Film

Thirty Years on, ‘Blue Velvet’ Still Enraptures and Confounds

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Three decades after its initial release, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet has lost none of its power to derange, terrify, and exhilarate. Debuting in September 1986, deep into the Reagan presidency and the same year that Top Gun was the biggest box office draw, Lynch’s fourth feature ingeniously plumbs the discordances inherent in many American myths: of idyllic suburban life, heroism, adolescent romance. As J. Hoberman wrote in his rave for this paper, “Continually unpredictable, Blue Velvet is generically a teen coming-of-age movie crossed with a noir. But Lynch is weirdest precisely when attempting to be most normal.” (Ten years ago, the inimitable filmmaking fantasist Guy Maddin celebrated Lynch’s movie in the Voice as “the last real earthquake to hit cinema” and a “red-hot poker to the brain.”)

Small-town orderliness is distorted in the first shot: The saturated, hyperreal hues of red roses in front of a white picket fence and under a blue sky seem to be daubed from the same phantasmagoric palette as the “candy-colored clown they call the sandman,” the opening line of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” a pivotal song heard later in the film. The prominence of that 1963 ballad, plus Bobby Vinton’s syrupy title tune, another hit from that year, destabilizes our sense of time; Blue Velvet, much like Mulholland Drive (2001), its closest cognate, exists in a bizarre present never quite untethered from the past.

Seemingly of the moment is Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan, reteaming with Lynch after his 1984 sci-fi flop, Dune), a college-age amateur sleuth bedecked in New Wave–ish skinny ties and boxy blazers, a thin hoop barely visible on his left ear. The body part proves crucial to the plot. The university student finds an ear, severed and moldered, in a field; determining to whom it was once attached is just one part of a gruesome mystery he tries to solve. In the course of his snooping, Jeffrey also imagines himself as a protector, determined to save the damaged nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini, in her first major role in English) from her thralldom to the nitrous-oxide-huffing sociopath Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). But in rescuing Dorothy, the upbeat boy detective must reconcile darker desires of his own, unleashed when he spies on the alluring, fragile chanteuse — who will soon command Jeffrey to hit her — through the slats in her closet door.

Guy Maddin celebrated Lynch’s movie as ‘the last real earthquake to hit cinema’

In his reappraisal of Lynch’s triumph, Maddin singles out Rossellini’s femme-fatale performance: “Director and neophyte actress collaborated to retool [film noir’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’s no gainsaying that assessment, no matter how extravagant, by the Canadian auteur, who cast Rossellini as the lead in his 2003 movie The Saddest Music in the World. Yet in the handful of times I’ve watched Blue Velvet over the decades, I’ve always been most fascinated by Laura Dern, playing Sandy, the high school daughter of a police detective and Jeffrey’s part-time accomplice (and soon-to-be sweetheart). The virtuous blonde to Dorothy’s immoral brunette, Sandy is first seen emerging from total darkness, a radiant vision in pink and white — the same color scheme as her bedroom, perversely dominated by a large framed photo of post-accident Montgomery Clift.

Dern, herself still a teenager, brilliantly balances sincerity and detachment as she delivers the film’s trickiest bit of dialogue, recalling to Jeffrey a dream of robins and “a blinding light of love.” Sandy is sunny but still inscrutable, a forerunner to later enigmas the performer would embody for the director: The same ghastly grimace Sandy makes when she discovers the true nature of Jeffrey’s relationship to Dorothy also creeps across the face of the terrorized actress Dern portrays in Inland Empire (2006), Lynch’s avowed final film.

Celebrating another milestone birthday — and its first screening in New York in almost fifty years — is Thomas White’s Who’s Crazy? (1966), a newly restored proto-hippie curio with a sensational score by the Ornette Coleman Trio. The sole movie directed by White, an American born in 1931 who had worked as an assistant to French filmmaker Roger Vadim, Who’s Crazy? follows the chaos created after a group of mental-asylum patients escape a bus and install themselves in an abandoned mansion. To create his anarcho-regressed vision, White collaborated with the Living Theatre, the New York–based experimental troupe then operating primarily in Europe, owing to IRS troubles back home. Shot in Heist-sur-Mer, Belgium, Who’s Crazy? was largely improvised: Cast members make a mess with eggs, play dress-up, discuss strong vibrations (in one of the few scenes with dialogue), host a wedding, make out, and try to coax a near-catatonic man in a tux to speak. The giddy, shambolic activity, certainly avant-garde, maybe even rejuvenating, during the LBJ era, made me restless and irritable during my first — and last — viewing of Who’s Crazy? a few weeks ago. White’s film might be most charitably thought of as a precursor to the lengthy radical-theater-rehearsal episodes in Jacques Rivette’s epic Out 1 (1971).

But while watching Who’s Crazy? may prove exhausting, listening to it never does: Coleman and his musicians created the score in one sitting as the film was projected for them, leading to a sinuous, pulsating, first-responder free-jazz jam. Marianne Faithfull also sings the Coleman-composed “Sadness,” a number that poses queries as unanswerable as that of the movie title: “Is God man? Is man God?” Twenty years later, Blue Velvet‘s Sandy would rephrase the question: “It’s a strange world, isn’t it?”

Blue Velvet

Written and directed by David Lynch

Park Circus Films

Film Forum, March 25–31

Who’s Crazy?

Directed by Thomas White

Grand Motel Films

Anthology Film Archives

March 25–27

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