“Dark deep darkness and splendor all around. It was in the roots and under and a tree came out and then a house with stars above—inside the house a man with eyes to see and long arms reaching he saw the splendor all around and reaching out into the deep darkness he saw himself.”
– David Lynch, Dark Deep Darkness, 2009
“I’m seeing something that was always hidden.”
– Jeffrey Beaumont
For David Lynch, Blue Velvet began with red lips, green lawns, and Bobby Vinton’s 1963 rendition of “Blue Velvet.” And then there was his desire to sneak into a girl’s room to watch her at night, “and possibly while watching, I’d see a clue to a mystery.” Another image dredged from his unconscious mind seemed to fit: an ear in a field, a portal into another world. Soon enough, the ideas that had once come to him like fragments started to knit themselves together. Over the course of several years, Lynch wrote four drafts that ultimately became a four and 1/2 hour long shooting script, a dream that Dino De Laurentiis decided to produce despite the disaster of Dune. At a test screening of Blue Velvet, where the audience had expected to see Top Gun, one viewer responded, “David Lynch should be shot.” Pauline Kael overheard an audience member exiting a different screening: “Maybe I’m sick, but I want to see that again.” Roger Ebert hated it. J.G. Ballard believed it was the best film of the 1980s. Blue velvet curtains beckoned us into David Lynch’s dream, a membrane between worlds inviting us to become voyeurs, like the film’s protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), like we always are when we see films.
Blue Velvet (1986) is a psychosexual journey that leads Jeffrey Beaumont to the Deep River Apartments where he meets Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who’s holding Dorothy’s husband and child hostage. Jeffrey will behold horrors, and he’ll fall in love. His invitation into this world, his first clue, is a decaying ear. “It had to be an ear because it’s an opening. An ear is wide and, as it narrows, you can go down into it. And it goes somewhere vast,” Lynch later said.
Even before Jeffrey finds the ear, the shock of his father’s stroke primes him for the mystery to come, incites his coming of age—since he may lose his father, Jeffrey must become a man. Thus begins the surreal Oedipal noir of Blue Velvet. Jeffrey is Lynch’s surrogate, and ours as well; we are voyeurs sharing his fascination with Dorothy and Frank, and we experience Jeffrey’s horror that we aren’t merely observing Frank, but are potentially just like Frank.
Blue Velvet was Lynch’s fourth feature-length “moving painting,” what Dennis Hopper referred to as “American surrealism.” Despite his admiration for Lynch, Hopper almost didn’t get cast as amyl nitrate sucking cowboy demon Frank Booth, due to his own history of drug and alcohol abuse. Even once Hopper got clean, his agents didn’t want him to take the role, feeling it wasn’t “redeemable.” Hopper took the part anyway, when Lynch finally offered. After receiving a phone call from him, Lynch returned to his table at lunch and explained to everyone, “I just talked to Dennis Hopper and he told me that he was Frank Booth and that’s great for the picture but I don’t know how we’ll ever have lunch with him.”
Lunch with Laura Dern was instant magic: she met Kyle MacLachlan and David Lynch for the first time at Bob’s Big Boy to see whether she and MacLachlan had chemistry. As Dern recalled in an interview with W Magazine, “David was doodling on napkins while Kyle was doodling with a knife into his ketchup. And I mean, a girl either goes, these are really bizarre men and they are twin souls, or I am in love with both of these people and want to spend the rest of my life with them, which is how I responded.”
Lynch cast a very young Laura Dern without a reading, but Isabella Rossellini insisted on an extended reading for her character, wanting to show Lynch her vision for troubled lounge singer Dorothy Vallens. Blue Velvet was only Rossellini’s second American movie (Lynch had originally wanted Helen Mirren for the role) but Rossellini later told Interview Magazine that she chose to do the film because she fell in love with the script. “I was the victim of a lot of sexual harassment when I was young. So I completely understood the character I played in the movie.” Despite imbuing her character with pathos and complexity, Rossellini felt that much of the anger surrounding Lynch’s controversial film was directed at her. Her agents dropped her after they saw it, and the nuns at her old Catholic school in Rome called to say they prayed for her every day.
In the film’s most disturbing scene, Jeffrey discovers a naked and bruised Dorothy on his front lawn. Rossellini’s inspiration for this scene included: beef hanging from meat hooks in a butcher’s shop, Nick Ut’s famous photograph “Napalm Girl,” and one of Lynch’s childhood memories. Lynch recounted to her, in his direction of the scene, a memory of a time when Lynch and his brother were children and they saw a naked woman wander out into their street at night. Lynch and his brother weren’t titillated by the sight, they understood that she was hurt, and it made them cry. In Jon Nguyen’s documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, Lynch expands on the memory:
“I don’t know what [my brother and I] were doing, but from across Shoshoni Avenue out of the darkness comes this…kind of like a strangest dream, because I’d never seen an adult woman naked. And she had beautiful pale white skin and she was completely naked. And I think her mouth was bloodied. And she kind of came walking strangely across Shoshoni and came into Park Circle Drive and it seemed like she was sort of like a giant. And she came closer and closer and my brother started to cry. Something was bad wrong with her. And I don’t know what happened but I think she sat down on a curb, crying. But it was very mysterious, like we were seeing something otherworldly. And I wanted to do something for her. But I was little. I didn’t know what to do. And I don’t remember any more than that.”
