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The Awkward Movie Challenge: Blue Velvet

September 16, 2009 By: Category: Greatest Hits, The Awkward Movie Challenge


According to Netflix, Mike and Jeffrey agree with each other on movies 84% of the time. In their weekly feature, The Awkward Movie Challenge, they search valiantly for that sweet 16% that results in big arguments and big laughs.


When we last left The Awkward Movie Challenge, Jeffrey and I were caught in a bitter, blood-spewing, movie-critiquing apocalypse over Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, a film most likely never intended to stir up such mutual loathing between close friends. Since then, Jeffrey flew out to the East Coast for the express purpose of discussing his feelings with me in person. Yes, there were tears, hateful words were spoken, punches were thrown (as was dinnerware), but there were also words of forgiveness… and a fair amount of cuddling. Now that the scales have been set level again, Jeffrey and I are ready to continue delivering those movie challenges you crave the way a junkie craves plunging a syringe into his scrotum to deliver that sweet, sweet fix.


We’ve decided that David Lynch’s cult classic Blue Velvet (1986) would be the perfect film to kiss and make up to. Lynch is my personal favorite director (some might accuse me of being a bit obsessed, but those people probably just know me very, very well), and I believe that Jeffrey has described Blue Velvet as his all-time favorite film (correct me if I’m incorrect, Dinz). So what, you ask, is the point of evaluating a film that both of us unconditionally love and I’ve been writing about ever since I was a college undergrad constantly inventing new ways to shoe-horn David Lynch references into my term papers? I don’t know. Perhaps the problem is that you ask too many fucking questions. I recommend you sit back and just allow the cool waves of fawning to wash over you like a lilting mountain breeze.

Actually, it’s a little ironic that we’ve chosen Blue Velvet to function as our cinematic olive branch, because it is a notoriously divisive film. Siskel and Ebert nearly clawed each other’s eyes out while reviewing it back in ’86. Siskel loved the film and was swept up in the way it fearlessly treaded into forbidden places and provided the viewer with a perspective of evil rarely granted. Ebert felt the film was exploitive, and in his print review of the film, accused Lynch of using glib irony as a substitute for dealing directly and emotionally with the harsh subject matter he introduces in the picture.

In brief, Kyle MacLachlan stars as Jeffrey Beaumont, a college kid on leave from school because his father has been hospitalized after suffering a stroke. While home, he finds a severed ear in a field, which leads him into a dangerous game of amateur detective. Jeffrey sneaks into the apartment of nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) after being tipped off that she is somehow involved in the severed-ear mystery by new buddy Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the daughter of a local police detective. When Dorothy discovers Jeffrey, she strikes up a weird S&M relationship with him, which apparently stems from her similar relationship with Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a demented, gas-huffing thug who is keeping her husband and son hostage in order to force her to take part in unsavory sex acts.

Yes, Blue Velvet is an uncomfortable film in which humor often sits side-by-side with disturbing scenes of brutality, but I don’t think the humor undercuts the serious moments, nor do I think Lynch consciously used humor as a distancing effect. He’s a guy who has said that he doesn’t like movies that are “just one thing” (in other words, genre pictures), and what’s amazing about the film is how committed it is to its various tones. When Blue Velvet is frightening (the scene in which Jeffrey witnesses Frank’s abuse of Dorothy from her closet; Jeffrey’s “joy ride” with Frank and his gang), it’s more terrifying than the vast majority of horror films. When it’s romantic (Sandy’s speech about the robins), it seems more convinced that love can save us all than almost any straight love story I can think of. When it’s funny (when he isn’t abusing Dorothy, Frank is a fountain of hilarious lines: “Heineken? Fuck that shit… Pabst Blue Ribbon!”), it makes me laugh harder than almost any comedy I’ve ever seen. The film also has moments of sheer transcendence (there’s something bizarrely moving about Dean Stockwell lip-synching to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”), which is something Lynch does better than any other filmmaker. These varying tones never clash, as Ebert felt they do, because Blue Velvet is neither a horror film, nor a love story, nor a comedy. Rather, much like John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, it’s a film that pays lip service to a specific genre (Werewolf is set up as a horror movie; Blue Velvet a mystery), but is actually something thoroughly unique, something that cannot be categorized at all, which is true of every film Lynch scripted.

On top of all this is Lynch’s mastery of creating haunting, stand-alone images. Blue Velvet is full of them: the looming close-up of Dorothy’s blue-velvet robe that opens and closes the film, the red roses in the prologue, the scurrying beetles that represent the trouble into which Jeffrey is about to plunge, Dorothy’s horrifying nude walk across Jeffrey’s front lawn, the surreal sight of a man who stands upright even though his brains have been blown out, that final image of a mechanical robin with a beetle in its beak, etc. All of these images have as much power as the finest modern photography and painting.

This is just the tip of why Blue Velvet is such a great film. I’ve barely talked about Angelo Badalamenti’s fabulous music! Or the sets! Or the locations! Or the incredible acting: Rossellini, Hopper, and Stockwell all give career performances. MacLachlan’s is only arguably bested by his work on Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”. But to really delve into the bottomless depths of Blue Velvet would require an article twenty times longer than this one; an article I’d have to expand every time I re-watch the film, because each viewing reveals some new mystery, some startling or gorgeous image I hadn’t noticed previously. Perhaps that’s the greatest thing about Blue Velvet.

Mike gives Blue Velvet… 4 David Lynch cows!


Next page: Jeffrey continues the joy ride.

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4 Comments to “The Awkward Movie Challenge: Blue Velvet”

  1. I can’t believe you saw BV at such a young age, Jeff. I saw it in high school and still was horrified.

    I can’t imagine this movie aging well.

    Dennis Hopper is a genius.

  2. I once went to a screening of ‘Blue Velvet’ at the Museum of Moving Image in Queens, and a youngish woman and an old man came into the theater with a couple of young kids… like six-year-olds or something. Aside from the kids being totally disruptive throughout the film, simply knowing they were in the theater made the viewing a really, really unpleasant experience. I assumed the adults had no idea what they’d wandered into and would leave during the scene in which Hopper first terrorizes Rossellini. But they didn’t. Eventually, a guy sitting next to me shouted (at the woman, I assume), “Hey, idiot, I hope you plan on refunding the tickets of everyone in this theater because you’re completely ruining this movie, not to mention that you’re a pathetic excuse for a parent!” The guy then stormed out of the theater. A few minutes later, the offending “idiots” left too with their kids.

    Oh… and the movie has aged brilliantly… well, at least according to Dinsmore and me.

  3. It has aged extremely well, because it was timeless when it was released. Add to that the fact that it takes place in a weird amalgam of the 80s and the 50s, and that David Lynch movies have very little connection to the real world or culture, and you’ve got yourself a movie that’ll stand the test of time.

  4. I’m pretty sure I saw Blue Velvet not long after Jeff did. I can’t remember for sure, though. I remember that I really just didn’t get it, but could tell there was something cool there. The only thing I really took away from it was “Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”, which I still occasionally say to bewildered stares.


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