by Greg Olson
Reflecting the time-honored American myth that equates urban precincts with evil, Sandy and Jeffrey’s night walk takes on an ominous air as they leave her tree-lined, homey street for the wide concrete boulevard downtown. He protectively takes her arm as a slinky black 1950s car cruises by and men leer from the windows, “Hey babe, hey.” This is the seedy Lincoln neighborhood, the zone that Jeffrey’s parents have warned him to stay away from all his life. Sandy points out the singer’s forlorn, old brick apartment building and turns to go. “Come on,” she admonishes, but Jeffrey stands transfixed, staring at the building for many moments as Lynch holds a traffic light on red in front of the dilapidated structure, a motif warning of infernal danger that he will memorably repeat in Twin Peaks. Sandy is intrigued by mysteries up to a point, but she knows when to pull back, her sense of self-preservation is strong. Jeffrey, on the other hand, is obsessed; like so many of Lynch’s characters, he will risk his body and soul in order to learn the secrets that the night holds.
Back on home turf, heading toward the Williamses’, Jeffrey lightens up, spouting a bit of Lynchian grotesquerie as he recalls “a kid I used to know who had the biggest tongue in the world.” Sandy, who’s in perfect synchrony with Jeffrey’s moods, laughs. Then she turns solemn with him as he laments, “All my friends are gone,” and we remember that this boy’s father lies near death. Lynch has talked about a giddy feeling he’s had while “saying goofy, corny things” to a woman he’s fond of late at night. Jeffrey suddenly asks, “Do you know the Chicken Walk?” and parades up and down the sidewalk with his knees bent low and his torso and head held unnaturally stiff. Sandy breaks up in laughter and Jeffrey touches her shoulder for a second in affection. Lynch ends his masterful night-walk sequence with a moody image worthy of an Edward Hopper painting. From far away we see the small forms of the boy dressed in black and white and the girl in pink strolling slowly under the canopy of dark trees, we hear their faint laughter on the wind, the spark of their shared joy clouded by the mournful low moan of a far-off foghorn.
Even in broad daylight, filling in for his father at their bright and clean family hardware store, Jeffrey finds mysteries. Working with him at the store are two older African American gentlemen who’ve been there forever. They radiate affection for Jeffrey and he just calls them Double Ed, since they always walk and stand together. One of the men is blind but he can tell you which shelf the overalls are on and correctly ring up cash register sales. When Jeffrey holds up four fingers and asks, “How many?,” the blind man instantly answers, “Four.” With an awestruck grin, the youth replies, “I still don’t know how you do that!” In Lynch’s script, there was just one Ed, who could see just fine. Aside from showing the director’s love of twinning and doubling, the film’s Double Ed scene projects his and Jeffrey’s need for some mysteries to remain unsolved so that they retain their preternatural power. Like Lynch, Jeffrey wants to remain a little naive about some things; he seems to be willing himself not to guess Double Ed’s secret. Even though we in the audience see the two men facing us from Jeffrey’s point of view, it’s pretty easy to realize that all sighted Ed (Leonard Watkins) has to do is tap blind Ed (Moses Gibson) four times on the back.
Jeffrey can cruise on past Double Ed’s puzzle but he’s compelled to burrow deeper into the ear. He plans to put on those store overalls, grab an insect-exterminating sprayer, tell the woman singer he’s from pest control, jimmy a window in her place while he’s spraying, and sneak back in at night to search for clues. On the surface, he seems to be an idealistic Hardy Boys–style junior crimefighter, but he isn’t playing detective primarily to help Williams or impress Sandy: Subconsciously he’s on a profoundly personal quest, an involved process that will make him a fully integrated human being.
