Why Blue Velvet is the greatest American movie of all time
When I first saw Blue Velvet, I must have been around 14 years old.
And it was delicious.
At that age, anything that is dangerous or even slightly ‘inappropriate’ acts like a magnet. It’s fun, and gives a tantalising glimpse of the future.
Blue Velvet wasn’t just dangerous or slightly inappropriate, it was pure, unfiltered madness. Sexy and hyper-violent (for the time), it was everything a hormone-filled boy shouldn’t have been watching. It felt like some kind of initiation rite. And for the first time in my life, I had found true movie escapism.
I remember babbling about the movie at school the next day. It was a grammar school in a quiet town in the north of England. Not one person I spoke to had even heard of it. They hadn’t even heard of David Lynch.
Dune and The Elephant Man
I had become obsessed with Dune. I remember buying the sticker album and filling it up. To me, that was the only way to build a picture of the movie before seeing it.
I was obsessed with Kyle MacLachlan for a time. He was Paul Artreides after all, and my hero. The movie was mind-blowing and melodramatic enough for me to fall in love with Lynch.
Prior to this I had seen The Elephant Man but not realised Lynch had made it. For obvious reasons, it scared and saddened me. If you haven’t seen it, do so. It’s a truly moving piece of work. However, it’s not going to brighten your day.
Then came Blue Velvet.
There probably is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ movie, but if I was to explain Blue Velvet in one word, it would be ‘confident’. And that’s as close to perfect as I would class a movie. There’s no sense that Lynch was cautious, anywhere. It was brave stuff.
The opening, with it’s scarily pretty version of suburbia (it even has white picket fences) and it’s final sink below the surface to the rotten underbelly of insects, is perhaps a textbook depiction of the America every conservative and blinkered American wants to see.
The film isn’t about race, but when Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont finishes work at the hardware store, he talks to a couple of black guys, one of whom is blind. If we looked at this too closely, we could suppose that Jeffrey isn’t part of the white middle American vision. He’s hanging with diversity and difference. One of the black guys is even blind, so he literally cannot see the white picket fence construct.
Then Jeffrey finds a severed human ear and everything gets turned upside down.
Note how innocent he is in this scene. He’s a grown man throwing stones at a beer bottle like Huck Finn might.
Then he does the right thing, and takes the ear to the detective. Detective Williams seems like a generally tortured, harassed detective before he sees Jeffrey, but then he warms, smiles at him.
Jeffrey is a symbol of goodness, decency. He’s the American Way. He’s the town’s saviour.
It’s difficult to explain just how important Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth is to the movie. When he first arrives, he’s the twitchy, evil heart of the film. His sex act with Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini) is disturbing, but that’s not the real reason why Booth dominates the movie.
Hopper once said that Frank ‘is me’. And that would make Hopper a brutal psychopath. The performance is incredible, with Hopper wound so tight he seems to be larger than the movie itself.
Look at this scene and you’ll see that this is the most raw, honest portrayal of a monster in movie history.
Hopper didn’t always find the right roles. But here, in his most terrifying performance, he’s gripping.
It’s a performance fueled by the character’s rage. Hopper never once loses credibility or impact. He plays it so completely that we feel scared ourselves.
Frank is stopped eventually. But right up to the very moment when he is killed, he’s still the most electrifying, frightening thing on the screen.
This is America
The movie shows us a warped, messed-up country that often displays a sheen of respectability. Under the ground,under the surface, there are horrible things.
Frank is at the core of all that. Frank is the Evil that America hides.
It’s a story of innocence lost, and then somehow regained. Dorothy loses her husband, but keeps her boy (the scene where the son essentially forgets who she is/is drugged so he briefly loses his mind, is especially harrowing) and that rings true with the movie’s message of hope being alive even when chaos and evil are so prevalent and ingrained.
If I’ve been almost too frothy in this article, forgive me. I love this movie. Lynch has never been better and more efficient in his storytelling. And the result is a tight, terrifying movie.
Let’s end with some ‘fun’.
Hey, if you want to hire me as a writer, get in touch. Oh, and if you want more movie stuff, try this.