by Kara VanderBijl
I am five years old. Crisp white paper crinkles underneath me as I shift on the table. It is very cold and bright in the room, but I am sweaty. My palms stick together. I look at my mom and at the big jar of red, yellow, and green lollipops. Then I look at the nurse, who is holding a syringe up to the light. Clear drops of fluid spritz off its sharp end.
“Now,” she advises, pointing the needle at the meat of my upper arm. “Look away.”
But I can’t. The needle moves closer and closer.
Some images are too powerful to forget. Wherever and whenever they appear, they poke at dark things that lie just beyond the reach of our consciousness. They sear our brains. Whether we seek them out or stumble upon them, they reel through our minds like a refrain, unbridling fear and obsession.
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is full of such images. I was fourteen when I saw it for the first time, on a class trip, and I was not ready for it. I walked out of the theatre that day, its violent, sexually charged scenes filling my mind, cues for brand new nightmares.
In the film’s iconic opening sequence, the peace of a quiet neighborhood in Lumberton, North Carolina is shattered when a man collapses on his lawn. Inside the house, his wife watches a mystery program. A dog drinks from the man’s hose, which he still holds in a viselike grip. Nearby, children laugh as they cross the street and flowers in deeply saturated colors play against a bright blue sky. Roy Orbison croons “Blue Velvet” in the background.
This could be Anywhere, America. But the man’s stroke has taken away its anonymity. Violence is particular: it peels open what’s expected, to reveal what’s curious underneath. Below this man’s immaculate lawn, thousands of bugs gnash at the soil and at one another, eroding the idyllic afternoon with each bite.
My mother is watering flowers in the backyard. When she steps away from a pot full of bright purple petunias, my brother and I see that a rust-colored rattlesnake is coiled next to it, almost the same color as the planter.
It flicks its tongue. We scream and pound on the window.
The man’s son, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns home to Lumberton from college to visit his father in the hospital. While cutting through a vacant lot on the way home, he finds a severed ear. It buzzes like a radio between stations, as if Jeffrey must turn it to the right frequency to understand its hidden message. Jeffrey bags and pockets it like a key, opening the door to an enigmatic, frightening world that’s been lying just under the surface of his sleepy hometown.
With his open face, sensitive eyes, and strong jaw, MacLachlan is a Romantic hero, a physical embodiment of trustworthiness and virtue. Lynch once said of him, “Kyle plays innocents who are interested in the mysteries of life. He’s the person you trust enough to go into a strange world with.” This is especially true for Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the local detective’s daughter, who catches wind of Jeffrey’s discovery and other details of the case by eavesdropping on her father’s telephone conversations. In a local diner, Jeffrey and Sandy make plans to find the connection between the ear and the police’s current person of interest—a club singer named Dorothy Vallens—by breaking into her apartment.
My father cracks open the lid of the electric breaker on the back wall of the house. Inside, a huge spider stretches across the switches. Her spindly legs gather together as the sun hits her. She hisses.
My father slams the breaker shut.
It’s within Dorothy’s flat that Lynch’s noir undertones take full flesh. We’d heard echoes of it in Angelo Badalamenti’s score, an orchestral track calling to mind deeply-dipped fedoras, slinky cocktail dresses, and smoking guns. Now, in a setting worthy of Hitchcock, Lynch’s femme fatale, played by the inimitable Isabella Rossellini, catches Jeffrey red-handed as he rifles through her apartment looking for clues. She holds a butcher knife up to his throat. She demands that he remove his clothes.
You can’t look away from Dorothy. Dark-haired and pale, she drapes a blue velvet robe around her shoulders and examines herself in the mirror. She leans against walls, folds in despair to the floor, and looks up through half-lidded eyes. With her bright red lips and bruise-blue eye shadow, she’s the picture of open, violent passion, the antidote to Sandy’s pink-and-white bloom. She is the smoking gun. She is the afternoon mystery program that the women of Lumberton turn on to forget the suds in their sinks. She is so alluring that a man named Frank kidnapped her husband and young son in order to make her his sexual slave.
