The ’80s were perhaps the most problematic decade in film history. Coming straight from the birth of the modern blockbuster and leaving behind the glory days of the early ’70s — when American cinema thrived under the influence of European masters — the decade would become known for its devotion to mindless sequels, its lack of additions to established film canons and its overall dedication to capitalism. Very few movies during this era are talked about in the same way cinephiles and scholars talk about Citizen Kane, La Strada or Lawrence of Arabia.
This doesn’t mean that everything made in the ’80s was about making money and delivering safe stories; in fact, as it happens under every conservative regime (an expression which can be appropriately applied to the Reagan era) several artists began to thrive under the subtle oppression that arrived under this new world order. As the the Cold War wound down and the world seemed to be achieving a strange unity, artists turned to what lied beneath this new-found, apparent perfection.
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is perhaps the epitome of this exploration. A film that obsesses about what’s hidden behind the surface of things, a sensual ode to voyeurism and one of the most innovative works by any American director, the film might be among a handful of truly iconic ’80s pictures. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the film becomes only the second Blu-ray American release of Lynch’s oeuvre.
Lynch’s work has never been known for its visual beauty, in fact he indulges in the grotesque, the morbid and some of the most repulsive traits concealed in humans. However, Blue Velvet plays with an idea of beauty and subverts it to reveal darkness and irony. Set in the town of Lumberton, the film opens with images of extreme suburban glory: white picket fences in front of beautiful houses, flowers that bloom under a clear blue sky, town streets where you know everyone is safe, housewives devotedly tending to their duties.
And then something goes wrong. A man who was mowing his lawn suddenly falls down, the victim of a stroke. Lynch captures this scene with the perversity of a twisted Norman Rockwell painting: the garden still looks beautiful, a baby walks towards the fallen man and a dog jumps all over him, barking.
Just as he does this, Lynch takes us down into the ground — in a scene that haunts you for the entire film — below the green grass and into the things that lie beneath it. We see a mass made out of bugs, announcing the decay that will come next. The sick man’s son, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to Lumberton to help his ailing father recover. One day, on his way back home, Jeffrey finds a human ear lying on the ground. This macabre discovery seems to inject some excitement into his life and soon he’s playing detective, trying to discover where the rest of the body is.
With the help of Sandy, a detective’s virginal daughter (played by Laura Dern), he comes to know of the existence of mysterious nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) who might be connected to the case. Soon Jeffrey realizes he is part of a dark underworld where corruption is only overshadowed by primal sexual desire. He begins an affair with Dorothy who helps him release his inner animal and simultaneously woos the sweet Sandy, trying to obtain a facade to conceal his darkest desires. What Jeffrey never counts on is the appearance of the violent Frank (Dennis Hopper in what might have been his greatest performance), leader of the local criminals.
Blue Velvet is highly regarded for being the first film to show us a truly “Lynchian” world view. The director, who up until then had been delivering subtly offbeat works, for the first time showed audiences a world where desire isn’t only obvious but exaggerated. There’s nothing subtle about the characters or situations, and after a while and Lynch examines each of them under a microscope that highlights their most grotesque qualities.
What remains so groundbreaking about the film is the way in which Lynch subverts all of our expectations. Take the scene where Jeffrey first meets Sandy, for example. As we stare into darkness, we hear her voice, given the film’s “noir” traits we expect a femme fatale to reveal herself and then find ourselves in awe when what we see is a wholesome cheerleader. Indeed, the film is filled with such fascinating symbolism that dares us to see beyond the obvious.
Another great example is the ear Jeffrey finds. Why doesn’t he find a finger or an eye? The ear is a great reminder that it’s through hearing that one can manuever darkness. And it’s through hearing — rumors, gossip and eavesdropping — that Jeffrey becomes involved in the larger mystery. Sandy tells him “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert” and the same can be said of Lynch and his film.
Besides the magnificent high definition transfer included in this disc, Blue Velvet is also presented to us with a great array of bonus material. The main attraction might be 50 minutes of never before seen footage, which was just recently discovered. An introduction title card has the humporous Lynch compare this material to “Amazing Grace”, in how they both were once lost and have now been found. Even if the footage isn’t presented to us in chronological order (Lynch isn’t a fan of “director’s cuts” or even disc menus and chapter divisions) it contains some gems, among them a glimpse of Jeffrey’s life before returning to Lumberton. We learn that his voyeuristic ways are nothing new.
Other materials include the superb documentary Mysteries of Love, which gives us a precise account of what happened during the production. Actors and scholars pay tribute to Lynch’s aesthetics, Rossellini discusses how her first meeting with Hopper occured while she was naked, and Dern shares with us secrets of Lynch’s directing technique. Rounding up the Blu-ray are vignettes, outtakes (apparently a Lynch shoot is funnier than you’d think) and a vintage clip where Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel discuss the movie in their TV show. Watching Ebert demonize the film is an accurate example of the decade’s reactionary ways, and it’s a joy to see Siskel compare it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Like Hitchcock’s undeniable masterpiece, Blue Velvet uses voyeurism and violence not only to reveal hidden aspects of our desire and our society, it also becomes a perfect embodiment of what makes cinema so unique. It reminds us that through the camera we become accomplices in whatever we’re watching onscreen. Both intimate and distant, the lens makes us part of worlds we’d only imagined in our deepest fantasies. As such, we are left wondering whether we’re detectives or perverts.