Conversations about film
September 4, 2020
Directed by David Lynch, 1986
Jim Wilson: Hey, Michael, you ready to do this?
Michael Clawson: As ready as I’ll ever be. You?
Jim: Good question. I think so, yes. So, anyone reading this knows the film you chose for discussion on this fifth edition of Collokino. Great pick, dude, by the way. When was the first time you saw Blue Velvet? How old were you? Did you see it by yourself? Did you talk to anyone about it after? Tell me your personal history with Blue Velvet.
Michael: I think it was in 2014 that I first saw Blue Velvet, so I was 23. It was that year that I first stumbled on and fell in love with Twin Peaks. I couldn’t have told you much about David Lynch before that actually. The show led me into the strange world that is his filmography, and I’ve been a Lynch devotee ever since. If memory serves, I watched it at home alone, so I had no one to turn to and ask what it was I just watched. I loved it though, and still do. How about you? When and where did you first see it, and what was your reaction?
Jim: You know, I couldn’t honestly tell you, but it would have been sometime in the late ‘80s, around the same age as you when you first saw it. My oldest memories of it are of a work buddy at the time who loved to recite Frank Booth quotes, loudly and in full character. We’d be driving in the van together, and I’d look over at him. He’d point two fingers at me and say “Don’t you fucking look at me!” Or he would blurt out, at random times, “Warm beer makes me wanna fucking puke!” It’s really part of a general blur of David Lynch impressions on my life that went from seeing The Elephant Man in 1980, to watching Twin Peaks, episode after episode, as it first aired on TV in 1990, and Wild at Heart, which was around that same time, I think. I react to Lynch material pretty much uniformly from one piece to the next, meaning with great delight. Lynch is always peeling back the pretty exteriors to reveal the truths lurking underneath.
Michael: Your former work buddy sounds like an intense dude! Frank Booth is one of the last movie characters I’d have the guts to impersonate.
The pretty exteriors, as you call them, are a decent jumping off point actually, since they’re literally, and famously, the very first thing we see. The first few shots put us in archetypal American suburbia: we’re looking at quiet, tree-lined streets and quaint houses with white picket fences and rose bushes, all rendered in storybook-like imagery while the titular “Blue Velvet” is sung by Bobby Vinton on the soundtrack. It’s an abnormally normal scene, if putting it that way makes any sense. Right away, Fred Elmes’ cinematography stands out for how vivid the color is, particularly the reds and blues. I love that the opening sequence encapsulates exactly what you said—that Lynch is going to burrow into the seedy underbelly of this town—without putting us in any particular genre. The mode is distinctly Lynch’s own.
Jim: It’s an amazing series of opening images, so colorful and so completely fake. Looking back at it this time made me realize how much of an impact the visual style of just that opening sequence had on future filmmakers. It’s supremely surreal by virtue of its absolute plainness.
Jeffrey Beaumont, our protagonist, is summoned home from college after his father has some kind of an attack. Did you watch the deleted scenes bonus on the Criterion edition?
Michael: My Blue Velvet blu-ray isn’t the Criterion edition actually, but I believe the ~50 minutes of deleted scenes it has are the same ones the Criterion disc has. I’m personally glad that a lot of the exposition around Jeffrey’s coming home from school was left on the cutting room floor. I like the ambiguity that the final cut affords. I do regret Jeffrey’s grandma not getting the screen time she almost had. She’s kind of amusing.
Jim: Get down to it then. Jeffrey comes home, stumbles over a mystery, meets a beautiful and mysterious woman, in fact two of them, and winds up in hell, trapped between angels and devils. I’ve wondered what sets all this in motion, if it’s Jeffrey’s dutiful reportage, or Sandy’s subterfuge.
Michael: That’s interesting, I’d never really thought of Sandy as perhaps slyly goading Jeffrey to dig deeper. If there is a deceitful side to her “girl next door” persona, it’s arguably hinted at by her emerging out of the darkness when she first meets Jeffrey on the sidewalk (an awesome entrance, if you ask me). Is that what you had in mind, or does something else make you suspect Sandy is partially behind any of this? Personally, I see Jeffrey stumbling on the severed ear as a matter of fate, and his compulsion to investigate is a matter of his own innate curiosity. To the extent that this is a coming-of-age story, maybe it’s driven by a newfound willingness in Jeffrey to look beyond what’s right in front of him. Sandy’s hesitancy to get involved strikes me as sincere, though she can’t help but be more than a little interested herself in what’s behind the curtain.
