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Cinema || Blue Velvet (Blue Shades of the Dark)

“It’s like saying that once you’ve discovered there are heroin addicts in the world and they’re murdering people to get money, can you be happy? It’s a tricky question. Real ignorance is bliss. That’s what Blue Velvet is about.”                              – David Lynch

Blue Velvet (1986) is a film that looks at the utter depravity of humanity and ventures to transcend it by realizing the redemptive power of love. It has been beautifully directed by David Lynch, who succeeds in making it a work that overwhelmingly demands discussion.

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a college  student back home in Lumberton due to his father’s illness. He begins tracking a mystery surrounding night singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and how the obsessive, sadistic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) controls her life through kidnapping her husband and son. While Jeffrey unveils the darkness lurking under this paragon of small town America, he also falls in love with Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), daughter of a police detective, while also having a passionate relationship with Dorothy.

The film opens with a scene depicting the normalcy and beauty of small town life, ending on a zoom into the grass, finding vile bugs underneath. Throughout the film, Jeffrey finds the depravity lurking under the surface of his hometown, acting as a voyeur into the life of Dorothy, and experiencing firsthand the twisted nature of Frank. Later  captured by Frank and his gang, Jeffrey is “taken for a ride” as Frank takes Jeffrey to his drug dealer’s den, run by a coded queer character and is posse of oddballs. After this encounter, Frank takes him to an abandoned lot and has him beaten, but not before forcibly kissing him while wearing Dorothy’s lipstick. While an earlier scene depicted Jeffrey witnessing Frank’s rape of Dorothy earlier (mixed with an element of castration), his entire “ride” sequence confrontation adds a strong queer element to Frank’s character.

In a final cat-and-mouse confrontation, Jeffrey initiates his first act of violence within the film, and kills Frank in Dorothy’s apartment. Immediately after he fires the gun, Sandy bursts into the apartment, panting and shouting his name. The film ends with Jeffrey and Sandy together, noting that Robins have come to feast on the bugs. Sandy explained to Jeffrey earlier in the film that she had a dream where Robins were symbols of love bringing light to the dark world. Her prophecy (which was told to Jeffrey in front of a church) seems to have come true. A relative of Jeffrey, however, remarks that she wishes she didn’t have to see the disgusting act of the Robin consuming the bug. With deviancy crushed, the film ends with a montage just like it   began, beautiful suburbia with its flowers and white picket fences, and with Dorothy finally reunited with her son.

The final act of Jeffrey shooting Frank is coded as an act of heteronormativity, Sandy panting and gasping, shouting his name right after he uses his phallic weapon. It symbolizes a sexual and violent act of  normalcy exorcising deviancy. We must consider a queer reading. We see the queer illustrated as evil, perverted, corrupt, disgusting. Their expulsion forms what appears to be a happy ending. In the end, on the surface it would appear true harmony returns to the town, though it looks the same as ever. The ending, while seeming to appear that all is right in the world, still retains an unnerving element, a hint of creeping fear within. A man friendly waving while riding a fire truck feels so normal that it’s weird. Is this film  showing what happens when sexuality is confined, that it will inevitably explode? Perhaps it’s this reestablishment of conservative norms that is the root of the problem.

While symbolizing sex, a union of heteronormativity to erase sexual deviancy, the climax also symbolizes an Oedipal killing of the father. As Laura Mulvey notes, Dorothy, Frank, and Jeffrey form an Oedipal family, Frank’s abuse representing domestic violence itself. Various elements of the film help support this notion, from Frank calling out to his mother as he preys on Dorothy, to Jeffrey and Dorothy having sex, falling into the Oedipal notion of sons wanting to sleep with their mothers.

While I am still processing what Blue Velvet ultimately means, I am also grappling with the exploitation of actors for art. Roger Ebert has famously panned the film to its harsh treatment of Isabella Rosselini’s character, a character who experiences the brunt of the depravity.

Exploitation of actors is a question that always proves the most difficult for me to answer. I  believe that art, like humor, can tackle any subject. I also believe that the torment Rosselini’s character undergoes through is earned throughout the film. But is it exploitative regardless? I don’t believe so in this case, but Ebert’s concerns echo as a reminder that exploring the depravity of the soul requires craft that few often have the talent to pull off. Luckily, Blue Velvet rises above this, tackling the (sur)real with a deft hand, coldly gazing at the depravity that boils beneath the pleasantries of Americana. []

Film: Blue Velvet
Writer/Director: David Lynch
Year: 1986

Language: English

First published in Issue #2 of CultureCult Magazine (November 2015)