Sandy is part of Jeffrey’s plan, and he verbally pulls her away from her high school girlfriends and takes her to the local diner, Arline’s (as she leaves with him, she tells her friends not to mention this trip to her boyfriend, Mike). Symmetrically left and right of Arline’s front door are red drapes drawn back like theatrical curtains. These draped fabrics, which Lynch also features in The Grandmother, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Twin Peaks, frame narrative details and concentrate the audience’s focus. They also alert us to intermixtures of reality and illusion. Lynch echoes the entranceway’s symmetry by placing Sandy on the left and Jeffrey on the right in a booth, each sipping a Coke. The stage is set for Jeffrey to convince Sandy to help him, and his words recall Dune’s Duke Leto’s words to his son, Paul, which Lynch had screenwritten from Frank Herbert’s novel. Lynch had Leto say, “But a person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside: the longing to grow. Without change, something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.” Lynch pares this down for Jeffrey: “There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a risk.” Jeffrey is gathering steam to take some major chances, and through them Lynch can live out hazardous fantasies through his art, as can we, the viewers, gaining some measure of Jeffrey’s self-knowledge.
Lynch then has Jeffrey speak the director’s own adolescent fantasy virtually verbatim. “I could learn a lot by getting into that woman’s apartment. You know, sneak in, hide, and observe.” Sandy shows how much she cares about Jeffrey by speaking right up when his notion violates her empathetic sense of his safety: “Are you crazy? This is too dangerous, she could be involved with murder!” But like an artist pursuing an alluring, dark muse, Jeffrey won’t be deterred by mundane, cautionary worries. Lynch wants us to share Sandy’s rational, common-sense concerns, but he, and we, are most interested in pursuing Jeffrey’s imaginative scheme. Like Dune’s Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Mohiam, Sandy’s attempts to curb male initiative and enterprise will be overridden. The prevailing males in both films are played by Lynch’s screen alter ego, Kyle MacLachlan, and there’s the sense that we’re witnessing some of the artist’s uncensored psychodrama, his own obsessive pursuit of creative endeavors despite the curtailing entreaties of wives, friends, and business advisors. Perhaps Sandy is a version of Lynch’s ideal woman, expressing her heartfelt feelings with spirit, then going along with his plan. Jeffrey wins Sandy over by saying, “No one will suspect us because no one would think two people like us would be crazy enough to do something like this.” This awareness of their square, straight-arrow image in the community bespeaks Lynch’s own understanding of the persona that the media have created for him: a friendly, grinning, Jimmy Stewart and Eagle Scout type who’s secretly a crazed, far-out artist. Lynch is attuned to the multivalenced nature of things, the interplay between what is and what appears to be. We recall that Jeffrey told Detective Williams that he found the ear “behind Vista,” referring to a street or neighborhood. The ear is the youth’s mysterious ticket-to-ride, a portion of the secret world hidden behind the vista of Lumberton’s wholesome facade, and Jeffrey wants to see the whole show.
Lynch, in his opening montage, symbolized the town’s hidden world with the seething black insects and their ravenous, endless cycle of carnage and copulation. Jeffrey, dressed in his exterminating gear, enters the Deep River Apartments (deep waters being an ancient symbol for the human subconscious mind). Upon crossing the threshold, he hears the insectoid buzzing and humming of a “no vacancy” sign that’s shorting out: This is indeed the entrance to the netherworld. The low-rent building’s elevator is out of order, so he climbs seven flights of exterior stairs, as Lynch gives us the feeling that Jeffrey is beginning the exertions of an arduous quest.
Up the stairs, down the gloomy dark-gray hallway, Jeffrey travels deeper into the ear. The youth gets no response when he knocks on Dorothy’s door, so that Lynch can build to her dramatic entrance into the film. The door suddenly cracks open the width of a safety chain, a vertical shaft of light falling on the ripe, red lips of the director’s original Blue Velvet vision, and the anxious eyes of a woman teetering on the edge of fear. She spits out a foreign-accented challenge: “Yes, what do you want?,” but Jeffrey’s roleplaying gets him past her defenses.
The exotic strangeness of Dorothy’s accent is matched by the look of her living room, which is unlike anything Jeffrey has ever seen. It’s as though his penetration of the ear canal has brought him deep inside a human body, or mind, where the walls and floor are dark red and the curve of an armless couch seems to have grown out of the wall like a fleshy organ. And, in contrast to the normal-looking plants that grow in the Beaumonts’ garden, there are two green erections of frond foliage shooting up from unnaturally tiny pots against the red walls. These phallic plants reflect the surrealistically part-plant, part-animal growths that sprouted in Lynch’s early animated film passages (The Alphabet, The Grandmother).
