I close my eyes then I drift away
Into the magic night, I softly say
A silent prayer like dreamers do
Then I fall asleep to dream my dreams of you.
Films are like dreaming. You sit there motionless, often in the dark, and passively allow a series of images to flicker before your eyes. Your consciousness is utterly powerless to control them, which depending on the images displayed can be enthralling, scary – perhaps even arousing.
Blue Velvet understands this: it moves like a dream, it makes no attempt to pertain to ‘reality’. Director David Lynch, a master of the form, uses recurring shots that serve no dramatic function, such as beetles lurking in the undergrowth of a suburban garden or a candle flickering against an ominous wind. The narrative could survive without these intermissions but the dream logic could not, because these images help us to ‘interpret’ the dream as a whole. They are also deeply unsettling, touching a subconscious nerve and transforming the film into a nightmare from which we cannot avert our eyes.
Famously, the most nightmarish element in this film is Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth. His is a genuinely frightening performance, one in which any danger seems possible. It is all the more alarming because in amongst the frequent flights of rage there is a childlike vulnerability, a face that is moved by Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy (like The Wizard of Oz – coincidence?) and wants to suckle on her breasts. He’s like a demented baby howling for his mummy, but with the body of an adult who can do real damage to the people coming in the way of his sexual fantasies.
And like us, he loves to watch others and to dream: in one scene he gazes upon Dean Stockwell miming to Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ (most definitely not a coincidence) with a rapture that eventually overwhelms him. It is one of the great moments in film history, one in which the director acknowledges that, in the dark of the cinema, we are all dreaming. And just like Hopper’s character, we must eventually wake up.
* * *
Jeffrey Beaumont: I’m seeing something
that was always hidden. I’m in
the middle of a mystery and it’s all secret.
Sandy Williams: You like mysteries that
Jeffrey Beaumont: Yeah. You’re a
mystery. I like you very much.
Films are like mysteries. They make detectives out of all of us. They are a series of shots, the meaning and interconnectedness of which we must work out for ourselves. We like to guess what will happen next, who the killer is, will they/won’t they etc. And we try to predict the outcomes by scanning the screen carefully for clues.
So when Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) discovers a severed ear in amongst an arbitrary patch of grass, he is not sickened or appalled by what he has found but rather intrigued. How did it get there? Is the victim still alive? What kind of sick bastard would do this? He takes it to the police but can’t/won’t stop there. The detective’s daughter, Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), leads him to an apartment that she believes could be connected to the case, and Jeffrey is determined to break in. He can’t resist the mystery. Neither can we.
The case unravels before our own and Jeffery’s eyes, and it is as compelling as we expected, encompassing murder, kidnapping, drug busts, police corruption, and other sadomasochistic horrors.
Yet running parallel is another mystery, one in which Jeffrey and Sandy try to navigate the turmoil of adolescence and realise their feelings for one another. ‘You’re a mystery,’ as Jeffrey tells her, ‘and I like you very much.’
Being a detective is hard work and we can all make mistakes, but it is also addictive and may just bring a sense of meaning to life. It certainly brings some meaning to Jeffrey’s life, whose snooping around and love life quickly becomes the central forces in his life and a distraction from his hospitalised dad. If you respond to the power of film then Blue Velvet might just bring some meaning to your life too.
* * *
Sandy Williams: I
can’t figure out if
you’re a detective or
Well, that’s for me to
know and you to find
Films are an act of voyeurism. Sex sells, as Hollywood and other LA industries know, and that is because there is something hardwired in a large portion of human beings that means we like to watch good-looking people onscreen, for want of a better word, fucking.
There is a voyeur in the majority of us, and as a fanatical filmgoer myself it is something that I have become increasingly aware of and perturbed by in my own psyche. Why am I so drawn to looking at other people displayed on screens, excited by their romantic adventures and also, weirdly, their perils? Films like Blue Velvet are discomforting but also reassuring: they tell us don’t worry, we are all the same.
Jeffrey is not just a detective, he is a pervert, a voyeur, someone who likes to sneak into people’s apartments and watch them undress. It is of course important that he is male, the half of the species amongst whom pornography is more widely an obsession. And he spends several scenes of the film stood in a cupboard, sometimes naked, watching rape and murder scenes evolving before him with a calm fascination.
He is in that respect like James Stewart in Rear Window, but without the excuse of being crippled and having nothing else to do.
David Lynch is fearful of the damage that voyeurism can inflict upon impressionable youths like Jeffery, who learns to inflict his own kind of sexual violence on women before the film’s end. This is a subtlety that clearly eluded Roger Ebert in his famous pan of the film: we are supposed to be shocked by the naked, beaten flesh of Isabella Rossellini when it is exposed to us. It tells us something about ourselves, about our complicity in watching movie violence, and our freakishly obsessive voyeurism.
* * *
Frank Booth: Let’s hit the
fuckin’ road! We’re giving our
neighbour a joyride! Let’s get
on with it! Anyone want to go
on a joyride with us? How
about you, huh?
Films are many things, but they wouldn’t be worth a dime if they weren’t also a joyride. Blue Velvet is not just profound, it is also a hell of a lot of fun. It is a thriller that thrills and it leaves you hanging on every scene until the hypnotically bizarre finale which features a standing corpse.
It is also a joyride for being a triumph in all artistic departments. It is hard to cease to be amazed by the film’s mesmerising soundtrack, its trick of balancing tension and emotional meaning in the editing, its carefully choreographed photography, and its vibrantly contrasted hues of black, red, and of course blue.
The mise en scène is thrilling to witness on every viewing, and demands to be seen in a cinema, which makes this 30th anniversary rerelease, in cinemas from Friday, a blessing. I know that I’ll be going to see it, watching and dreaming and getting caught up in the mystery of great filmmaking again as if it were the first time.
How about you, huh?