flesh and bone of human nature
1986, Pabst Blue Ribbon became the new King of Beers. Moviegoers
spilled from local theatres and plopped onto bar stools, nudging
their friends sardonically while self-consciously touching their
Conversations went something like this (voices altered
"What kinda beer you like, kid?"
"Heineken! Fuck that shit. Pabst Blue Ribbon!"
This is Dennis Hopper's timelessly quotable line, lifted and reenacted
like an anti-ad campaign from David Lynch's "Blue Velvet"
a unique film not just about the strangeness lurking beneath
a tranquil-looking world, but about the lurid eroticism surrounding
that strange and perverse world.
to our modern advertising model, in addition to the number of other
works about small-town crime, "Blue Velvet"'s vision remains
fiercely persistent. Part of the film's success is that its images
work to deconstruct our responses and force us to reevaluate our
expectations as consumer and audience member.
Ultimately, "Blue Velvet" is the natural darkness asserting
itself against the mass-marketed perfection and synthetic nostalgia
that capitalism prescribes to.
Lynch is no stranger to the advertising biz. He's been directing
noir-quality commercials for Calvin Klein's Obsession, Clear Blue
Easy pregnancy tests and Alka-Seltzer since the late '80s.
Yet, within his films, he seems to mock advertising.
During a 1997 Rolling Stone interview, he describes those '50s
ads in magazines where you see an immaculately dressed woman preparing
a pie, her face smeared with an incredible smile; or a smiling couple,
walking hand in hand up to their neat picket-fenced house.
"Those were strange smiles," Lynch says. "They're
the smiles of the way the world should or could be. They really
made me dream like crazy. I longed for something out of the ordinary
"Blue Velvet" is a dream come true.
From the beginning, Lynch draws a deceptive parody of '50s nostalgia.
We see red roses against white picket fences, firemen parading through
town on shiny red fire engines, ultra-cute kindergartners crossing
a tree-lined street. This is quaint, small-town Lumberton, a punctuated
version of superficial idealism. There's a static, almost obsessional
quality to this image, with its pop-song inflated, supersaturated
color palette. This is the stuff that capitalism would love to have
us longing for.
But is it realistic?
Enter our curious protagonists, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan)
and Sandy Williams (Laura Dern). Both are products of their squeaky-clean
environment, with their good-natured spirits and goofy, scripted
dialogue. They read like a pair of Norman Rockwell kids, languidly
swinging their legs under the soda fountain counter. But, like Lynch,
they're suspicious of the smiles. Both ache to experience the other
side of the facade.
Jeffrey finds a severed ear decomposing among the bright shrubs
of a neighborhood lot, we're abruptly jarred from dreamy Lumberton.
What follows is a daring sequence of events that sends our protagonists
tumbling down a rabbit hole of blackmail, kidnapping, sadomasochism,
drugs and murder.
The plot plays out like a paperback mystery. Jeffrey takes the
ear to the local police detective, whose daughter, Sandy, eavesdrops
on the status of the investigation. Jeffrey's curiosity gets the
best of him, and he presses Sandy for information on the case. Apparently,
a local nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini)
is suspected of criminal entanglement possibly related to
the ear. Jeffrey winds up hiding in her apartment in an adolescent
attempt to spy. There, he discovers a rabid gang of characters lead
by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), whose wild schemes threaten to overthrow
the values of the sleepy little town.
Frank Booth inhabits the film's most memorable scenes. With his
quick bursts of violence, omnisexual intensity and gas-huffing mania,
he's cinema's most vile bad guy.
Watching him, we think we know what to expect. Then he reveals
moments of tenderness and calm. In a sympathetic scene, we see Frank
gently rubbing a swatch of blue velvet, his face wet and receptive
as he watches Dorothy croon her cover of the title song. Later,
he asks Jeffrey to feel his muscles. He also makes us laugh. His
compulsive tendencies are amusing, almost cartoonish.
Compared to the upstanding citizens of Lumberton, Frank is the
flesh and bone of human nature. His character conjures an emotional
variance beyond the limited and very narrow way that advertising
assumes we experience sex and life. It's no mistake that Frank would
wind up the poster-boy for Pabst Blue Ribbon, if by accident.
Vallen's character is equally complex. As Frank's sexual hostage,
we see her role deliberately mixed up, reversed and reinvented,
so that in the end, tenderness and violence intermingle and destroy
the polarization of light and dark.
In a landmark scene, Dorothy discovers Jeffrey in her closet and
produces a knife. She orders him to strip, then seduces him while
demanding that he not look at her. When Frank arrives, Jeffrey is
ushered back into the closet where he watches Frank violate Dorothy
while referring to her as Mommy. Once Frank has left, Jeffrey reemerges
to comfort Dorothy. She asks if he's a bad boy, then encourages
him to hit her.
During this scene, we feel like we've just witnessed a multi-car
pile-up we can't believe what we're watching, yet can't turn
Part of Dorothy's appeal is how erotically constructed her character
is. She's a moody, heavily lipsticked mystery. Whether she's answering
the door or asking to be felt up, Lynch evokes her most carnal,
slinky qualities. Her actions are instinctual and reactive as a
feline's. She approaches us at a core level and evokes our more
off-cue, root responses.
The majority of the film follows Jeffrey and Sandy as they dig
deeper and deeper into the weirdness with the stock, wide-eyed expressions
of spectators. Along the way, Jeffrey becomes disturbed by the darkness
and violence he finds within himself. In an attempt to philosophize,
he implores: Why are there people like Frank in the world?
We know there's no simple answer to this, and Lynch doesn't offer
one. In the end, we assume that Jeffrey has matured into a thoughtful,
more skeptical individual despite the fact that goodness is restored
and we're returned to the bright, tacky colors of Lumberton.
Still, "Blue Velvet" is as flirtatious as a Gap Jeans
commercial. Lynch ultimately draws on our desires and allows us
to accept the murkier parts by not trying to sell us on quick explanations
left with the impression that he knows we know how silly
it is to pitch a product (be it pie, pair of Nikes or pregnancy
test) by pretending that it will make us like those plastic caricatures
waving through the neighborhood at the beginning of his film. We
already know that underneath the pretty veneer are the darker, more
visceral hues of human nature. We're all more or less aware of our
own shadowy contradictions and general state of mortality, even
when we're constantly ascending.
As Sandy and Jeffrey alternately proclaim: It's a strange world.
But at least there's "Blue Velvet" a film we can
still toast a beer to.
"Blue Velvet" shows June 13-19 at Portland's