The City of Absurdity   Bue Velvet



Sight and Sound, Winter 1986/87

Then there's Blue Velvet, a film so rich that it seems to include and (almost) justify everything that has been happening in American movies in the last ten years. It's set in a fictional small town, like Byrne's movie, and is about an innocent's education in the darker human impulses, like Demme's film. It is also a compendium of styles, with elements drawn from teenage mysteries, porn films, coming-of-age movies, Caprastyle family comedies, films noirs, Hitchcockian psychosexual thrillers, horror movies, all combining with the elusive rightness of a bad dream. There is nothing calculated or intellectualised about Lynch's approach. We simply feel, in every frame, how deeply pop culture imagery has penetrated his imagination, see the dark colours it has added to his nightmares. His adolescent hero, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), who lives in the placid mill town of Lumberton, gets involved in his mystery when he stumbles on a severed human ear in a vacant lot near his home. Jeffrey's boy-detective investigations lead him on a perilous tour of the seedy side of his hometown: he gets to know-first voyeuristically, then more intimately-the nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who's being threatened and abused by a sadistic thug named Frank (Dennis Hopper, at his most alarming). The boy's descent into the hell that Lumberton becomes when the sun goes down and all the doors are closed is like a teenager's nightmare projection of the dangers of adult experience: everyone is a criminal or a victim, sex is sordid and brutal, the solution of every mystery is the revelation of an unimaginable perversion.

This vision is so extreme that it is often deliberately funny, but it's genuinely, but it's also genuinely horrifying, because Blue Velvet's strange world really feels like home ground-for Jeffrey, for Lynch (who is returning to Eraserhead territory after his unproductive detour into outer space, Dune)and for us. The heightened tawdriness of Lynch's style, evoking the B-movie and jukebox nightmares that insinuate themselves into the real, remembered traumas of our lives, is somehow truer to our experience than anything that has been seen American movies in a long time.

Blue Velvet takes us farther into our collective past than, say, Francis Coppola's new Peggy Sue Got Married, a whimsical time-travel movie that transports Kathleen Turner from her twenty-fifth high school reunion right back into her own adolescence-all, it turns out, in the service of some fuzzy Caprasque homilies about how everything is for the best in this best of all possible neighbourhoods. Peggy Sue doesn't represent anybody's actual experience, least of all Coppola's. He has never before made anything like this glazed commercial entertainment; it's a throwback to the sort of picture that his own movies in the 70s seemed to have given the lie to for good. If we, film-makers and filmgoers, really want to go home again, we would do better to follow Lynch. For Americans at least, the artefacts of junk-culture – genres and B pictures – are home. No matter how badly we want to get out, the stuff sticks to us, like gunk from some special-effects monster.

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© Mike Hartmann