Blue Velvet: Twin worlds of desire within the American idyll of Lynchtown.

SPOILERS below, if you haven’t seen this 30 year old classic!

Lynchtown is a cute, typically American, small
town, in the midst of an ocean of forest… a base camp
for an adventure of the imagination… a surface with only one side… a façade with
nothing to hide“- Michel Chion

blue velvet fireman

Lynchtown: Lumberton, USA.

It is in the fictional town of Lumberton, where we are first introduced to Lynchtown, and this introduction begins with the opening scene of Blue Velvet. Scored by the dulcet crooning of Bobby Vinton, the film begins with an image of a white-picket fence and red roses against a deep blue sky, followed by a friendly fireman waving as he passes on an antique fire-truck, complete with Dalmatian dog, and then children being helped across the sidewalk by a crossing-guard. Miles away from the black and white nightmares of
Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980) and light-years away from the azure skies and golden deserts of Dune (1984), this introduction places the viewer within an idyllic American suburb straight out of the ’50s. This peaceful neighbourhood setting is soon disrupted from its dreamlike picturesque montage, when a man watering his front lawn collapses in a horrific attack, followed by a slow-moving shot which places the viewer into the dirt of the grass he was watering. This encroaching camera reveals jet-black beetles scuttling over one another in the dirt as the soundtrack fades out.

This peaceful small-town suburb setting Lynch has created reveals an uncanny darkness beneath its wholesome veneer, and it is these opposing worlds of dark and light mixed within the American idyll and its residents, that makes Lynchtown. Jeffrey Beaumont’s later descent into the dark, sado-masochistic underworld of Lumberton, mirrors the camera’s descent into the undergrowth with the beetles.

The opening sequence to Blue Velvet which introduces the cozy suburb of Lumberton, USA.

Todd McGowan notes how ‘almost every viewer [of Blue Velvet] notices that it depicts “two separate worlds”… the real world which we can see and hear and touch; and a subconscious dream world which must remain hidden, so potentially dark and violent are its wanderings’. These two worlds are the public, wholesome surface of Lumberton, and the seedy underbelly that lays beneath it. Lynch himself, in a rare moment of explicitness about his work, describes Blue Velvet as ‘a story of love and mystery. It’s about a guy who lives in two worlds at the same time, one of which is pleasant and the other which is dark and terrifying’.

Jeffrey Beaumont’s immersion into the seedy underbelly of Lumberton, via the mystery that has engulfed him, places him as a conduit between these two worlds. The excitement of the mystery causes him to lead a double life, and this doubling of Jeffrey’s relationships with the residents of these worlds, brings these ‘two equally fatasmatic worlds’ together, obfuscating their binary opposition.

Lynchtown provides a setting for Jeffrey’s twin desires of light and dark to manifest themselves, and he embarks on an “adventure of the imagination” through his two romantic relationships, who embody these contrasting worlds of fantasy.

“And for the longest time, there was this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands
of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love”-
Sandy Williams, Blue Velvet (1986)

Sandy Williams vs Dorothy Vallens

Mark Allyn Stewart notes that ‘Blue Velvet is full of dualities… almost everything [in the film] has its mirrored opposite’: the most striking representations of this idea are the two love interests of Jeffrey. The clean-cut, beautiful schoolgirl Sandy Williams, and the femme-fatale seductress Dorothy Vallens embody the opposite worlds of light and dark that pervade the world of Blue Velvet. Sandy is a clean-cut and wholesome high-school sweetheart who wears light pinks and whites and recounts sweet monologues of dreams about robins; whilst Dorothy is ragged, world-weary and dark both in her fashion, hair and her looks.

It is not just visual appearance which separates these characters, their clothes, hair-colour and demeanour do differ, but their opposition is also manifested in the spaces they inhabit. They live on opposite sides of town: Dorothy’s side is filled with dark and dingy apartment buildings and disused warehouses, whereas Sandy’s is peaceful American suburbia. Sandy’s home is spacious, large and well-lit , whilst Dorothy’s apartment is dimly-lit, small and cramped.

