Blue Velvet (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Martha P. Nochimson
Produced by Fred C. Caruso and Richard Roth; written and directed by David Lynch; cinematography by Fred Elmes; edited by Duwayne Dunham; music by Anglo Badalamenti; starring Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, and Dean Stockwell. Blu-ray, color, 120 min., 1986. An MGM release,www.mgm.com.
David Lynch once told me that I would be astonished by the number of changes that typically occur between script pages and screen as he makes his movies. “Really?” I doubted. Since I draft and redraft myself, why would I be surprised that he did too? Moreover, I had conducted a substantial number of candid and exclusive interviews with his principal collaborators for my first book about Lynch, The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood (1997), and I thought I knew the lay of the land, particularly about Blue Velvet (1986). But the new Blu-ray disc, which contains in its extras truly revelatory information about what landed on the cutting room floor, was an eye-opener for me, as I presume it will be for anyone interested in Lynch’s cinema.
For those who need a refresher about the narrative of Blue Velvet, the story concerns Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a young man from the small town of Lumberton, North Carolina, who is called home from college to help with the family hardware store after his father suffers a stroke. What seems like a hiatus in his education turns into a stunning new route to insight into the human condition when, after finding a severed ear in a vacant lot on his way home from visiting his father in the hospital, he becomes involved in a police investigation. As Jeffrey is drawn deeper and deeper into unofficially investigating the mystery of the ear and the violence surrounding its appearance in the grass, crawling with ants, he is initiated into dark levels of human nature that puzzle and terrify him.
The route by which the boy becomes a man is dependent in part on the story, the characterizations, the acting, and the editing, but the lion’s share of the work is performed by the impact on audience nerves and senses of Lynch’s startling visuals and his innovative and memorable sound design. Thus the challenge is even more important than it is in most cases for a home-theater system to reproduce images and sounds with the most fidelity possible. The Blu-ray technology of this new disc is a thrilling improvement over every previous technology for viewing of Blue Velvet on home screens. It provides an image of the billowing blue velvet drapes in the main title so crisp that it is almost a three-dimensional experience. It also reproduces with exciting fidelity the range of saturated and desaturated color that Lynch uses in different scenes to create the mood and tone that brings the audience emotionally, and often viscerally, into Jeffrey’s experience of the attractions of the darker side of sexuality and his successful struggle to rise above his basest urges. The sound too receives an upgrade, a boon for those who are excited by Lynch’s trailblazing work in this area.
While the Blu-ray upgrading of sound and visual reproduction on this disc will be of principal interest for some cinephiles, many will be even more fascinated by the scenes that Lynch deleted from the final cut of the film, which are made available for the first time among the extras—as Lynch says, they “once were lost and now are found.” The lost scenes do not reveal any significant alterations in narrative events. Rather they show a sharp change in mood produced by their removal. They also allow us an insight into how considerations about mood dominate Lynch’s filmmaking and how much work is required for the virtuosity he makes look easy. The mood of the finished film is mysterious, the tone created by an elliptical style of narrative. The ellipses and discontinuities in Blue Velvet allow us to experience life as Jeffrey does, as a young man who at first sees only partial surface appearances around him, and is completely unacquainted with what lies beneath aspects of Lumberton life that are not immediately visible. Many suppose that Lynch never thinks about traditional cinematic storytelling. But the lost scenes show otherwise. They were his first attempt to tell Jeffrey’s story, and, if they had remained in the film, they would have eradicated many of the ellipses.
The lost scenes would have spelled out for the audience much that is unknowable, or at least highly ambiguous, in the film’s final cut. These details range from the peripheral to the crucial. For example, in the finished film, there is an indecipherable aura of passivity around Jeffrey’s mother, who is almost irrelevant to the plot but is a meaningfully defining aspect of the environment from which Jeffrey has emerged. The lost scenes explicitly—and comically—depict her as a hypochondriac, and their specificity trivializes her. Trivialization would also have been the consequence of including in the film a number of ultimately discarded scenes that show Jeffrey’s oblivious and clumsy behavior with women while he is away at college, which render him more a misfit geek of the Woody Allen variety than the young man filled with longing and desire that he turned out to be. It is only because these scenes were excised that the audience is flooded by an indeterminate atmosphere of a middle-class society in denial, permitting a poetic apprehension of Jeffrey’s confusion about the similarities he discovers between himself and a sadistic drug dealer named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). As he pursues his investigation, Jeffrey, to his great consternation and surprise, gets involved in violent, erotic behavior with Frank’s mistress, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), behavior which is highly reminiscent of Frank himself.
The atmosphere that emerges once the deleted scenes are gone changes everything. Sandy Williams (Laura Dern)—a police detective’s daughter and Jeffrey’s ultimate romantic interest, who encourages Jeffrey to disobey her father’s warning that he must leave everything to the police—tells Jeffrey she doesn’t know if he’s a detective or a pervert. That lingering sense that Jeffrey’s discoveries are prompted by a perplexing combination of his own base impulses and his higher determination to seek knowledge, as well as the strangely blurred divisions between “bad” and “good” Lumberton, is what lifts Blue Velvet above the ordinary run of detective films. The comedy that remains in the film seasons the angst and fear of Jeffrey’s adventures in an interesting way. But the film would not have been, as Amy Taubin described Lynch’s work inThe Village Voice, a hypodermic to the subconscious if it had been filled with the large number of lightly comic, all too detailed scenes that were expunged.
