all-time favorite David Lynch movie. I’ve surrendered myself to the nightmarish world of Eraserhead, cried during The Elephant Man, sat with confusion through Mulholland Dr., and wholeheartedly loved all of his works, but it is the creepy, gorgeous world of Lumberton that keeps drawing me back again and again for more Lynch goodness.


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