by Greg Olson
Lynch has said that Blue Velvet is “a trip into darkness, as close as you can get, and then a trip out. There’s an innermost point, and from then on it pulls back.”93 Jeffrey makes his journey to the center of night in the hour after he struck Dorothy in bed. As he says goodnight to her, she makes plain her raw need for him and calls him “my special friend” (the next time MacLachlan works with Lynch, he’ll be a special agent). While the youth and Dorothy talk, Lynch disconcerts us with an out-of-context shot looking down the apartment’s staircase. Sixteen years earlier, in The Grandmother, the director surprised us with a shot looking up a staircase in the midst of a narrative about a parentally abused boy. The lad eventually discovered that the stairs led up to the nurturing world of his grandmother, while Blue Velvet’s harbinger steps will take Jeffrey down into purgatory. When he steps across Dorothy’s threshold into the hallway, there are Frank and three of his depraved, cackling pals coming up. Previously, Jeffrey has only seen Frank from the relative safety of Dorothy’s closet, and now he’s faceto-face with the monster. Frank mixes a “Howdy, neighbor” mock joviality with his deep rage as he suggests a “joyride” to the trembling youth, who, with good manners, declines the invitation. But social niceties and personal boundaries are like dry fall leaves to the flaming furnace blast of Frank’s will to power. He already holds Dorothy’s family hostage, and now he spirits off her and Jeffrey in his roaring Dodge Charger, whose grille and headlights Lynch frames so that they look like a fierce animal’s jaws and eyes devouring the night.
Along with Frank’s three loony cohorts, they go to Ben’s Pussy Heaven where, as did Eraserhead’s Henry, Jeffrey must endure a bizarre and punishing social evening. Pussy Heaven is a low-rent-district bordello stocked with fat women who sit silently aligned against a living room wall as though trapped in the numbing stasis of a Diane Arbus photograph. This blasphemous Heaven is presided over by the marvelously effete Ben (Dennis Hopper’s pal Dean Stockwell) who, with his lip rouge and ruffled-front shirt, is, as Frank proclaims with deadpan Lynchian humor, “One suave fucker.” Ben and his scarlet women hold Dorothy’s little boy, Donny, behind a locked door. And when we hear her visiting him, it sounds like she’s been accused of being an absentee parent, for she says, “No, no, Donny, Mommy still loves you!” Perhaps this moment is a guilty projection of Lynch’s own sense of being, to some degree, an unavailable father to his children.
After Frank and Ben use Jeffrey as a punching bag and reveal their majorplayer role in Lumberton’s clandestine drug-dealing network, Ben does a special performance at Frank’s request, lip-synching to Frank’s audiotape of Roy Orbison singing “In Dreams.” This song and “Blue Velvet” are Frank’s anthems; both speak of men weeping over lost loves. When Ben does his unforgettable pantomime, holding a construction-site electric lamp under his chin like a microphone so that the glaring light makes his pasty face glow, Frank is transported. He seems lulled as Orbison-Ben sings “Go to sleep, everything is all right,” but his face stiffens with apprehension as the singer falls asleep “To dream my dreams of you,” and he winces with pain when the narrator walks and talks with his now-vanished love. Many commentators simply characterize Frank as the Anti-Christ, an incarnation of abstract evil. He is certainly loathsome and terrifying, but Lynch as writerdirector and Hopper as actor invest him with a wrenching pathos. We sense that Frank has grown monstrous because of some wounding loss or horrible abuse visited upon him. Frank and Dorothy, a sadist and his masochist partner, are ultimately both victims. Frank is possessed by some eros-perverting past trauma, as Twin Peaks’ daughter-molesting Leland Palmer is possessed by the evil force of BOB. Both Lynch and Hopper say that Frank truly loves Dorothy, and when he watches her sing at the Slow Club, he weeps tortured tears, simultaneously grieving for her and himself.
