(WARNING: The David Lynch Chronicles is an in-depth analysis of the films of David Lynch, and therefore contains spoilers. You have been warned…And now, on with the show!)
THE DAVID LYNCH CHRONILES: VOLUME II
The Plain Weirdness of BLUE VELVET (1986)
By Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel
Nick Cato: Of all the films David Lynch has unleashed on the world, 1986’s BLUE VELVET is perhaps his most “normal.” It plays out like a straight murder mystery and there are hardly any head-scratching clues or off-the-wall things happening in the background. Everything is pretty much up front. But what sets the film apart from your standard Hollywood fare are the characters. While it’s set in present day, most of the cast seem to have a 1950s-retro vibe going on, especially Sandy Williams (played by Lynch regular Laura Dern) and night club crooner Dorothy Vallens (Lynch’s other favorite regular, Isabella Rossellini, in a ground-breaking performance). The film’s protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) has an innocent, curious boyish charm, but doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of dangerous opportunities. And unless you’ve been living on another planet these past 26 years, Dennis Hopper’s role as iconic bad guy Frank Booth is simultaneously terrifying and comical, threatening yet cool, a force of nature a hurricane wouldn’t want to mess with. Lynch uses his cast here to their full potential before pulling out a few cameos to add just a bit of weirdness to the proceedings.
Jeffrey returns to his small home town to visit his ailing father in the hospital. During his walk home through a wooded area, he happens to see something in the grass and discovers it’s a human ear. He brings the ear to the police but is unsatisfied with their actions. Eventually he gets info from Sandy, the police chief’s daughter, who points him to a seedy underworld Jeffrey never knew existed in his quiet home town.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: BLUE VELVET might be “normal” by Lynch standards, but I’d hardly call it a “normal” film. Lynch blends in some themes that are rather typical of his work. His characters live in the land of white picket fences, warm apple pies cooling on window sills, and cute girls with ponytails next door. This idyllic wonderland is juxtaposed against a dark place that threatens to rip apart the innocence. The thing that makes Lynch’s work truly magical is that he makes us question our own realities. Are we part of the half that’s good or the half that’s bad? Or is anyone truly immune from those dark places we try to pretend away?
Jeffery Beaumont lives in this 50s-esque landscape populated by Bermuda shorts-wearing folks who walk down the street without concerning themselves with drug lords or murderers or other unpleasantness. When Jeffrey discovers an ear bereft of its owner in an overgrown lot, his world is turned upside down. He also discovers a side of himself that he didn’t know existed. Jeffrey, an innocent college guy who initially tries to help imperiled songstress Dorothy Vallens, eventually finds himself treating her the way bad guy Frank Booth does. It’s a study in the wickedness inside all of us, even the pure and innocent.
Nick Cato: And it’s Sandy who tells Jeffrey that her father has been looking into Dorothy Vallens’s background, inspiring him to do his own investigating. Jeffrey goes to see her at a night club (where we learn he’s a big fan of Heineken beer) and then follows her home. He hatches a plan to sneak inside her apartment to spy on her and see if she may somehow be connected to his gruesome discovery. Sandy reluctantly agrees to help him get in, and as soon as he does, BLUE VELVET begins an almost non-stop barrage of neo-noir suspense that lasts until the final reel.
While hiding in Dorothy’s closet, he watches her undress and is eventually discovered. To his surprise, she doesn’t call the cops or throw him out, but insists he remove his clothes. As soon as Dorothy begins to seduce Jeffrey, someone arrives home. Dorothy tells Jeffrey to get back in the closet. This is when we’re introduced to one of the most menacing villains ever to appear on film. We learn Frank Booth (played with total anarchic chaos by Dennis Hopper) is holding Dorothy’s husband and young son prisoner somewhere, their safety depending on her bowing to Frank’s sexually psychotic demands. As Jeffrey looks on, Booth forces Dorothy to pretend to be his mother as he inhales ether from a face mask he keeps stashed in his jacket. It’s one of Lynch’s most disturbing scenes, and also one of his most fascinating. Within seconds we understand Frank Booth can go in 100 different directions at once, we see Dorothy as both strong and submissive, and Jeffrey’s clean-cut image continues to crumble.
