Blue Velvet is a strange, but beautiful film. David Lynch is a man who shows us what we would never admit is true of ourselves – the dark parts of society which rest under gossamer, silk and (appropriately) velvet, the naked animalistic things which destroy our sensibilities and reveal us as little more than bumping about a confusing landscape of psychopathology and unrestrained psyche.
The plot of the movie begins with Jeffery’s father, inhumanely constricted via medical apparatuses in the hospital, and when Jeffery picks up an ear in a field, revealed to us through a closeup where we see the outer canal crawling with bugs, we plunge into a strange rabbit hole. Sandy tells us shortly after what she has heard, and we descend into the world of Frank Booth and his strange posse of criminals and victims. Once the weird trip through rural America’s underbelly is over, we exit out Jeffery’s ear, into another bright sunshiny day, where his father is all better, and he is with the girl next door… a robin of Sandy’s dream (where they signify love) have captured one of the beetles which lurk in the grasses of each suburban yard. Blue Velvet is a trip through the American subconscious, somewhere in the back of our mind behind our ears, a land of drugs, sexual deviance, and contortions of the soul which we can only understand as intrigue.
David Lynch weaves together memorable and captivating scenes, which combine the strongest aspects of sound design, writing and lighting. Frank’s “suave” friend Ben lip-synchs into a lamp, while Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” plays. His shadow is projected on the wall behind him better than we would expect, and this erie visual is contrasted by the moody, dark anger which comes to Frank and interrupts Ben’s revelry in the song (the sonic texture of which echoes the same visual richness of the overall film).
Soft shadows dominate throughout film, which accentuate a richness to colors which sometimes appear saturated (as in the beginning) or dusky (during much of the film) but always have a deep warm tonality. It is this contrast between the beautiful depth in producing the visuals and the actual content of what they convey which disturbs the audience so much. Directors and cinematographers often rely on having the composition and lighting of a shot lend weight to its intended message, but here, Lynch and Fredrick Elmes (cinematographer) have our eyes at odds with our heads. We know things are not right, but we’re used to filmmakers telling us through the emotionality of the lighting. We’re unaccustomed with having to feel it out for ourselves.
Throughout the film, the gentle and smooth look to of each scene offsets the grotesque and disturbing imagery therein. The light is largely motivated by obvious practicals (lamps and fixtures), and much of it takes place during the night, adding to the surreal nature of things. As the naked Dorothy Vallens clings to Jeffrey Beaumont in Sandy Williams home, the soft “normal” lighting remains unchanged. We are shown images which are terrible, such as Frank sucking on a gas mask and humping Dorothy, yet we see them as we would expect to see them if we were in Jeffery’s shoes – semi-naked and staring through the slats of the closet, which play on his face in reverse shots.
The richness of the colors becomes sickly to our eyes when juxtaposed with these pictures – the mustard yellow of “the yellow man’s” jacket as he sways lobotomized, next to the body of Dorothy’s husband, dark blood dripping from each of them. The bright colors as Jeffery pulls up to Sandy’s high school in his convertible, instigating the emotional drama from her boyfriend Mike. Even short cuts of extreme violence have a deep colorful texture to them, even when it’s Frank’s brains emanating from the back of his skull. All the while, moments of intense sound at crucial points add the emotional dissonance – when Jeffery dreams, when he is knocked unconscious, Lynch has a greater latitude to invade our eyes with pictures like the distorted face of Jeffery’s father in the hospital, the ecstasy on the lips of Dorothy after she is struck, the anger and pain on the face of Frank.
Lynch later carried this cinematographic technique into television. His tight control over Twin Peaks and the hiring of cinematographers from the American Film Institute to produce the show lead to the trend of professional cinematography in television drama programing. The content of that show also was at odds with the otherwise gorgeously soft lighting. But the philosophy of Lynch is that beneath the superficial veneer of normalcy lies unimaginable deviance and weird aberrations of humanity.