After finding a severed human ear in a field, a young man soon discovers a sinister underworld lying just beneath his idyllic suburban home town.
"Now it's dark."
Prior to 1986, David Lynch had one of the strangest and most improbable career trajectories of anyone working in the film industry. As a young man, Lynch studied to be an abstract artist. He only took interest in film as a medium in which to make his paintings and sculptures move. His early works as a filmmaker ranged from the surreal cult horror oddity 'Eraserhead', to the stately historical drama 'The Elephant Man' (which earned him critical respect and an Oscar nomination), to the mega-budget science fiction epic 'Dune'. I will defend the latter to the end (it's my favorite movie), but the film was a critical and commercial disaster that appeared to signal the end of David Lynch as a director. He has often cited production of 'Dune' as one of the worst experiences of his life. However, despite that failure, Lynch negotiated with producer Dino De Laurentiis to make one more, low-budget movie for which he would have total artistic control. The result was 'Blue Velvet', one of the most challenging and controversial films of the 1980s, and a genuine masterpiece.
In many respects, 'Blue Velvet' is David Lynch's mission statement as a filmmaker. After barely surviving the backlash against 'Dune', Lynch buckled down to write a script that would encompass his views as a storyteller and his peculiar fascinations as an artist. On its surface level, the movie is an engrossing murder mystery. After returning home from college to visit his ailing father, young Jeffrey Beaumont ('Dune' star Kyle MacLachlan) stumbles upon a severed human ear in a field. Fascinated by this discovery, he enlists the help of a police detective's daughter, the wholesome girl-next-door Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), to investigate a third-rate lounge singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) who appears to be connected to the case. For Jeffrey and Sandy, this starts out as an exciting and fun Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mystery come to life. However, the more they learn about Vallens and the people around her, the more dark and disturbing secrets they discover about their seemingly-idyllic small town, and the more Jeffrey has to question his own motivations for pursuing the matter. As Sandy says to him at one point, "I don't know if you're a detective or a pervert." Ultimately, Jeffrey himself isn't sure.
This is the sort of thing that Hitchcock would have a field day with, and Lynch isn't afraid at all to embrace that connection. In the movie's signature scene, a snooping Jeffrey hides in Dorothy's closet and voyeuristically watches through the slats of the door as she is abused by the film's villain, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper in a career-defining performance). It could be a moment out of 'Rear Window' or 'Vertigo', until Lynch spins the scene into pure nightmare. Frank is a horrifying monster of unbridled id. His torture and rape of Dorothy is brutal and still uncomfortable to watch even decades later. Even at his most envelope-pushing (such as the graphic murders in 'Frenzy'), Hitchcock never went, or probably even dreamed of going, anywhere near this far. The physical and sexual degradation on display is further trumped by the psychological implications. While he watches, Jeffrey is not only helpless to do anything to stop the abuse, he finds himself turned on by it, and doesn't know what to do with those feelings. Most distressing of all is Dorothy's own reaction, which divided critics of the day into those who hailed the film as the work of an uncompromising visionary, and those who decried it as repugnant misogyny.
In narrative terms, 'Blue Velvet' is one of the most linear and comprehensible of Lynch's works. The mystery has a clear solution with a coherent beginning, middle and end, and a satisfying payoff. (That isn't necessarily the case with many of the director's later films.) Nonetheless, once you dig beneath the surface a little, it's a profoundly strange movie. It's both a thriller (a very harrowing, nightmarish one) and a satire of small town Americana, filled with surreal affectations and deadpan performances. It's an homage to classic film noir and to 1950s melodrama. It's goody-two-shoes wholesome on the one hand, and violently depraved on the other. The script overflows with hilariously perverse dialogue. ("Here's to your fuck, Frank.") Lynch somehow manages to be both ironic and unironic at the same time. He believes that the world is a deeply dysfunctional place, but he also truly believes in the ultimate, seemingly naïve message of the piece, that love can triumph and goodness can save the world.
'Blue Velvet' is the work of an artist with a distinct and unique voice. The film is as much about texture as it is about story or theme. Lynch obsesses over and luxuriates in details such as the velvet curtains swaying in the breeze behind the opening credits, the careful sculpting of light and color around Dorothy in the night club, and of course the famously metaphor-laden opening scene. These details tell the story as much as the dialogue does, and help to create a fully-realized world that extends beyond the confines of the plot.
While the film was only a modest box office success, it caused a critical sensation upon its release. It was equally celebrated and excoriated by reviewers. Depending on whom you listened to, it was either one of the best films of the decade, or one of the worst ever made. New Yorker firebrand Pauline Kael famously championed the picture, while Roger Ebert railed against it as one of his most hated movies of all time. Eventually, 'Blue Velvet' earned Lynch his second Academy Award nomination, and has gone on to be recognized as one of the most daring and important films to come out of the 1980s.
"It's a strange world, isn't it?"
MGM Home Entertainment (via distributor 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) has issued 'Blue Velvet' as a 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray disc. The case art is based on the original theatrical poster, but perverted with an ugly blue tint over the actors, as if someone at the studio took the title too literally.
