PSA: Blue Velvet (1986), or Never Order A Heineken In Front Of Dennis Hopper

24 04 2009

It’s everybody’s favorite segment, and my own personal public service announcement to get the word out about movies I either love or loathe, the PSA! Today’s selection is one of my personal favorites, and I don’t know why. I don’t think it’s David Lynch’s most well-crafted work, nor do I think that it is his most important. It is a great film, though, to be sure, and it has a lot more discernible subtext than most of his other endeavors (including my last Lynch PSA, Lost Highway). There’s just something so enjoyable about this dark film that I find myself liking it over more accomplished works. I suppose, in a way, that makes it just as amazing as the others, but its something very unquantifiable that makes it just a little more than what it is, and that little more makes all the difference.

Blue Velvet centers around unassuming college-boy dope Jeffrey Beaumont. He is visiting his father in safe, suburban Lumberton, after he receives word that he had a heart attack and will be recuperating for days. On his way home from the hospital one day, he makes a horrifying discovery; a severed human ear on the ground in an empty field. Frightened but curious, Jeffrey takes the ear to the police, who thank him and say that they will handle it. But we discover very quickly that Jeffrey is not someone who can just let things go. He decides to do some investigating of his own, which upsets Sandy, daughter of the detective assigned to the ear case and goody-two-shoes love interest for Jeffrey. She agrees to help him with some independent investigating by providing him with info she sneaks out of her father. The info all leads to a nightclub singer named Dorothy Valens, a beautiful older woman with a constant air of worry about her. Jeffrey decides to sneak into her apartment one night and search for clues as to just whose ear was in that field. What he finds are only more questions, sobering questions that may be best left unanswered by unassuming college students. The film tracks his assimilation into a sick underbelly of the suburbs, where he is taken on a twisted sexual odyssey by Dorothy and a terrifying trip through the mind of Frank Booth, a perverted criminal who might just be the key to everything. Can innocent little Jeffrey get out of this mess alive without getting his blackening his heart?

The exploration of a suburban underworld was certainly something that had been done before by 1986, but it had never been done in such a strikingly surreal way before. Lynch probed the artificiality of American suburbs and the blind eye turned to crime and violence within communities in a way that can only be described as severely intense. He creates this hyper-intensity by contrasting the blandness of middle-class American living with a very palpable source of evil in Frank Booth. It is this at-times disorienting gear change that turns this mystery/thriller into a surreal, almost hyperbolic nightmare that is as engrossing as it is insane.

Not to say that the oddball Lynchian touches don’t add anything to the experience. Jeffrey has one weird sense of humor. Check out this clip of Jeffrey and of his lines while trying to impress Sandy during an moonlit walk, starting at 4:35 and ending at the 5:00 mark:

Genius! Who else could turn something as innocuous as an evening stroll into…that! Even Sandy has nothing to add! There are plenty of the strange moments one would expect from a film like this, including a cameo by Dean Stockwell as an ultra-creep named Ben who has some sort of morbidly-obese harem and a lip-synching performance of “In Dreams” that will take you right out of a comfortable mood.

The cast is right-on here, featuring Kyle MacLachlan performing ably for the director who discovered him only a couple years prior. Even though at the time he was over 30, he plays a sense of wide-eyed wonderment and intense curiosity that totally endears one to him. Jeffrey is the explorer, the braver of the dark places, the one who is secretly pleasured by all the shadow around him. Its an extraordinary role, and matched only in magnitude by the nefarious Frank Booth himself, played by Dennis Hopper. Hopper should have won an Oscar for this disgusting pig of a character he plays. Frank is a murderous psychopath with no scruples about what he does or how he does it, and the way he carries himself is quite intimidating, to say the least. Hopper imbues him with a constant sense of unpredictability, as well as a sinister affectation, a hip-holstered tank of a mysterious gas he breathes into when he wants to start trouble, that is Oscar-worthy in itself. Isabella Rossellini plays Dorothy exquisitely, and I truly admire her for the deep performance she gives, both emotionally and physically. It is rare to see someone giving it all up to the camera, but here she leaves the frame with almost nothing left. It’s amazing, and her character is certainly a highlight.

If all this doesn’t seem good enough to you for it to be deemed a classic by much of the world, there’s also something else here that I cannot put into words about this film that makes it special. It is an aura, a feeling of dread, a certain unidentified something that makes its way onto nearly every frame that propels Blue Velvet further down the rabbit hole. If you watch it like I have, religiously, you might start to notice it as well. Maybe its my imagination, but I think that you can see something that is more deranged and diseased than even the bleakest of horror film in these characters, and that really goes a long way with me. I really enjoy this movie, despite my acknowledgement of some of his later works as superior pieces of art. It’s my own personal favorite, though, so I’m biased. Either way, I give Blue Velvet 9 1/2 “chicken walks” out of 10. I loved it, and you might too.

Tomorrow I will be throwing out my thoughts on a little slice of Miami life called Scarface! Until then, I leave you with my favorite line from this kooky, kooky movie:

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