David Lynch’s 1986 classic Blue Velvet is surreal, stilted, and perverse, but it’s also the movie where his career began to make sense. Up to that point, there’d been no comprehensible pattern to Lynch’s choices. He had one unclassifiably freaky midnight hit under his belt (1977’s Eraserhead), and two deeply strange work-for-hire projects (1980’s Oscar-nominated The Elephant Man and 1984’s mega-flop Dune), and given the limited opportunities that were available at the time for filmmakers with Lynch’s avant-garde sensibility, it was reasonable to expect that he’d keep taking quasi-commercial jobs that didn’t quite fit him for a few more years, until the movie business determined that he was too much of an eccentric, at which point Lynch would take a position as a film professor at some small northwestern liberal arts college and never be heard from again. But then came Blue Velvet, a mystery-thriller made on the cheap for Dino De Laurentiis as part of Lynch’s Dune deal. The mid-’80s were a boom-time for neo-noir, as well as a time when small, American-made art films were starting to break out beyond big cities, thanks in large part to the rise of the video store. In that context, Blue Velvet was practically commercial, even with all its kinky sex and overt abstractions.
The big selling point for the new Blue Velvet Blu-ray—beyond the Lynch-approved image and sound—is the 50 minutes of deleted scenes, removed from Lynch’s original four-hour cut of the film. Long thought lost, these scenes run the gamut from blandly expository to unapologetically crackpot, revealing the two directions that Lynch could’ve gone with Blue Velvet. The movie could’ve been a fairly straightforward Hitchcockian suspenser, as evidenced by excised scenes that show the hero’s voyeurism manifesting even before he comes home from college, and ones that show him trying to hide his more shameful nocturnal excursions from his mother. Or Blue Velvet could’ve been as odd as later Lynch films like Lost Highway and Inland Empire, judging by the aggressively unfunny comics and bland animal acts Lynch sticks into a nightmarish roadside nightclub, and by a scene where an old bluesman hoots about chasing a rabbit while topless women (including one with flaming nipples) dance around a pool table.
As it is, the two-hour Blue Velvet that Lynch actually released still baffled and outraged many. Even though it’s one of Lynch’s most plot-driven films—starring Kyle MacLachlan as seemingly straight-arrow college kid who discovers the seamy underbelly of a small lumber town while investigating the origins of a severed ear he finds in a vacant lot—it was sold as a sophisticated and sexy crime picture, like an artier Body Heat, which didn’t prepare some viewers for the artificiality of the set design and acting, or for Angelo Badalamenti’s sometimes-dreamy, sometimes-tinny soundtrack. Some too were bothered by Lynch’s treatment of Isabella Rossellini, who plays an abused nightclub singer who spends a lot of the movie either naked or begging to be beaten up (or both). Blue Velvet never really tries to justify the character’s self-destructive behavior; it can be read as the character trying to own her degradation, but odds are that Lynch never gave that much thought. He was looking to shock and disturb, not to come up with clean character arcs.
Twenty-five subsequent years of Lynch have made his methods more familiar, such that these days, what’s most surprising about Blue Velvet is that it tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end. In a way, that makes the movie even more subversive. Formally, Blue Velvet distills noir down to industrial hum and characters who look like they stepped out of a romance comic; and thematically, it reveals the dark sexuality beneath the surface blandness of stock types. Ultimately, Rossellini’s nudity and masochism aren’t about her; they’re about how MacLachlan feels when a scarred, bare Rossellini walks up to him in front of his prospective girlfriend and says, “Hold me.” The movie as a whole is less a riff on seedy detective movies than an extended consideration of the spaces where the neat streets of a middle-class neighborhood spill into the deep shadows of downtown, and whether it’s really possible to move easily between the two.
Key features: In addition to the deleted scenes, the Blu-ray repeats the special features from the special edition DVD, including an hourlong documentary on the making of the film, a few goofy outtakes, and a clip of Roger Ebert’s famously scathing At The Movies review.