Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“It’s a strange world”: Blue Velvet at 25

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The release of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in a sparkling new Blu-ray, is my personal movie event of the year. In particular, the rediscovery of fifty minutes of deleted scenes feels like stumbling across a lost storehouse of images from my own dreams, like the vault door opening in Inception. I haven’t seen the new scenes yet—my copy is still in the hands of Amazon Prime—but I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a video release with so much anticipation. In its current form, Blue Velvet is as perfect and inevitable as any American film, and there are few other works of art I’ve internalized so completely. To find out that the characters were doing countless other things in the meantime, and that the footage still exists, is more exciting, at least to this viewer, than any other comparable rediscovery. Even if we found a full version of The Magnificent Ambersons tomorrow, it would have nothing on this.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, this movie and I go back a long way. I was lucky enough—if that’s the right word—to see Blue Velvet for the first time long before the appropriate age, on a videotape I snuck out of my parents’ movie collection. At that point, I was in my early teens, and while I already knew that movies were going to be a central part of my life, I still didn’t know enough to understand that I was watching something unusual. Blue Velvet hardly seemed routine—it took me several tries to get past the first forty minutes—but its strangeness felt weirdly natural: this, I thought to myself, is the kind of movie that grownups watch. It wasn’t until years later, after I’d seen a lot of other films, that I realized that one of my first big movie experiences was so far off the mean. In its innocence and cruelty, its pulp excitement and advanced artistry, Blue Velvet is like nothing before or since. And my sense of the possibilities of storytelling was permanently shaped by that first, accidental encounter.

At this point, I’ve seen Blue Velvet so many times that its strangeness has faded once more, and even its most outré moments seem familiar: when Dennis Hopper wipes that lipstick smear from Kyle MacLachlan’s face with a scrap of blue velvet, it seems as central to the history of movies as, say, Bogart and Bergman at the airport. Yet even after all this time, there are aspects of the film that remain a mystery. How serious is Lynch, anyway? When Laura Dern describes her dream of the robins, and Angelo Badalamenti’s score swells with the church organ in the background—or when, much later, Dern breaks down in her living room, her face growing red with sobs—it feels like an invitation to laughter, but I suspect that Lynch would disagree. Later, with the help of Barry Gifford, he would dabble in irony with Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, but in Blue Velvet, we’re getting Lynch in his purest form, and I don’t think he’s anything but sincere. He, too, believes that the robins will come.

But the most disorienting experience of all, if you’ve ever managed to forget this movie’s astonishing ambiguity, to watch it with an audience. I’ve seen it on the big screen maybe three or four times, and without fail, I’m unnerved by the laughter around me. This isn’t a moral reaction, but an aesthetic one: I want to be immersed in the dream, and part of that immersion involves taking Lynch’s emotional beats at face value. Even at the time of its first release, Gerald L’Ecuyer of Interview noted: “The amazing thing about watching the film is that some people in the audience are laughing while others are telling them to be quiet because they think it’s all deadly serious.” And that hasn’t changed. After my most recent viewing, at a midnight show at the glorious Landmark Sunshine in New York, I overheard a testy exchange between two audience members, one of whom had been laughing throughout the entire movie. When the other viewer implied that the laughter had seemed a little disrespectful, the first replied, with apparent sincerity, “But it’s my favorite movie of all time.”

Written by nevalalee

November 9, 2011 at 10:12 am

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