Blue Velvet

ear

Blue Velvet is a 1986 American mystery film written and directed by David Lynch. The movie exhibits elements of both film noir and surrealism. The film features Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, and Laura Dern. The title is taken from the 1963 Bobby Vinton song of the same name.

Although initially detested by some mainstream critics, the film is now widely acclaimed, and earned Lynch his second Academy Award nomination for Best Director. As an example of a director casting against the norm, Blue Velvet is also noted for re-launching Hopper’s career and for providing Rossellini with a dramatic outlet beyond the work as a fashion model and a cosmetics spokeswoman for which she had until then been known.

After the commercial and critical failure of Lynch’s Dune (1984), he made attempts at developing a more ‘personal story,’ somewhat characteristic of his surreal style he displayed in his debut Eraserhead (1977). The screenplay of Blue Velvet had been passed around multiple times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with many major studios declining it because of its strong sexual and violent content. The independent studio De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, which was owned at the time by Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis, agreed to finance and produce the film. It is also seen by many critics as representing a modern-day version of film-noir, ‘neo-noir,’ present in many thrillers from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s.

The film centers on college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Maclachlan), who, returning from visiting his ill father in the hospital, comes across a human ear in a field in his hometown of Lumberton. He proceeds to investigate the ear with help from a high school student, Sandy Williams (Dern), who provides him with information and leads from her father, a local police detective. Jeffrey’s investigation draws him deeper into his hometown’s seedy underworld, and sees him forming a sexual relationship with the alluring torch singer, Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini), and uncovering psychotic criminal Frank Booth (Hopper), who engages in drug abuse, kidnapping, and sexual violence.

The actual story of the film originated from three ideas that crystallized in the filmmaker’s mind over a period of time starting as early as 1973. The first idea was only ‘a feeling’ and the title Blue Velvet. The second idea was an image of a severed, human ear lying in a field. ‘I don’t know why it had to be an ear. Except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body, a hole into something else…The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind so it felt perfect,’ Lynch remarked in an interview. The third idea was Bobby Vinton’s classic rendition of the song Blue Velvet and ‘the mood that came with that song a mood, a time, and things that were of that time.’

Lynch cut a deal with Dino De Laurentiis that gave him complete artistic freedom and final cut privileges, with the stipulation that the filmmaker take a cut in his salary and work with a budget of only $6 million. This deal meant that Blue Velvet was the smallest film on the De Laurentiis’ slate. Consequently, Lynch would be left mostly unsupervised during production. ‘After Dune I was down so far that anything was up! So it was just a euphoria. And when you work with that kind of feeling, you can take chances. You can experiment.’ Because the material was completely different from anything that would be considered mainstream at the time, Laurentiis had to start his own production company to distribute it.

Lynch’s original rough cut ran for approximately four hours. He was contractually obligated to deliver a two-hour movie by De Laurentiis and cut many small subplots and character scenes. He also made cuts at the request of the MPAA. For example, when Frank slaps Dorothy after the first rape scene, the audience was supposed to see Frank actually hitting her. Instead, the film cuts away to Jeffrey in the closet, wincing at what he has just seen. This cut was made to satisfy the MPAA’s concerns about violence. Lynch thought that the change only made the scene more disturbing.

A strong recurring theme in Blue Velvet is voyeurism. Despite Blue Velvet’s initial appearance as a mystery, the film operates on a number of thematic levels. The film owes a large debt to 1950s film noir, containing and exploring such conventions as the femme fatale, a seemingly unstoppable villain, and the questionable moral outlook of the hero, as well as its unusual use of shadowy, sometimes dark cinematography.

Blue Velvet represents and establishes Lynch’s famous ‘askew vision,’ and introduces several common elements of Lynch’s work, some of which would later become his trademarks, including distorted characters, a polarized world, and debilitating damage to the skull or brain. Perhaps the most significant ‘Lynchian’ trademark in the film is the depiction of unearthing a dark underbelly in a seemingly idealized small town.

Red curtains also show up in key scenes, specifically in Dorothy’s apartment, which have since become a Lynch trademark. The film has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) because of its stark treatment of psychotic evil. The premise of both films is curiosity, leading to an investigation that draws the lead characters into a hidden, voyeuristic underworld of crime. Like many other Lynch films, Blue Velvet is immersed in pop culture imagery, both from the 1950s and the 1960s, as well as the 1980s.

Symbolism is used very heavily in Blue Velvet. The most consistent symbolism in the film is an insect motif introduced at the end of the first scene, when the camera zooms in on a well-kept suburban lawn until it unearths, underground, a swarming nest of disgusting bugs. This is generally recognized as a metaphor for the seedy underworld that Jeffrey will soon discover under the surface of his own suburban, Reagan-era paradise.

The severed ear that Jeffrey finds is being overrun by black ants. The bug motif is recurrent throughout the film, most notably in the bug-like nitrous oxide mask that Frank wears, but also in the excuse that Jeffrey uses to gain access to Dorothy’s apartment: he claims he is an insect exterminator. One of Frank’s sinister accomplices is also consistently identified through the yellow jacket he wears, possibly reminiscent of the name of a type of wasp. Finally, a robin eating a bug on a fence becomes a topic of discussion in the last scene of the film. The Robin, (as mentioned earlier by Sandy recounting her dream) represents love conquering evil.

The severed ear that Jeffrey discovers is also a key symbolic element; the ear is what leads Jeffrey into danger. Indeed, just as Jeffrey’s troubles begin, the audience is treated to a nightmarish sequence in which the camera zooms into the ear canal of the severed, decomposing ear. Notably, the camera does not reemerge from the ear canal until the end of the film. When Jeffrey finally comes through his hellish ordeal unscathed, the ear canal shot is replayed, only in reverse, zooming out through Jeffrey’s own ear as he relaxes in his yard on a summer day. This use of a ‘portal’ is also quite a common symbolic theme in Lynch’s work.

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