Boy, did the usually great Roger Ebert drop the ball on this one.
I find that his review on his website to be a good starting point for my own. Specifically, I need to look at Ebert’s final quote: “What’s worse, slapping somebody around, or sitting back and finding the whole thing funny?”
Well, Mr Ebert, I do not hear David Lynch laughing. In fact, I have never known anyone to laugh at Frank Booth. OK, maybe some drunken frat boys who sit in the back of the film class quote the Pabst Blue Ribbon line. But that is not the fault of David Lynch. I really feel that Ebert was merely uncomfortable with the whole idea of Frank as a character. But that is the point of the film. Frank needs to be that evil. He needs to be that repulsive. Or else there is no point.
The film is about a young man named Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle McLaughlin) who returns from college after he gets a call about his Dad being in the hospital. While walking behind his house, he discovers a severed human ear. Intrigued, he takes it to the police and they tell him not to become involved. He is too curious, and his curiosity leads him to Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini) and the sinister Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
Why does Frank need to be so impossibly evil? Because the town he inhabits is so impossibly perfect. Lynch tried his best to create a world that does not appear to exist within the confines of any time (I would guess the 1950s, but a cassette is shown-in the possession of Frank). Everyone in the town is smiling. Bobby Vinton plays in the air. And then Frank comes along. His sheer evil is in such contrast to this town. When Jeffery tearfully asks why there are men like Frank, the audience is forced to ponder the same question. Frank is more than just an antagonist. He is a villain in the truest sense of the word. He makes the protagonist question themselves. “You’re like me” he tells Jeffery. And we almost believe him. We get the sense it would not take much to transform Jeffery (or anyone) into Frank.
How on earth is that humorous? That is one of the most frightening revelations in film. And that is what the film is ultimately about. It is not merely about the darkness in a small town. It is about the duality of the world. Wherever there is evil, good exists. Wherever there is good, evil exists. Simple, but effective.
“It’s a strange world” the characters remark. Never, ever is it “It’s a strange town.”
And nothing is actually stranger in the film than the relationship between Dorothy Valens and Jeffery. Dorothy uses Jeffery to engage in a sexual relationship to feel closer to her husband (who has been kidnapped). Of course, Frank has warped her. She actually wants Jeffery to hit him. She repeats the command several times. Jeffery is disturbed, but still wants Dorothy to love him. What can he do? It is the problem every young lover faces. They explore all sorts of sexual acts. Inevitably they run across a person who has done more than them. It frightens them.
That’s what Lynch is best at. Creating fear. And that is why Lynch is so celebrated. He creates fear. But it is not merely his disturbing images. It is the reminder that we have all visited his world at one point or another. We have all tried to be rebellious. We have all been curious. And sometimes, we must pay for it. Sometimes, we will not like what we find. Maybe it is enough to make anyone uncomfortable. Is that why Ebert squirmed so much in his review? Perhaps. Although the less I know about Ebert’s private life and puberty, the happier I will probably be.
I know this has been an overly emotional review. But that’s merely how the film works. Listen to the score and tell me I am wrong. Logically, it has some flaws. The dialogue can be…I would call it atrocious, but I never became annoyed or embarrassed with it. But it’s all about context. Example: the millions of robins speech. Out of context, it may register as camp. In context (from the lighting, to the staging, to Angelo Badalmanti’s music) it works wonders. Lynch is about the whole, never the parts. Hmm…could this be why he utterly disdains chapters on DVDs? It would make sense. But Lynch remains the master at playing with audience’s emotions. If Hitchcock said that audiences must be played like pianos, then here Lynch is playing the Moonlight Sonata.
Blue Velvet is the best thing that David Lynch will ever make. It is better than Mulholland Dr, better than its TV show spin off (which, lets be honest, Twin Peaks is) and it’s better than Eraserhead. Why? Because it is more accessible. Many will find that statement controversial. But then again, how artistic can something be if no one knows what the director is talking about? I am not saying that Eraserhead was completely impenetrable. It was actually quite a good way to express the feelings of a middle aged man. But it was still missing its human element. Blue Velvet has that. It is a sort of fable of sexual awakening, a loving tribute to film noir, and a perfect examination of the duality of the modern world.