Jim: Well, yes, Jeffrey’s discovery of the ear is, of course, what sets everything in motion. But Sandy is a more generative character, I think, than she might seem. Maybe “subterfuge” is too strong a word, but I do mean it in the sense of Sandy being coy. As you point out, she does appear suddenly out of the dark, out of her own secretive pall, and reveal information to Jeffrey that she’s learned, and, I will emphasize, kept to herself, by way of spying. Sandy’s as much a voyeur as Jeffrey soon proves himself to be (and the deleted scenes underscore). We’ll get into all of the comparisons, I’m sure, but I think it’s safe to say that Sandy is a version of Jeffrey himself, a lighter version, or a milder version, but as much a prime mover in launching the whole story, and propelling it, as Jeffrey. No, she’s not nefariously involved in the events, but her absorption into Jeffrey’s intrigues make her a significant player. Imagine the story without her, if it would even happen. Backing up a little, I have to add that Jeffrey is played by Kyle MacLachlan and Sandy by Laura Dern. Both are so young here, it hurt my brain re-watching this, to see them in all their youthful splendor.
Michael: Oh, they’re both so perfect, Dern and MacLachlan. Dern is especially good. I love those lines she has right after they meet: “I don’t really know much but bits and pieces. I hear things.” And you’re right, if Jeffrey is the detective in this story, she’s not only his love interest, but also a sidekick that he couldn’t do without.
So let’s get into what Jeffrey does find, with the help of Sandy’s intel. They suspect there’s a connection between the severed ear Jeffrey found and a woman named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a nightclub singer, and the film’s femme fatale, who lives in an apartment on the rougher side of Lumberton. Jeffrey devises a plan to sneak into her apartment at night and “observe” for clues. When he pitches the plan to Sandy, he describes it as an opportunity “for gaining knowledge and experience.” What do you make of what he and we see that first night?
Jim: And hearing can be as voyeuristic as seeing.
Well, Jeffrey certainly gains a lot of knowledge and experience that first night, doesn’t he? We learn first that Dorothy has a peculiar way of responding to an intruder in her home, and that she definitely has some odd sexual proclivities. Some of that is explained, and further obscured, with the arrival of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, in probably his most iconic role ever), an amyl nitrite-huffing pervert and criminal freak, who is holding Dorothy’s husband and young son hostage to force sexual favors from Dorothy, the last of which we and Jeffrey witness in stark detail.
Dorothy is such a richly complex character we could have a discussion focused solely on her. I’ve wrestled a bit with her motivations in this scene, to be honest. There’s a key, I think, in considering it in reverse, so to speak. The way that Dorothy talks to Jeffrey, after discovering him in her closet and forcing him to strip naked and fellating him, the phrases she uses to command him, we learn later in the scene, after Frank arrives, are the same words Frank uses to command her (“Don’t look at me or I’ll kill you”, etc.) She’s learned the language of sexual captivity from Frank and uses it against Jeffrey as a kind of re-appropriation of power. What’s so incredibly sad about Dorothy is that sex is the only way she has to deal with anything, whether it’s the discovery of an intruder or the machinations of a madman. She is such a darkly tragic character, but still with an enigmatic quality so deep the story can never fully reveal it.
Michael: Can anyone hurl the F-bomb as venomously as Hopper can? It’s hard not to flinch every time he yells it.
Both her name, Dorothy, and the red shoes she wears recall The Wizard of Oz, one of Lynch’s favorite reference points, and there’s a real “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” vibe as Jeffrey makes his way into Dorothy’s apartment. As he’s walking up the stairs, you hear that low whoosh of what sounds like the building’s air ducts, which is muted as soon as he steps onto her floor. The change is like the noise reduction you get by putting in earplugs when you’re on an airplane. I say this because to me, part of what makes everything that happens in Dorothy’s apartment so unusually disconcerting is that Lynch so acutely evokes interiority. He can do that like no one else. You really feel inside something; the mauve walls of Dorothy’s apartment feel kind of membranous, like we really are on the dark side of the subconscious mind that lay beyond the ear. That gently blowing red curtain in the corner that we randomly cut to a few times even makes the apartment seem somewhat alive.
