Imagine Blue Velvet as a film with a viral infection and it might help us place the significance of Lynch's movie: it is a genre work with the subjectivity of a singular vision. Throughout the history of genre cinema there have been works greatly affected by the personalities who have directed them. The Lady From Shanghai is a film noir met by Orson Welles' baroque visual style; McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye are respectively western and noir, but both are as interested in the Altmanesque incidental as the genre through-lines. Kubrick would often work in genres - the sci-fi, the war movie, the horror film - and allow his own auteurist personality to permeate in Paths of Glory, 2001 and The Shining, This is where genre ecosystems meet directorial egotism. Not everybody is obviously happy with the combination, and many film noir fans and critics had problems for example with Altman's The Long Goodbye. Halliwell's Film Guide, believed that this adaptation of Raymond Chandler's book was "an ugly boring travesty of a respected detective novel", while Michael Billington insisted that it was "a spit in the eye to a great writer".
Yet compared to Blue Velvet, the aforementioned works seem merely to dabble with the form. If Altman and co offer the cosmetically transformative; Lynch gives us the virally debilitating as he inserts into a story about a small town kidnapping an aural and visual texture that leaves the mystery of the story all but irrelevant next to the menace in the form. When Lynch says in the book, Lynch on Lynch, that "making films is a sub-conscious thing", or Michel Chion reckons, in David Lynch, that "he is a film-maker without any a priori judgement of what cinema is..." one may notice that the viral is an expression of one's own preoccupations over genre expectations.
This is perhaps always a problem of aesthetic originality anyway: that is, the degree to which an artist arrives and tries to find his voice within the chosen art form. As Hemingway once said "almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness." Lynch was by no means new to film,and had a cult reputation with Eraserhead, was well-respected for the sensitivity of his The Elephant Man, and was mocked for the disaster many believed Dune to be. Yet Lynch hadn't yet produced a body of work that defined the Lynchian - he hadn't yet created the space for us to read the film through Lynchian tropes over genre demands. It consequently perhaps made the film all the more inexplicable: genre expectations on the one hand, burgeoning, and extreme, directorial vision on the other.
Now obviously Blue Velvet wasn't based on an established text as Altman's The Long Goodbye was (Lynch directed from his own original script), but it still follows enough of the rules of a noir thriller format for it to pass ostensibly as a generic work. Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a young man who investigates the mystery of a missing ear, and finds that a husband and child are being held hostage while the psychotic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) uses the wife, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), for sexual favours. Yet this story seems to interest Lynch less than the opportunity it provides for the director to investigate the problem of good versus evil. Film noir has always proposed that life wasn't a Manichean struggle; more a muddied relationship where the private eye ends up compromised either by his own infatuation with the femme fatale (Double Indemnity, The Lady from Shanghai) and/or because he has been played by men behind the scenes: as in Vertigo and The Long Goodbye. In Lynch's films, there are undeniably various noir elements. As Mark Bould in his book on Film noir proposes, Blue Velvet "recapitulates various film noir elements, including a woman in peril and the opposition between a sexualized mother and an innocent daughter..."
Yet what is so interesting about Lynch's film is that he announces the Manichean in the narrative, and then seeks its collapse in form. Generally, the noir world is so dark that innocence has little place in it, yet Lynch is very much interested in innocence as a state. Most of the leading characters are in various ways quite innocent, and none more so than Jeffrey. He is the college kid back for the summer, working in his father's hardware store and looking to keep himself occupied. As he stumbles upon the ear and ends up investigating Dorothy's apartment, as he later hides out in her closet, and later still gets taken on an horrific joyride with Frank and his cronies, so Jeffrey gets caught up in a world of monumental evil, and yet is an innocent within that evil.
This is partly why we invoke the Manichean: the gap between innocence and evil is greater in Lynch's film than in almost any noir. Raymond Chandler may famously have said "Down these means streets a man must go who is himself not mean," but the hero's lack of meanness has nothing to do with innocence. These are the world weary, from Bogart in The Big Sleep, Gould in The Long Goodbye to Nicholson in Chinatown. These are usually honest but cynical men; they are not innocent. But when, for example, the high school girl, Sandy (Laura Dern), with whom Jeffrey hangs out and to whom he details the plot, asks whether he is a detective or a pervert, Jeffrey really wouldn't know the answer. One of Lynch's achievements is to put at the centre of his film someone for whom curiosity is close to Lynch's own a priori state as Chion sees it. The character trope in noir is usually that the detective isn't innocent but foolish. It is the very fact that he is not innocent that makes him foolish - that he should have known better. It runs through Welles' voice over in The Lady from Shanghai, is central to how much Nicholson has missed in Chinatown, and how Fred MacMurray's insurance man is taken in in Double Indemnity: this is in noir definition the Fall Guy. But Jeffrey is not a fool; he is an innocent. At the same time Frank is not bad and manipulative, he is evil and psychotic: he is a rage of nerves.