When Booth finally leaves, Dorothy tries once again to seduce Jeffrey…but when he refuses to hit her, she asks him to leave. Again, within seconds, we see even more sides to these complex characters that drag us deeper into Lynch’s mystery. We think that, for a second, Jeffrey is having some kind of sexual awakening, but his old self puts things on hold.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Lynch does a great job of developing Jeffrey’s good-guy image in the beginning. He befriends the police chief’s daughter to discover more about that peculiar ear he found. There’s obviously a romantic attraction between them, but Sandy has a boyfriend and, by golly, Jeffrey is such a gentleman that he does his best not to cross any lines. When Dorothy has a brutal sexual encounter with the terrifying Frank Booth (who could be the most terrifying villain of all time), he tries to soothe her. It seems like he wants to make love to her, but she wants him to be violent with her. He can’t bring himself to do it, and he leaves.
I think it’s an interesting dichotomy between the sweet, gentlemanly Jeffrey and the brutal, violent Frank. Even near the beginning, however, we get a glimpse of a yin-yang quality to Frank, which we’ll eventually see in Jeffrey as well. From time to time, Frank Booth, criminal, sadist, and drug addict, switches from being controlling and violent to babyish and submissive. He frequently refers to Dorothy as “Mommy,” and there are few hints that he and his cronies have brainwashed Dorothy’s kidnapped son into believing that his mother no longer wants him. Frank is now her baby. We often hear her on the phone, presumably with her child, reassuring him that he is her baby.
Nick Cato: After finding out Sandy has a boyfriend, Jeffrey attends another one of Dorothy’s gigs and sees Frank Booth watching the performance right near the stage. He’s playing with a piece of blue velvet he had ripped off her robe, while drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon (in contrast to Jeffrey’s beverage of preference, Heineken). Lynch uses tiny details like this to begin building more tension between the two (who at this point in the film have yet to meet). Jeffrey decides to spy on Frank, and over a couple of days discovers a pair of shady guys doing business with him. When Jeffrey reveals this information to Sandy, they share a brief kiss, but Sandy feels too connected to her boyfriend and stops. In turn, Jeffrey pays Dorothy another visit, although this time he knocks on the door first. To his surprise, Dorothy claims she has been thinking of him and they indulge in sex. She even convinces him to hit her, and while she enjoys it, we see Jeffrey is still uncomfortable with causing any more pain in her life.
When Jeffrey goes to leave, Frank comes down the hallway with his cronies and BLUE VELVET takes a rocket-leap forward in the suspense department. The first time I saw this I was on the edge of my seat, and after a current theatrical viewing, I still had the same butterflies in my stomach despite knowing what was to come.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Now the suspense begins to build. While spying on Frank Booth, Jeffrey discovers that some shady dealings are going down between Frank and some guy in a yellow sports coat, one that makes him look alarmingly like a Century 21 Realtor. Another gent with a mustache also appears to be doing some less-than-savory dealings in Frank’s neck of the woods.
Not long after, Jeffrey returns to Dorothy’s place. When he tries to leave, Frank and his cronies meet him in the hallway and kidnap him in one of the most terrifying rides you’re likely to see. After intimidating Jeffrey, Frank and the gang decide to pay their friend Ben a visit. Ben (portrayed by Dean Stockwell, in what could be the creepiest role of his career) is holding Dorothy’s son and husband hostage. Frank tells him to play Roy Orbison’s song “In Dreams,” at which point a spotlighted Ben lip syncs along in a scene that will ruin the song and your dreams forever. Frank gets angry at the song after a few minutes and screams at Ben to turn it off. Meanwhile, Dorothy is allowed to see her son, who is being kept in a back room. We continue to hear her reassure the child that she loves him and that he is still her baby. It occurs to me that perhaps this reassurance is what sets Frank off. He goes from being a menacing monster, scaring Jeffrey and intimidating Dorothy, to a weeping baby. Maybe he’s upset that his role as baby has been usurped or perhaps Dorothy’s love for her child reaches some emotion inside this evil man.
Once they leave, however, Frank goes back to being a professional bad guy. As they drive along, he starts sexually abusing Dorothy. Jeffrey, who is being held in the backseat by Frank’s henchmen, can’t handle this and tells Frank to leave her alone. Frank expresses his anger at being told not to get too hands-on with his woman, and Jeffrey gets beaten to a bloody pulp.