Lynch understands the nuanced shadings of those who express themselves with malevolent behavior, just as he allows his upholders of righteousness to manifest a full human complexity. And once, years before Blue Velvet, he was surprised to learn that his daughter, Jennifer, was dwelling seriously on such matters. As she remembers, “I was very young, and I was fearless when it came to the grotesque. My father got upset with me when he found me reading my dog-eared copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, which detailed Charles Manson’s horrible crimes and how he was apprehended and brought to justice.”94 Just as Lynch, in his art, presents two characters with their heads almost touching when things get intense, “He leaned his head next to mine and said, ‘This is beyond darkness, it is not the opposite of light, this is evil.’”95 As though anticipating Blue Velvet’s “areyou-a-detective-or-a-pervert” dialectic, Jennifer replied, “But Dad, I’m not fascinated with Manson—what I like is the guy who caught him, the guy who figures everything out and captures him.”96 Still, Jennifer responded with humane empathy toward Manson: “Here’s a soul tortured throughout his life, shunted from home to home, beaten, turned wrong by hatred and fear,”97 just as her father sees Frank Booth as both a monster and “a man who’s deeply in love but can’t express it in a normal way.”Jennifer feels Frank “is a poignant character: I have a sadness and a pity for Frank. When he does his baby voice and his whimpering it’s so revealing, the way he’s violent to get what he needs.”99 She agrees with my thought that Frank was the victim of incestuous sexual abuse: “Yeah, all the Mommy/Daddy/Baby roles are fucked up in his head. My father puts such interesting details of humanity in Blue Velvet, it seems so absolutely real to me psychologically.”100 So the bestial Frank has a human side, the humane Jeffrey harbors animal impulses, and Roy Orbison will bring them face to face.
When Frank, Dorothy, Jeffrey, Frank’s hoodlum trio, and one of Ben’s fat whores drive off into the night, Jeffrey does something no one else in the film has had the courage to do: He defiantly glares into Frank’s eyes after being ordered, “Don’t look at me, fuck.” Frank fires back a damning truth at the youth: “You’re like me.” And Jeffrey, as if to both acknowledge and defy Frank’s insight, lashes out and punches him in the face. Jeffrey’s shocking aggression inspires Frank the warped artist to pile out of the car and stage a perverse ritual comparable to his sadistic sexual theatrics with Dorothy.
While Frank’s gang holds a knife to Jeffrey’s throat, the fiend exhibits some of the homosexual leanings of Lynchian villains in The Elephant Man, Dune, and Twin Peaks. When Frank was ready to leave Ben’s place he showed that his animalistic appetite encompassed all sexes (and perhaps species) as he declared,” I’ll fuck anything that moves!” (Frank’s form then suddenly vanished from Ben’s living room and was next seen driving down a highway. This split-second jump from one point in space to another could be Lynch’s conscious or subconscious reference to The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy’s observation that in Oz, “People come and go so quickly here” [regarding the Witches’ magical transports]. Blue Velvet’s Lumberton is far from the land of Oz, but near Twin Peaks on the map of Lynch‘s imagination, and the supernatural aura of Frank’s uncanny mobility in this one instance prefigures BOB’s [another evil force with a hunger for men and women] otherworldly coming and going every time he travels.) Frank calls Jeffrey “our pussy” and “pretty-pretty,” and, after forcing the youth to feel his biceps, says, “You like that, huh.” The villain then grabs Dorothy’s lipstick, paints his mouth, and kisses Jeffrey repeatedly, smearing his face with red: a visual signifier of the dark erotic linkage between Jeffrey and his two netherworld guides, Dorothy and Frank, that makes all their mouths taste the same. Now Frank, his face harshly lit by a handheld electric light as Ben’s was, does his own rendition of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.”
