Blue Velvet: David Lynch's Cinematic Fever Dream Turns 30

The lukewarm tapioca voice of Bobby Vinton descends from the heavens and touches down on a suburban landscape filled with lush green lawns, glowing red roses, white picket fences and smiling firemen who look like they could have been scraped straight off a Norman Rockwell canvas. It is 1986. Reagan is president. It is morning in America. And daddy is here.
Unfortunately, daddy is not the stereotypical father figure of a 1950s sitcom who comes home from a long day at work, loosens his tie and lovingly proclaims "Honey, I'm home" as he plants a warm peck on the left cheek of his loving wife. Instead we get the amyl nitrate-inhaling, ear-slicing sadomasochist Frank Booth who bursts through the door, pulls an oxygen mask from his red, sweaty face and snarls like a rabid, frothing dog at Dorothy Vallens, a broken, submissive and terrified nightclub chanteuse "it's Daddy, you shithead! Where's my bourbon?"
Morning in America has broken.
30 years ago David Lynch exposed the dark underbelly of the American Dream in nightmarish keys that F. Scott Fitzgerald would never dare hit. Lynch's twisted journey begins with quirky teen Jeffery Beaumont, stumbling upon a disembodied maggot filled ear. The bloodied severed auricle Beaumont discovers is not just a bloody appendage it is akin to the notorious rabbit hole discovered by Alice a century earlier, an entryway into a surrealistic underworld. A world filled with gas-inhaling monsters, bruised, crooning, sexually violated damsels in distress, and fridges filled with Pabst Blue Ribbon.
To put into perspective how radical "Blue Velvet" was upon its initial release consider that the top two grossing films of 1986 were "Top Gun" and "Crocodile Dundee." While the most beloved films of 1986 contain mullets, Kenny Loggins musical montages and grinning knife-wielding Aussies that have kept them forever frozen inside the era "Blue Velvet" has remained ageless. We still can see Blue Velvet through our tears because it has never stopped being relevant. After all, what is Donald Trump but Frank Booth with a bad weave, spray tan, and a billion bucks?
The breeding, buzzing horrors lurking beneath the well-manicured lawns that Lynch dug up and shed a light on in 1986 have 30 years broken through to the surface and spread like a black toxic mold across the pop culture landscape from "Beverly Hills Housewives", to "Lock-Up Raw: Violence Behind Bars." Like Jeffery Beaumont peeping through the closet door with a mixture of horror and fascination as Frank Booth violently forces himself upon Dorothy Vallens we have become a nation of voyeurs gazing into an abyss that gazes unblinkingly back at us.
"I can't figure out if you're a detective or a pervert," Laura Dern's blue-eyed, blonde haired All-American girl-next-door Sandy tells Jeffery.
"Well, that's for me to know and you to find out," he coyly responds.
It turns out Jeffery is both detective and pervert - repulsed, intrigued and unable to peel himself away from the freshly discovered cruel, brutal and amoral underbelly he has stumbled into. He is a perfect mirror of our current TMZ-obsessed culture. A culture which can't restrain itself from peeking through the blinds at the naked celebrities, the gas-filled pundits and the videotaped beatings. To paraphrase Pogo "we have met the perverted and it is us".
With its nightmarish images of bondage and sexual abuse "Blue Velvet" became one of the most twisted, divisive and disturbing films of the 20th Century. Roger Ebert infamously chastised the film's powerful scenes of "stark sexual despair" for being cheapened by being surrounded "with a story that's marred by sophomoric satire and cheap shots. The director is either denying the strength of his material or trying to defuse it by pretending it's all part of a campy in-joke."
While Ebert's reaction is understandable to write the film off as a campy in-joke as Ebert does is to miss what separates and distinguishes Lynch's cinematic work from any other filmmaker this side of Fellini on capturing the subconscious on celluloid. Ebert's criticism fails to address is the extreme subconscious impact that Blue Velvet has on the viewer. Whether one admires or loathes the film it is inarguable that "Blue Velvet" one of those rare pieces of cinema that once viewed cannot be shaken or forgotten. It is also why the film endures. "Out of Africa" starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep may have won best picture over "Blue Velvet" in 1986 but it is "Blue Velvet" that still plays on and lingers within like the haunting melody from which it takes its' name.
In a film that has been described as "shocking" ad nauseum perhaps the most "shocking" thing about "Blue Velvet" is its' strain of hopeful romanticism. As much as "Blue Velvet" is a film about the damp insect-filled darkness that lurks beneath the superficial suburban surface it also acknowledges the rays of light breaking through the cracks. It is this balance that sets "Blue Velvet" light years apart from the one-note, mean-spirited pretentiousness of an "art-house" filmmaker like Todd Solondz. One of the last places one would expect to hear echoes of John Lennon's "Imagine" would be "Blue Velvet." But yet strains of Lennon's Utopian ode can be heard in Sandy's earnest exchange with Jeffery when she tells him:
"I had a dream . . . there was our world, and the world was dark because there weren't any robins and the robins represented love. And for the longest time, there was this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed that love would make any difference, and it did. So, I guess it means that there is trouble until the robins come."
30 years later we find ourselves surrounded by Kardashians, Trumps, and Freddie Grays and still patiently waiting for the robins to come.