It's testament to David Lynch's resilience that after the worst experience of his career, he returned to the screens with his masterpiece: the surreal neo-noir Blue Velvet. And it's an even greater testament to his charisma that he did so with the same producer who took a bath on Dune.
There's a moment about halfway through Blue Velvet when Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini) turns up on the lawn of Jeffrey's girlfriend Sandy (Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern respectively), bruised and distraught and naked, painfully naked. As he looks on in horror and the school jocks who had been harrassing the couple ridicule him, Dorothy cries 'He put his disease in me!' It is a moment of horror, and pain, and also - let's admit it - grotesque humour. I mean could the date have gone any worse?
Freud once said that a nightmare is just a fantasy you can't admit to yourself and Lynch's vision is a queasy mixture of the two. College student, Jeffrey Beaumont is called back to his home town when his father suffers a stroke. Lumberton is a Norman Rockwell vision of such super normality it's actually weird. I mean the town is really obsessed with cutting wood. There are wood motifs everywhere and the radio show use the sound of a chainsaw as part of its jingle. This is probably part of Lynch's memory of his father who worked for the forestry and agriculture authorities. Jeffrey is not particularly bored, other than obviously being upset by his father's health problems but while crossing a field he finds an ear and promptly takes it to the local policeman who offers drily 'Yes, that's a human ear alright.' The policeman's daughter Sandy - who is still at high school - flirts with Jeffrey and reveals that the case has something to do with Dorothy, a nightclub singer who lives in a building nearby. The geography of the small town begins to become clear: the idealized home, the school and hardware store are the daytime versions of Lumberton but the night belongs to industrial wastelands, apartment buildings, brothels and nightclubs.
And here things start to get weird. Playing detective, Jeffrey plots to sneak into Dorothy's apartment, hide and observe. The obvious voyeuristic intent bubbles under the surface in the same way the insects scurry and feast beneath the innocent green of the lawn. Sandy can naively go along with the adventure but only because she also has fantasies of her own, partly regarding Jeffrey, but also to do with an apocalyptic vision of the triumph of goodness. This means that despite her uber-conventional bobby-socker look she is something of a visionary, able to forgive Jeffrey's obvious infidelity. But as with freedom, our fantasy ends where other people's fantasies begin and so Jeffrey finds himself part of a violent menage a trois with Dorothy and local psychopath Frank, played by Dennis Hopper. In his autobiography Room to Dream, Lynch describes a phone call with Hopper in which the eccentric actor, who was now clean and sober, enthused about the part, saying he could play Frank because he was Frank. Lynch replied that it was both very good news and at exactly the same time very bad news.
It is quickly revealed that Frank has kidnapped Dorothy's husband and son and is using them to force Dorothy to participate in his own sexual fantasy. This is a complicated psychodrama in which Frank switches from brutal, foul mouthed and violent patriarch to whining babyish child, begging for his 'mommy' and obsessed with Dorothy's vagina. This has little to do with the conventional sex act. When he rapes Dorothy, it is a cartoonishly fast moment that almost immediately ends in his orgasm. Dorothy is likewise fragmented. Forced to play obedient slave, who is not allowed to make eye contact with Frank, she has to then play nurturing mother. With Jeffrey, she embarks on something like a love affair but one which starts with her asserting her dominance, fellating him while holding a large knife. This too is rape. Later, she will demand that Jeffrey hit her during sex and so her status as a victim becomes further complicated. Is this a woman who is playing the victim? Does this make her complicit with her abuse? She is - after all - literally asking for it.
As the film goes on the situation bleeds out into Lumberton more generally as Frank meets Jeffrey and takes his 'neighbor' on a road trip with Dorothy. This involves a trip to a brothel run by Dean Stockwell who lip-syncs to Roy Orbison's In Dreams. Frank's darkness, fuelled by his use of narcotics and unimpeded libido, ends with him beating up Jeffrey. As is ever the case with Lynch's films, there is a very stark moral choice. Am I going to be a good person? in the Elephant Man is now replaced with 'Why do there have to be people like Frank?' Why does evil exist in the world? And more subtly, how involved are we in that evil? How does that evil marry with our own desires, our own hidden fantasies?
I had a friend at school who knew Frank's part word for word. He found Frank funny: 'A ride? What a wonderful idea!' and 'Heineken, fuck that shit!' were frequent quotes. There's a masculine power trip in there. Someone who does what they want regardless of the cost, fulfills his desire and then tearfully pleads to be comforted. As Lynch said, Hopper's embodiment is both very good news and at exactly the same time very bad news. Blue Velvet is seductive and repulsive, revolting and sexy, funny and dark. If it doesn't disturb you, then there is something seriously wrong with you. It lip syncs film noir convention in an uncertain period with a logic that is halfway between sleeping and waking. In short, an American masterpiece.