Furthermore, the places they frequent are mirror opposites as well, Sandy drinks cokes at friendly Arlene’s diner, whilst Dorothy sings at the seedy Slow Club. This deliberate use of mise-en-scene further entrenches the characters into the opposing settings they live in, adding depth to the two worlds of light and dark inherent in Lumberton. Lynch’s use of a wide angle lens also ‘allows the screen to accommodate vast rooms’ that fill up the frame space, creating a living space which ‘reinforces the feeling that the characters exist in settings which precede them’ (Chion).

Blue velvet diner
“Light” Sandy in Arlene’s Diner with Jeffrey- Blue Velvet (1986)
dorothy 1 blue velvet
“Dark” Dorothy singing at the Slow Club- Blue Velvet (1986)

Sandy and Dorothy are defined by their surroundings, therefore becoming emblems of the dual opposing worlds they inhabit.

Todd McGowan argues that the distinctly different geographical areas of Lumberton suggest a deeper fantasy thematic narrative to the film. He states that ‘the ability of Lumberton to be at once a small town and a big city indicates… that [Lynch] has situated us on the terrain of two opposed fantasy structures: in the ideal fantasy, Lumberton is a small town, but in the nightmare fantasy, it’s a big city’. He suggests that the fact that Lumberton exists in this dialectical state ‘violates narrative logic [in a way that is] possible only within the structure of fantasy and in a way that reflects the struggle of the two fantasy worlds’.

If Sandy and Dorothy are emblems of the environments they live in, then they become constructs of the contrary fantasy worlds in the film, and their roles reflect the nuanced differences and similarities between the ideal fantasy and nightmare fantasy. The antithetical modes of fantasy are reflective of Jeffrey’s own inner wants and desires, and the relationships he has with Sandy and Dorothy enable him to explore both sides of this fantasy.

It is through these relationships that the distinctions between the two fantasy worlds begin to blur. Chion echoes this sentiment of fantasy, arguing that Blue Velvet is ‘a dream, but a structured one’ and that the parallel of Sandy and Dorothy ‘encourages us to see the two women as one’, stating that Jeffrey’s love interests ‘incarnate two sides of one figure, each side endlessly leading to the other as in a Mobius strip’. McGowan furthers this point, stating that in separating ‘the two modes of fantasy… Blue Velvet renders visible the similarity between the ideal and the nightmare that fantasies usually obscure’, concluding that the fantasy worlds ‘are two sides of the same coin’.

Sandy and Dorothy’s  oppositions reveal their similarity through the channel of young Jeffrey Beaumont, as they both represent the fantasy worlds he is torn between, both
codependent on the other to define it.

Sandy embodies a fantasy world of the wholesome American ideal; Dorothy embodies the dark desire of the subconscious that lies beneath the surface of Sandy’s world. Both worlds sustain Jeffrey’s interest and intrigue as he is equally enamoured with both women, despite their stark opposition.

For example, in the diner scene following Jeffrey’s journey into the dark mystery of Dorothy Vallens, Jeffrey proclaims that Sandy is “a mystery”. Equating his wholesome relationship with his schoolgirl girlfriend, to the psycho-sexual mystery he finds himself in with Dorothy Vallens, reinforces this similarity between the otherwise contrasting fantasy women. His summation of the women as equally mysterious reflects his mirrored passion for both fantasy worlds and women, and his exploration of this passion comes through the relationships he holds with them.

Jeffrey’s relationship with Sandy reflects the wholesome American ideal it exists within; their expressions of love to each other come only after a relatively long courtship and only after a dance and a kiss at a socially acceptable teenage house party. Though their relationship follows a relatively benign and archetypal structure of romance, the intensity of emotion between the two is palpable, equaling, if not rivaling, the sexual desire between Jeffrey and Dorothy. Two notable instances in the film establish the intense emotional connection between the two. Firstly, the scene in the car when Sandy and Jeffrey park next to a church to discuss the horrible things Jeffrey has seen the previous night in Dorothy’s apartment, the background organ music from the church swells to a beautiful crescendo as Sandy describes a dream she had:

I had a dream. In fact, it was on the night I met you. In the dream, there was
our world, and the world was dark because there weren’t any robins and the robins
represented love. And for the longest time, there was this darkness. And all of a
sudden, thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this
blinding light of love. And it seemed that love was the only thing that would make any
difference, and it did. So, I guess it means that there is trouble until the robins come.