Some, seeing these newly available scenes, will be tempted to use them to fill in the blanks and make Lynch more legible. But the problem of legibility is crucial to Lynch’s art. He doesn’t believe that logical clarity is simple, or, in many cases, possible. We know most potently, as Lynch sees it, through a deeper means of apprehension tapped by images. My experience of over twenty years of interviews with Lynch convinces me that it was only after consideration of the failure of a more conventional storytelling method that Lynch abandoned the deleted scenes, not as a calculated ploy to make us guess about Mrs. Beaumont’s hypochondria or Jeffrey’s geekiness, but because the truth about these characters was much better conveyed through certain key, wordless images than by the omitted dialogue scenes. Ultimately, these extras tell us that Lynch achieved his signature filmmaking approach through a process of experimentation that made clear to him that the mood of Jeffrey’s mother could not be simply explained. Similarly, the original explicit depiction of Jeffrey’s geekiness detracted from audience understanding of a young man who wants more than “good” society permits him.
The deleted scenes arguably show that Lynch, who was just at the beginning of his career as a filmmaker, was still testing words, the mode preferred by Hollywood filmmakers, and found them wanting. My guess is that his discovery of how the discarded scenes reduced his characters to clichés reinforced his preference, displayed abundantly in Eraserhead, for images over words, and that his experience making Blue Velvet was part of an ongoing development toward his use of difficult, increasingly original images as a storyteller. There was, of course, a price for these deletions. Along with the oversimplifications Lynch erased from Blue Velvet, he also dropped most of the wonderfully comic performance of Frances Bay as Jeffrey’s ditzy Aunt Barbara. Happily, the Blu-ray extras restore those scenes to us without obstructing Lynch’s film.
The disc also contains a good “Making of Blue Velvet” featurette, which differentiates itself from the usual infomercial quality of that kind of extra. The interviews with Lynch, producer Fred Caruso, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, cinematographer Fred Elmes, and editor Duwayne Dunham are not perfunctory publicity efforts, but conversations that really give new information and insights into the production. One of the revelations that will be most exciting to Lynch aficionados is what Fred Elmes has to say about the fake-looking robin holding an insect in its beak which appears at the end of the film and has been a source of confusion to many. Elmes doesn’t explain why Lynch places a seemingly unreal image at the film’s “happy ending,” but he provides some tantalizing background. Lynch insisted to me that the robin was real, and what Elmes says in the featurette has helped me to understand that Lynch wasn’t lying despite the fact that the motion of the robin was obviously accomplished using almost invisible strings. If that sounds like a deliberate tease on my part, it is. The answer to this paradox is on the disc.
I was even more thunderstruck by Angelo Badalamenti’s disclosure that Lynch had at first been insistent on using “Song to the Siren” (by This Mortal Coil) for the Jeffrey/Sandy love theme. We learn that Lynch couldn’t afford the rights to it and since his own services were more affordable, he wrote the theme himself, the lyrical “Mysteries of Love,” which characterizes Jeffrey’s partnership with Sandy by evoking a happy, fulfilled attraction that contrasts sharply with Jeffrey’s sado-masochistic relationship with Dorothy. Lynch’s preference for “Song to the Siren” is puzzling, since it connotes a very different emotional engagement. Later, he used it effectively as the theme music in Lost Highway for protagonist Fred Madison’s impossible passion for his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), and her double, Alice (Patricia Arquette). It would seem that Lynch’s first choice of a song filled with pain and the impossibility of satisfaction would have defeated his characterization of Sandy and Jeffrey as happy lovers, had he been able to buy the rights. Would he have eventually discarded it and written “Mysteries of Love” anyway? Or would “Song to the Siren” have led him to change the direction of Blue Velvet?
In addition to these mysteries, there are some interesting omissions in some of the interviews in the “making of” featurette. What struck me about the interview with Duwayne Dunham is a contradiction between what he says here and what he said when I interviewed him in 1994. At that time, he confessed that he didn’t understand anything about the film, and just did what Lynch asked, even though he found Lynch’s ideas to be very much against everything he had been taught about “correct” film editing. In the featurette, he suggests otherwise, but perhaps in the intervening years he has had time to learn more about the film. Similarly, Isabella Rossellini’s overly sunny description of Lynch’s happy personality and character seems to me to be somewhat at odds with both my own observations of a much more complex man and what a number of other people told me about their experiences with him. Rossellini’s understandable desire to protect her personal life, however, may well account for this, and what she says strikes me as completely true as far as it goes.
The technical improvement for home viewing of Blue Velvet on the new Blu-ray disc is a major advance in making available a good reproduction of Lynch’s accomplished and thrilling film. That would have been more than enough to justify its existence. But the extras provide an additional pleasure, granting us a way to puzzle over Lynch’s intriguing composition process, whether or not we agree, as I do, with Lynch’s conclusions about his best approach to cinematic narrative.
Martha P. Nochimson is the author of The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood (University of Texas Press, 1997). Her second book about Lynch, David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty From Lost Highway to Inland Empire, will be published by the University of Texas Press at the end of 2012.
To purchase Blue Velvet, click here.
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.