PRINT April 2003


1986: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet

WHEN I WAS ATTEMPTING to learn to think, the idea of “the figure in the carpet” was standard critical fare. In the Henry James story of that name, a novelist gaily disses a young critic’s review, then explains that critics have always “missed my little point . . . an idea in my work [that] stretches . . . from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it.” Fascinated by this (ultimately undiscoverable) “general intention,” the critic imagines it as “something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet”—a pattern so deeply embedded in the art’s fiber as to be invisible, but informing the whole thing.

David Lynch’s 1986 movie Blue Velvet quite trashes that model. Everything’s up on the surface; the figure in the carpet is so explicit that to decipher is redundant. In fact, Blue Velvet recalls what the theorist Dick Hebdige, extrapolating from ’80s thinkers like Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson, once called “flatness”: the sense that reality has been overtaken by appearances, which in turn “can no longer be said to mask, conceal, distort or falsify reality.” Superevidence is manifest from the film’s first sequence (with its white-white fence, blue-blue sky, red-red roses, and yellow-yellow tulips, a primary palette vacated of life’s pastels) to its last, where the sign of catharsis is an obviously mechanical robin. (The director might as well be Ed Wood.) Illusion announced as illusion is an old trope, but Lynch doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as make fiction global. Sans masks and concealment, no figure in the carpet is possible—meaning the end to an entire paradigm of art and audience response.

Entendres too literal to be double dot Blue Velvet’s dialogue. Want to signal that the hero’s sexuality is still emergent? Have a woman tell him, “I looked for you in my closet tonight”—when he really has hidden there earlier on, short-circuiting the metaphoric. Or have him tell a friend, “You’re a neat girl,” only to hear her reply, “So are you—I mean, you’re a neat guy.” Blue Velvet’s symbols, particularly the Freudian ones, are too overt to be symbolic. You remember the plot: Young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed ear in his nice little hometown, then enters a dangerous underworld of kidnap, rape, and murder. Fine—but the family romance is everywhere. Mother, father, daddy, baby, Momma loves you—the words are on everyone’s lips. The notorious scene in which Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) forces sex on Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) while inhaling an unnamed gas begins with her “Hello, baby”—to which he replies, “It’s daddy, you shithead.” Yet two minutes later he is calling her “mommy,” and saying of himself, “Baby wants to fuck!” And when Dorothy—whom Jeffrey has been sleeping with—turns up, naked and battered, on his lawn, a high school rival asks him, “Is that your mother?”

Blue Velvet is the first movie I remember that seemed tailor-made for both postmodernist theorists and a popular audience. It played it both ways: No matter how depthless its surfaces, and despite its coy comedy of banality, the film was riveting, unsafe. Hopper’s Frank is a terrifying villain—violent, obsessed, the prisoner of his fetishes. And Rossellini’s nude scenes defied the Hollywood norm: Her body was bulgy and pale. No doubt she could have put in some gym and beach time before the shoot (as MacLachlan presumably did; Lynch plays knowingly with his hyperconventional good looks and toned physique), but she and Lynch preferred ordinary vulnerability to movie-star sleekness. Blue Velvet enacted a return of the repressed: Dancing in a world of simulacra, it simultaneously communicated deep and frightening feeling. And how did it do this? Through acting! The thing becomes a hall of mirrors. A great movie of the ’80s, Blue Velvet both reflected the changes we sensed at the time and allowed us a way to feel real.

A contributing editor of Artforum, where he served as an editor from 1981 to 1995, David Frankel is senior editor in the Department of Publications at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.