To your point about Dorothy being a deeply tragic character: I think Rossellini is essential to just how troubling it is to watch Dorothy. There is a stiltedness to the performance, but it only heightens a sense of how damaged and skittish Dorothy is after being subjected to Frank’s ritualistic cruelty. What’s interesting to me about Frank is that while he is more vile and deranged than you can imagine, Lynch gives him the scene at The Slow Club, where he cries watching Dorothy perform. Lynch loves stark dualities—blonde/brunette, good/evil, light/dark—but here he dares to show recognizable human feeling in Frank, suggesting that Frank maybe isn’t pure evil incarnate, as he’s often described, but a severely, horribly disturbed human being. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Frank sympathizer. That’d be insane. But I don’t see Frank the same way that I look at a character like Bob in Twin Peaks, who is truly a symbol of evil.
Jim: That’s a great description of the wall color in Dorothy’s apartment. It catches my eye every time I see it, because it’s such a peculiar color, somewhere between mauve, taupe and purple, but yes, exactly as you say, it’s like the color of some meaty interior wall of the body. It’s so perfectly, creepily Lynch. And yeah, Dorothy does recall Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, here transported to the Land of Odd, the dark interior of an inverted American Dream, in fact an American Nightmare, where Dorothy’s precious innocence is fisted and consumed raw (sorry…). But Frank is hardly the only manifestation of evil in this tale of the American abyss. I’m eager to hear you keep talking, since you’re so thoroughly wired in to the alternating currents of Lumberton’s mad world. There’s the visit to Ben’s place, which is by far my favorite scene of the whole film, and the crazed car ride in Frank’s Charger. Please keep telling the story, with all your wonderful insights. Somewhere along the line, I want to hear what your interpretation of what the “disease” is that Dorothy claims Jeffrey put inside of her. And second, what the fuck is that thing hanging on the wall in Jeffrey’s bedroom?
Michael: If there’s any scene in Blue Velvet that might make a viewer laugh rather than recoil, I’d think it’s the pit stop at Ben’s place. It’s not one I laugh out loud at personally, but there is a slight tonal shift that happens as soon as Dorothy, Jeffrey, Frank and his cronies pull up out front of the bar that Ben’s place is attached to. Frank screaming “PABST BLUE RIBBON!” in Jeffrey’s ear is something I could hear a midnight movie audience cackling at. I honestly don’t know what to make of the motley crew of weirdos that are actually inside, but I love that scene too. Ben (Dean Stockwell) is involved in Frank’s drug dealing and Dorothy’s husband and son are kept at his place, but those plot mechanics hardly matter. The bizarre overweight ladies who don’t say anything, Ben’s kabuki white makeup, his lip-syncing, I ingest that all as surreal poetry, an outpouring of the id that crescendos with Frank shouting, “I’ll fuck anything that moves!” Before we switch to the questions you asked and other topics, I’m curious about your take on this scene, since it’s your favorite.
Jim: Well, it’s that quintessentially Lynchian tableau, right? Lynch came along at this strange intersection between two generations, and two distinct ranges of artistic expression, between an aesthetics founded on unconventional beauty and an aesthetics based on anything disturbing. The scene at Ben’s place is a kind of hipster fever dream, a bored, transgressive vaudeville routine, replete with voluptuous ladies, impromptu lip-synching routines, and that pathetic little bathroom drug-deal. Dean Stockwell deserved an Oscar for that brief performance, it’s so completely out of nowhere. Then there’s the ritualistic pouring of the beer. I love the beer theme in Blue Velvet, with Jeffrey’s dumb thing about Heineken, because at the time, in the mid-eighties, there was this dumb thing about Heineken, and the duel between Bud and PBR. It’s so splendidly, stupidly American. Ben lip-synching Roy Orbison into a trouble-light, in that dully theatrical way, kinda sends shivers down my spine.