Nick Cato: WOAH! WOAH! WOAH!—let’s back up just a second here: BEFORE Booth takes Jeffrey, Dorothy, and his cronies to Ben’s den of freaks, BLUE VELVET’s most iconic moment goes down: Booth stops at a local bar, and before they enter he asks Jeffrey what his favorite beer is, to which Jeffrey answers, “Heineken.” Now despite the over-played response that comes from Frank Booth (it’s been plastered on t-shirts and even beer ads over the years), this is arguably the key moment where the audience understands what a true, uncompromising psychopath Booth is. He tells the poor kid, “Heineken? F**k that s**t! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
Having watched and meditated over this brief piece of dialogue for the past 26 years, the line manages to simultaneously crack me up and creep me out. Booth’s comment sounds like a combination of an abusive father and a Marine drill Sergeant. It tells Jeffrey his own personal choices are wrong and no longer matter because after all, he’s now a part of Booth’s world.
Its little sequences like this that set a David Lynch film apart from your regular, mundane Hollywood fare. What could have been a simple, throw-away line has become a legendary comment that brings more meaning and menace to our villain the more you allow it to seep in.
In the middle of the party at Ben’s house, Booth becomes impatient waiting for the Pabst to be served … and it MUST be served in traditional beer glasses or YOU’D BETTER BELIEVE someone will pay for it. Only Dennis Hopper could’ve made the relaxing act of sipping a beer take on a completely sinister dimension.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: All right, all right. The Pabst versus Heineken debate is an interesting point. You’ve got the good guy drinking his imported froufrou beer, and big, bad Frank Booth slugging down the workin’ man’s suds.
We know Frank Booth is the ultimate bad guy, not only because he demands that his brewski be served in the proper glass, but also because he drives the baddest car in the whole town. I assume no car in BLUE VELVET was built after 1970. Jeffrey drives the 1950s land yacht, like the good boy that he is. Frank Booth, on the other hand, has a Dodge Charger that burns up the city streets of quiet, idyllic Lumberton. It’s the classic good versus bad dynamic, but I think the two lines blur. Jeffrey discovers that he has a dark side. Frank is, in some ways, like the petulant toddler who must have his way or else he breaks down. Granted, this petulance is taken to the extreme, but he has a childish side to him.
Since we’re backtracking, let’s talk about the robins. When meeting up to discuss what each of them has discovered about Dorothy Vallens and Frank Booth, Sandy tells Jeffrey that she had a dream that the world was in disarray and everything was dark. A huge flock of robins brings in the light and makes everything okay. At the end, a robin is outside of the window, eating a bug. The good has crushed the bad. This aspect of the film made me happy. BLUE VELVET has its very dark moments, but in the end, love saves the day.
Nick Cato: And according to one of the extras on the BLUE VELVET DVD, they couldn’t get a real robin to perform properly, so a fake one was created just for that final sequence. I have to say it looked pretty good, even on the big screen.
But back to the story: after a wild night of drinking and speeding down the highway with Frank and company, Jeffrey has his butt kicked and wakes up right where they left him. After walking all the way home, he decides to pay a visit to Sandy’s father at the police station, only to find that her father’s partner is one of the shady men he had spied on while staking out Frank Booth. And here BLUE VELVET gets a classic noir-type twist, adding even more of an old-school feel to the proceedings. Sandy’s father listens to Jeffrey’s story, but asks him to stay away as to not spoil a proper police investigation he’s currently heading.
Then Lynch shifts into some classic Lynchian weirdness: Jeffrey and Sandy attend a dance, and are followed home. But it’s not Frank Booth looking for more trouble: it’s Sandy’s boyfriend wanting to know what’s going on. But before fists can fly, Dorothy shows up seemingly out of nowhere—filthy and stark naked—and looks to Jeffrey for comfort, mumbling something about them being secret lovers.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: There’s nothing quite like a disheveled, abused, naked lady to really break up a fight. It also draws us into some serious histrionics from Sandy. Jeffrey pulls the nude Dorothy into his home along with Sandy. During his attempts to comfort Dorothy and hide her nudity, he lets it slip that his interest in Dorothy has been sexual. The expression on Sandy’s face is over-the-top. She’s so horrified that she can’t speak. Sandy lives in a world where premarital sex is a serious taboo, and the knowledge that the guy she has a crush on has been doing the mattress tango with this mysterious chanteuse is simply too much to handle. She eventually gets over it, though, and the two decide to work together to bust Frank and reunite Dorothy with her son and husband.