As the ants crawling on the newfound ear and the bug-like buzzing lobby sign indicate, Jeffrey’s pursuit of the ear’s mystery will lead him into the zone of raw animal impulses, a fearsome region that will both surround and inhabit him. As he sprays Dorothy’s kitchen, he bends over at the waist, a creeping-animal posture that Lynch will assign to the feral BOB of Twin Peaks. There’s a knock at the door, which Jeffrey expects to be Sandy posing as a Jehovah’s Witness to divert Dorothy’s attention. But instead there’s a big man in a canary-yellow sports coat, who takes a good, hard look at the youth. To explain Jeffrey’s presence, Dorothy says, “It’s only the bug man.” This line wasn’t in Lynch’s original script, so the director must have decided during filming to add this phrase that describes Jeffrey’s pretend occupation, his low-bending posture and dark, beetle-like jumpsuit that covers him from feet to Adam’s apple, and his psychological metamorphosis into a darker self.
While Dorothy bids goodbye to the Yellow Man, Jeffrey spies her house key and pockets it. Back outside, Sandy apologizes to him for not coming to the door because she figured the Yellow Man did her diversionary job for her. That night, she lies to her boyfriend and father in order to be with Jeffrey as he plans his next step. At the Slow Club, Jeffrey, in true Lynchian food-and-beverage-appreciation style, rhapsodizes about the Heineken beer he’s drinking. He and Sandy watch Dorothy Vallens sing two numbers, the stage set in what will be the standard for Lynch’s performance scenes: red curtain backdrop with blue spotlighting. Indeed, the vertical folds in the Slow Club’s curtains, and the white light behind them emphasizing the fabric’s ruddy membranes, anticipate Twin Peaks’ iconic Red Room. Starting out in what seemed to be the 1950s, the film has mixed in 1970s cars, 1980s computers, and now Dorothy sings into a 1930s art deco microphone. In Blue Velvet, Lynch is pioneering a subtle stylistic motif that other filmmakers will try to copy; he’s giving us an evocative dream time, an ambiguous mix of various decade signifiers in which we float around, subtly disconnected from the waking realities of our own time-bound lives.
As Dorothy sings “Blue Velvet” on stage, we notice an incongruous talisman of bestial energies at her feet: the wicked six-foot-wide horns of a longhorn steer. Dorothy is not herself essentially animalistic, but she is a body in which bestial men deposit their impulses, debasing her emotions into a desperate sadness that’s like an unsatisfied hunger. Sometimes Lynch’s character’s names are literal descriptions (The Man in the Planet, The Lady in the Radiator, The Blue-Haired Lady), but Dorothy’s name at the Slow Club, The Blue Lady, refers more to her hidden bruised soul and midnightstained grief than to her blue eyeshadow makeup and the light that bathes her on stage. She sings her last number, whose lyrics are Lynch’s: “Shadows fall so blue; as lonely as a blue, blue star.” The director then accomplishes another of his elegant, expressive scene transitions by taking the last musical note of Dorothy’s lament and flowing into a progression of descending musical chords, which dissolve from the singer in shadow on stage to Sandy and Jeffrey driving into their nocturnal mission of mystery. The falling chords not only give a sinister gravity to the evening and Sandy’s worried look, but the music’s linkage to Dorothy is a prelude to her wish to end her miserable life by plunging from a great height. In his script, Lynch alludes to the possibility of Dorothy leaping from her apartment roof, but in the film he condenses her feeling of a panicky plunge into the abyss to a scream at street level: “I’m falling!”
In Lynch’s aesthetic, the two primal modes of moving through space are floating and falling. Floating is the positive pole. The artist has spoken of how he “fishes”80 for ideas and intuitions that “float” by, and how he tries to transfix and float the viewer into his films and paintings and musical/song compositions. Floating figures are found in Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Wild at Heart, Industrial Symphony No. 1, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, various paintings, drawings, photographs, and song lyrics (“You and I float in love and kiss forever,” “We’re floating as one”. Falling is the negative pole. The Grandmother’s Boy falls over after his granny dies; Industrial Symphony No. 1’s bereft heroine, who floats singing 60 feet above the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s stage, suddenly falls; figures plunge in drawings; the doomed Laura Palmer of Fire Walk With Me speaks of “falling forever until you burst into flame”; and song lyrics bemoan “Falling through this night alone.”84 Floating and falling are the physical equivalents of those heightened states of being and emotion that fascinate Lynch: times when our feet aren’t firmly on the ground.