As the song plays, Frank exhibits a deranged intermingling of love and hate, sex and violence. First, he growls at Jeffrey that if the youth gets out of line, “I’ll send you a love letter. Do you know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fuckin’ gun, fucker. You receive a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever.” This passionately delivered physical threat is terrifying, but Frank’s next mood swing is even more disturbing. Lynch stages arguably the most intense of his two-heads-in-confrontation clinch scenes, as Frank breathes into Jeffrey’s face with the erotic ardor and cold malevolence that a predator holds for the victim he controls. In stunning close-up, his eyes burning cool blue, Frank intones with Roy Orbison, “In dreams, I walk with you. In dreams, I talk with you. In dreams, you’re mine, all the time.” Throughout the film, Dennis Hopper has given Frank expressive gestures: He always points with two aggressive fingers, like a child forming his hand into a revolver. As Frank says, “You’re mine,” he bunches his extended fingers together and holds them next to Jeffrey’s head, as though he could reach in and own the young man’s psyche. Because of the dark, mirrorimage symbiotic bond between the two men, Jeffrey knows that Frank is capable of stealing his soul. Indeed, the youth may already have precious little of it left.
In Lynch’s script, Jeffrey was to wake up lying on the ground after being beaten unconscious by Frank. His pants were to be pulled down and a lipstick “FUCK YOU” scribbled on his leg in the aftermath of a homosexual rape. Kyle MacLachlan pleaded with Lynch to delete the sexual violation details, and after giving the matter some thought, the director agreed. Lynch will sometimes acquiesce to his actors’ strongly held opinions, as when he let Anthony Hopkins keep his beloved beard in The Elephant Man and, in Twin Peaks, he abandoned a certain romantic storyline for Agent Cooper that MacLachlan just didn’t think was right.
Jeffrey has reached the heart of Blue Velvet’s darkness and seen it as the murky shading of his own psyche, and now it’s time to start to pull back and journey toward the light. Lynch is interested in the full range of human emotions, and has said, “If you’re a man, you can cry.”101 Jeffrey reaches his turning point sobbing in his room alone. But banishing Lumberton’s darkness (and his own) isn’t as easy as switching on a light. When he sits down to breakfast with Mom and Aunt Barbara, and Barbara starts to chatter about his beaten-up appearance, Jeffrey’s answer sounds like Frank Booth: “I love you, but you’re gonna get it.”
The youth nurtures and strengthens his capacity for goodness by staying away from Dorothy, telling Detective Williams all he’s learned about Frank’s law-breaking activities (without mentioning Sandy’s investigative help), and telling Sandy he loves her. She returns his feelings, and they dance and kiss to the music that accompanied her dream-of-the-robins narrative, the chorale-like melody which now has lyrics by Lynch sung by Julee Cruise: “Sometimes a wind blows / and the mysteries of love / come clear.”
Jeffrey is going straight and staying clean, but his choice to indulge his dark side has repercussions, as it always does in Lynch’s world. The shadowy force that beetle-churned beneath the Beaumonts’ lawn has spread all over town, and now it pops up in Jeffrey’s living room. When Lynch and his brother were boys in a small Northwest town, they looked out their bedroom window one night and saw an unclothed woman walking in the street. Now, in the director’s fiction, after Jeffrey and Sandy’s dance, the achingly vulnerable, bruised, and naked Dorothy Vallens steps into those bastions of domestic propriety, the Beaumonts’ front porch and the Williamses’ living room. Once again, Lynch displays his gift for staging excruciating embarrassments and violating social niceties. As Jeffrey consoles the dazed Dorothy, hugging her exposed body against him, in front of Sandy and her mother, the clandestine sexual relationship that he’s hidden from his golden angel comes gushing out. Dorothy calls him “my secret lover” and, looking directly at Mrs. Williams and Sandy, tells them, “He put his disease in me.” Sandy and Jeffrey have not yet made love, but this grotesque revelation of his emotional unfaithfulness and untruthfulness causes her to break out in deep sobs, with the corners of her mouth curved down like the traditional Greek mask of tragedy. As with Sandy’s narration of her robins-and-love dream, some viewers snicker at the extreme gestures of her weeping and think that Lynch is making fun of her. But, as Laura Dern has said more than once over the years, “that’s how I cry.” True, her manner of weeping in other films resembles her Blue Velvet behavior, but her sadness seems most gut-wrenching under Lynch’s direction.