Speaking of mysterious folks, we learn that the guy in the Century 21 jacket that has been doing underhanded dealings with Frank Booth is actually a cop. Lynch did such an amazing job of keeping this fact hidden that it elicited gasps from people in the audience at a recent big-screen showing. This is when it gets really weird. Jeffrey puts two and two together about the strange mustachioed fellow he’d seen around Frank’s building, giving a briefcase to Century 21 guy. He rushes to Dorothy’s place to warn her that the guy was none other than Frank himself, only to be followed by Frank in the wig and mustache.
Nick Cato: The next-to-final scene at Dorothy’s apartment is a real pressure cooker. Jeffrey finds Dorothy’s husband dead with a hole in his temple and (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!) his ear missing. He also finds one of Booth’s cronies in the apartment, standing in a sort-of daze, as if he has been zombified by some unknown means. When Jeffrey goes to leave, he sees the man who has been following him coming up the stairs but realizes too late it’s been Frank Booth in disguise. Jeffrey contacts Sandy’s father over the zombified crony’s walkie talkie, and lies about where he is in the apartment. Frank Booth enters, having heard this on his own radio, and begins to call Jeffrey an idiot for giving away his location. Jeffrey manages to hide in the same closet he had spied on Dorothy earlier in the film as Frank makes his way to the bedroom, where he hears Jeffrey’s walkie make noise. Pissed off when he discovers Jeffrey’s not there, he comes out and fires his pistol sporadically, killing his zombified crony in the process.
Booth slowly approaches the only place Jeffrey can be—the closet—and as soon as he opens it, Jeffrey fires at point blank range with a gun he had taken off the crony, causing Booth’s brains to fly out the back of his head. The grim image of Booth laying in his own cranium sauce looked doubly-demented on the big screen, and even as he lays dead, looking up to the ceiling, the man causes the viewer to be nervous.
BLUE VELVET then goes from sheer brutality to one of Lynch’s most charming conclusions.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: It’s amazing to me how the film ends on such a positive note. Everyone is happy, the robins are eating bugs, and Jeffrey and Sandy presumably live happily ever after in suburbia.
I read in an interview that Mr. Lynch grew up in this sort of tranquil wonderland but discovered horror when he learned that there were ants feeding on the pitch oozing from the cherry tree. That sums up BLUE VELVET pretty well.
BLUE VELVET is a ride through a clean-cut young man’s oedipal nightmare. We catch a glimpse at the very end of Dorothy playing in a park with her son. The cute guy gets the swell girl, and all is right with the world again. And isn’t that the fairy tale ending we all want?
Nick Cato: Believe it or not, I’ve always found this happy-happy, flowers and birds ending more disturbing than what precedes it. Jeffrey and Sandy seem amazed that a robin has landed on the window sill, munching on a bug. Is this a sign that good has conquered evil in their small town? Or does it mean even the pretty things have dark secrets that the other person has to accept? Despite how happy our couple looks, as well as Dorothy now being reunited with her son, Lynch manages to give even this bright, sunny conclusion a latent sense of unease.
If you’ve never experienced a David Lynch film before, BLUE VELVET is perhaps the best place to start: your mind won’t be too fried by the ending, and your appetite for his darker, more obscure works just may be kindled.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Even in a Lynch film, a happy ending leaves the viewer wondering when the other shoe will fall. We don’t know what’s going to happen after the credits roll, but we assume that the characters’ lives, at least the ones who make it to the end, go on in some manner even after we leave the theater and move on to other pursuits. Maybe that’s a sign of good filmmaking.
Perhaps the happy ending sticks out because it’s one of the few Lynch films that end on a positive note. Those who are familiar with the awesomeness that is David Lynch come to expect some warped, bizarre, or otherwise dark ending. If you’re expecting your protagonist to wake up only to discover he’s really a serial killer keeping a basketful of ears as souvenirs after living in a delusional world where he’s a good guy, it’s a little disorienting to find that everything wraps up in a nice little package at the end. There’s a clearer division between good and evil here than in many Lynch films. Good and evil blur in films like LOST HIGHWAY (1997) and MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001). There’s a merging of the two even in BLUE VELVET, but it’s more subtle.
Although most of Lynch’s work appeals to those with a thirst for the strange, BLUE VELVET would be appropriate for anyone who likes a good mystery told in a unique way.
© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel