I like to take walks outside during the night. Not the type Patsy Cline once sang about (“…I go walking, after midnight, searching for you…”) but safe, slow strolls around my neighborhood.
I enjoy hearing the muffled sounds of the houses, smelling the warm aroma of the dinners and seeing the soft glow of TVs making their drawn curtains glow.
I recall a time when I had my college roommate with me and we covered a mile of suburbia; we spoke of how curious it is, that people could live so close to one another but, in some cases, never know who their neighbors were. That sense of mystery, of a nameless, faceless stranger who is living their own life just feet away but never seen, still intrigues me.
I recall walking my dog at night in Colorado Springs many years ago, giving my Maltese a stroll and hearing a neighbor furiously digging a hole in his backyard…at midnight. I have no idea if this unseen person was digging a hole for the family swimming pool or if I had caught him midway through hiding a body. I still wonder about that one.
In a small town, you know either nothing or everything about the people around you, though some have the sense not to step over the line. Jeffrey and Sandy, the junior sleuths of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986), are blissfully unaware of the danger hiding beneath the surface of their hometown.
A random discovery of a human ear causes them to relearn everything they thought they knew about their town, let alone how people are when no one is looking. Jeffrey (Kyle McLachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern) are what you would call “peachy-keen,” in that they’re young, naïve, sweet, curious and dumb.
Their curiosity and naivete are initially an asset (their lack of experience makes them just about fearless), until Jeffrey finds himself cornered in a secret world beneath a false front of normalcy.
Early on, they share a beer and make a toast: “Here’s to an interesting experience.” They have no idea what they’re about to get into, nor the enormous danger they’re about to uncover.
“Interesting” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
When Jeffrey meets Dorothy (a heartbreaking Isabella Rossellini) and her captor, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), he is introduced to a world he shouldn’t be seeing and sordid secrets that he should never be privy to. There is madness, cruelty and unspeakable abuse in this very-grown up underworld that a naïve “good boy” like Jeffrey cannot grasp, let alone survive.
We eventually learn exactly who Dorothy is, why Frank is keeping her prisoner and what she must do for him, and it is a sickening reveal. Although “Twin Peaks” is a stronger mystery that also deals openly with sexual abuse and immoral behavior hiding in plain sight of an Americana-infused town, “Blue Velvet” still has the power to transfix and horrify viewers.
These scenes of Jeffrey’s discovery can be viewed as an expressionistic take on what it’s like for a child to learn a parent’s devastating secret or even what it must be like to be in the presence of the devil and a fleet of adoring demons. “Blue Velvet” is that upsetting, and that good.
If you think you can handle it, this is, indeed, one of the finest films of the 1980s and an early work of Lynch’s that illustrates that Norman Rockwellian America is, like cinema itself, a beautiful façade.
MacLachlan and Dern are very good, though they were very green as actors, and it shows at times. Rossellini, on the other hand, connects to the tragedy and psychological damage of her character in an intimate and haunting way. Then there’s Hopper, who is so unguarded and free in his performance, I grew afraid of his character and forgot about the actor playing him.
“Blue Velvet” is about the death of innocence we experience as we grew older and learn rotten truths about adults we knew (or thought we knew) and find we can no longer trust. Although Jeffrey is a college freshman and Sandy is in high school, there’s a child-like quality to their characters (note the odd turns their conversations make).
Despite being a full-on Peak Freak during the original airing of Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” (1990-1991) and the only kid in my neighborhood with action figures from Lynch’s “Dune,” I avoided “Blue Velvet” for a decade. Even when I was old enough to see it on my own, I was afraid to watch it, as the articles on it made the film sound unbearable.
In college, I managed to get my hands on the screenplay, which I found so shocking to read, it further convinced me to never see it. Around 20 years ago, I finally mustered up the nerve to rent it from a video store and watch it on a small box of a TV screen — the reduced size of the imagery softened the movie, which I liked but never wanted to see again.
A decade later, I went to a retrospective screening of it at the glorious Esquire Theater in Denver, Colo., along with a student from my film class. The size of the screen (as well as the powerful sound system) made it a pulverizing experience.
Hopper’s performance, which felt traumatizing on a giant screen, made me want to hide under my seat. Time has not softened “Blue Velvet,” even today, as it stands alongside Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” as the director’s most horrific, if still essential, work.
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