A review requested by John Taylor, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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First things first: form dictates that I give this film a star rating, and I want you to go right on ahead and ignore it. That's probably the right thing to do with any David Lynch film, after all, and 1986's Blue Velvet is in some very important way the David Lynch film, the one without which he might not have made any subsequently, or at least not in a form we'd recognise. The first decade of the director's career is not much at all like the three subsequent decades: after making the wholly unclassifiable, profoundly grotesque masterpiece Eraserhead, Lynch somehow got the keys to start making relatively costly studio pictures. The Elephant Man, from 1980, is surreal enough around the edges that it feels like the "mainstream" debut of a weirdo art filmmaker - but it's still a costume drama biopic that got Oscar nominations. His next feature, though, is where things really went to hell: 1984's infamous Dune is a flailing botch job, one that the director has never tried to reclaim or spoken of in even the mildest tones of satisfaction. The efforts of latter-day fans to find some measure of auteurism in Dune notwithstanding, it clearly represents the point where things went off the rails completely, and if history had ended there, I imagine we'd remember Eraserhead, barely, as a promising debut that went nowhere.

History did not end there, of course, and Lynch's work on Dune was all along part of a quid-pro-quo deal with producer Dino De Laurentiis: if Lynch made the ungainly, impossible sci-fi film for De Laurentiis, the producer would hand him the resources to make any movie of his choosing, as long as it was under two hours (the rumor goes that Lynch handed him a film that ran one hour, 59 minutes, 59 seconds, and 23 frames, which if true is my favorite power move in the history of cinema). That's a hell of a generous offer - as I understand it, it's why Lynch accepted Dune after curtly turning down George Lucas's offer to shepherd Return of the Jedi into existence - and De Laurentiis made good on his word. So good, in fact, that when he beheld the hostile, vicious thing that Blue Velvet turned out to be, he created a brand-new distribution company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, when it became clear that nobody else in North America would be willing to release it. And so it was that David got his groove back, and from Blue Velvet straight on through to the hallucinatory third season of Twin Peaks in 2017, his television and film projects have at the very least always felt like they were his. They're not always successful, mind you, but they never feel like he's holding back from making exactly what he had in mind.

So we end up at a quandary, and hence my discomfort with a star rating. Pretend it is 1986. Ronald Reagan is President of the United States. The likes of Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, and The Karate Kid, Part II are dominating the theatrical box office, while The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Murder, She Wrote are the most popular shows on television. Stumbling across Blue Velvet in this moment must have been like finding an anaconda in a kiddie pool. It is radicalism of a kind that cinema barely knows what to do with now and had no framework for in that moment, years after the New Hollywood died and years before the American indie film scene had fully waken up. Ask me point blank, right now in 2019, if Blue Velvet was the best film of 1986, and my answer is yeah, obviously. But now let's look at it with thirty-plus years of David Lynch projects in our back pocket. And now... I don't want to say something as obviously untrue as calling Blue Velvet "conventional", but it certainly seems awfully safe and tidy for the director of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE. Hell, it seems safe and tidy for the co-creator of Twin Peaks, and that had to contend with 1990-era network television standards & practices.

Twin Peaks is certainly the readiest point of comparison: it is basically the same thing as Blue Velvet, only done much slower. In a small town that seems stuck in a dream version of the 1950s, whose economy is based on logging, a terrible crime is revealed through the presence of a rotted bit of human flesh (just an ear, here, not a whole body); the investigator trying to crack the case, played by Kyle MacLachlan, is thrust into a horrible but necessary reckoning with the evil men can do. We can take this sort of thing too far, of course, and I would not want to do Blue Velvet the disservice of suggesting that it's nothing other than Twin Peaks: The Movie (though it arguably comes closer to that mark than the actual Twin Peaks movie). Just that it's worth pointing out that Lynch had a certain set of concerns on his mind in the latter half of the 1980s, manifested here and in the TV show and in 1990's Palme d'Or-winning Wild at Heart. Namely, the pop culture iconography of the 1950s, and the warm feelings Lynch has towards that same era, when he was just a little boy (he was born in 1946), and the squalid vulgarity he understands to be hiding just inches beneath the veneer of goodness that suburbanites of all decades and the 1950s especially wrap around themselves like a cloak.

Because, mixed in with all the other ideas and fancies being chased in these projects, that's really what the Big Idea is: "did you know that nice little small towns where everybody smiles and goes 'aw shucks' harbor murder and drug abuse and rape and all, just like the most downtrodden city, only it's worse because they're hypocrites?" Twin Peaks draws this out in jagged little bursts amidst the overall stillness; Blue Velvet just kind of tells us directly. Just look at how it starts: images of flowers against white picket fences against blue skies, all so over-saturated that it almost glows, intercut with slow-motion shots of firemen waving. It is the kind of corniness that could only be made by the profoundest true believer or the most flippant satirist, and Lynch is, somehow, both. Skip ahead to the end of the prologue, and there's a slow-motion shot of a small dog biting at the water spraying out of a hose, its wet muzzle contorted into a toothy frozen snarl that transforms its frolics into an act of primordial menace. Seconds later, the camera dives into the wet earth to find a teeming mass of beetles, worms, and Christ knows what, as the soundtrack starts to ramp up with an electronic-sounding blast of insect rage. Because, you see, corruption and rot lie right underneath the bright green grass of a nice suburban life. Do you get it?

