Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet (1986)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

"It’s a strange world."

This line, repeated several times during the film, perfectly summarizes David Lynch’s brilliant "Blue Velvet". Few people are tepid in their opinion of Mr. Lynch’s work. His followers are dedicated, his detractors adamant. For my money, he is one of the true visionaries working in modern cinema; definitely not to everyone’s taste, but a talented visual artist committed to his vision. It just happens that his visions are often very disturbing.

Jeffrey Beaumont, home from college because of his father’s sudden stroke, discovers a severed ear on the ground of an abandoned lot. He takes the grisly discovery to a detective in his neighborhood who tells him that it may be connected to an ongoing investigation; he instructs Jeffrey not to reveal the discovery to anyone nor to ask any further questions. The detective’s daughter, Sandy, has more information for Jeffrey, having overheard conversations from her bedroom, which is directly over her father’s study. One name in particular keeps surfacing in these conversations: Dorothy Vallens, a lounge singer from the wrong side of the tracks. Sandy has Dorothy’s address, and unable to contain his curiosity, Jeffrey decides to hide in Dorothy’s apartment to discover more about what’s going on. Concealed in Dorothy’s closet he witnesses bizarre and violent events between her and a dangerous man named Frank, and finds himself drawn into a world of sex, drugs, kidnapping, and murder.

The setting of "Blue Velvet" is the middle American town of Lumberton, a cross-section of the country that looks like the American Dream of a 50s sitcom. The production design of the film is splendid; white picket fences, beds of beautiful red roses, red fire engines with smiling firemen, beautiful young girls named Sandy in angora sweaters all help to create a Norman Rockwell milieu that is inviting.

But Lynch wants us to know that nothing is as it seems, and his camera takes us beneath, behind, and inside this world. As Jeffrey probes his mystery we glimpse the dark things festering beneath the façade around us. At one point the camera zooms in to a macro shot of the severed ear, ants crawling all over and inside it. Lynch isn’t content to stop there, though; the camera goes even further, crawling inside the ear itself. It’s unexpected, repugnant, and absolutely fascinating.

"I’m seeing something that was always hidden…I’m in the middle of a mystery and it’s all secret."

"Blue Velvet" is a meticulously crafted film that works on many levels; on the surface is a provocative mystery which we are invited to uncover, but ultimately the mystery itself is less important than what the journey reveals. Almost no one in the film is exactly what they appear to be. At some point everyone’s actions or words come as a surprise, even on the most subtle level. Through these characters the dark undersurface of human nature is revealed in all its sordid glory. Everyone in the film has some secret, even Sandy, the All-American girl. She already has a boyfriend, but chooses to be drawn into Jeffrey’s investigation because the bottom line is that she finds him and this darkness exciting. And that’s the point. As viewers, we find it exciting. Like Jeffrey, we want there to be something horrific going on behind those closed doors.

With complete mastery of his compositions Lynch is a virtuoso of misdirection. Our minds sometimes can’t make immediate sense of what we see until suddenly the shock hits us like a blow from a sledgehammer. He also has a very sharp, dark sense of humor that is prevalent throughout the movie: Dorothy’s apartment complex is called "Deep River"; Frank keeps greeting Jeffrey with a fervent "Hi Neighbor!"; a detective looks in a bag and casually says, "Yes, that’s a human ear all right." Nervous laughs, perhaps, but very funny stuff in context.
"I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert."

A powerful current of sexuality runs throughout "Blue Velvet"; at times we are brought beyond the boundaries of the acceptable and many have found this aspect of the film objectionable. Lynch has a knack for probing the depths of our collective psyches, casting light on things that can be disturbing and difficult to take. It’s one thing to watch a repellent event while safely detached, it’s entirely different when that event seduces us into implicit participation. Very disturbing stuff, here.

The cast is superb, with several actors turning in signature performances in their careers. Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey and Laura Dern as Sandy are perfectly understated as the seemingly innocent youths fascinated with the forbidden. Dean Stockwell, in a brief appearance as a bizarre drug dealer, is absolutely mesmerizing. Isabella Rossellini as Dorothy Vallens, the "lady in distress", gives a fearless performance, plumbing the depths of desperation and degradation with abandon. She manages to be simultaneously sexy and repulsive, and somehow maintain a certain amount of dignity through it all.

But it’s Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of the psychotic, nitrus-inhaling Frank Booth that drives this film like a runaway train. Hopper gives one of the most intense and frightening performances you’ll ever see, making us feel like deer in the headlights as his chaotic violence threatens to go wildly out of control. Frank is like an urban Caligula, giving vent impulsively to every base desire with everyone around him too terrified to do anything but go along for the ride. This movie helped resurrect Hopper’s career and justifiably so.

MGM Home Entertainment presents "Blue Velvet" in an <$PS,widescreen> transfer that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> television sets, <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. The source print is very clean, with only some rare scratches. The transfer is sharp and clear, doing justice to Frederick Elmes’ superb cinematography; I haven’t seen the film look this good since it’s initial release. The colors are gorgeously rendered, which adds tremendously to the impact of the film. Switching between bright primary color schemes to scenes of subtle dark hues, the balancing is very consistent, with fine details in the shadows and no noise in the brighter scenes.

The audio is Dolby Pro-Logic Surround (in both French and English), and is used to incredibly subtle effect. Lynch’s use of industrial sounds intruding on the natural order of things is applied with great care, using the rear channels very skillfully to immerse us in his world without drawing attention to the effects. The haunting and evocative score by Angelo Badalamenti is also served well, working its way around and into the viewer, at times providing support for scenes, at others summoning a vague sense of unease.

There are no real extras, which is a disappointment. We get a trailer and a "Trivia Booklet" which is essentially 2 pages of marginalia that’s fun but very short. A commentary would, of course, have been my first preference, but any extra material would have been most welcomed.

"Blue Velvet" is not for everyone…an adventurous taste for corruption and dark humor is essential. It’s a movie that lifts that beautifully painted rock from the manicured suburban landscape and shows us the squirming things living beneath. The real shock is that if we look hard enough we’re bound to see something that resembles ourselves.

It’s a strange world.