Sandy can feel the darkness pulling at Jeffrey, and she worries that he’s going to fall. Parked in front of Dorothy’s apartment, she regrets having told him the police-case details that got them to this moment, but she will help him by honking the car horn four times when Dorothy arrives, so Jeffrey will know she’ll soon enter her flat. Just as Jeffrey’s declaration, “It’s a strange world,” crystallizes the viewpoint of both Blue Velvet and the man who wrote and directed it, what Sandy now says to Jeffrey applies to both him and David Lynch. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” she wonders, as Jeffrey heads up to hide in a strange woman’s room.
Lynch’s films delve deeply into disturbing realms of human emotion and behavior. The director is a detective scanning the psyche’s netherworld for clues to the big mysteries of existence and death, but the fierce persistence of his fascination with the darkest veins of fear and desire seem sick and perverse to some viewers and critics. What really gets under our skin about Lynch’s work, and causes some to demonize him, is the realization, if only subconsciously, that we ourselves might be capable of the thoughts and actions the director depicts so intensely. Even if we can’t admit this, we like to watch.
We who view movies are voyeurs, we sit in the dark gazing at the often intimate behaviors of (albeit) fictional people who don’t know we’re looking at them. Of course, we’re actually watching actors playing characters, but the aesthetic contract enforces the feeling that we’re indulging the privilege of spying on other people’s lives. While voyeurism is the subtext of the movieviewing experience, some films consciously acknowledge the concept in notable scenes (Psycho) or extended thematic treatments (Rear Window, Peeping Tom). The watchers in these films are looking at sex and death, the twin aspects of human experience most guarded by societal taboos: Once again, the movies fulfill our secret desires, our urge to see all that human beings can do. Jeffrey wants to gather clues in Dorothy’s apartment and help solve a crime, but, we’re sure, he (and we) also want to see her naked. Perversion denotes abnormality, and the wish to see another’s bared flesh is not unusual. It’s the context of Jeffrey’s viewing that will be transgressive: He’s an uninvited, hidden spectator whose gaze will have power over the one that he’s looking at.
To Sandy’s “detective or pervert” musing, Jeffrey replies, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” In Lynch’s original script, we would already know of the youth’s lascivious leanings by now. There was to be a scene early on in the film before Jeffrey was called home from college. Hiding in the shadows, the youth watched a male student “trying to rape his girlfriend. She is crying and telling him to stop but the boy keeps forcing her down toward the ground. . . . The boy is now hurting the girl.”85 Only when Jeffrey hears his off-camera friends calling for him does he (still concealed by the darkness) yell at the rapist: “Hey, shithead. Leave her alone. . . . Don’t force girls!,”86 at which point the boy releases the girl. Watching this scene, we would have noted that Jeffrey’s fascination with what he was viewing allowed the crime to progress, and it was a reminder of outside social sanctions (his calling friends) that prompted his intervention. Without interruption, how long would he have watched? Though this is clearly a strong scene, Lynch chose to leave it out. So when we meet Jeffrey in the film, he’s absolutely identified with the benign and wholesome small-town universe, against which his gradual descent into the ear’s mystery and his own sexual and spiritual darkness will provide a more dramatically potent contrast.
Beginning with the wildly feeding beetles in Blue Velvet’s opening montage, Lynch has linked rampant animal appetites with primal evil, and as Jeffrey began to penetrate Lumberton’s netherworld, he was called “the bug man” by one of this sinister realm’s denizens, Dorothy, who ought to know one when she sees one. Now, as the youth breaks the law to enter her apartment, his appetites, and his penis, immediately get him in trouble. Because of all the Heineken beer he consumed at the Slow Club, Jeffrey is loudly peeing into Dorothy’s toilet and flushing it when Sandy gives her warning beeps that the singer has entered the building. Jeffrey’s cut off from Sandy’s lifeline in this place; he doesn’t hear her warning. The youth, in detective fashion, is starting to carefully examine Dorothy’s dressing table for clues when she starts to open her front door. He dives for her living room closet where, hidden inside and peering out through its louvered doors, he looks more the pervert, recalling the image in Psycho where Anthony Perkins peeped through the wall hole at the undressing Janet Leigh. Lynch has realized his adolescent fantasy on film: His cinematic alter ego is secretly watching a woman in her room at night. Jeffrey provides a textbook example of the nefarious “male gaze” that feminist critics deplore. A man has written his visual sexual reverie into a film, shot by a male cinematographer, in which a man looks at an unpersonalized woman as a sexual object, and then a higher percentage of males than females watch the film. These are the facts in the case, but Lynch’s truth is more complex and balanced than his detractors care to admit, or notice.
