In Blue Velvet, David Lynch exposes the ugly underbelly of idyllic small-town America. It’s a concept he’d explore more thoroughly four years later with the toned-down-for-TV Twin Peaks.
The Riddle of the Ear
It’s a tale as old as time. Boy returns home to visit an ailing father and stumbles on a human ear lying in a field; he then takes it upon himself to spice up his humdrum hometown life by attempting to solve the riddle of the ear. In this case, the boy is Jeffrey Beaumont, played by Lynch’s newly-minted star, Kyle MacLachlan, fresh from his debut in Dune.
As Lynch would become so well known for, the movie features a collection of oddball characters and none are odder than Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, Hoosiers), a vile, abusive, sexist pig with sexual hang-ups and drug dependencies. Far from what Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet evokes, Lynch’s movie doesn’t make for a pleasant night at the movies.
Looking back on it all, Lynch has his modus operandi, his staple film elements: nightmare scenes, disjointed flashbacks with creepy, atmospheric audio effects and distorted voices. They’re all present in Blue Velvet.
Those atmospherics are what make Blue Velvet the experience it is more than anything else. The story isn’t particularly great, it’s certainly not unique.
The Slow Club
The best scene in Blue Velvet is also the scene that gets to the heart of that simple story. It’s a quiet conversation between Jeffrey and his new romantic interest, Sandy Williams (Laura Dern, Inland Empire).
“Why are there people like Frank?” Jeffrey asks. “Why is there so much trouble in this world?”
Sandy replies by telling Jeffrey about a dream of her own, then sums it up with, “There is trouble until the robins come.”
It’s a conversation set against elegiac organ music that shifts to more euphoric tones as Sandy tells her story of hope. When Sandy’s car drives away, in the background are the stained-glass windows of the church from which the music is emanating, having innocuously been presented at the start of the scene. That’s a great movie moment and it’s the soul of this movie.
That’s right at the midway point of the movie, with the first half setting up interesting puzzle pieces, but the second half disappoints as the final pieces are put in place and the end picture turns out to be rather bland.
Smell the Velvet Glove
Also working against the movie are unnatural character actions and reactions, particularly with Jeffrey finding the human ear, picking it up, putting it in a paper bag, taking it to the police, and having the policeman say, “Yes, that’s a human ear all right.”
While Dennis Hopper proclaimed Lynch an “American surrealist,” there’s something annoying about the unnatural, stiff character interactions that can’t simply be brushed over as an artistic flourish.
Now, 25 years on, Blue Velvet benefits from Lynch’s much broader film canon. His fourth feature film, it followed on the heels of his edgy, emotional black-and-white films Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Then Dune opened up Lynch’s pallet to the world of color.
While it’s not a particularly great movie, it does have its moments and it certainly is a work of interest as it foreshadows many of the themes and styles that would become Lynch’s signature elements.
Accompanying this Blu-ray release is an impressive 52-minute collection of “newly discovered lost footage.” The biggest surprise is that it’s watchable and a good portion of it adds to the Blue Velvet experience. Another – pleasant – surprise is the very minimal amount of footage involving Frank Booth.
Some of the footage is quirky Lynch, such as a bar scene in which a man strumming a guitar with a soulful vocal partner and a Gong Show-worthy performance on stage at the Slow Club. But there’s also a significant amount of footage that simply sets the stage for the main story, with Jeffrey being pulled out of school because of his father’s medical condition. Given the final cut, it feels like Lynch is working on the fly, figuring out how to tell the story and introduce the characters. The end result is much more streamlined, and, particularly in the case of Sandy’s introduction, much more artful, but this footage is still worth a look as it gives a sense of Lynch’s creative process.
As with the final movie, there are some oddly unnatural character responses, such as the awkwardness of Jeffrey and his girlfriend, Louise, saying they love each other back on the school campus. At the other extreme, a scene depicting Dorothy’s suicide attempt works quite well.
The really nice thing about this collection is that it’s all final footage, not scratchy, rough-cut, untreated film stock.
Made for the 2002 DVD release, Mysteries of Love is an excellent, comprehensive 70-minute documentary about the making of the movie. All the bases are covered, including the story’s inception, issues with the real-life City of Lumberton, cinematography, music, and David Lynch’s quirkiness. He’s got a dark interior, but as it is noted at one point, his exterior is Jimmy Stewart. The observation that Jeffrey (and ostensibly Kyle MacLachlan) is a version of David Lynch is appreciated.
The documentary ends with an interesting retrospective on the initial, negative reactions to the film and the snowball effect attributed to Pauline Kael’s favorable review.
A Few Outtakes: David Lynch and comedic bloopers don’t seem like an obvious pairing, but this is 93 seconds of that mash-up.
Siskel & Ebert’s original split review from 1986, with Ebert’s negative take condemning Lynch’s treatment of Rossellini and Siskel’s favorable view declaring it a challenging film, captures the divide of thought on the film in 90 seconds.
Vignettes are four minutes of footage cut from Mysteries of Love. There’s Lynch talking about his like of coffee shops, Kyle MacLachlan talking about his chicken dance, and Isabella Rossellini talking about accusations of Lynch’s and the film’s misogyny. The most interesting vignette, though, is cinematographer Frederick Elmes talking about a dead robin and how it made its way onto the set. Pure, quirky Lynchian storytelling at its finest. And true.
Also included are the theatrical trailer and two TV spots.
Picture and Sound
The movie is immaculately presented on Blu-ray in 2.35:1. While plenty of the movie’s props and sets bely its age, the image quality here does not.
While not quite as pristine as the picture quality, the English 5.1 DTS Master Audio is solid enough and delivers the right atmospherics during that classic scene with Jeffrey and Sandy outside the church.
Also available are Spanish Mono, French 5.1 DTS, Portuguese Dolby Surround, Italian 5.1 DTS, German 5.1 DTS, and Castellano 5.1 DTS tracks.
Subtitles are available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, Castellano, Chinese, and Dutch.
How to Use This Disc
Experience the curiosity piece that is Blue Velvet and decide for yourself where it falls in film history. Lynch fans will certainly want to check out the “newly discovered lost footage” and Mysteries of Love is a worthwhile documentary for those wanting to know more.