Sandy and Jeffrey speak words to try to repair their rift, but the youth’s actions are needed on the dark side of town, for Dorothy has called from a phone booth to say that they’ve hurt her husband, and entreated Jeffrey to “help him.” Jeffrey first entered Dorothy’s apartment to see what the police couldn’t, and now he will be the one to precede the law and strike the decisive blow against the powers of night. As he approaches Dorothy’s door, he knows he is in the realm of insect energy, for there’s a buzzing from inside. A TV has been kicked in and a lamp is ready to short out. Like Jeffrey’s father’s hose caught on that bush, the natural pathways of electrical flow in this room have been kinked and disturbed. What Jeffrey next sees in the room defies the laws of gravity and mortality.
Earlier in the film, the youth discovered that the man in the yellow blazer who came to Dorothy’s door is Detective Williams’s partner, and also a partner to Frank’s dope-dealing cabal. Now the Yellow Man, his head a travesty of oozing red, a police radio crackling in his pocket, stands frozen like a statue, not lying flat like a proper corpse should. Aside from Frank Booth’s bizarre behavior, Lynch has exhibited plenty of evidence in Blue Velvet that would make Jeffrey declare “It’s a strange world.” One of the director’s subtly disturbing motifs is to put people in places and postures that are a few degrees removed from normal. While Frank sang and punched “In Dreams” to Jeffrey, one of Ben’s fat whores incongruously danced on the roof of Frank’s car, and at Ben’s, one of Frank’s goons had stood on the arm of a sofa while Ben sang. Lynch once said, after viewing a music video of animated store-window mannequins, “Anything that looks human, but isn’t, is frightening,” and he creates this haunting quality in Blue Velvet by showing people who don’t move. In an early establishing shot of the town, there’s a large, immobile man positioned by a store for no explained reason. And when Jeffrey begins his first night walk to Detective Williams’s house, there’s an eerily inert man standing under the trees with a little dog on a leash. We’re clearly not in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
Back in Dorothy’s apartment, the seemingly dead standing Yellow Man scares Jeffrey and us when his hand twitches out and knocks over a lamp: Throughout his work, Lynch makes the boundary line between life and death ambiguous, a road that travels in twin directions. There’s no question, however, that Dorothy’s husband, Don, is dead. He sits bound in a chair, displaying the hole where his ear used to be, and in true Lynchian maximally disturbing fashion, littering his wife’s kitchen countertop with the contents of his head. And where there is death, there is Frank’s touch, for a length of blue velvet fabric spews out of Don’s mouth like a frozen scream, recalling the attenuated animated scream line that flowed from The Grandmother’s Boy’s mouth. Lynch is adept at making pain palpably visible.
Jeffrey goes to leave this house of carnage, but he sees Frank coming up the stairs and Frank sees him. The youth must manfully face the responsibility of his decision to walk on the wild side of town, for there’s no place to go but back into Dorothy’s apartment. The first time Jeffrey laid eyes on Frank, the youth was invisible, hiding within Dorothy’s closet. Following Lynch’s characteristic scheme of balances and parallels, Jeffrey again takes refuge in the dark little room within a room. And if the hearing function got Jeffrey in trouble before (his toilet flush made him miss Sandy’s warning car honks and get caught by Dorothy) it now benefits him. He calls Detective Williams for help on the Yellow Man’s radio, and when he realizes that Frank can hear him on his radio, misleads the villain by telling Williams that he’ll be hiding in Dorothy’s bedroom. Jeffrey then grabs Yellow Man’s pistol and dives into the closet just ahead of Frank’s entrance. Now all of Dorothy’s men are in attendance.