Lynch may be visualizing his teenage fantasy, but he presents Jeffrey’s view of Dorothy stripping to her bra and panties and doffing her performance wig without a hint of erotic spark. She arouses no prurient interest as she has a desperate phone conversation with someone named Frank and, burdened with spiritual malaise, retreats to the bathroom where, far away from the camera, she quickly strips in rear view while standing straight up. Not only is the leering male viewpoint absent from this scene, but Lynch turns the traditional male power position topsy-turvy. For Dorothy hears (ears again) a rustle in her closet and, wearing her blue velvet robe, rousts out the frightened Jeffrey at the point of a butcher knife. Her surprisingly commanding voice is harsh and ragged: “Get on your knees. Do it!” Concealing his detective persona, Jeffrey takes refuge in a pervert’s defense, saying he’s the bug-spray man who “just wanted to see you.” In a stunning reversal of Jeffrey’s expectations for his spying session, Dorothy spits back, “Get undressed, I want to see you.” The narrative surprise of this moment parallels the sudden revelation of the beetles churning beneath the Beaumonts’ lawn, and it won’t be the last rude shock that Jeffrey will endure as he ventures deeper into Lumberton’s underworld. He’s dealing with powerful, scary forces that he can’t control. But like young David Lynch going down into that menacing New York subway tunnel, he can learn something about himself if he keeps riding into the darkness.
Lynch believes that both the malevolent and the benign aspects of life can teach us a thing or two, and Jeffrey’s guides into the dark realms he doesn’t yet know about will be Dorothy and Frank. The curriculum will let him experience the roles of both victim and sadistic perpetrator, the teaching tools will be sex and violence, and there will be minor electives in pain, weeping, degradation, and corruption. Homework will be inescapable; sleep-learning will consist of nightmares. Like the girl in The Alphabet, Jeffrey will be absorbing the horrors of learning. Lynch, aside from having Dorothy and Frank give Jeffrey life lessons in depravity, will use the pair as benighted, underground reflections of the youth’s warm and loving aboveground parents. And the director won’t shy away from pushing Oedipal logic to the nth degree. Dorothy makes Jeffrey take down his underpants, which are, naturally, all-American red plaid boxers. Kneeling in front of him, she invitingly asks, “What do you want?” He says, “I don’t know,” and she does what he wants, but won’t speak, taking his penis into her mouth at an angle the camera can’t quite see. Jeffrey gets a teasing few seconds of pleasure, but Dorothy is in control, holding her big knife a breath away from his genitals, and barking orders: “Don’t move; don’t look at me; don’t touch me or I’ll kill you.” Dorothy is playing a sadistic game, but Jeffrey is no masochist, and tells her he doesn’t like that threatening talk. They move to the fleshy couch that seems like an organic outgrowth of the wall, and enact one of the film’s iconic tableaux of melded six and violence: Dorothy in her blue velvet robe straddling Jeffrey’s pelvis and bending forward to kiss him, her ready blade glinting against the ruddy wall. She makes a potent dominatrix, but a sudden, thunderous pounding on her door announces the arrival of this underworld’s alpha male predator, the power of Lumberton’s darkness.
The Frank Booth that Lynch wrote and Dennis Hopper acts out is a phenomenal creation. If Jeffrey is trying on the role of bug man, Frank is the real thing. Wearing a stiff black leather coat like a beetle’s carapace, sucking in nitrous oxide gas from a plastic inhaling mask that covers his nose and mouth and gives him a gleaming bug-like jawline, his eye popping, Frank is an insect ready to feed on flesh. And he’s got a bug in his noggin: a buzzing sexual obsession with Dorothy, the Blue Velvet Lady. Like a demented artist of the libido, Frank has devised a theater-of-cruelty ritual that he enacts with Dorothy. As Jeffrey watches aghast and fascinated from his closet, he encounters a new mystery: Why does she put up with it?
