Velvet Underworld

David Lynch's traumatizing neo-noir masterpiece turns 20

The last real earthquake to hit cinema was David Lynch's Blue Velvet —I'm sure directors throughout the film world felt the earth move beneath their feet and couldn't sleep the night of their first encounter with it back in 1986—and screens trembled again and again with diminishing aftershocks over the next decade as these picture makers attempted to mount their own exhilarating psychic cataclysms. But no one could quite match the traumatizing combination of horrific, comedic, aural, and subliminal effects Lynch rumbled out in this masterpiece—not even Lynch himself in the fun-filled years that followed before he recombined with himself to invent The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive.

Lynch was born in 1946, part of that first litter of boomers sired by the paranoia of unmedicated war vets jittering and fisting their way through the sudden proliferation of film noir product. In spite of Lynch presenting his tale in the comforting saturated Kodachromes his generation associates with the "innocence" of their childhood years, there is much of what noir does best in Blue Velvet: Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont slips past the safety rails and hops right into a raging maelstrom of guilt and evil as blithely as any noir protagonist ever did; and Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth is just the necessary incarnation of nightmare that Steve Cochrane's Eddie Roman was in Arthur Ripley's The Chase (1946), the most surrealism-propelled crime film ever to sleepwalk out of the Dark City.

But perhaps it is Isabella Rossellini's femme fatale Dorothy Vallens that is Blue Velvet's greatest gift to posterity. Director and neophyte actress collaborated to retool the old genre's often stock figure, to deglamorize and humiliate the supermodel, to knead her pulpy nakedness into a bruise-colored odalisque of inseminated sensualities and untrusting ferocity. There is something sharply porno-entomological, something of the implacable godless terror with which insects mate and devour, and something terrifyingly true, in the bearing of this bravely performed character. Nuns at Rossellini's old high school in Rome held a series of special masses for her redemption after the release of this film—still a hilarious, red-hot poker to the brain after 20 years. A new print has been struck for the special anniversary two-week run at Film Forum.

Sharply porno-entomological: Hopper and Rossellini
photo: Sony Pictures Repertory
Sharply porno-entomological: Hopper and Rossellini

Details

Blue Velvet
Directed by David Lynch
Sony Pictures Repertory
March 3 through 16, Film Forum


Guy Maddin's My Dad Is 100 Years Old—a short made to commemorate the centenary of Roberto Rossellini, starring and written by Isabella Rossellini—will premiere in U.S. theaters this year.

 
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