Michael: You have me thinking now that there’s something almost Jarmuschian about it. Jarmuschian with a dark twistedness to it, that is.
Back to your question about that weird thing on Jeffrey’s wall, the lump of mud with the teeth and tongue of some creature jutting out of it. What, you didn’t have one of those in your room growing up? I forget what the context is, but in Mysteries of Love, the documentary on Blue Velvet, Rossellini at one point brings up Francis Bacon, an artist that Lynch has said he especially reveres. Maybe this is a stretch, but I think I see Bacon’s influence in that “decorative” piece, if you can call it that, in that the mouth looks like it fossilized while it was still in the middle of a howl. On that same note, there’s that brief vision Jeffrey has earlier on of his father in his hospital bed, the face all distorted and blurry. That also struck me as Bacon-like.
As for the “disease” Dorothy says Jeffrey has put in her, I’m not sure I have a specific interpretation beyond the literal, to be honest. Dorothy says that after she’s turned up outside Jeffrey’s house, right? Once they’re inside Sandy’s living room? It’s the line that leaves Sandy horrified, because she realizes Dorothy and Jeffrey have slept together. I think it speaks to Dorothy’s warped perception of sex. After so much sadistic abuse, the vocabulary she uses to talk about sex is informed by the pain and suffering she associates it with. It’s a morbid word to describe what to her is a morbid act. What are your thoughts?
Jim: I haven’t got a clue. That’s why I asked you, about the thing on the wall, anyway. Bacon, okay, I can go with that. I just thought of it as an instance of Lynchian grotesquerie, meant to be vaguely repulsive and freakish. It works! As for the disease, I think there could be, and I do emphasize could be, a suggestion that Jeffrey has a Frank-like disease, because, like Frank says to Jeffrey during the car scene, “You’re like me.” It’s a thread that runs throughout and influences much of how I read the film as a whole. But I don’t think there’s any empirical definition, like you say. It’s something around sex and perversion and the consequences of abuse that blur the distinction between the two.
Lynch is Jarmuschian, perhaps, but I think it’s more that Jarmusch and Lynch (and Tarantino, I’ll add) are similar, distinctly American directors, who speak with similar voices about an America that’s most often located on the margins, with these invisible and mangy figures.
Michael, I want you to speak to the two primary scenes that dominate the beginning of the second half of the film, namely the pit stop at Ben’s, followed by the joyride, because I want to hear you tell me, and our dear readers, the significance of these scenes. What do they contribute to the plot, insofar as there is a plot, or to the broader narrative that Blue Velvet is advancing? Like I said, I love those scenes, but I do wonder what their role is in the greater arc of the tale. Do we learn anything new, or are we just acquiring a more detailed understanding of what we’ve already learned up to that point?
Michael: Well, I described the film earlier as a coming-of-age story, and I do see it as one. We don’t get much detail about Jeffrey’s relationship with his father, but his dad’s hospitalization arguably thrusts him closer to real adulthood, to becoming the “man of the house.” Jeffrey passes through the field with the severed ear twice, but I think it’s important that he doesn’t find it until after he’s visited his father in the hospital. Jeffrey doesn’t even realize it, but seeing his dad like that, incapacitated and afraid, is an eye-opening experience. Entering adulthood involves seeing the world a little differently, noticing things you didn’t previously notice; as he stumbles on the ear, Jeffrey’s just starting to see that the world isn’t all roses and sunshine. He still has enough youthful optimism to kick off his investigation with excitement, and he repeatedly visits Dorothy thinking he can maybe help her (while also desiring her), but coming face to face with Frank is a turning point. The wild ride through Lumberton with Frank and his posse, including the visit to Ben’s, is a kind of initiation, a passing through the flames that separate Jeffrey’s innocent understanding of the world as essentially a good place from his knowing that the world also contains rage and incomprehensible evils. He can’t just hide in the closet and watch forever, he’s going to really be in it.
