What's a lazy person's surrealism? An incoherent artistic work, rationalized as that's what dreams are like. How erroneous! Dreams possess a fierce logic, and nightmares frighten us because what happens in them seems so persuasively real. For me, David Lynch's Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., often exhilarating, prove maddeningly frustrating by the end, in their wrecked plunge into obscurantism. What the hell is going on? In contrast, Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch's abiding masterwork, offers a story which, though a trancelike journey into the most eerie of netherworlds, somehow makes a crazy sense, beginning to end. Blue Velvet is, genuinely, the stuff dreams are made of.
Lynch starts with an old-fashioned, corny detective narrative. Jeff (Kyle MacLachlen), home from college, discovers a cut-off ear, and suspects a murder. He and a cute high-school girl, Sandy (Laura Dern), plot to uncover the hidden crime and solve it. It's Frank Hardy meets Nancy Drew, and, gee, what fun! Bypassing the police, a confident Jeff, checks out the apartment of a lounge singer, a purged-from-Oz Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini). He discovers that her child has been kidnapped. The Dali-esque ear? It's been sliced from the head of her husband, who is captive of Frank (a deliriously out-of-control Dennis Hopper), a drug addict and psychopath.
"Eagle Scout, Missoula, Montana" is how Lynch once identified himself in a four-word bio. In ways, he remains just that: a plucky, midwestern, merit-badge lad, and Jeff is, undeniably, Lynch's alter ego. (Maclachlen modeled his wardrobe on the straight-looking filmmaker, including a shirt stiffly buttoned to the top.) Jeff, just like Lynch, is obsessively drawn to mystery and the mysterious. His desire to solve a crime has nothing to do with a passion for justice: it's an excuse to peer at the Other Side, where the world is an alluringly rotten place, putrid with kinky sex and rancid violence. Here, crazy Frank lies between Dorothy's legs, chewing on a piece of blue velvet, punching Dorothy's face to her masochist delight. With fascination, Jeff watches all of this, hidden in a closet.
As Hitchcock's Rear Window, here is a film which implicates the filmmaker as the ultimate voyeur. Again and again, Jeff (as does Lynch's film) climbs the stairs to that apartment, where there's sordid sex, an often naked woman asking for it, and, finally, blood and death. In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart is turned on by women only when he can watch through his binoculars, spying that way on his perky girlfriend, Grace Kelly. Jeff not only likes to look, but he becomes a salivating participant, breaking the code of honorable detectives (Raymond Chandler's abstinent Marlowe, for instance) in sleeping with the chick he's investigating. Not only screwing her but finally, Frank-like, smashing her.
Do filmmakers have a perverse appetite for sex and violence? David Lynch is saying, you betcha.
A decade-and-a-half later, Isabella Rosselini's raw, damaged performance as Dorothy still seems one of the most vulnerable and courageous ever by an actress. Blue Velvet's greatest scene? I'm mad about that loony party at Ben's place, where Frank's epicene, lipsticked pal (Dean Stockwell) lipsynchs to Roy Orbison's "In Dreams."
Let's conclude with Blue Velvet's ending: Frank dead, his gang smashed by the police, Dorothy reunited with her child, Jeff and Sandy together, and a red, red robin sitting on the window sill. Fifteen years ago, I saw Lynch's finale as all irony, cynical as Bunuel. Now, I'm less sure, even with that robin chewing on a hapless insect. How about a mixed finish? Lynch, in an interview: "There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force - a wild pain and decay - accompanies everything."