David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet is a masterpiece, one of the great achievements of cinema. But as the new Blu-ray suggests, making it involved getting the exact right balance of tone – 52 minutes of newly discovered deleted scenes are included and they show that Lynch had to get the right mix between the standard mystery/noir plot and his more out there sensibilities. He found it, but any one of those additional scenes might have ruined that balance.
Kyle MacLachlan stars as Jeffery Beaumont, who comes home from college after his father has a stroke. While sorting out his feelings, he finds an ear, which he takes to the cops. From there he’s sucked into a different world featuring a singer (Isabella Rossellini) and a madman (Dennis Hopper). Our review of the Blu-ray of Blue Velvet follows after the jump.
The film opens with a montage of a perfect, dreamy Middle America accompanied by the song “Blue Velvet,” and the montage ends with a man collapsing from a stroke and a dog blissfully drinking from the hose of the injured man. It’s hard to call it subtle, but Lynch’s imagery is hypnotic, impressionistic, and slightly smirking. Something about the slow motion of the fire truck suggests slight ironic distance. But quickly the placid surface is ruined, and as the sequence ends Lynch tracks into the earth and shows the bugs of the world swarming under the ground. Visually, Lynch has established what the film is about. There’s the surface, and just under the surface, there’s violent insects. Our grotesque but perhaps just as inevitable underbelly.
MacLachlan’s Beaumont is from Lumberton, whose (sole?) radio station starts with chorus girls singing “Logs! Logs! Logs!” By that point in his career Lynch had been involved with weird movies (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune), but Blue Velvet was the first time he seemed able to explore funny-weird in an observational way – there are funny things in Eraserhead, but it’s hard for audiences to know if they’re intentional. Perhaps by embracing the genre structure of a mystery, Lynch’s small town world could have those odd highlights but not feel overpowered by them (as some of his later works can be), or perhaps it’s because he needed to show the difference between the world of Jeffery Beaumont and the world of Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini) and Frank Booth (Hopper). Or perhaps it’s because Jeffery is recognizably an avatar. Jeffery’s mostly normal, maybe just a little rebellious – he has an earring, though that nicely twins with the film’s amputated ear.
Through turning in the ear he meets the police sergeant’s daughter Sandy (Laura Dern). She’s got a boyfriend, but he needs her to help “investigate” and also the two are plainly attracted to each other. He wants to go to The Slow Club with her because of things that Sandy’s overheard about the singer Dorothy Vallens. Jeffery takes it a step further and breaks into Dorothy’s apartment looking for clues. Eventually Dorothy finds him in the closet and seduces him, but hides him when Frank Booth shows up. He’s there for violent sex games, and tells her to stay alive. Jeffery witnesses all of this, and is torn between his attraction to Sandy and to Dorothy – who he eventually sleeps with, and while having sex she asks him to hit her.
There is a mystery in the center of this involving the ear, and some drugs, and crooked cops, but Lynch deftly uses them like the MacGuffins they are. Though the film does function well on the level of the film noir and mystery novel, the film is about so much more. On a base level the film is a Bildungsroman, with Jeffery accepting adulthood through a rite of sex and violence (not always at the same time) in which he encounters the real dangers of the world, and its underbelly. But when it comes to great movies, it’s hard to say the film is just one thing.
Blue Velvet is a dense text to dive into, and that’s one of the reasons why it still packs a great punch. From the camp (“I looked for you in my closet tonight”) to the violence, every moment and sequence offers another thrill, and it builds perfectly to its conclusion, where Jeffery must defeat Frank Booth or die. Is Frank Booth the working, droning insects from the start of the movie? Is he inevitable? Is he a reflection of all the terrible things inside Jeffery? One of the more disturbing things that happens when Jeffery and Frank go on a drive together – not just meeting Dean Stockwell’s Ben – is Frank’s comment that he and Jeffery are not that dissimilar.
But as for definitive, there’s no arguing that this is the performance in Dennis Hopper’s long and varied career. It’s perfectly pitched, the sort of out there role only someone who has been through the sort of drug use and abuse, and life that Hopper had could manage. Frank’s a madman freak, but always believable. He huffs gas and cries for mommy, and seems to enjoy sexually punishing Dorothy but never has real sex with her.
With Isabella Rossellini’s wigged Dorothy Vallens, it’s hard to know if Frank made her realize she’s secretly into S&M, or if it’s Stockholm syndrome. It’s one of the great fine lines the film walks. Lynch puts her through the ringer, and it’s a very naked performance, literally and metaphorically. But as easy as it is to focus on the darker characters, the film wouldn’t work if MacLachlan wasn’t the perfect anchor. Just baby-faced enough to be playing a college kid, he’s just as believable romancing Laura Dern’s character as he is getting caught up in Dorothy’s sex games. That twinkle in his eyes is just as convincing playing innocent or pervert.
MGM/Fox’s Blu-ray is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 master audio. The transfer is immaculate, this is a great film for color, and it’s looks great right from the lush blue velvet curtains that start the film. From the previous DVD release there’s the feature-length making of “Mysteries of Love” (71 min.), with period interviews with Lynch, and then-current interviews with Hopper, Rosselini, Dern, MacLachlan, cinematographer Frederick Elmes, producer Frank Caruso, and editor Duwayne Dunham. It’s an involving documentary because everyone has interesting things to say about a great film.
But the jewel of this set are the deleted scenes, entitled “Newly Discovered Lost Footage” (52 min.). It’s broken into eleven chapters, Some of the scenes have been talked about before: the most famous deleted sequence is when Jeffery watches a guy trying to force a girl to have sex and then (after a little) tries to stop it. Other sequences feature Jeffery leaving his friends and girlfriend at school, weird bits with Frank and crew, more time with Jeffery’s family, terrible acts at The Slow club, and time with Sandy’s competitive boyfriend. Everything that’s missing is missing for the right reasons. Sometimes films like this are carved, and nothing that got cut is missed. There are also outtakes (2 min.) which function as a gag reel. Also included is the Siskel & Ebert “At the Movies” clip where Ebert savagely pans the film (2 min.), four vignettes (4 min.) – bits cut from the documentary – and rounding out the set is the film’s theatrical trailer and two TV spots.