In Lynch's 'Velvet,' the real is unreal

Times Staff Writer

When "Blue Velvet" was first released 20 years ago, the reviews were split and heated. Sides were taken over the question of authorial intent. Did David Lynch mean for audiences to laugh at his square-jawed, perky teenagers Jeffrey and Sandy, played by Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern? Or were the scales supposed to fall from our eyes along with theirs as they unearthed the unspeakable horrors lurking beneath the surface of their placid, all-American town? Considering that its horrors were so utterly horrifying, why should the Arcadian innocence of Lumberton seem so corny and funny and out of touch? And what did it mean that Dennis Hopper's sadistic, drug-addled Frank was funny too? Did Lynch have a point, or was he just trying to pass off a fancy visual style as substance?

Alighting on screens somewhere between "Back to the Future" and "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Blue Velvet" reflected -- or, rather, refracted -- the cloying, claustrophobic nostalgia for the 1950s that had overtaken the popular culture at the time, a nostalgia that would seem to stand for an impossible desire to go home again. But since his beginnings as a painter, Lynch has fixated on the idea of home as a dangerously fraught and vulnerable place. "The home," he has said, "is a place where things can go wrong." Thanks to the release of a 35-millimeter print that will be shown at Landmark's Nuart Theater for one week beginning today, we can take another good look at how, exactly.

In hindsight, since "Blue Velvet," Lynch has consistently returned to the same theme: In the postmodern era, reality and normality and truth have been supplanted by the pastiche of pop images and ideas that have come to stand for them. No wonder the kitschy picket fences, the technicolor lawns, the eugenically perfect roses, the impossibly corny fireman waving to the impossibly corny kids that kick off "Blue Velvet" ring so disturbingly false. They're anachronistic idealizations (the movie is set in the '80s, after all, despite its allusions to movie representations of the '50s). But the same thing goes for the flip side. The gleefully sadistic (and psychologically mysterious) gangsters and corrupt cops that swarm Lumberton's underbelly are no easier to peg than the benevolent aunts and mechanical robins that populate the town's surface. They do, however, raise a good question: The movies have entertained us with violence and degradation since their inception. Are we supposed to keep pretending that we only watch for the moral lessons?

A modest commercial hit, "Blue Velvet" nevertheless broke one of the basic conventions of Hollywood narrative: It pitted innocence against nightmarish corruption and refrained from telling us how to feel about it. (Jeffrey never sounds more laughably naive than when he tells the possibly corrupt detective, "Frank Booth is a sick and dangerous man," even though he's right.) And Lynch himself was no help. When, in an interview with Cineaste, he was asked if "everything in art has to have a meaning, a reason for being," the director replied, "I don't know what a lot of things mean." There are a lot of "things" in "Blue Velvet," and it's not easy to glean the meaning of all these memes when they're jumbled together. But two decades, five films, a seminal TV series and many Internet shorts later, it seems clear -- or clearer, anyway -- that Lynch's response was slightly less evasive than it sounds. The only reality that interests Lynch is subjective reality, and our tenuous grasp of it. Whether something is good, happy and pure, or dark, rotten and bad, depends entirely on who's doing the looking; how willing one is to cross illusory protective boundaries.

The fact is, Jeffrey's reality is too fake to be grounding and too fragile to be safe. (The perfect lawn is roiling with gruesome insects.) Nor is there a lesson to be extracted from his eventual walk on the wild side, since what happens there mirrors his basest, scariest desires. A dualistic battle of the B-genres, "Blue Velvet" pits the aggressive Cold War optimism of teeny-bopper fantasies against the postwar pessimism of film noir, challenging the ever-popular notion that things were good once, until they went to pot.

What's interesting about watching "Blue Velvet" 20 years after it was made is not that it finds us wallowing in the swampy nihilism of Frank Booth-land but that it finds us clinging to the fantasies of home, hearth and wholesomeness. We may be soaking in another reversion to idealistic conservatism, Hollywood-inspired political posturing and empty mass-culture referentiality, but it's hard not to notice how postmodern, how pliable and un-curious, our inner Jeffrey has become. Two decades ago, Lynch upended the meaning of the emerald lawn and the white picket fence and made them seem scary. Today, the same imagery Lynch used to trigger existential freakouts has hardened, elsewhere, into a weary and wearying cliche -- a cue to go ahead and feel smug about whatever. (Is it ironic that the same network that dared run -- and then Aristotelically destroyed -- "Twin Peaks" is now home to "Desperate Housewives"?) Pastiche and genre parody are big business, and therefore ubiquitous. What's not so easy to find these days is a weird kid in the closet as our stand-in, peering through the slats like "a detective or a pervert," and concluding, with lantern-jawed, non-relativistic certainty, that "it's a strange world."

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'Blue Velvet'

MPAA rating: R

Times guidelines: Contains images of graphic violence and sadomasochistic sexuality, as well as strong language and drug use

Written and directed by David Lynch. Opens today at Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. Showing through Thursday. Show times daily at 4:10, 7 and 9:50 p.m., plus an afternoon show on Saturday and Sunday at 1:20 p.m. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.

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