I bet you get it, and that's my problem (such as it is for the film I've already gone on record calling the best film of 1986) with Blue Velvet. It is maybe the only thing Lynch ever made where he simply doesn't know if he can trust us. That dog - that's real Lynch stuff, right there. It's taking something silly and cute (a dog biting fantically at a stream of water) into something vaguely disturbing through context (it's standing on top of a prostrate man who has just had a heart attack, and the composition is such that hose nozzle exactly lines up with his genitals, so it looks like the dog is repeatedly castrating him), and then given one more boost into pure nightmare territory through the smart application of post-production manipulation. The creepy crawlies in the dark mud... it's effective and no doubt about it, but it's also obvious. Lots of filmmakers might have come up with that image, serving exactly that satiric intent. And Blue Velvet is not afraid to spell out its themes and symbolism. Sometimes, as with the insects, or with the brief music cue that ends the movie, it's just about making it such a straightforward metaphor that you couldn't possibly miss it. Sometimes, he straight-up has characters explain the themes right to our face, such as when high school senior Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) monologues about robins as a metaphor for goodness in the world. The monologue works, mostly because of Dern, who sneakily gives the movie's best performance: in all of her projects with Lynch, Dern brings with her a kind of preternatural wisdom, a seer or sage of some kind or another, and even as a teenager, she found ways of making Sandy graver and subtler than the simply Sandra Dee-esque embodiment of virginal all-American girlhood she at first looks like. But anyway, just because Dern makes the speech work doesn't mean that the speech isn't still a bit too hand-holdy and eager to make sure we Get It.

Oh well, whatever. This may not be the purely intuitive, spiritual-meaning-through-form filmmaking of the mature Lynch, but it is pretty fucking great cinema, a psychological horror coming-of-age story that really was like nothing else out there in 1986. Hell, just Angelo Badalamenti's score (his first of many for Lynch, and one of his first overall), colliding drones with Romantic strings, would have been enough to earn the film that much praise. Combine that with the fuzzy dream-like quality to the images and the nightmarish rush of the plot, and Blue Velvet isn't just "like nothing else" - it's like a bomb lobbed at mainstream cinema from an alien planet.

The fact is, Blue Velvet feels actively dangerous: less so from its plot, which is mostly just garden-variety "killers walk among us" stuff, than how that plot is executed. It is a superbly-cast film, with all of the major roles filled out to perfection by actors who somehow all intuitively landed right on Lynch's discordant wavelength. The showiest performances are obviously those of Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper, as the femme who isn't so fatale, and a psychopath from out of the hellish depths of Lynch's id, respectively. Rossellini plays Dorothy Vallens, and we're already getting at something just from that: "Dorothy Vallens" is the name of a whitebread pin-up girl in a tight sweater, and nothing about the way the character has been written suggests the live-wire European desperation that Rossellini brings to basically every single beat of her role. It's too easy to suggest, as people have throughout the film's life, that Dorothy is a victimised woman comme une autre; Rossellini is deeper and rawer and more animalistic than that. She's like a rabbit that has already chewed her leg off to escape the trap, and is now plaintively flopping around, shrieking. If this film is horror at heart - and I don't really know what else to call it - Dorothy is the embodiment of that horror, while the actual protagonist, MacLachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont, is just confused and panicky.

As for Hopper's role of Frank Booth, what is there to say, at this point, that would be new? He's one of the truly inhuman screen monsters, a rapist who demands to be infantilised by his victim, a barking madman who screams the word "fuck" in so many ways that the vulgarity ceases feel shocking and just becomes repulsive, an expression of a bratty child rather than an angry adult. It's exhausting to watch him, which is just as its should be: there's something vampiric to his energy, and we become one of his victims just by sitting in the audience. Subtle it ain't, but evil in Lynch isn't as subtle thing: it's crushing and all-consuming, blotting out the light and chilling the soul. Part of what makes it evil is that you can't avoid it, can't look away; it places demands on you to be recognised. If our journey through Blue Velvet is meant to mirror Jeffrey's - and there is no reason to suppose otherwise - Frank represents that first moment of realising that cruelty, really abject and selfish cruelty, exists in the world, and having the despair of it all consume you. We feel his evil in the way that a starry-eyed college kid feels things. And that is exactly what Hopper's performance gets at.

Beyond the human element, Blue Velvet is a terrific piece of craft. The eye-searing quality of Frederick Elmes's cinematography I have touched on, but it's worth reiterating how much that contributes to the film's general feeling of confusion. This isn't "dreamy" in the way that a lot of the director's work is, though the ethereal performances in a nightclub that's dominated by a bright red curtain and a bright blue light get us there. But it does feel placeless and timeless, and a lot of that is in the imagery, with its realer-than-real colors contrasting with the perpetually slightly-too-soft focus and the murky grain in many of the shots. It has the intensely physical intangibility of a dream, not to put too fine a point on it. And of course, the notion of the film came to Lynch in dreams - of course, Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" appears right there on the damn soundtrack, getting almost as prominent a spot as Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet" itself - so this is no accident. The sense of falling asleep into a world that seems right, but is in fact wrong in almost every single way, is right at the heart of Blue Velvet's uncanny ability to creep into your pores and grow thick and clammy. That, more than any of its stated themes about corruption, goodness, or small town mores, is what matters about the film. It's a bad dream that the 1980s are having about the 1950s, curdling and growing more manic and desperate as it goes along (the film uses pacing in a mesmerising way; the first 30 minutes is basically just walking around, and it feels like three-quarters of the plot is crammed into about 20 minutes near the end. It doesn't feel like a slow movie speeding up, but like a normal movie falling off a cliff and speeding towards its terminal velocity). For the rest of his career, refining that - that trick of making movies and TV that feels its meaning to you rather than communicating it intellectually - would become Lynch's most important, most unique strength. And it is present in an impressively robust form already in Blue Velvet, even as it leaves up a scaffolding of writing tics that do too much hand-handing to let that feeling-ness emerge in its most profound form.