Blue Velvet and the Enduring Madness of David Lynch

George Griffiths /
Dec 14, 2016 / Film & TV

30 years ago, Blue Velvet by David Lynch was first released. Perhaps not as well known as his works on Twin Peaks or as critically adored as his masterpiece Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s Blue Velvet was nevertheless a lynchpin of the director’s growth and maturity as cinema’s prime provocateur and the true solidification of Lynch as one of the greatest directors working today. 

To love David Lynch, and to embrace his aesthetic, is to embrace madness itself. In his greatest works, Lynch throws conventional narrative structure and coherence to the wind; enveloping both his characters and audience in an intoxicating world bound, seemingly, by no rules except chaos itself. My first experience of Lynch was Mulholland Drive; a film so searing in the confidence of its vision that it would be a crime to regard it as anything less than a masterpiece. A sexual, sensual, horrific movie, it shows Lynch at the peak of his powers as a filmmaker; an auteur with an intensely charismatic vision, a vision that is splintered and darkened a thousand times over in his films, but one in which you just simply cannot look away. 

Mulholland Drive may be Lynch’s magnum opus but he would have never have made it if he hadn’t written and directed Blue Velvet. Crucially, it was the first film that Lynch made after his adaption of Frank Vincent’s Dune. In many ways, Dune can be read as Lynch’s attempt to commercialise himself as a director, but he had hitched his star to the wrong wagon; Dune itself was already haemorrhaging money when Lynch boarded the project after the departure original director Alejandro Jodorowsky (a fascinating slice of cinematic history in itself, see Jodorowsky’s Dune for more) and Lynch wrote the script for the film without ever reading the source material. The commercial and critical failure of Dune, however, didn’t deflate Lynch, it just spurred him on – this time to create a ‘more personal’ film. 

The result of this is Blue Velvet; a murder-mystery that serves as both a homage and dissection of the American Dream filtered through a film-noir lense. Amongst the pantheon of Lynch’s films, Blue Velvet also holds a special place as one of his few films to correlate to a sense of a linear film plot; following Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlen, who would come to greater prominence as the leading man on Twin Peaks) and his amateur detective efforts to discover the origins of a severed ear. This takes him deep into the criminal underbelly of his seemingly innocent small-town, and into conflict with Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth; a demented gangster with a penchant for sadomasochistic abuse born out two conflicting alter-egos; ‘Daddy’ and ‘Baby.’ The events of the film spiral deeper and deeper into a flurry of mindless sexual violence and deviations and, as Shakespeare once so potently realised, these violent delights have violent ends. The film ends with its villain shot in the head and one unfortunate policeman the victim of a lobotomy. Blue Velvet’s violent sensuality is just as potent today as it was 30 years ago (even if poor Isabella Rossellini’s hairdo isn’t) and it stands as an important cornerstone in the steps Lynch would take post-Dune to virulently hone and stamp his aesthetic onto his works.  And of course, this is an obvious point but it does deserve repeating, after nearly three decades Blue Velvet still stands as a beautiful, cracked mirror to reflect our own dark desires because, above all else, it is just a really bloody good film. Gorgeously shot, impressively written and acted with real heart and passion. 

Blue Velvet is not the best film David Lynch has ever made – it’s not even his best attempt at a film noir – but it does read as one of his most honest works. The non-linear narrative style that would become his oeuvre in the following years is staggeringly effective – breathtakingly so in a few cases – but Blue Velvet works so well because it tells its story and tells it well. It was, I think, the film where Lynch truly encapsulated who he was as a filmmaker; a provocateur who used his narratives, images and characters to illicit reactions in his audience and have them in the palm of his hand. 

And it also comes in handy too that the film opens with a sequence that encapsulates so ecstatically the decay of the American Dream; a theme Lynch returns to again and again, most potently in Mulholland Dr. We begin in a normal, cul-de-sac neighbourhood, all white picket fences and red roses, children cross the road in a calm manner and firemen wave at the camera as we pass. A man, watering his garden, suddenly keels over, dying from a stroke as he struggles to fix his watering hose, busting a leak over the grass. Lynch that guides his camera in, past the dying man, into the grass, into the ground where there are thousands, millions of dark, decrepit insects amongst the dirt, calling out into the darkness. This is the perfect visual metaphor for the American Dream, for Lynch’s vision of America and for his film-making style as a whole. Blue Velvet is not the film that defines David Lynch as a filmmaker but it is the one that, even all these years later, is what helps his enduring madness keep its inescapable charisma and mystery. 

Like this? Check out Volume #16.

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Words by George Griffiths

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