According to its creator, the idea was born from three disparate feelings and images, which would coalesce in his subconscious over the years like a strange, protracted dream. The first was the title. The second was a bittersweet pop ballad. And the third was a severed human ear.
Two of David Lynch’s feelings appear in Blue Velvet’s opening sequence. The movie rolls its credits against a resplendent drape of the eponymous fabric, before cutting to a cloudless blue sky with white picket fences and red roses. We’re then transported dreamily through the happy, sun-washed suburbia of Lumberton, accompanied by Bobby Vinton crooning the 1963 title track.
Then a gun appears on a TV screen, a hose becomes tangled and a middle-aged man tending his lawn is gripped by seizure. Water spurts chaotically, a dog goes mental and the movie cuts inexplicably to grass. There the camera zooms in, the soundtrack morphs into an unsettling metallic grinding and the scene closes on a frightening close-up of grappling insects.
It’s a cinematic overture like no other, masterfully fusing elegance, surrealism and symbolism to establish the movie’s main themes – and portend the lessons local lad Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachan) will learn over the next two hours. For the man who collapses is Jeffrey’s dad, and Blue Velvet is the tale of how the boy will become an adult, discovering the pain riddled under the seemingly benign and everyday.
Jeffrey’s passage to manhood begins with Lynch’s third feeling, when he discovers a severed human ear in a field. His child-like curiosity inflamed by the mystery, the greenhorn soon becomes entangled in a twisted milieu of crime and sexual abuse. Along the way, he will fall in love with sweetheart Sandy (Laura Dern), experience a sadomasochistic sexual awakening courtesy of the traumatised Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) and come face-to-face with evil in the shape of the psychotic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
Lost innocence is one of Blue Velvet’s main leitmotifs. Wide-eyed and naive, Jeffrey and Sandy soon discover the perversity of the grown-up world, with Frank as its deranged high priest. Violent, unpredictable and babyish in his sadism, he’s a maelstrom of psychological turmoil: the ultimate lost-child unable to bear the pain of the past. And his malevolence feeds off another ruined youth too, as he holds Dorothy’s little boy hostage so he can perform gas-induced mock-rapes on her.
Jeffrey witnesses one of Frank’s sick attacks through the slats of Dorothy’s closet. Like children earwigging on a confusing parental row, both Jeffrey and the audience only ever have a partial view of events, glimpsing fragments of plot and never fully understanding the dark motors driving the action.
This is where Lynch’s disconnected narrative style comes into its own, coaxing us along like a dream in a way that’s unsettling, perplexing yet still emotionally coherent. The weirdness is epitomised by the enigmatic, über-camp Ben (Dean Stockwell), who lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ in a meandering, unforgettable cameo that muddles exposition but feels tonally crucial to the entire film.
It’s a sign of Blue Velvet’s sophistication that it can feel offbeat, elusive and so tightly structured all at once. Cutting edge in its postmodernity and reassuringly old-fashioned in its bildungsroman formula, Lynch’s movie is a fairy tale for Generation X and, like all the best fairy tales, one built on counterpoints.
Whether it’s the use of the natural world to symbolise good and evil (the robins and the insects), the Oedipal framework about the usurping of the father and the bedding of the mother, or the Freudian clash between the conscious and the subconscious, the story simmers with subtext. Then there’s the juxtaposition between light and dark, innocence and experience, surface and reality, and ultimately the tension between the art-house and the mainstream.
Lynch bestrides both these cultural spheres like a colossus, crafting a movie admired by cineastes and lapped up by Joe Public when it was released in September 1986. Blue Velvet is a masterclass in how you can woo the masses and win over the critics though a blend of wit, weirdness, irony and violence that would define so much of America cinema to come. It’s a combination expressed perfectly during the film’s climactic shoot-out, scored to the slushy ballad ‘Love Letters’ in an inspired moment of pop surrealism.
I suppose this article is my love letter to Blue Velvet. Yet in keeping with a film that favours feeling and instinct over logic and exposition, I love it more than words can say. Thirty years on and it remains as fresh and vivid as a red rose in bloom, and as deep and endlessly fascinating as bright blue sky. Or to paraphrase the slogan of Jeffrey’s favourite beer, it refreshes parts other films just can’t reach.
To Lynch, the world is better experienced than explained, sensed instead of analysed. Events unfold with their own mysterious inner logic, teaching us a lesson that, in typical Lynch style, is both corny and profound, and which feels truer the older you become. If you don’t have a dream, says the story of the film, how are you going to have a dream come true?