The friend I do movie night with had never seen this, so it was always on the list, but I became re-energized to see it after reading Pauline Kael’s rave review from way back when. This is the fourth time I’ve seen it, and the first time I fully felt like I knew what was going on, and enjoyed it more than I ever have. And of course there’s the pleasure of showing this to someone who has never seen it and has NO idea what it’s about.
The first thing we see is a wonderful very luminous blue velvet curtain, slowly undulating under the credits. And now the justly famous opening sequence: We see bright red tulips against a white picket fence before a brilliant blue sky. A fire truck rolls down the street, the firemen waving at us. A woman holds a stop sign as kids cross a street. Inside one of the houses, a woman [who will be revealed to be our main character’s mother] watches a suspense film; a very generic B&W image of a gun as its holder slowly stalks into a room. Outside a man [our protagonist’s father] waters the lawn. The hose tangles and pressure builds, and the man has a seizure and falls. A dog laps at the still-running hose as a baby slowly wanders in from the yard next door. We zoom in to the lawn, closer, until we see, below the surface, a number of roiling beetles, the sound of roaring lions on the soundtrack. This is all commonly interpreted as first an introduction to this sweet, homespun, idyllic small-town community, and then a statement that all this nasty corruption is teeming underneath the placid surface.
Now we meet Kyle McLachlan as Jeffery, who has come home from college to see his father, who was the guy who had the seizure, and now lies in the hospital with this horrifying cage around his head. On Jeffrey’s walk home through a field, he finds a severed ear, ants crawling all over it. He takes it to a detective in town.
That night, Jeffery goes over to the detective’s house to see if there’s any developments. His mother is once more watching a suspense movie, this time an iconic image of a man’s feet slowly climbing a set of stairs. Of course the detective can’t tell him anything. He meets the detective’s daughter, Sandy, hanging around outside. Sandy is played by Laura Dern, and she gets a wonderfully iconic opening shot as she walks into the light from beneath the shade of a tree [below]. She has heard her father discussing a “girl singer” who lives in an apartment building not far. Jeffery convinces her to show him, and on the way back they flirt and grow to like each other.
At one point a car drives by and the guys inside make a come-on to Sandy. There are modern cars in the background, but this car is a 50s cruiser, and this is emblematic of how the entire movie has been quite self-consciously styled in the manner of the 50s. The houses, the décor, the dresses, even the wholesome, all-American names of the characters [especially Sandy] reflect this kind of sanitized Americana from 50s melodramas and suspense films. Furthermore, Lynch shoots a lot of this stuff in iconic shots—like the opening tulips with the picket fence, Sandy’s emergence from under the tree, or a shot of a street sign reading Lincoln Street, accompanied by a burst of significant music, refer to the innocent, wholesome films of 30 years before, and Lynch seems to be interested in delving into a nightmarish underground that he sees lurking beneath them. All of this can be sensed unconsciously without having to have a high-level “understanding” of what Lynch is doing technically, indicated by comments like two by my friend, who saw the crimped hose at the beginning and said “Now why should that be horrifying?” and later, at the significant shot of the street sign, jokingly gasped “Not THE Lincoln street!”
But one more thing. I think the two shots showing Jeffrey’s mother watching iconic shots from generic suspense films are very important, as they clue us in to the fascination with the crime and dirty deeds that exists in Jeffrey’s household, and indicates that this is transmitted from watching films. This will definitely come to bear as it is Jeffrey’s fascination with this stuff that will lead him into such trouble.
Okay, so Jeffrey’s fascination gets the better of him, and he ropes Sandy into helping him break in to Dorothy’s apartment. You will notice that when this happens, the music changes from lush, romantic orchestra to sleazy hep jazz. He pretends to be an exterminator [insects again], and steals keys. Later he convinces Sandy to go with him to the jazz club where Dorothy sings “Blue Velvet,” among other things, and Sandy admits that she has never had a beer before. After the show, Jeffery sneaks into Dorothy’s apartment. Sandy says she doesn’t “know if you’re a detective or a perv,” and hilariously says that if someone else arrives at the apartment building, “I’ll honk four times. One… two… three… four.”
