We dream throughout our lives, many times over, but what we remember are the nightmares. They manage to sear themselves into our minds for the rest of time, terrifying us, taking us back to that unpleasant place by merely thinking about them. I was in a coma for three weeks after a terrible car accident in 2001 which left me close to death, and while in that state of half death I had horrible nightmares that have never left me. They tell me the dreams were a by-product of the intense pain and the morphine, and they remain as real to me as writing this article, but I know they were just dreams. Through my life I have had many fine dreams, but its the nightmares that I remember best.
David Lynch’s haunting Blue Velvet (1986) is a dream of a film — more of a nightmare. A surrealistic journey through the hell which exists underneath the clear blue sky, the white picket fences and impossibly red fire trucks of a small town. Children waving at the firemen, beautiful flowers, and suddenly a man watering his lawn grabs his neck and collapses to the ground, taking us to the ground with him and below the surface of the green grass to show us the rot and bugs that live below what we see. In that scene we learn what the film is showing us metaphorically. Lynch shows us the America that people wished they lived in, while also showing us the other side of America — which is not to say America is horrible but there are unpleasant aspects that certainly are as they are in any country.
Critics were divided on the film when it was released. Roger Ebert famously hated the film, taking to the talk show circuit to tell people how much he held the film in disdain, claiming the director exploited the women in his cast, while others understood they were adults, capable of making their own choices. Many other film critics hailed the film a masterpiece, and indeed it was an award winner, taking Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor (Dennis Hopper) from the esteemed National Society of Film Critics. When the Los Angeles Film Critics handed out their annual prizes, Lynch was named Best Director with Hopper taking Best Supporting Actor. It seemed to pave the way to attention from the Academy, yet the film received just a single nomination, for Best Director. However the greater omission was Dennis Hopper for supporting actor, an astounding snub as the actor gave a ferocious performance as the villain. In fact Hopper’s performance might be the single greatest supporting performance ever given, a charismatic, entirely evil man, who gets a heightened enjoyment from his acts of violence when he is on drugs or inhaling nitrous oxide from a small tank he keeps on his hip. Intensely focused, Hopper is terrifying, his eyes burning a hole into whoever he looks at and when he beats the hero after kissing him repeatedly, his eyes ablaze, we feel we have seen the personification of evil.
“In dreams I walk with you” he tells Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachan), the hero of the film, who he has taken on a joy ride. One of their stops is at the home of Ben (Dean Stockwell), dressed like a talk show host of the fifties, a cigarette holder in his hand, excessively polite to his guests and referred to as “so fucking suave”. Ben takes a light used for working on cars, clicks it on and lip synchs to Roy Orbison’s In Dreams, watching the drugs hit Frank, watching the madness set in. It is one of the most bizarre sequences in the film, yet one I defy anyone to look away from seeing. It hooks you, pulls you into the world of Blue Velvet and never lets you out.
Jeffery comes home when his father suffers a stroke, and one day while walking through a field finds a human ear. Deciding to investigate things on his own he comes across a kidnapping, and spies one night on the woman who has lost her husband and son to an insane drug addict, Frank Booth. While Jeffery watches from the woman’s closet, Frank rapes Dorothy (Isabella Rosellini), brutally, before leaving her alone. She discovers Jeffery in her closet and they become lovers, though he is frightened when she asks him to hit her, but he does nonetheless. When Frank finds them together he takes him on a joyride, and beats him within an inch of his life, which should drive Jeffrey away but only spurs him on.
The film is a startling achievement, an alarming work as it gently pulls us into this nightmare world and then will not let us loose. The performances of Rosellini, Hopper, Kyle MacLachan, Laura Dern and Dean Stockwell are tremendously good, though it is Hopper and Stockwell you will not forget. Suave, so immaculately suave.