“And for the longest time, there was this darkness”- Blue Velvet (1986)

This dream monologue reflects exactly what Sandy represents in Jeffrey’s mind, she is the “blinding light of love” that comes with robins, she can return love to a world that has been darkened by his witnessing of the horrific events between Frank Booth and Dorothy. As she recounts her dream, Jeffrey is visually emotional and his mood has changed from one of gloomy depression to one of tearful elation. The motif of the robins of love returns at the end of the film when Jeffrey has returned to a normal life and relationship with Sandy, when a robin appears on the kitchen windowsill of Jeffrey’s home, with a beetle in its mouth. This image appears at a time of resolution and contentment for Jeffrey, he stands with Sandy smiling whilst they marvel at this robin, cementing his association of Sandy and the robin. She has brought a “blinding light of love” to his dark world, and has erased the scourge of scurrying beetles that lie beneath
his idealised Lumberton.

blue velvet robin
There is trouble until the robins come- Blue Velvet (1986)

The second instance of the intense emotionality between the two comes at the aforementioned teenage party, where they dance and kiss for the first time. The couple slow-dance to the song “Mysteries of Love” composed by Lynch and Julee Cruise.

The song’s synthesised composition echoes the church organ whilst the lyrics mirror both Sandy and Jeffrey’s revelations of love:

“Sometimes a wind blows/and you and I/float/in love/and kiss/forever/in a
darkness/and the mysteries of love/come clear/and dance in light/in you/in
me/and show/that we/are Love/Sometimes a wind blows/and the mysteries of
love/Come clear.”

This is not the first time a conveniently placed song has been used to elicit emotion to a scene, but Lynch’s incorporation of this song adds further emotional intensity to a relatively clichéd scene of young love. The song differs from an expected tune from a teenage party, the eerily beautiful slow swelling of chords and simplistic lyrics delivered in the unmistakable high and soft vocals of Julee Cruise, highlights this scene as an emotional break from the previous dark journey Jeffrey has taken. The “mystery of love” harks back to Jeffrey’s declaration of Sandy as a mystery, and in this scene this mystery has “come clear” to both young lovers as they “dance in light” and declare their love for each other. This highly emotive and relevant scoring of the scene reinforces the idea that Sandy is part of the fantasy world of light which Jeffrey longs for, and that she is his entrance into this idealised world that is spelt out so clearly before him, visually, aurally and emotionally.

The mysteries of love become clear – Blue Velvet (1986)

In contrast, Dorothy Vallens and Jeffrey Beaumont’s relationship is the antithesis of wholesomeness. Their first meeting is a façade constructed by Jeffrey as an excuse to steal her apartment keys to further pursue the mystery that started with the severed ear he found in a field. Their second meeting begins as a voyeuristic sexually-charged encounter as Jeffrey is discovered by Dorothy in her closet where he has hidden at risk of being caught, a terrifyingly exciting sexual experience ensues for Jeffrey but is interrupted by the arrival of Frank Booth. Frank is blackmailing Dorothy, he has kidnapped her husband and child and is exploiting this fact to abuse her sexually. Jeffrey is forced to once again hide in the closet and watch as Frank incites fetishized, perverted and sado-masochistic acts of violence on Dorothy. When this horrific act is over and Frank leaves, Jeffrey comforts Dorothy and resumes the sexual experience from before, learning of Dorothy’s joy for sado-masochism. This second encounter sparks the framework for Jeffrey and Dorothy’s entire relationship: Jeffrey is enraptured by the mystery surrounding her and is intrigued by her sexual maturity and perversions.

The psycho-sexual affair Jeffrey and Dorothy embark upon leads Jeffrey into the seedy underbelly of Lumberton, where he encounters darkness and loses his innocence. This dark world is detrimental to Jeffrey’s psychological and physical wellbeing, but the darkness of Dorothy Vallens attracts him to it, as does the excitement of the mystery that surrounds her. Dorothy is the conduit through which Jeffrey explores his nightmare fantasy. This dark mystery is the opposite of Sandy’s mystery of love, but the two worlds similarities are mirrored through Jeffrey’s shared arousal and need for them.