Switching gears slightly, we can’t not mention the dream that Sandy recounts about the robins. What’s striking about that scene, beyond Dern’s perfectly ethereal delivery of the lines, is that while it’s so obviously corny, Lynch doesn’t seem to be mocking Sandy at all. She seems to really believe that her dream might come true, and that one day, with enough love, the “robins” might be unleashed upon the world to wash all its evils away. One thing I love about Lynch is that he rarely judges his characters, or holds them up for us to ridicule. I don’t think he believes that that dream will come true, but he knows, and respects, that believing something like that is what some people need to keep going. What’s your take on that scene and/or the robin on the windowsill at the end?
Jim: Are you kidding? The robin bit is the entire game. I was just waiting for you to play it. And I can tell you exactly how I read the robin on the sill with the beetle in its beak. But there’s still the dance, and the chase, and Dorothy revealed, and the climax, followed by the end. Take us through it. You do it so well. Regale us, dude, si’l vous plait? Then I’ll give you my robin-beetle theory.
Michael: So, after Jeffrey’s dumbfounding night with Frank and his crew, which memorably ends with Frank slathering on lipstick, kissing Jeffrey, and leaving him beaten up to walk home the next morning, Jeffrey decides it’s finally time to share what he knows with Sandy’s dad, who’s an actual detective (perhaps a crooked one). We go into teen romance movie mode when Jeffrey and Sandy attend a party where they lovingly sway and kiss to Julee Cruise’s dreamy ballad “Mysteries of Love”, one of my favorite of the film’s musical moments. There’s obviously a lot of ’50s detail and spirit throughout the film, but this scene strangely feels very ’80s at the same time. You can picture Molly Ringwald in there somewhere.
The reverie collapses when Jeffrey and Sandy leave the party: on the way home, they’re chased in the car by who they assume is Frank. When they pull over outside Jeffrey’s house, they realize it’s just Sandy’s boyfriend, but standing on the lawn is a battered, stark naked Dorothy, shuffling towards Jeffrey in a daze with her arms outstretched. At last, Sandy learns that Jeffrey hasn’t shared everything that’s been happening during his trips to Dorothy’s place.
The climax begins when the police raid Frank’s place, which sits on the industrial side of town. Meanwhile, Jeffrey goes back to Dorothy’s, and finds the Yellow man and Dorothy’s husband there, both dead. It’s one of the most uncanny images in the film: the Yellow man’s still standing, despite having had his brains literally blown out. His arm violently spasms when Jeffrey approaches him. Frank arrives, and after furiously looking for Jeffrey around the now blood-splattered apartment, Jeffrey shoots him from behind the closet door.
Which brings us to the storybook ending: Jeffrey and Sandy with their families at home on a sunny day, everyone healthy and well. Tell me about the robin.
Jim: One point first. You mention the ‘50s and ‘80s vibes, which is a point I wanted to make myself. Although you can see it in a lot of films from the ‘80s, I can tell you first-hand how strong the ‘50s visual style was in the ‘80s. There was a bit of ‘50s musical style, especially with rockabilly and a little bit of doo-wop, particularly as they were fused with punk and new wave, but the visual style was huge, which you see splashed all over Blue Velvet, with the cars, the clothes, the diners, the Slow Club, and so on. Granted, Lynch always holds that ‘50s aesthetic close by in his films, but here he captures it as part of the true, on-the-ground zeitgeist of the time, in the heart of the Eighties. The cars, actually, are kind of their own little amalgamation, with Jeffrey and Frank driving vintage ‘70s cars, while you see a lot of ‘50s models as well. Oh, and the big ‘80s hairdos with the women and girls take me straight back to that strangely idyllic time. It’s an interesting, very deliberate mash-up, meant, I think, to ground the film in a broad range of visual modern Americana.
As you referenced, Sandy tells Jeffrey, in a scene after Jeffrey’s first night at Dorothy’s, about a dream she had, in which all the world was darkness, because there were no robins. But then all of a sudden, she says, thousands of robins were set free, and they flew down and brought a blinding light of love, and that love would make all the difference. “And it did,” Sandy says, with a rapturous gaze to the heavens.
