30th Anniversary Re-Release: Blue Velvet

Andrew caught the 30th Anniversary reissue of David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

Thirty years ago, a uniquely provocative and daring new voice in American cinematic surrealism emerged with David Lynch's 1986 small town American shocker Blue Velvet, now back in movie theaters for its 30th Anniversary in a new digital DCP restoration.  After the artistic, critical and commercial failure of his 1984 Hollywood science fiction epic Dune, Lynch retreated from Tinseltown and began working on a smaller scale and in so doing created arguably his first signature masterpiece that functions as much as a critique of the seedy underbelly within small town America as it assails the conventions of film noir and the mystery thriller with it's provocative and still shocking sadomasochistic sexual content.  

From the opening vistas of picket fences with bright red roses against the backdrop of bright blue sky to the idyllic small logging town of Lumberton, North Carolina where the fireman waves with a smile and the home life of it's plucky hero Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) resembles a candy colored rom com, everything seems like a perfect dream.  That is until the camera presses deep into the grass to find insects attacking one another in the darkness as David Lynch and Alan Splet's sound design creates an unsettling alien soundscape, suggesting not is all that it seems on the surface level of the happy small town.  Soon our hero discovers a severed human ear near his home and it leads him down a dark and disturbing journey filled with sadomasochism, drug abuse, misogyny, voyeurism, rape, kidnapping and murder at the hands of one of cinema's most terrifying villains, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).  All the while at the epicenter is a mercurial nightclub singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and as Jeffrey becomes further ensconced in the case, he finds himself torn between the affections of the local detective's daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) and the aberrant sexuality of Dorothy Vallens, creating a moral quandary for both Jeffrey and the audience watching Lynch's film.

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Who can it be now?
Blue Velvet represents for Lynch both a precursor to the labyrinthine and dualism between the facade of small town America and seedy underground in Twin Peaks as well as the first time Lynch mastered his technique.  While Eraserhead remains an impeccable cinematic debut opening viewers eyes to a world of the mind never seen on film before, The Elephant Man and Dune were arguably mainstream detours for a director so hung up on the nature of consciousness.  With Blue Velvet however, Lynch gets everything right in terms of his personal anecdotes, thematic interests, audiovisual design, courting composer Angelo Badalamenti and singer Julee Cruise and finding his perfect stand in with soon to be Special Agent Dale Cooper actor Kyle MacLachlan.  Aggressively tongue in cheek, the film is still difficult to absorb to this day for its strange and uncomfortable mixture of comedy with dark sexuality and violence against women.  The gore is something not previously seen before, replete with a closeup of a severed ear canal that no doubt inspired the ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs and one of the most unforgettable images in the film consists of a police officer who has been shot dead yet remains standing upright despite having bled to death.  Also at odds with the picture are the acting styles between the goody two shoes performances by Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern contrasted with the vile and repulsive violence of Dennis Hopper and the twisted sexuality of Isabella Rossellini who more than goes the distance as the now stereotypical 'battered-Lynch-girl'.  Blue Velvet also does something uncanny with the music with Badalamenti's ambient, often jazzy score with a riff on Bernard Herrmann and most notably the use of Roy Orbison's In Dreams, a bright and cheerful tune beset by the horrors on Lynch's palette, creating a conundrum where we're our favorite small town American ditty now takes on a sinister edge.

Blue Velvet took time to find an appreciate audience as most who first caught wind of it found it so shocking and disturbingly unpleasant that it was too much to take.  Briefly the subject of a "national firestorm" of controversy surrounding the film's damaged moral compass, aberrant sexuality and often extreme violence, Chicago Sun Times legend Roger Ebert famously charged David Lynch directly with misogyny, a point of view refuted by actress Isabella Rossellini who was dating Lynch at the time.  It wasn't until Pauline Kael's long, beautiful review that people finally started seeing Blue Velvet for what it really is: an American masterpiece.  The film went on to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Director David Lynch and both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics named it the Best Film, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor Dennis Hopper who later owed the resurgence of his career to Blue Velvet.  Years later it is now regarded as one of the greatest American films ever made and marked Lynch's first foray into the mainstream with every ounce of his strange and unusual voice fully intact and unhindered by Hollywood forces.  For the first time since Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, a seemingly simple genre thriller with many dark and often violent surprises ahead managed to force American viewers to rethink the world they live in with a new and fresh pair of eyes, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, the cheerful exterior of the suburban neighborhood home houses secrets too dark and horrific to withstand the light of day.

Now playing at Cinema Detroit


- Andrew Kotwicki