Thirty years. Can it really be that long since David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) emerged, seemingly fully formed, and established itself, seemingly instantaneously, as a hallucinatory classic of world cinema?
Part of the trick – if one can use that word for a filmmaker of such aw-shucks sincerity as former Eagle Scout Lynch – is that the film’s small-town Americana setting feels timeless, like something out of Disneyland: a throwback fantasy that could have been conjured up at any point from the Baby Boomer era to the nostalgia-fuelled Reagan decade’s then-present day. And casting actors redolent of that earlier period (Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell entered Hollywood during the 1940s and 50s; Isabella Rossellini is the daughter of and dead ringer for golden age star Ingrid Bergman) is surely deliberate. Yet of the spate of 1980s films that delved into the 50s/early 60s – Back to the Future, Stand by Me, Peggy Sue Got Married, Dirty Dancing – none subverts its comforting iconography or strips away the façade of wholesome innocence as mercilessly as Lynch does here.
Lynch’s 1976 feature debut Eraserhead self-evidently predates it; TV’s Twin Peaks (1990) became the bigger pop-culture phenomenon; and 2001’s Mulholland Dr. is currently being lauded as the 21st century’s cinematic peak. But if one film can be said to have defined the word “Lynchian” in the wider public consciousness, it’s Blue Velvet.
It’s the first of Lynch’s works that uses the populist detective genre (later taken up in Twin Peaks and Mulholland Dr.) as a jumping-off point. What follows is a twisted coming-of-age tale of two young innocents (Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern) simultaneously fascinated and corrupted by the sado-masochistic relationship between a damaged nightclub chanteuse (Rossellini) and the depraved gangster (Hopper) who holds her husband and son hostage.
As with those works already cited, however, plus the later Lost Highway (1997) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006), any surface storyline events are merely a gateway to deeper, more intuitive enigmas. Indeed, so powerful are Lynch’s striking images and primal scenes, his sinister recalibration of pop tunes and dense sonic landscapes, that Blue Velvet is effectively a mystery thriller whose least beguiling mystery is its central plot.
Instead, the severed ear discovered by upstanding young Jeffrey Beaumont (MacLachlan) leads not (well, grudgingly at best) to a series of narrative clues to be solved, but to a now-familiar Lynchian waking nightmare of voyeurism, sexual obsession and violence simmering beneath the picture-postcard vistas of suburban Lumberton.
Inevitably, then, for such a cultural landmark, Blue Velvet – indeed, all of Lynch’s output – has been endlessly analysed and deciphered. Much of the critical writing has been focused on the singularity of both the film and its maker. Yet one can marvel at just what an innovative, original and influential work of art this is, and still see evidence of other, earlier films into which Lynch has immersed himself and emerged with his own inspiration. Here are just some cinematic precedents that might well have haunted Lynch’s dreams the way his have taken hold of ours.
Un chien andalou (1929)
Directors Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí
The surrealist art movement gatecrashed into moving pictures with this Salvador Dalí/Luis Buñuel classic and – nearly 90 years on – its pioneering stream-of-consciousness flow and arresting visuals remain radical. The importance of rejecting logic and utilising the subconscious in one’s work clearly resonates with Lynch, a longtime, passionately dedicated Transcendental Meditation advocate. And some of the most famous images in Un chien andalou seem to be (sub)consciously mirrored in Blue Velvet: Dalí and Buñuel’s razorblade-slit eyeball in the discovered severed ear; or the ants burrowing into a human hand conjured up in the snapping insects teeming below Lumberton’s well-manicured lawns.
- Watch Un chien andalou online on BFI Player
- Watch Mark Kermode introduce Un chien andalou online on BFI Player
Rabbit’s Moon (1950/71)
Director Kenneth Anger
Yes, underground short film artist Kenneth Anger’s 1963 homoerotic biker odyssey Scorpio Rising was the first to use Bobby Vinton’s aching ballad ‘Blue Velvet’ on it soundtrack, something Lynch re-appropriated for his bravura opening sequence. But Anger’s hypnotic dream logic and use of symbols (here the moon, and a rabbit – perhaps echoing later video series Rabbits) feels very familiar to those schooled in Lynch’s work. Rabbit’s Moon’s satin-tinged commedia dell’arte mime aesthetic also evokes Lynch’s claustrophobic interiors, and the re-scored 1971 version even adds in the type of swooning boomer pop classics that Lynch regularly distorts for his own purposes.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director Charles Laughton
The sole film directed by great British actor Charles Laughton is as ripe – and as great – a piece of noir-toned, expressionist-styled American gothic as David Lynch himself ever made. Lynch’s predilection for murder-mysteries certainly owes a debt to the chiaroscuro private eye flicks of the 1940s. If The Night of the Hunter perhaps isn’t film noir in its strictest definition, its looming symbolism, anxiety-inducing mood and overpowering sense of the archetypal forces of good battling evil is right up Lynch’s dark alley. And Dennis Hopper’s nightmarish villain Frank Booth is a direct descendant of Robert Mitchum’s chilling, murderous ‘preacher’.
Written on the Wind (1956)
Director Douglas Sirk
Lynch wasn’t the first Hollywood filmmaker to subvert suburbia’s picket fences. In fact directors such as Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk were doing that even during the 1950s, with febrile melodramas that undermined the dominant sexual and cultural politics. European émigré Sirk, in particular, with his expressionist use of vibrant colour palettes raging against social conformity seems a key Lynch influence in production design. And Sirk’s trademark ‘happy endings’, as with Imitation of Life (1959) or this sexualized soap opera, which seem to undermine their own triumphs by flaunting their artifice, surely find a parallel in Blue Velvet’s unsettling, heightened coda.
Director Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock remains a major influence on Lynch, be it Shadow of a Doubt’s smalltown evil or the otherwise lacklustre Spellbound’s Dalí dream sequences. But the master of suspense’s now most vaunted film is where he and Lynch most perfectly coalesce. A psychological detective story centred on fractured identity and symbolic necrophilia with a femme fatale/victim merged in one, that delights in upending a clean-cut actor’s persona into something far grubbier. Laura Dern’s Sandy memorably observes of Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey that she’s unsure whether he’s “a detective or a pervert”. As with Vertigo’s Scotty (James Stewart), he’s clearly both.