This is Lumbertown, an all-American smalltown where everything is as wholesome as apple pie, and the home of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) who has been away at college, but is forced to return for a while when his father has a serious stroke while watering the garden. He loves his town of origin, but wishes he could be back under happier circumstances, and on the walk to the hospital to see his ailing parent he idly throws a stone or two at a rusting drum dumped by the path. After having seen his father and been upset that he could barely speak, he is in even more of a gloomy mood so is even more determined to hit that barrel, but then he notices something in the long grass: a human ear.
Here's a film that goes in one ear and out the other, but almost everybody who viewed Blue Velvet back in the nineteen-eighties wondered "What the hell did I just watch?" whether they enjoyed it or downright hated it. There were plenty of naysayers who refused to get onboard with writer and director David Lynch's vision of his youth, but if you got what he was aiming for, that mixture of the young man's optimistic view of the world and the brutal reality of how depressing that world could be once experience had knocked the hope and belief in good old-fashioned decency out of you, then you would likely find the whole film to be a masterpiece from beginning to end. Pretentious was a word often levelled at it, yet Lynch was so sincere it didn't apply at all.
As was noted by many, you could sum up the entire story simply by watching that opening sequence, all the cheeriness of the innocence and righteousness of the townsfolk suddenly turned grim when both the older man collapses, and more symbolically when the camera's view moves through the green grass into the seething undergrowth of insect-ridden filth beneath, but Lynch wanted to expand on that, thus we got a tale that seems to take place somewhere beyond time, a mixture of the fifties and the eighties which could be his idea of the landscape of a modern folk tale, but just as much spoke to those mid-twentieth century troubles which tried to reconcile setting out for the bright future and knowing the depravities of the previous decade were all too present in the memory.
Peyton Place, the Grace Metallious novel which scandalised polite society yet became a must-read bestseller, was the major work which evoked that sensation back in the fifties, and it was made into a blockbuster movie too (Hope Lange, one of its stars, was no accidental casting in this), so if Lynch had not read it then he had certainly soaked up its lessons and observations. Thus Blue Velvet was very much part of that Hollywood movement, often an almost soap operatic style, designed to expose the unlovely underbelly of a society that was not as ideal as many wanted to accept it as, except here the advances of what was permissable in movies gave Lynch carte blanche to be as violent and sexual, and at times violently sexual, as he wished, crafting a mood that swayed back and forth between dreamtime and nightmare.
This was very identifiable as part of the horror movie movement of its decade, except none of its peers were prepared to go as far as Lynch did in conjuring that combination of terror and humour. Many didn't catch the humour in this at all, but the chief villain was both absolutely evil and very amusing as he bulldozed his way through any notion of how civilised people behave. That villain was Frank Booth played by Dennis Hopper in a career-changing performance that brought him out of the wilderness of low budget efforts, the occasional Apocalypse Now apart, and into play as a major character actor; he's quite brilliant here as he perfectly understood how to render Frank both menacing and fascinating, in stark contrast to Jeffrey who wants to be the nice guy and laments uselessly to his almost-girlfriend and embodiment of purity Sandy (Laura Dern), "Why are there people like Frank?"
To answer that question didn't need a battallion of psychologists, but undeniably attracted a psychological explanation as sweetness and light were contrasted with darkness and revulsion as if locked in neverending combat, just as one gets the upper hand the other makes a comeback, and so on, never allowing us to forget one while going through its opposite. The other key player was Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), the torch singer who brings Jeffrey into the world of Frank when he hides in her apartment to discover what is really going on with that severed ear. When he is found after witnessing a fetishistic bout of sadomasochism between her and Frank he is changed forever, as he becomes Dorothy's lover - and she wishes him to hit her since she enjoys humiliation (her own or his, we can ponder?).
A mystery will always draw in the curious, yet here it is like a black hole from which nothing can escape, and it was extremely intelligent though its surface seems naive, with frequent, bizarre asides turned setpieces such as drugged up but suave Dean Stockwell's mime to the deeply appropriate In Dreams by the otherworldy-sounding Roy Orbison. When that song is reprised as Frank teaches Jeffrey a lesson, it is one of the most intense sequences in the cinema of this decade, and the sole reason our hero does not die appears to be because Lynch needs him for the ending of the movie. There is such a texture of dream logic that not only do selected shots seem lifted directed from your most troubled slumber because that's the only way they make sense, but the actual conspiracy happening in Lumbertown is vague to the point of irrelevancy, all we need to know is there are sinister forces making themselves apparent and Jeffrey is up to his neck in them. Angelo Badalamenti's vintage-sounding music and the sound effects threaded through each scene completed an exquisitely balanced classic.
One-of-a-kind American writer-director and artist. His low budget debut Eraserhead set the trends for his work: surreal, unnerving but with a unique sense of humour. After Mel Brooks offered him The Elephant Man, Dino De Laurentiis gave Lynch Dune to direct, but it was an unhappy experience for him.
Luckily, despite the failure of Dune, De Laurentiis was prepared to produce Lynch's script for Blue Velvet, which has since become regarded as a classic. He moved into television with Twin Peaks and On the Air, but it was with film that he was most comfortable: Cannes winner Wild at Heart, prequel/sequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, plot-twisting Lost Highway, the out of character but sweet-natured The Straight Story, the mysterious Mulholland Drive and the rambling, willfully obscure Inland Empire.