From the Archive — Blue Velvet

blue velvet

The major dust-up on Film Twitter this week centered on the question of whether or not Twin Peaks: The Return can reasonably be considered a film instead of a television series. (By the way, the correct answer is “No,” and I testily made the same argument against last year’s documentary feature Academy Award-winner O.J: Made in America.) That skirmish in semantics came in the wake of several movie critics making room in their year-end top ten lists for David Lynch’s eighteen episode reunion with the twisty denizens of a certain Washington town. In commemoration of the new argument, I’ll dust off my own contrarian, complicated response to the cinematic offering that I suspect is still considered by many to be Lynch’s signature masterwork. This piece was originally published at my former online home as a part of the “Flashback Fridays” feature, hence the header that specifically notes the date of the film’s release. 

1986: Blue Velvet is released

When you come out the theatre after seeing David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” you certainly know that you’ve seen something. You wouldn’t mistake frames from “Blue Velvet” for frames from any other movie.
–Pauline Kael in The New Yorker

David Lynch’s fourth feature film was released in mid-September, a month or so after debuting at the Montreal World Film Festival and about a month after playing the Toronto International Film Festival. The reactions to it were, to put it mildly, pronounced. The film’s willful descent into warped degradations inspired revulsion in some and reverence in others. Tepid reactions were few and far between, perhaps nonexistent. It’s hard to imagine anyone emerging from a viewing back in 1986 and terming the movie “okay” or “pretty good” or “not so great.” It still looks edgy, challenging, frightening, fearsome, and twisted today, but its almost inconceivable how different it looked back then. To provide some context, the week after Blue Velvet opened, ‘Crocodile’ Dundee began a nine-week reign on top of the box office charts. Even Lynch’s immediate precursors weren’t suitable preparation for what he unleashed onscreen this time out. Yes, he’d made Eraserhead, but his most recent efforts were a generally disliked adaptation of a classic science fiction novel and an elegant drama about a 19th century outcast that’s notable for its restraint. If Lynch is something of a brand by now, then Blue Velvet was the launch.

For those with the temerity to follow it anywhere, “Blue Velvet” is as fascinating as it is freakish. It confirms Mr. Lynch’s stature as an innovator, a superb technician, and someone best not encountered in a dark alley.”
–Janet Maslin in The New York Times

I didn’t see Blue Velvet when it was released, with outings to the movie theater difficult to come by and my reliance on others to get me there making it that much more unlikely. I was a year too young to get in anyway. Even though the home video revolution was well underway, I’m not sure I ever saw the movie in any of the humble stores in our backwater town. Despite the acclaim the film received — including a Best Director Oscar nomination for Lynch, even though the film received recognition in no other categories, an odd feat that Lynch would achieve again fifteen years later — it was still a fairly controversial title. Besides, most of my video rental patronage involved securing movies to watch with my buddies on Friday night or with my family on Saturday night, neither crowd likely to respond favorably to Blue Velvet. And so I waited some more and waited some more, until it seemed the chance to watch it had passed me by. How could I recapture the shock of a film like Blue Velvet after viewing Lynch’s follow-ups and imitators? Maybe more damaging, how could I find my way to its wild heart after spending time around drunk college girls joyfully shouting out Frank Booth’s lines of dialogue the same way my pals quoted The Blues Brothers for an easy laugh? The world unknowingly conspired to tame it.

I am not one of the film’s admirers. Or perhaps I should say, I admire its craftsmanship but am not one of its defenders. I believe Lynch is a talented director, and that in “Blue Velvet” he has used his talent in an unworthy way. The movie is powerful, challenging and made with great skill, and yet it made me feel pity for the actors who worked in it and anger at the director for taking liberties with them.
–Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun-Times

Yesterday I finished tracking through the Top Fifty Films of the 90s and next week I’ll continue the conceit by looking to the prior ten year span, tallying up the best of those years. I acknowledge my shortcomings in this endeavor and have been making ongoing efforts to see some of the movies that reside in my own personal blind spot. So I knew I needed to finally see Blue Velvet. As I reported at the time, my worries were proven apt. It didn’t move me or rattle me the way it was supposed to, the way I think Lynch intended. To be fair and completely truthful, I’ve usually been more inclined towards Lynch when he applies his dark poetry to material that doesn’t start out warped, far preferring The Straight Story to Lost Highway. Still, I had the inescapable sense of looking at a museum piece that’s suffered from the erosion of its revolution. It was perfect, even necessary, for a certain time and place, and while I was there, I also wasn’t. I missed my chance, so I can only understand Blue Velvet, I don’t really feel it.

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