Dorothy douses the electric lamp, lights a squat, white candle (like the ones at Laura Palmer’s Twin Peaks murder site), and Frank intones the archetypal Lynchian incantation: “Now it’s dark” (which isn’t in the script). Repeating an established pattern, Dorothy brings over a small chair and sits on it, and gives Frank a glass of bourbon. As in some perversion of a 1950s sitcom, Frank casts himself in the role of Daddy coming home, but Dorothy slips and calls him “Baby.” An understandable mistake, for there’s a maelstrom of Oedipal confusion in Frank’s psyche. He next calls her “Mommy,” and in a plaintive, childlike voice, declares, “Baby wants to fuck” and “Baby loves blue velvet.” Then, as Lynch’s script specifies, he gives commands to himself, which degrade into vocal self-abuse, “Get ready to fuck! You fuckers, fucker, you fucker.” And when he throws Dorothy to the floor, jumps on top of her and, with all his clothes on, bounces up and down frantically for a few seconds before ejaculating, Frank is “Daddy” again, and keeps assuring us that “Daddy’s coming home.” (Many critics’ theories about Frank being mad at the world because he’s impotent—based on his staying zipped-up during his frenzy of sexual thrusting—are vaporized by a line in Lynch’s script: “faster and faster, then he has a climax in his pants.”)
Whether Frank is seeing Dorothy as herself or his mother, he heaps abuse on her. His harrowing expression of sexuality is an act of rage against the world, women, and himself. Fueling his assaultive acting-out with hits of nitrous oxide gas, Frank attempts to hide his vile self-image by repeatedly yelling, “Don’t you fucking look at me!” and striking Dorothy if she seems to disobey. To see himself in her eyes is more than he can bear. If Frank loathes himself, he also abhors Dorothy’s femaleness. Before climbing on top of her, he roughly jams his fingers into her vagina, and after climaxing he looks at the hand that touched her, as if it wasn’t part of him, and makes a splayed-finger throwing gesture like he’s trying to rid himself of slime or the hand itself. No wonder Daddy chooses to come home in his pants.
Lynch stresses the brutal animalism of Frank’s behavior by having Hopper growl and slaver vocalizations that aren’t words. Frank’s snarling sounds as he hovers over his victim recall The Grandmother’s Father barking and looming over his hapless Boy, and prefigures similar configurations of characters that will show up in the director’s future works.
After Frank is finished with Dorothy, he stands above her supine form and cryptically says, “Stay alive, baby. Do it for Van Gogh.” This data convinces the watching Jeffrey that Dorothy is suicidal, and adds to the youth’s sense that Frank has kidnapped her little boy and husband, and has cut off her spouse’s ear (“Van Gogh”). Frank then uses his control over Dorothy’s loved ones to manipulate her any way he wants.
It now becomes clear that Dorothy’s sadistic sexual bossing of Jeffrey is a pale reflection of the way Frank treats her, a way of coping with her hellish situation by taking on some characteristics of the man who has power over her (she commands Jeffrey using Frank’s words, “Don’t look at me”). Given Lynch’s penchant for casting parents and parent-surrogates as potential and actual sexual abusers of young people (The Grandmother, Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), it’s reasonable to surmise from the “Mommy loves you” and “Baby wants to fuck” of Frank’s perverse sex ritual that the man has been traumatized by a past, perhaps incestuous, sexual experience. (Freud believed that a boy witnessing the primal scene of his father and mother having intercourse would develop a sadistic sexuality fixated on the power of the strong male dominating the weaker female. He also surmised that the last object a boy sees before he first glimpses his mother’s genitals becomes fetishized: It wouldn’t surprise us if little Frank Booth’s mother wore a blue velvet robe.) Frank’s victimization has compelled him to visit sexual violence upon Dorothy, who continues to cycle with Jeffrey. Foisting rough sex on Jeffrey may help Dorothy cope, but she’s most deeply conditioned to express her erotic nature through victimhood. When Frank has left and she and Jeffrey are alone again, the youth gently comforts her and they both get aroused, and she implores him, “Hit me, hit me.” He won’t, so their first evening is over.