This memory feels like a formative moment for David Lynch, both as a human being and as an artist, a moment that pervades his work. A childhood trauma became a mystery to be investigated, to be explored in his art. Blue Velvet poses these questions: What happened to the woman? Who hurt her? And what forces exist in this world that allowed her to be hurt?
In Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, Lynch writes that he suspects Kyle MacLachlan is his alter ego. Much like Lynch recalling the memory of the hurt woman from his childhood, Jeffrey Beaumont witnesses the evil that men do, wonders whether that evil is inside of him, too, and tries to make sense of it all. “Why are there people like Frank?” he asks Sandy. “Why is there so much trouble in this world?”
That question reverberates throughout David Lynch’s body of work: the real mystery at the heart of Twin Peaks is how a father could murder his own daughter, and how that violence affects an entire town. Lynch felt that O.J. Simpson inspired Lost Highway—he was disturbed by the way a man could murder his wife and a stranger and, just a little while later, golf and laugh and continue to live his life. Lynch discovered the term “psychogenic fugue”—the mind’s trick to hide from horror, to bury it—and believed this might explain how a man could do something unspeakable, then act as though nothing had happened. Blue Velvet feels like a noir film where the mystery is life itself, light and dark, the forces of evil, and why evil exists.
Jeffrey’s investigation of these mysteries parallels his love story with Sandy. To love Sandy fully, Jeffrey has to know this dark world first, to become intimate with darkness. Frank tells Jeffrey “You’re like me.” And this is Jeffrey’s epiphany: the darkness that he believed he was observing at a safe distance is in him, too. He senses it first when he hits Dorothy; in this scene, the candle flame signaling Frank’s arrival becomes a roaring fire. (Evil in Lynch’s world is often signified by fire, which is maybe why the fireman seems to be a Lynchian archetype of protection.) Even the film’s soundscape changes: it slows, grows louder, becoming both industrial and demonic, like the sound of Frank breathing into his mask interrupted by a woman’s scream. When Jeffrey finally kills Frank, he exorcises his own demon.
In his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head”, David Foster Wallace posits that the unifying theme of Lynch’s work is evil. In Lynch’s world, evil exists in the fabric of reality; it’s under the ground, it’s in the air, it’s in us, a possessing force with many manifestations. “And Darkness, in David Lynch’s movies, always wears more than one face,” Wallace wrote. Frank Booth and the person Jeffrey calls “the well-dressed man” (i.e. Hopper in a bad wig and fake mustache) turn out to be the same person. Frank also shares the name of President Lincoln’s assassin, and he visits his horrors on Lincoln St. where Dorothy lives. The Lincoln/Booth connection denotes a legacy of evil, a haunting. Jeffrey realizes that evil wears a disguise, and evil can inhabit him, too. Lynch’s men are not inherently evil, they are possessed by it, like Frank, who seems to want nothing more than to love and to be loved by Dorothy, but whose “love” manifests in cruelty, brutality, and madness.
Sandy dreams of robins. She tells Jeffrey that they represent light and love and redemption. As shown at the end of Blue Velvet, they also eat bugs. Like the robin that feeds on insects, the light feeds on darkness; it dies without it. Blue Velvet’s redemptive ending allows for darkness, but darkness without evil, without the malignant cruelty of Frank Booth. Blue Velvet’s darkness and degeneracy and Oedipal weirdness serve a bigger and more beautiful story; a story about love, coming of age, redemption, hope. And maybe it’s cathartic closure to David Lynch’s childhood trauma. Blue Velvet ends not with Jeffrey and Sandy and their robin, but with Dorothy and her child reunited, in soft focus, a happy ending.
Wallace wrote that Lynch does not endorse evil, he diagnoses it, addressing the uncomfortable truth that evil is everywhere, that darkness and light are inextricable. In 1992, Lynch painted “I See Myself,” a self-portrait: two figures, one dark and one light, seem to reach out to each other against a background of textured black, a diagonal slash of paint dividing them. In an interview in Lynch on Lynch, Lynch explained “We all have at least two sides. One of the things I’ve heard is that our trip through life is to gain divine mind through knowledge and experience of combined opposites. The world we live in is a world of opposites. And to reconcile those two opposing things is the trick.” Reconciling the two sides isn’t a compromise, he clarified: it unites the power of both.
As David Lynch once said: “The more darkness you can gather up, the more light you can see too.”