If Sandy and Dorothy are opposite sides of the same coin, then Dorothy is the scuffed, blackened and worn side which Jeffrey would use to purchase a ticket for a peep show; whilst Sandy would be the bright shining silver quarter which he would use to purchase an ice cream on a hot summer day.

blue velvet dorothy 2
Jeffrey and Dorothy’s passionately dark encounter- Blue Velvet (1986)

Through his relationship with Dorothy, Jeffrey not only loses his innocence, but explores his desires and confronts his own limits of perversion. Lynch ‘inserts a space of desire and locates this space in and surrounding the apartment of Dorothy’, at first the desire is one to be a voyeur who observes silently, but the violence he witnesses in Dorothy’s apartment turns his desire into a journey of sado-masochistic sexual experience. Two instances exemplify Jeffrey’s confrontations of his own sexual taboos, and they are both obtained through the influence, or direct actions of his relationship with Dorothy. Firstly, the scene in which Jeffrey returns to Dorothy’s apartment for the first time since their sexual encounter: Jeffrey is goaded by Dorothy into hitting her, an act which seems more pleasurable for her than him. Dorothy asks him to hurt her, and at first Jeffrey objects, saying “No, I want to help you not hurt you”, but he eventually succumbs to her jibes and hits her.

The three shots that follow this action metaphorically describe what has happened in this violent encounter. The first shot is an extreme close-up of Dorothy’s mouth exhibiting a smile of satisfaction, this shot dissolves into a shot roaring flames which engulf the screen and the third shot is a slow-motion continuation of the sex scene that has preceded the violence. This three shot montage signifies Jeffrey’s unleashed sexual desire through the act of violence on Dorothy. The satisfied smile of Dorothy is a sign of acceptance of Jeffrey’s desire, this acceptance releases the burning flames of desire which engulf the screen, and the final shot mirrors Jeffrey’s sexual fulfillment at his realised fantasy. The summation of Dorothy’s apartment as ‘the space of desire’ (McGowan) inthe film is cemented in this scene. Her apartment has served as a safe space for Jeffrey’s explorations of sexuality, but in the process of this exploration he has
confronted his own perversions, and has enacted an act of violence on the damsel in distress he is desperate to “help not hurt”. His confrontation with this truth leads him deeper into the underworld of Lumberton, where he meets his shadow-self, Frank Booth.

“Hit me”, Jeffrey confronts his own perversions from 0:01 to 1:23- Blue Velvet (1986)

Shortly after the fulfillment of Jeffrey’s desire, he and Dorothy are accosted by Frank outside her apartment and taken on a nightmarish road-trip through the dark underworld of Lumberton. After a surreal stop at the bar of one of Frank’s absurd friends, Frank and his friends drive out to the desert with Dorothy and Jeffrey in tow, and stop at a deserted lot next to some power lines. When the car has stopped, Frank begins another perverted act on Dorothy, inhaling from his gas canister he begins to caress her in the front passenger seat, but before he does so he looks directly at Jeffrey and says “You’re like me”. When Frank begins to hurt her, Jeffrey cannot take anymore and shouts “hey leave her alone!” before punching Frank in the face. This interaction with Frank is Jeffrey confronting what he has become through his sado-masochistic desires. His act of violence upon Dorothy has made him the same as the violent psychopath Frank Booth, and his objection to this is him fighting this revelation.

“You’re like me”- Blue Velvet (1986)

Jeffrey’s realisation is cemented further by the actions that follow Jeffrey’s punch
on Frank. Frank and his henchmen drag Jeffrey out of the car, Jeffrey is held by his
arms while Frank smothers his face with lipstick and kisses Jeffrey several times. He then holds a knife to Jeffrey’s face and yells profanity-laden lines in his face, and then whispers the lines of the Roy Orbison song “In Dreams” which is playing from the car, into Jeffrey’s face. The visual duality of the two men wearing lipstick reinforces the similarity between them, and the fact that Frank is threatening Jeffrey, highlights Frank as the shadow-self of Jeffrey.