In the ending, the storybook ending, as you so rightly describe it – with Jeffrey and Sandy presumably married, and their parents the best of friends – Jeffrey, Sandy and Jeffrey’s Aunt Barbara are greeted in the kitchen of their home by a robin perched on the window sill with a bug clasped in its beak. Jeffrey reminds Sandy of her dream, which brings a beaming smile to Sandy’s face. Aunt Barbara, probably my favorite minor character, grimaces and says “I couldn’t eat a bug.” Sandy looks up to Jeffrey and repeats a line they both utter multiple times throughout the film, “It’s a strange world.”
First of all, the robin is laughably artificial, a mechanical prop that’s clearly meant to look fake, summoning back the artifice of the film’s opening shots, which are repeated immediately after this closing scene. Now, I don’t think this a dig on Sandy’s sweet dream of love-liberating robins, but a sign of the artificiality of the false dichotomy of light and darkness, love and hate, etc., that supports the American Dream that Lynch is gently lampooning. The fake Robin emphasizes the artifice of the American myth, and its origins in magical thinking. The relationship between the robin and the bug isn’t about the triumph of lightness over darkness, but of sustenance, and mutual need.
The robin-beetle image is one of symbiosis, not dominance. The dynamics between the high and the low, between the light and the dark, the good and the bad, is never, ideally, about defeat, but mutual assurance. So long as there is one, there is the other. There’s nothing spiritual, or mystical about it (unless you want it to be), just a symbiotic relationship between two interdependent things in opposition. Without the other, each ceases to exist. The American myth of the storybook ending, instead of everything it appears to be on the surface, may very well involve a crooked cop still profiting off the drug trade, a young man with dark inclinations who may end up some day Frank-adjacent, and a young woman whose sweetness and light probably will endure, until it’s assaulted, inevitably, by something horrible. Sandy’s final “It’s a strange world,” is a classic ‘50s -to-‘80s style narrative shrug – “That’s just how it is!” – that the couple has held up as their most trusted shield since first meeting. And then there’s Aunt Barbara, who focuses on the mechanics of things, and calls disgusting things disgusting.
So what’s your grand binding theory of Blue Velvet, Michael? Or just the grand themes and ideas that are meaningful to you.
Michael: I think that your reading hits the nail on the head. I’m totally with you.
The themes I find most striking are ones we’ve touched on: voyeurism, coming-of-age, the seediness that writhes behind the images associated with the American Dream, the oddity of those images when you look at them with your head tilted. We’ve come this far without really looking at the film through a Freudian lens, and I’m glad. It’s the obvious way of dissecting all the “baby” and “mommy” dialogue, but enough ink has already been spilled dissecting the film from that angle.
A lot of what I find so incredibly thrilling about this movie is formal in nature rather than thematic. It’s a sui generis work of surrealism with completely its own rhythm and feel. I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m passionate about classic film noir, which always had a surrealistic bent to it. I love Lynch’s bringing of the noir tradition to the suburbs, and his melding of it with innocent teen romance. It’s such a fascinating fusion of tones that he manages: the macabre with the mundane, the cheesy with the sincere, the colorful and bright with the dark and disturbing. And there are so many deeply, indelibly mysterious details, like Frank’s haunting incantation at the beginning and end of his ritual with Dorothy (“Now it’s dark”), the closeups of the candle as wind from nowhere rushes through it, the chilling use of slow motion and muffled sound during certain sex scenes (Alan Splet’s sound design is invaluable). It’s an immersive world both familiar and strange, and it abides by its own persuasive internal logic. I’m gushing now more than analyzing, but I can’t help it. Blue Velvet is probably in my top ten favorite movies of all time.
Jim: Gush all you want, my friend. That’s what we’re here for. And with that, I think we’ll end it, another great conversation with you about a milestone in world cinema. Thanks for bringing Blue Velvet to the passionate scrutiny of Collokino. I love your enthusiasm for this mad film.
I’ve overlooked it before, but want to give you the opportunity to plug your other film-related projects and content, like your podcast and other places interested folks can find you rhapsodizing about cinema.
Michael: As always, thanks for hosting and for your thoughts and insights. Already looking forward to our next go-round.
Since you’re giving me the opportunity, I’ll mention that folks can listen to me and Taylor Baker talk about movies on our podcast Drink in the Movies, where we review both new releases and older titles. I also post thoughts about most of the movies I watch on my Letterboxd profile, which is here. Thanks Jim!