What Lynch then sets out to show is that innocence and evil collide in small town America - in a town called Lumberton, a place where it seems, in the opening moments to Bobby Vinton's sickly sweet song, nothing happens and where everyone appears warm and friendly. As Lynch offers us a series of shots of the town - of picket fences and yellow tulips, of a fireman waving as a rich red fire engine passes by, of kids crossing the road to school - so Lynch shows us a world of innocence; yet also a world capable of having this innocence upset. The credit sequence perhaps implies this: blue velvet curtains on the screen and Angelo Badalamenti's Hitchcockian score on the soundtrack. These early moments may even bring to mind Hitchcock's semi-noir, Shadow of a Doubt, where Uncle Charlie comes to town and whose sense of evil bleeds into his niece's innocence.
Thus what we've proposed, though, is that the noir is not generally a Manichean genre: the good versus evil divide isn't usually great enough. Lynch's achievement here is to make the divide wide and yet at the same time to show how evil, co-existing with innocence, creates a curdled effect. If in noir innocence and evil are closer to the states of decent and indecent, and the films often arrive at the cynically accepting, Lynch's dichotomies create a greater sense of unease.
Now of course we are generalizing here about film noir, and we should remember that Paul Schrader, for example, in Schrader on Schrader, saw at least three broad phases to classic noir: the first included The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Scarlet Street and Double Indemnity, and was more studio-bound. The second was more realistic, and offered such films as The Killers, Kiss of Death and Force of Evil. But it is the third and final phase which would seem to resemble elements of Blue Velvet, when Schrader talks of psychotic action and suicidal impulses: White Heat, The Big Heat and D.O.A. When Schrader says the genre was always interested in psychosis in the first and second phase, and it was really with the third that the psychotic became central, then are we not talking of Blue Velvet simply being a late addition to the psychotic side of noir, where the "sources of disintegration are reflected in such films"?
If we think not, it is chiefly due to the disintegration being replaced with the curdling effect, where Lynchian subjectivity meets noir elements, and the innocent is generally at a great distance from the evil, yet the evil encroaches upon the innocent. Lynch's curious subjectivity is present in the ambivalent use of blue, a colour often of calm but here suggestive of menace, and also in the velvety curtains, and the sickly sweetness of the Vinton song. The colours in Dorothy's apartment and in the brothel, the manner objects are placed, indicate the opposite of the lived in: they seem designed in such a way that there is no opportunity to relax. The couch and the chair in Dorothy's apartment suggest no conviviality could come out of their placement, while the walls and carpet offer pinks and reds that are almost anatomical. This is the underworld as the unconscious, and ties in with critic Raymond Durgnat's idea that Lynch dreamt the film before plotting it.
As we are given so much information that doesn't further the plot but deepens the atmosphere, so Lynch engulfs us in evil. This is why the plot is of secondary importance here. The danger Jeffrey is in cannot be reduced to the nature of the situation, but to the immersion of milieu. Even Jeffrey's severe beating seems less about pain received than evil witnessed; Jeffrey's involvement with Dorothy, the sex they have and the slap he finally administers bringing out the evil that is within him.
What we've set up is the idea that Blue Velvet is a Manichean noir rather than the cynical noir so often offered by the genre. This is also though a good/bad dichotomy that isn't dissolved into the story but that permeates the characters. This is because Lynch is less interested in socially generated cynicism than innocence confronted by an evil that is traumatic: an evil that innocence cannot quite absorb. Most film noirs incorporate the corrupt, the indecent, the murderous and even psychotic. They do so however within the hard-bitten and frequently expressed in world-weary voice over. Central to Lynch's achievement is to psychoanalyse the genre in a Lacanian sense: to invoke the trauma, to create a vision that shows the constant collision - not absorption - of innocence and evil. Blue Velvet isn't a vision of corruption; it offers a feeling of the vaguely, indeterminately corrupt.
© Tony McKibbin