Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell, Hope Lange, George Dickerson, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, Jack Harvey, Ken Stovitz, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, J. Michael Hunter, Dick Green
Written by: David Lynch
Directed by: David Lynch
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 121
Date: 01/08/1986

Blue Velvet (1986)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Now It's Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even though writer/director David Lynch probably never intended it, critics in 1986 saw in Blue Velvet a reference to Reagan-era politics: insidious and underhanded behavior covered up by a colorful and squeaky clean surface.

Now Blue Velvet has been dusted off and restored just in time for the second act of the Bush era, and it still fits.

And even though Blue Velvet can work on that political level alone, it goes much deeper. Its mysteries travel the four winds, and many of them will never be solved (just what is that toothy object hanging over Jeffrey's bed?).

In any case, Lynch's fourth feature film was and still is a bona-fide masterpiece, one of the few such films that was actually appreciated in its time and has perfectly weathered the 17 years since.

The story has college student Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan, who was also in Lynch's Dune and Twin Peaks) coming home from school when his father suffers an attack. Wandering through a field on the way home from the hospital, Jeffrey finds a severed ear. He brings it to the local police detective (George Dickerson), whose pretty blonde daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) lets Jeffrey in on a few more sordid details.

Apparently, a local singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is mixed up in something sinister that may connect to the ear. Unable to control his curiosity, Jeffrey sneaks into her apartment and witnesses a disturbing scene involving possible kidnapping and blackmail by a psychopath named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

Jeffrey continues digging into the crime and basically finds himself deeper and deeper in the mire. He hits rock bottom when he runs into Frank in the flesh. Frank takes him on a scary odyssey into the night, which ends in a disturbing display of violence. But in the morning, Jeffrey is far more disturbed by the violence he found within himself.

In some ways Blue Velvet is denser and darker than Lynch's recent masterpiece Mulholland Drive. Even focusing only on its glistening surfaces and scary subsurfaces, the film delivers a rich pastiche. The idyllic "Lumberton" where the characters live is presented as a parody, with the local radio station giving the time "at the sound of the falling tree" and characters speaking to each other in awkward, carefully controlled dialogue. Is everyone happy here, or is this how "they" want us to be?

By contrast, Frank's world seems so much more fun. Like Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange, Lynch makes the underworld look like a scream at first. He lures us into it willingly before he brings the hammer down. The movie's most quotable lines are all Frank's: "What kinda beer you like, kid? Heineken! F--- that s---! Pabst Blue Ribbon!!!" (Even that line reeks with a kind of Reagan/Bush Americanism -- either you're with us or you're a stinkin' Commie.)

But at the film's end, when the evil has been defeated, what's left? Sandy's dream of Robins representing all the love in the world comes true, but in the form of a fake mechanical robin -- with a worm in its mouth.

Indeed, Lynch constantly toys with us. Almost every scene is ripe with some kind of hidden meaning. When Jeffrey first goes to Dorothy's apartment, the elevator is broken and Jeffrey has to climb several flights of stairs. Lynch includes a handful of other shots of characters climbing stairs as well. Usually this symbolizes either a descent into hell or a climb to heaven, but Lynch reverses these meanings. To what end? An emotional response, most likely, a way to make us feel even more off-balance than we would watching a traditional film noir.

That's ultimately Lynch's storytelling mode of choice: noir. He's interested in the dark places, the nightmares that make people squirm. It's in their squirming that people reveal themselves; they become truly alive. Which is why one of Frank's favorite things to say is: "now it's dark."

Blue Velvet never came to my hometown movie theater in 1986, and so I discovered it on video and laserdisc -- and saw it at least a dozen times in that format. Seeing it for the first time on the big screen, though, I discovered new clues and new mysteries. And Blue Velvet is just as great now as it always was.

In 2011, for the movie's 25th anniversary, MGM has released a glorious new Blu-Ray edition. The transfer is very fine, with only a few, tiny visual flaws. The real discovery here is a treasure trove of 50 minutes of newly found footage, all remastered. Most of it would have come from the movie's first half, basically getting Jeffrey home from school, and moving characters from place to place. But the footage contains some remarkable and strange moments that are worth watching. The rest of the extras are from the Special Edition DVD, released in 2002: a behind-the-scenes documentary, a photo gallery, an archival interview with Lynch, Siskel & Ebert's heated debate over the film on their TV show, and trailers.

In 2019, The Criterion Collection weighed in with their own Blu-ray release. It's different from the MGM release, equally superb, and it will be up to each individual cinephile to decide which is their own preferred version. It carries over the "lost footage" and the "Mysteries of Love" documentary from the MGM Blu-ray, and includes several new bonuses: "Blue Velvet Revisited" (a 90-minute "meditation" on the movie shot largely on set), a new 16-minute documentary, an interview with composer Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch reading from the book "Room to Dream" (co-written with Kristine McKenna), and a brief "test chart." A thick liner notes booklet contains excerpts from "Room to Dream."

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