Or so Jeffrey may think as he’s putting on his clothes. But walking away from Dorothy’s building in the darkness, his black-clad form starts to glow with phosphorescence; then we see Jeffrey’s father struggling in vain to speak, the guttering flame of Frank’s white candle, Dorothy’s face begging “Hit me,” and a Dorothy’s-eye-view of a grimacing Frank mashing his fist into our face to the sound of her scream. Then Jeffrey is in bed in the morning, his head reeling from a nightmare (“Man oh man”). Lynch has not only toyed with our sense of reality by slyly immersing us in what we now realize was a montage of Jeffrey’s dream, but he’s emphasized how profoundly the youth’s consciousness has become immersed in the ear-mystery, and how dangerous his quest is. He’s awake, his bad dream is over, he’s in his own comforting bed. But on the wall above him is an animalistic rubber Halloween mask that’s all devouring mouth and hungry teeth—a reminder of the metaphysical evil of the dark beetles gnawing beneath sunny lawns, Frank’s brutal appetites, and the unsettling fact that the mask fits Jeffrey’s face. As artist Vito Acconci says of Lynch’s oeuvre, Lynch shows us that we are both “scared and scary”: We are threatened by shadows from outside and inside.
Twenty-four hours after Jeffrey’s dark introduction to Lumberton’s underworld with Dorothy and Frank, the sober and sad young man sits in the Williamses’ car with Sandy. Whenever Jeffrey drives, they go to the wrong side of the tracks. But when Sandy’s at the wheel, they stop in front of a stone church with stained glass windows, in which we can hear an organist practicing a beautiful melody. Sandy, the agent of angelic goodness, would naturally guide them to this site. (We note that Jeffrey drives a convertible, signifying his dual nature as wholesome, upright youth and dabbler in darkness; Twin Peaks’ Leland Palmer, Laura’s demon-possessed father, also drives a convertible.) Gazing at Sandy’s blonde loveliness, Jeffrey gathers himself to speak of the raven-haired Dorothy’s inferno. He first said, “It’s a strange world” to Sandy on their initial night stroll, when an amorphously defined forming mystery could be contemplated with innocent enthusiasm. Now, having gained some experience of the mystery’s shape and lived some of the life its main characters lead, he says, “It’s a strange world” with a melancholy whisper. Jeffrey has discovered a secret realm hidden within the world he thought he knew by heart, and it’s tainted him. His account to Sandy keeps secrets from her: He makes no mention of the sexual activity of he and his two netherworld guides. Wanting to believe that people can be either all good or all bad, Jeffrey condenses the evil of the ear mystery into the form of Frank Booth, and passionately asks Sandy, “Why are there men like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in the world?” Sandy doesn’t know the answer to this major mystery, but, given Lynch’s love of opposing forces in contrast, she offers an antidote to the world’s evil.
Sitting at the steering wheel, the church and its uplifting melody softfocus in the background, Sandy says with sweet exultation, “I had a dream,” words that are a Lynchian declaration of principles. “The world was dark because there weren’t any robins, and the robins represented love. And for the longest time there was just this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free. And they flew down and brought this blinding light of love, and it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So, I guess it means there is trouble ’till the robins come.”
If Frank’s sexual abuse of Dorothy is Blue Velvet’s most searing statement of malevolence, then Sandy and Jeffrey’s car talk is its antithesis. And, as evidence that the powers of shadow and radiance are equally valuable to Lynch’s sensibility, each scene runs about the same length of time. As Laura Dern has said, “David believes in the robins as much as in Frank Booth.”89 Some viewers, whose sense of wonder is dimmed by an overdeveloped need to find everything ironic, are convinced that Sandy’s dewy-eyed dream description is a put-on, a way for Lynch to mock her corny credulity. But this artist who calls himself naive, who meditates on Eastern concepts of spiritual transcendence, values dream states, and in previous films has portrayed the ability of higher powers to deliver benighted souls, most certainly has his ears pricked for those robins’ song.
