If Elephant Man is about spectacle, Blue Velvet is about mystery. It’s essentially a film noir narrative, deviating from the norm by putting a young college student in the detective role, allowing a coming-of-age story to shine through now and then. Needless to say, as the opening foreshadows, the world our youth discovers beneath the surface is a dark one.
I’ve seen this film so many times already there’s very little for me to say about it, but what I noticed this time was how good the dialogue is. There’s a part where McLaughlan and Dern are having their first conversation, McLaughlan looks at a house they’re passing and says, “I used to know a kid who lived there, he had the biggest tongue in the world.”
The film is not without its spectacle, of course. The images in the opening alone would overpower a weaker film, to say nothing of the severed ear in a field, the frequent song breaks, using a lamp for a microphone. But it’s all hung over this mystery plot, which is eventually brought together in a somewhat conventional way. (Not that it makes a ton of sense; I can’t figure out why Frank is dressed as “The Well Dressed Man”.) If there is an epic battle throughout Lynch’s career between spectacle and narrative, narrative won this one – but will eventually lose the war.
Incidentally, Lynch says the ending came to him in a dream. “The dream gave me the police radio; the dream gave me Frank’s disguise; the dream gave me the gun in the yellow man’s jacket; the dream gave me the scene where Jeffrey was in the back of Dorothy’s apartment, sending the wrong message, knowing Frank would hear it. I don’t know how it happened, but I just had to plug and change a few things to bring it all together.” (pulled from here, originally from the interview book Lynch on Lynch)
Also from that page is the Pauline Kael quote: “This is American darkness – darkness in color, darkness with a happy ending. Lynch might turn out to be the first populist surrealist – a Frank Capra of dream logic.” But American darkness was going to get a whole lot darker.