The City of Absurdity   Bue Velvet


By Paul Attanasio

Washington Post Staff Writer, September 19, 1986

"Blue Velvet" is an extraordinary journey into the mind of David Lynch, but that's all it is–a collection, rather than an accumulation, of images. Lynch has the mind of a Fellini, but his imagination outruns his skill.

After the mishmash of "Dune," the movie returns Lynch to a terrain all his own. The story follows Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) as he takes a walk on the wild side. His home town, Lumberton, is not all that it seems. Beneath the world of the cheery disc jockey announcing the time "at the sound of the falling tree" lies another, darker realm, and Jeffrey means to explore it.

He gets his chance when he discovers a human ear lying in a field. With the help of Sandy (Laura Dern), a police detective's daughter, the ear becomes his ticket to hell–drugs, kidnaping, murder, sadomasochism and a Whitman's Sampler of sexual perversions and violent acts perpetrated by and upon Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a nightclub singer; Frank (Dennis Hopper), a hoodlum; Ben (Dean Stockwell), an epicene pimp; and a host of other brutes and mountebanks. (The ear, it turns out, belonged to a man who had been kidnaped.)

At its best, "Blue Velvet" showcases a visual stylist utterly in command of his talents. There's an able assist from cinematographer Frederick Elmes' moody, innovative lighting and Patricia Norris' offcenter production design (it reveals neither time nor place), but the vision is always Lynch's–an eccentric collage of comic books, pulp fiction and dada.

At the outset, he evokes the deceptive surface of Lumberton with a series of simple images–red roses against a white picket fence and a teal blue sky (in supersaturated color), a fireman waving from his truck alongside Spark the Dog (in slow motion), a helpful crossing guard, all flattened with fake nostalgia.

When the calm is shattered, it's broken by daring images. Jeffrey's father has a seizure on the front lawn, and the camera not only follows him down, it tunnels into the grass for an insect's-eye view of chaos; when Jeffrey finds the ear, Lynch has his camera travel into the ear, as the sound, magnified as well, crashes and echoes like a conch shell as big as the Ritz.

Composer Angelo Badalamenti contributes an extraordinary score, slipping seamlessly from slinky jazz to violin figures to the romantic sweep of a classic Hollywood score. But the puzzling thing about "Blue Velvet" is that for all of its visionary panache, almost none of it sticks in your mind. Some might see this as a sign of what's elusive in "Blue Velvet," but it's more about what's trivial in it.

The story is insubstantial, a Hardy Boys mystery engrafted with noir themes, and it doesn't go anywhere–the themes are introduced but not developed. The characters aren't developed, either–they're stand-ins for ideas about sexuality, not sexual beings themselves.

And Lynch is not what you'd call an actor's director. Lynch likes to use wooden acting as a distancing technique, or a kind of joke, but the acting is wooden even when he doesn't want it to be. The actors are either overdirected (like MacLachlan and, particularly, Rossellini), so that you get the director's intention instead of the actor's, or undirected (like Hopper and Stockwell), so that all you get is an unbridled behaviorfest.

In "Blue Velvet," everything is geared to create an impression–it gives the movie a juvenile, "Wouldn't it be neat if ..." quality. "Blue Velvet" isn't about David Lynch's view of the world, it's about David Lynch; he isn't interested in communicating, he's interested in parading his personality. The movie doesn't progress or deepen, it just gets weirder, and to no good end. Blue Velvet, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains bizarre sexual situations, graphic violence, considerable profanity and nudity.

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© Mike Hartmann