Nitehawk Cinema will be presenting a 35mm print of Blue Velvet as part of the theater’s Late Night Lynch series.
The films of David Lynch have a notoriously steep learning curve. His latest works—2005’s Inland Empire and 2001’s Mulholland Dr., veer heavily into the abstract, with much of the story-telling work left to the audience to figure out themselves. His early work is even stranger, as represented by his first feature, Eraserhead, and a small collection of extremely odd shorts.
After Eraserhead, Lynch spent most of the 1980’s making strange, but easily digestible films. The Elephant Man was Lynch’s first major success as a commercial filmmaker, and though it earned him plenty of critical acclaim, including an Oscar nod for Best Director, the movie offers little in terms of Lynch’s personal stamp. His follow-up film, Dune, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Nebula award winning novel, had been previously attempted and abandoned by both Ridley Scott and Alejandro Jodorowsky before Lynch came to the task, but the small scale filmmaker wasn’t quite up to the task of making something on such a grand scale. (Dune has its fans, but is, at best, a kind of fantastic mess.)
Reeling from the critical and commercial flop of Dune, Lynch settled for a smaller scale story. The result was Blue Velvet, easily Lynch’s most focused work that hits the sweet spot between the director’s transcendental leanings and his ability to spin a wicked yarn.
A kind of neo-noir, Blue Velvet follows the exploits of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), an intelligent, but sheltered, college student who decides to play at detective after stumbling upon a bloodied human ear while walking through a field in his small, suburban town. Through his sloppy investigation, Jeffrey discovers a side of town he never knew existed; a wormhole of sexual torture, fetishism, drugs and vice. Enticed by the raw sensuality of the underworld, Jeffrey quickly finds himself wrapped up in a kidnapping plot involving a singer, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), and the town’s resident psychopath, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper)–a dire situation that Jeffrey quickly finds himself ill equipped to handle.
There are plenty of reasons that Blue Velvet makes a good entry point into the Lynch’s broader work. As said before, it’s his most accessible film, with a plot that’s as gripping as any pulp crime novel and filled with characters that are difficult to shake (no matter how hard you try). It also showcases many of Lynch’s reoccurring themes (the perversion of innocence, dueling identities, the seedy underbelly of suburbia) in a way that’s more concise and focused than his later work.
Duality is a major theme of Lynch’s that pops up in almost all of his work (Lost Highway, “Twin Peaks,” Mulholland Dr. all wrangle with the theme in one way or another), but Blue Velvet does it best and with the most clarity. Young Jeffrey is mirrored by the twisted Frank; the sensuous Dorothy gets played against the virginal Sandy (Laura Dern); from the setting on down to its minor characters, everyone and everything in Blue Velvet seems to have a kind of doppelganger floating around.
Simply put, by coming to Lynch at his most lucid, it makes tackling his more abstract work less arduous. Something like Lost Highway, with its shifting narrative and flip-flopping characters, or Mulholland Dr., with its dreamlike structure, could prove to be too much for newcomers (I know it was for me), but watching them with a broader understanding of where Lynch’s mind tends to linger helps to wrap your head around them. If anything, Blue Velvet acts like a kind of decoder ring to the rest of Lynch’s films.