Other than his creepy human animals, the critters that appear most in Lynch’s work are insects and dogs, though there are a few other birds outside the precincts of Blue Velvet. The graceful, feathered creatures that can defy gravity have a positive connotation for the artist. There’s the cheery robin on a fir branch in the Twin Peaks credits. The joyful feeling in Lynch’s song “I Remember” that’s “So happy, so warm / That sent seven little red birds up my spine / Singing.”90 The way the director compares a well-made film to the “perfect composition” of a mallard duck’s anatomy, the bird’s eye having been positioned “in exactly the right spot.” And there are Lynch’s angel figures, one of whom, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, has white-feathered wings.
Sandy’s dream has the resonance of a prophecy but, unlike in Dune, where it’s telegraphed ahead of time that Paul’s visions will come true, Blue Velvet trades in true moment-to-moment existential mystery and revelation. (Every frame of this film shows how much more at home Lynch is here than in the imperial throne rooms of far-flung galaxies.) Sandy had her dream the night she met Jeffrey, so maybe he’s the one who can make the robins come, though he seems more interested in debauchery than birds. Lynch cuts directly from Sandy and Jeffrey’s sanctified scene in front of the church to Jeffrey on the prowl in night town, anxious for Dorothy to open her door, and more, to him.
There’s something murky in him that responds to the dusky pull of her blood, and Jeffrey thrusts himself into Dorothy’s desperate body. He can see that she’s half crazy, looking for Jeffrey in her closet every night, scared of Frank and soul-sick over what he may do to her entrapped husband and little son. She’s sunken so low in abuse that she keeps entreating Jeffrey, “I want you to hurt me.” One night, when the youth says he’ll tell the police of her predicament, she gets furious with him and literally starts to kick him out of bed. Up to this moment Jeffrey has maintained, “I want to help you, not hurt you” but, with relief, he yields to the darkness within him, and whacks her hard in the face with the back of his hand. (Following Freud’s logic, Jeffrey, having psychically processed and absorbed the primal scene of his netherworld surrogate father and mother Frank and Dorothy having punishing sex, is now able to model Frank’s sadistic erotic power-plays.) Like a visual reverberation of the blow, Lynch shows us a huge close-up of Dorothy’s chipped front tooth, which dissolves in a gust of flames that becomes Jeffrey pouncing onto her in a sexual slow-motion embrace, over which we hear distorted animal roars and the sharp-end punctuation of a woman’s scream. The scene goes to black and Dorothy says, “I have your disease in me now.”
The question of the exact nature of this disease generated much discussion after Blue Velvet came out. In the mid-1980s, America and the world were still trying to comprehend and cope with the concept of AIDS, a horrendous, fatal plague spread from person to person primarily through sexual contact. A number of commentators thought that Dorothy’s “disease” was AIDS and that Lynch was making a sociopolitical point about the Reagan administration’s avoidance of this crisis-magnitude public health issue. Indeed, many hip viewers were sure that Lynch, by exposing the moral rot behind the sugar-sweet facade of smalltown USA, was subverting Reagan’s Up With America ethos. Of course, these cognoscenti were shocked to learn that their radical-director hero was a supporter of the Gipper. Lynch wants his art to mean different things to different people, to speak to the individual viewer’s needs and imagination: The connection between artwork and public is what matters, not the communication of a neatly formulated and circumscribed message from the author.
The “disease” in Blue Velvet is one of the director’s beloved abstractions, which he wants us to interpret as we will, but his original script gives us some clues about his take on the concept. On the page, Dorothy ruminates, “You put your disease in me—your semen. It’s hot and full of disease. Men are crazy. They put their craziness into me, then it makes me crazy—then they aren’t so crazy for awhile. Then they put it in me again. . . . [Starts Crying] It’s burning me!”92 This from the supposedly male chauvinist director who lives to abuse women onscreen: These script words could have been written by Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot artist Andy Warhol and founded the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM). For Lynch, the disease is the evil that men do, which can invade another’s personality and bring out their worst. Bad, twisted thoughts and actions can be contagious, and the director will further explore the question of whether evil is a possessing or an intrinsic force in Twin Peaks.
excerpt from the book: David Lynch:Beautiful Dark / Greg Olson