Frank (Dennis Hopper) lives up to his name: he is a straightforward brand of evil. Jeffrey, Sandy and Dorothy, their names ending in y, decorate the action of the film like adverbs decorate a verb. But Frank is pure action. He interrupts Dorothy and Jeffrey’s brief interlude by pounding on the door. By the time Dorothy whisks Jeffrey into the closet, he has entered the apartment, his movements brusque, every word punctuated by obscenities. He has come to take what is his. As Jeffrey watches from the closet, Frank subjects Dorothy to a series of humiliating and violent sexual acts. He presses a mask to his mouth and gasps at an unidentified substance. His eyes bug out. But neither his person nor his crimes are as disturbing as Dorothy’s obvious enjoyment of them. At the tail end of a punch, her lips curl into a smile.
I shift uncomfortably in my red velvet theatre seat as Frank finishes dry-humping Dorothy and leaves. She folds her legs up to her chest, a patch of her blue velvet robe missing where Frank cut it. Naked, Jeffrey emerges from the closet. He folds Dorothy into his arms. “Are you okay?” he asks her.
“Hit me,” she whispers.
I am not ready to see this, but I cannot look away.
With Blue Velvet, Lynch satirizes an antiseptic small-town America and creates its antithesis, a terrifying villain—but it is through Dorothy that he makes his most important point. She may love her husband and child, but when they were taken away, she discovered that she loved pain, and humiliation, and degradation, too.
We are almost never ready for the things that end up shaping us the most. Innocence kidnapped, flesh bared, we wait for whatever lurks in the darkness. As viewers, we take Jeffrey’s place in the closet and wonder at Dorothy’s world, where blue velvet symbolizes the complex dichotomy of human desire, at turns soft and rough, dark and light. We are Little Red Riding Hood who, in the original tale, was so fascinated by the wolf that he was able to gobble her whole. We are voyeurs of violent fantasies, rubbing at the hurt until our fear and desire explode.
As Jeffrey deepens his relationship with Sandy, he gets caught up in Dorothy’s world. One moment he shares a tender kiss with Sandy in the local diner, the picture of 1950s high-school innocence, the next he punches Dorothy during sex. Like Dorothy, he has a relationship with two very different people, but he separates his encounters by night and day, location and type, whereas Dorothy links her savior and her captor by desiring violence from both of them.
Fear is brawny. It beats the pulp out of our other feelings until it has left scars on all of them. We turn to it like a bad habit, and no wonder; it’s been with us the longest, longer sometimes than comfort has. It takes us further into the future than love. It carries us to the outer reaches of our character: how fast we can run and how much we can stand. Sometimes it takes us far enough to bring us to what we thought we’d never do.
A young boy and his brother are playing outdoors after dark. From where they play, they can see the rose bushes in their front yard, the bright friendly white of their picket fence.
Suddenly, they hear a thin wail. Walking down the street towards them is a naked woman, arms across her chest, dazed and crying. The young boy’s eyes fill with tears. He is not ready to see this. He cannot look away.
Dorothy’s appearance, naked and battered, in the idyll of Jeffrey and Sandy’s neighborhood, is what marked me the most when I first saw Blue Velvet. Her bruises made sense to me (she had just escaped from Frank, after a particularly horrific event), but the erotic satisfaction with which she spreads her body open did not. How could a woman already so harmed desire to degrade herself further?
The nakedness was an obvious choice. It did not surprise me to learn later on that the scene is actually based on Lynch’s childhood experience. Had the troubled woman in his past also laid herself bare? Doubtless she had been pried further and further open as the image echoed in his mind like a refrain, until, like a symbol, she had no shame, only meaning.
Like humor, violence often occurs in the space between what’s expected and what actually happens. In a society where the two so often remain separated, humor—or violence—becomes a natural reaction. Both are particularly-shaped puzzle pieces that cement the often ill-fitting parts of human desire. If you despise a man, you can laugh at him or kill him. Satire is punishment on a grand scale; violence is punishment on a particular scale. Lynch manages to do both inBlue Velvet.
If you were to separate the two worlds in the film, you’d find that both have the power of a gut-punch: each one alone is enough to sear you. They dredge up fear and obsession; they demand laughter or horror. But together, they elicit a curious blend of both.
“What kind of movie is this?” my classmate whispers. I am peeking around my fingers as Frank searches Dorothy’s apartment for Jeffrey, gun in his hand. He throws open the closet doors, where Jeffrey has been hiding. Jeffrey puts a bullet in Frank’s brain.
I laugh. My classmates laugh, hysterically.
We are laughing to save our lives.
Kara VanderBijl is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago, drinks tea, and falls asleep at parties. She is a former senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room, the previous managing editor of This Recording, and a former arts & culture contributor at Gapers Block.