< < < SPOILERS
Jeffery gets in the apartment and looks around. The apartment is dark, muted red, a real womb-like place. Then—Dorothy comes home! Jeffery hides in the closet, watching as she undresses and receives an upsetting phone call. She finds him in the closet, and, when asked what he’s doing there, replies “I just wanted to see you.” She makes him “get undressed” at knifepoint, and, uh, ‘stimulates’ him in a way I don’t think he’ll be getting from Sandy any time soon. At knifepoint. Then—a knock on the door! Jeffery has to get back in the closet.
In comes Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper [these are allusions to the Lincoln assassination, with Lincoln Street and Frank Booth]. He starts having a VERY kinky sex scene with Dorothy, who he calls “Mommy” and refuses to let look at him, stuffing a cutting of her blue velvet robe in his mouth and punching her hard. Here is a surrogate mother-father couple in sharp contrast of Jeffrey’s ineffective and completely desexualized parents, and what he witnesses is kind of a primal scene. He is naked in the closet, by the way. Once Frank is gone, Dorothy is quite amorous toward Jeffery, and begs him to hit her, and to help her. He sneaks out. On the way home, Jeffery has a vision—the camera goes into the severed ear, and we hear a roaring echo. He hears Dorothy ask him to hit her, and to help her, and when he wakes, we see his arm reach toward a strange toothy mouth hung on his wall.
Jeffery takes Sandy out to tell her not what happened, but just that Frank kidnapped Dorothy’s husband and son, essentially to lock her into sexual servitude. He then bursts out with “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in the world?” Sandy then tells him of the dream she had on the night she met Jeffery—that evil had taken over the world, but then a brilliant light came, brought by a bunch of robins, and eradicated the evil. While she is saying this, the organ from a nearby church is playing, hilariously [though of course, wholly sincerely] underlining her speech.
Jeffery is once again drawn over to Dorothy’s, and spends his days following Frank around, taking pictures with this HILARIOUS Eagle Scout spy contraption made out of a shoebox. He tells Sandy that he's so fascinated because "I’m seeing something that was always hidden." At Dorothy's, she begs him to hit her during sex. He won’t, then gives in and whacks her one. The screen dissolves into a burst of flame—Jeffrey’s forbidden impulses unleashed—and he falls on her with the sound of roaring lions. On the way out, why, who is this, but Frank?
Frank decides to take Jeffery on a joyride that Jeffery finds just a bit frightening. I’ll leave most of it for you to discover [if you haven’t already seen it], but for one thing: Apparently the original cut of this film was four hours long—it is just under two hours now. So there is much discussion of what was in the deleted scenes, and one thing I have heard from multiple sources is that in the original cut, Frank fucks Jeffery. With this in mind, it seems very menacing when Frank starts staring at Jeffery as he takes his gas, when he puts lipstick on him and tells him how pretty he is, and how he asks Jeffery to feel his muscles, and asks “Do you like that?” [I looked up the original script, and this scene is quite close to what's on screen--the only difference being that when Jeffery wakes, his pants are down around his ankles.]
Once Jeffery wakes, he is haunted by his impulses to hit Dorothy, and runs back to Sandy. They go to a dance together and now Jeffery is fully into continuing the relationship. It’s a little like Eyes Wide Shut in this way; guy is curious about the sleazy underworld of sexuality, sees more than he wanted to, and runs back to his safe haven. I won’t tell you how the story is resolved, but once it is, we come back out of the ear [now Jeffrey’s ear], and we see a robin with an insect in its beak. Just like in Sandy’s dream, the robins have come to defeat the bugs, the evil underworld of this placid small town.
< < < SPOILERS END
It is definitely something you have to see at some point. As I said, this is the fourth time I’ve seen it, and it was the most understandable and the most enjoyable its ever been. This time I saw it as both a oedipal story of Jeffrey’s sexual awakening, contrasting his sexually inactive parents and his repressively nice surroundings and upbringing with these dirty surrogate parents who enact all of these crazy fantasies that are exciting and dangerous—until they get to be way too much, and he retreats to safety. The other major prism I saw it through was as a refraction of the suspense films and wholesome melodramas of the 50s, which I see now as the source of Jeffrey’s [and, one suspects, Lynch’s] fascination with finding out what darkness lies behind those images, what nastiness is REALLY going on.
So there ya go, something that definitely must be seen, although not something one can quantify right away. As I said to my viewing companion as he left for the night “Well, we won’t know what you really thought about it until a week from now.”