Lynch underscores his homosexual-villain subtext by having Frank call out, “I know where your cute little butt’s hiding.” Jeffrey’s radio may be making noise in the bedroom, but the youth’s not there. Frank yells “prettypretty,” makes some animalistic grunts, and fires bullets into the empty room. Enraged and calling out, “Where are you?” like some wicked hideand-go-seek player, Frank comes back to the living room. He is the maker of final deaths and when, in frustration, he pumps a bullet into Yellow Man, the standing canary figure must at last fall over and prostrate himself before the Lord of the Flies.
Through the slats in the closet door, Jeffrey has watched Frank commit brutal acts of sex and violence, and the youth has stepped through those doors to act out the parts of himself that are like Frank. Jeffrey is now fully aware of his capacity for good and evil, and that he can consciously choose which path to follow. In the next second or two he must use violence to save his own life, as well as to smite the predatory-animal powers that seethe in darkness a mighty blow. Frank throws open the closet door, and Jeffrey fires a single shot into his forehead. As the monster loses the back of his head, Lynch mixes the scream of a beast with the gunshot blast. If Dorothy and Frank have been Jeffrey’s benighted parent figures, nurturing him in the ways of the netherworld, then the young man has now closed the Oedipal circle, having slept with his mother and killed the father who wanted her all for himself.
On this night, the police have closed in on Lumberton’s web of criminals, and as Jeffrey and Sandy kiss in the apartment hallway, their true love is irradiated with white light, and outside we see light-flashing police cars descend on the building like robins pouncing on beetles.
Jeffrey has entered a severed ear and probed deep beneath the surface of his own and his town’s consciousness, and now Lynch pulls out of a ruddy canal that is Jeffrey’s sunlit ear, as he snoozes in the Beaumonts’ backyard. When he opens his eyes, the first thing he sees is a plump red robin on a branch. As if to codify his status as the hero who has mastered darkness and light, Jeffrey wears black pants and a white shirt. Having destroyed his bad father, Frank, the young man’s good father has been restored to him. In Lynch’s favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, far-traveling Dorothy concludes that “There’s no place like home,” and now Jeffrey enjoys the most wonderful of homecomings. For the first time in the film, the Beaumont and Williams families are conjoined, as if to bless Sandy and Jeffrey’s union. Tom Beaumont is “feeling fine,” and Detective Williams tends to the barbecue in the backyard. Sandy and Aunt Barbara are fixing lunch, and Jeffrey’s and Sandy’s moms can’t wait to eat. Sandy’s original involving of Jeffrey in the ear mystery, which she’s regretted all along, has resulted in the vanquishment of evil. For there on the windowsill is her dream come true: that fat robin, a squirming black beetle in its powerful beak. Sandy looks at Jeffrey, recalling all the terrible and wonderful things they’ve shared, and there’s only one way she can put it into words: “It’s a strange world, isn’t it.”
The warm, sweet music of “Mysteries of Love” carries us to another homecoming. For the first time in the film, we see Dorothy Vallens in daylight, sitting on a park bench in the sun. Her little boy, Donny, now free as the wind, is enfolded in her smiling embrace. If any character in Blue Velvet has been as torturously entrapped as The Grandmother’s Boy, Eraserhead’s Henry, and The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, it is Dorothy. She evinces a shift in Lynch’s sensibility toward a growing concern for the victimization of women. Each of the director’s earlier characters escaped their bondage through the transcendent grace of love, and Dorothy also seems to have thrown off her web of darkness.
But Lynch knows how complex the world really is and he remains haunted by Dorothy’s suffering. Her smile fades, and there’s a tormented look in her eyes as we hear her voice sing the words that symbolize her unholy union with Frank: “And I still can see blue velvet through my tears.” As Lynch pans up from her and Donny to a beautiful blue sky, we remember that Don and Frank, Dorothy’s good and evil husbands, are both dead, and Jeffrey has chosen to stay on the side of the angels. But maybe some night the young man will again take a walk on the shadow side of town and Dorothy will find him in her closet. There are countless more hidden insects in the world than there are robins. The last thing we see in the film isn’t the wide-open sky; it’s a curtain of blue velvet that’s being rhythmically moved, as though the darkness behind it would never stop breathing.
