Blue Velvet (1986)

I was nervous going in to Blue Velvet, more so than any horror film. It has a fearsome reputation but is also culturally beloved. Dennis Hopper’s over-the-top performance has become iconic, and its themes foreshadow those in the massively popular Twin Peaks. Some films become intimidating over time as more and more is written about them, but it was what I knew of Hopper’s Frank Booth and the sexual violence that put me off watching it for so long.

Blue Velvet is a brilliant film, as outrageous and disturbing as I’d heard, and about many things – innocence, curiosity, darkness, tenderness, violence, growing up. Jeffrey comes home from college because his father has had a stroke. He finds a severed ear on waste ground and takes it to the police. Detective Williams tells Jeffrey not to ask any more questions, but Jeffrey’s curiosity sends him on an odyssey into the underbelly of his seemingly picture book hometown.

Lynch knows his unconscious onions. With Jeffrey’s real father out of action, Detective Williams is a kindly replacement, just as Frank Booth is a sadistic one. The film is full of opposites like this. Jeffrey falls in love with Williams’s daughter, Sandy, but is sexually attracted to the damaged and dangerously masochistic Dorothy, who Frank is blackmailing into sexual slavery. Jeffrey has several opportunities to withdraw from the mystery, but he keeps going, thrilled by the hunt and illicit sex. He wants Sandy and Dorothy, but reality hits when Frank forces him into a hellish drive out of town, where at one point, Frank says to Jeffrey, ‘You are like me.’ Through the film, Jeffrey absorbs some of Frank’s cruelty, hitting Dorothy during sex, and eventually shooting Frank in the head. From a Jungian perspective, by the end Jeffrey has endured a great deal of suffering, but is rewarded with the integration of a large chunk of his own shadow.

Jeffrey’s whole adventure could also be read as a distraction from the grief and fear that his father might die. At one point the camera goes into the severed ear, and at the end it pulls back out of it. Was everything in between a dream?

There’s a fascinating episode on curiosity, by the This Jungian Life podcast, describing curiosity as an innate human drive that can be both useful and destructive. Jeffrey’s voyeurism and passion for the mystery makes him take enormous risks, and by the end he has used what he has learned from Frank and Dorothy to clean up the darkness in the town and create for himself a place of relative contentment. He wrestles with his own violent, sadistic and masochistic impulses, and comes to appreciate how the robins of love from Sandy’s dream also eat fat bugs. Love and darkness are intimate. As Sandy says, ‘It’s a strange world, isn’t it?’

From a writing process perspective, I love how it was conceived by Lynch years earlier as a vague feeling, and a title, to which he later added the image of an ear in a field, and the song Blue Velvet. He considered the screenplay he wrote from those seeds unpleasant and not good enough to make, but after directing Dune, he came back to it. He added a voyeur discovering a murder mystery, and the scene where Dorothy emerges beaten and naked on the street was something he actually experienced as a child.

In Blue Velvet, Lynch successfully created something culturally important and resonant that was also deeply personal. He used his curiosity about his own inner world to create a vivid and vibrant piece of art. That’s inspiring.