Furthermore, Frank’s lines portray him further as a manifestation of the dark side of Jeffrey’s subconscious desires, which he must face up to. The lines “you receive a love-letter from me, you’re fucked forever”, and “I’ll send you straight to hell, fucker” are warnings to Jeffrey to stay away from this world of dark fantasy, lest he end up like the maniacal man above him.

The whispering of the Roy Orbison song into Jeffrey’s face, suggests that Frank is a
part of Jeffrey’s subconscious, an embodiment of the darkest of Jeffrey’s inner desires. “In dreams, I walk with you/In dreams, I talk with you”. Frank walks and talks with Jeffrey in his dreams, because he is a part of him, the dark side which he wishes not to see.

“In dreams, I walk with you”- Blue Velvet (1986)

This terrifying realisation culminates in Jeffrey breaking down in tears the next day, as he comes to terms with what he has done to Dorothy. The end of the road trip is the end of the psycho-sexual journey of Jeffrey, a journey which started excitedly with Dorothy Vallens, but which was torn apart by Frank Booth. Dorothy Vallens enabled his desires, and in turn led him to Frank Booth and the realisation of the danger of his darkest perversions.

Sandy and Dorothy’s fantasy worlds are mirror opposites of each other, but both coexist and lead Jeffrey on his journey between the two, from light to dark and back to the light again. Although Sandy embodies the wholesome American ideal, and is blindsided when she is confronted with the revelation that Jeffrey has had a relationship with Dorothy, she was the one that emerged from the darkness of a suburban summer night and unknowingly set Jeffrey on the path which would lead him to his relationship with Dorothy.

Sandy emerging from the darkness- Blue Velvet (1986)

Dorothy in turn  leads Jeffrey to Frank Booth, who exposes the nightmare world as dark and terrifying rather than mysterious and intriguing, a revelation which leads Jeffrey
back to the light world of his relationship with Sandy. Both worlds exist co-dependently,
one world ‘endlessly leading to the other as in a Mobius strip’ (Chion).

Jeffrey’s love interests are entrances into opposing worlds of fantasy and desire
inherent within Jeffrey’s subconscious, his struggle between the two relationships
is reflective of his inner struggle between his two extreme, idealised fantasies. The
camera’s descent into the severed ear  which starts the central mystery of Blue Velvet, is indicative of the spectator’s descent into Jeffrey’s subconscious.

Entering Jeffrey’s fantasy via the ear- Blue Velvet (1986)

In contrast, the ending of the film in which the camera zooms out of Jeffrey’s ear, following an embrace with Sandy which is shrouded in light, signals the resolution of his subconscious struggle between the two worlds of light and dark. The ear serves as ‘a passageway, the symbol of communication between two worlds [it] transmits the gift… of travelling between worlds, then of recovering a normal world’ (Chion). His contentment with Sandy as they stare at the robin at the end of the film, displays his championing of the normal fantasy world over his dark world of desire. Jeffrey’s journey has come full circle, after all, Blue Velvet is ‘a dream, but a structured one’ (Chion).

The robins have returned- Blue Velvet (1986)

The town of Lumberton (or Lynchtown) serves as a basis for its protagonist to come to terms with a dark and heinous world of night that engulfs him. In this sense Blue Velvet is the quintessential coming-of-age tale, as Jeffrey’s loss of innocence, and the subsequent struggle then reconciliation with the world around him, is archetypal of the idea of “coming-of-age”.

The disquieting touch of Lynch subverts this tale slightly; in showing such a beautifully dark nightmare world which both compels and repulses, Lynch leaves the viewer feeling like Jeffrey in the closet at Dorothy Vallens apartment, observing and enjoying as a voyeur, the dark reality of small-town America which they wish not to confront as reality.

KYLE MACLACHLAN BLUE VELVET (1986)

RM.

Texts Referenced

Chion, Michel, David Lynch, (London: BFI, 1995)

McGowan, Todd, The Impossible David Lynch, (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2007)

Stewart, Mark Allyn, David Lynch Decoded, (Bloomington: Authorhouse, 2007)

 

PS: This is the best chicken walk to ever grace the silver screen.

1 thought on “Blue Velvet: Twin worlds of desire within the American idyll of Lynchtown.”

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