The disc has no main menu screen. It begins playback of the movie immediately upon insertion into a Blu-ray player. While that may sound like a good idea to some, it becomes a real nuisance when sorting through the setup options and bonus features on the disc.
"Get undressed. I want to see you."
MGM's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer for 'Blue Velvet' looks very good indeed. The 2.35:1 image is perhaps a little soft, but that's a common characteristic of other movies shot by cinematographer Frederick Elmes and may be a deliberate stylistic decision. The movie has a few scenes with camera focus issues, but that's obviously not a problem with the disc transfer. The picture otherwise has a fairly good sense of detail and filmic texture. I don't think I'd ever noticed in previous viewings that Jeffrey wears a small earring in his left ear throughout the entire movie. Some light film grain is present. It's unobtrusive, and doesn't appear to be tampered with by any unwanted filtering.
Colors and contrast are both strong. There has been no revisionist color timing imposed on the film here. (This isn't suddenly 'Teal Velvet'.) I've read complaints that dark scenes exhibit black crush for some viewers, but I didn't find that to be the case. While this is frequently a dark movie, and some scenes are intentionally designed to fall off into darkness, shadow detail is present when it's supposed to be.
Early scenes in the movie have a couple of strange visual anomalies. During the first scene after the opening credits sequence, starting with the pan down to the picket fence at time code 1:48 all the way through to the beetles, two very small glare spots appear just to the left of the screen center. Were those caused by an optical flaw in the lens used to shoot the scene, or a problem with the film-to-video transfer? I can't know for sure. In any case, they go away with the cut to the Lumberton sign at 3:55 and don't reappear again.
In the scene where Jeffrey finds the ear, around time code 5:40, a bizarre pinstripe pattern appears in the sky. The lines are mostly vertical, very slightly slanted to the left. A few seconds later, a horizontal crosshatch is also visible. Although I don't currently have the DVD edition available for comparison, a friend of mine checked his copy and tells me that the same pattern is visible there (though fainter). I've watched and rewatched this scene numerous times, and I'm honestly not sure whether this is a digital transfer artifact or something that occurred during the photography. The pattern seems to move with the camera. It's possible that this may be caused by some sort of patterned filter over the lens to soften the lighting. (At one time, it was a common photography trick to stretch nylon stockings over a camera lens to create a diffusion effect.) Of course, such a filter shouldn't actually be visible to the viewer. The pattern is not present in the earlier scene at time code 4:30 that takes place at the same location and was presumably shot at the same time. Whatever this is, it's strange, but it's brief and it doesn't happen again anywhere else in the movie.
"Yes, that's a human ear, all right."
'Blue Velvet' originally played theatrically in Dolby Stereo sound. For the 2002 Special Edition DVD release, David Lynch personally remixed the audio into 5.1. That mix has been encoded here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format. However, it must be noted that Lynch also developed an aversion to surround sound over the last decade. Like many Lynch-approved 5.1 mixes, the Blu-ray soundtrack is actually only 3.1. If there's any surround activity at all in the movie, I didn't notice it. The back channels are silent.
Once you accept that, the soundtrack otherwise has good distinction and musicality in Angelo Badalamenti's score, and very good clarity in Alan Splet's sound design. This was the first time I'd ever noticed that when Jeffrey asks the blind man how many fingers he's holding up, you can faintly hear the man's friend tapping four times on his back. Attentive Lynch fans will recognize many auditory similarities between 'Blue Velvet' and 'Dune'. Subtle details like the sound of wind in Dorothy's apartment, or the mechanical, industrial sounds in the bad parts of town, are crucial to Lynch's vision. The 'Blue Velvet' soundtrack is fascinating to listen to.
The musical score and occasional sounds such as revving car engines deliver a moderate amount of bass, but the low end dynamics don't extend too deeply. This is not a bass junkie's soundtrack. There's a lot of yelling and screaming in the movie. Some of those scenes sound to me like they clip and distort a little on the high end, but this isn't too distracting of a problem.
"There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience."
The Blu-ray edition carries over the majority of bonus features from the 2002 Special Edition DVD release. David Lynch is not a fan of audio commentaries, and has not recorded one for this movie.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
"Goddamn, you are one suave fucker!"
The Blu-ray has a couple of new exclusive features, and they're pretty significant.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
The 2002 Special Edition DVD included a photo gallery and at least one easter egg (a Julee Cruise music video) that didn't make their way to the Blu-ray. These don't sound like significant losses.
"I have your disease in me now."
After a rollercoaster of an early career, from respected Oscar nominee to helmer of one of the most notorious flops in motion picture history, David Lynch finally established his voice as an auteur with 'Blue Velvet'. The controversial film remains his masterpiece, and one of the greatest movies of the 1980s… unless you're Roger Ebert, in which case it's a giant pile of crap. MGM's Blu-ray edition looks and sounds damn fine, and includes nearly an hour of newly-discovered deleted footage. Aside from a disappointing technical glitch with the documentary on the disc, this is one of the best Blu-rays of the year. Highly recommended.