Lynch says he is able to visualize thoughts and behavior more horrific than anything he has put before our eyes. In an earlier conception of Blue Velvet, the director let Frank Booth’s death-dealing perversity lunge out, violating the boundary of his own physical demise, and touch Dorothy one last time, making her, at this point in Lynch’s career, the director’s ultimate female victim. In a script-dialogue line not in the film, Lynch has Jeffrey say that Frank “had to have Dorothy cause her whole life was blue.”105 As the film ends now she’s still the Blue Lady, but being reunited with her loving little Donny and the exultant atmosphere of a sunny afternoon have let some light into her life and dispelled some of her soul’s gloom. Yet just as Lynch had initially planned for Eraserhead’s Henry to perish without the saving grace and love of his radiant Lady in the Radiator, Dorothy was originally to be swallowed by the ravenous black insects of darkness.
We would have seen the bloody body of little Donny, killed by Frank, found under Dorothy’s bed, as though birthed into death by the twisted, violent sex his mother was at first forced to practice, then loved to practice, in this room. Then, looking up the towering facade of Dorothy’s apartment building at night, we’d see a single red shoe fall toward us. Unlike Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, this poor Dorothy has no hope of finding Oz or getting back to Kansas, so she throws her unmagical ruby slipper into the abyss of night. Then her naked body, which we’ve previously seen stripped of protective clothes for sex and bruising, leaps from the rooftop toward us and past, into a final embrace with death, making literal her panicky words from earlier in the film that had summed up her plummeting spiritual state: “I’m falling!” Then her blue velvet robe drops toward us—can Lynch be providing a glimmer of redemption even in this darkest of endings?
The ruby slipper may not have gotten Dorothy where she wanted to go, but by throwing off the blue velvet robe that symbolizes her oppressive bondage to Frank, she has leapt into a transcendent freedom. (In Sunset Boulevard, which Lynch dearly loves, William Holden’s character removes the expensive cuff links that symbolize Norma Desmond’s oppressive hold on him before meeting his death.) As Lynch has said to me, he likes to “get people trapped in a hellhole”106 and then he often shows us, or implies, that there is an escape route. For Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer and The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, the process of achieving a final release involves their own death, as it will for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’s Laura Palmer and Mulholland Drive’s Diane Selwyn. Perhaps, as death enabled John Merrick to merge with the spirit of his truest love, his dear mother, so Dorothy will unite with her husband and child who have passed on before her.
After Dorothy leaps to her death, her blue robe would have fallen into our faces and frozen there, filling the screen as Bobby Vinton’s words “and I still can see blue velvet through my tears” hang in the air. Dorothy would be gone to some other place. We the living would be the ones still seeing blue velvet, still haunted.
David Lynch had found himself. He was home again, back from the dream-convolutions of Eraserhead’s mind, The Elephant Man’s nineteenthcentury England, and Dune’s interplanetary future, to the small-town streets where America lives. Blue Velvet was just as he wanted it to be, for it sprang from his innermost feelings about a young man becoming sexually and psychically mature, the terrors and exhilarations of acquiring knowledge, and the sustaining potency of love and family. In Isabella Rossellini, Lynch had a passionate and devoted love of his own, and he would face the eruptive response to his film, both the veneration and vilification, with a renewed personal confidence. The lucid, reality-based style of Blue Velvet seemed to heighten the director’s ability to convey resonant ideas, dreamlike poetic associations, and complex states of being. Just like Jeffrey, Lynch was growing, learning, and maturing, but some things would always remain the same. There would be a beautiful cherry tree in a boy’s backyard, and red ants swarming on it. Robins and bugs, blue skies and blue velvet, a curious young man and a severed ear, an FBI detective and a dead high school girl. Born amid Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo in Missoula, Montana, David Lynch would forever reside between twin peaks.
excerpt from the book: David Lynch:Beautiful Dark / Greg Olson