The opening scene of David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet perfectly encapsulates the themes of the movie, exposing the darkness that can lurk beneath the American dream in a single two minute montage.
The opening credits, lushly soundtracked against an appropriately rippling curtain of blue velvet, dissolve to a blue sky. The camera tilts down to red roses against a white picket fence, an iconic symbol of peaceful small town America, the red, white and blue in glowing Technicolours, as the titular song plays. The red roses dissolve to a red firetruck rolling past in slow motion, dalmatian and waving fireman on it’s footplate. Then, yellow roses against a white picket fence dissolving to a line of well groomed school children crossing the road.
A man waters his lawn. Inside his wife is drinking coffee. The black and white closeup of a handgun on the TV presages the turn towards violence. Back to the man. Water pressure builds up at the tap, the hose snags on a bush. The sound of the pressure builds on the soundtrack as the man grabs his neck and collapses with a stroke, falling into a muddy patch on the green lawn. As he writhes on the ground a small child watches him, and his dog plays with the water spurting from the upturned hose he still grasps.
The camera then dives into the grass, the view increasingly microscopic as we move through the blades, to expose the seething dark mass of insects in the earth, and the cicadas’ noise fills the soundtrack. We have moved from Norman Rockwellesque cheer to a nightmarish vision of Hell that exists just out of sight, beneath it’s surface.
That is the same journey the movie’s hero, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), takes as he returns to his home town of Lumberton to visit his hospital bound father (the heart attack victim of the opening). The mysterious discovery of a human ear in a field opens his eyes to the sleazy underworld that he had never seen before, a world of violence, bondage and the demonic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). The happy iconoclasm of the beginning and end scenes are nothing but a shallow veneer hiding the true horror that lurks beneath.
After the underground cult kudos of his surreal debut feature Eraserhead (1977), Lynch made two commercial projects adapting other people’s work with varying success. The Elephant Man (1980) was an artistic and box office success, while Dune (1984) was a big-budget disaster on every level. Blue Velvet marked a return to personal, small scale film-making for Lynch, a field he would never stray far from again, and ironically enough it was this that broke him into the mainstream.
The movie allies his opposing fetishes for retro Eisenhower Americana and nightmarish horror, with a humour that verges on pastiche. These Lynchian tropes would recur in his later works, especially in the TV phenomenon Twin Peaks. In many ways Blue Velvet is still his best and most personal work, and the one that first defined exactly what a David Lynch movie would be. That individualistic stamp is what marks him as one of America’s great artists, and why the movie still seems as fresh today as it did then.