Experiencing the picturesque Lumberton, North Carolina in static beauty, the beginning of David Lynch’s 1986 classic Blue Velvet is one of the most iconic opening sequences in contemporary cinema, suggesting something strange about the humdrum of suburbia. Red roses, white picket fences and azure blue skies make up the stars and stripes of a perfect American identity, where everything is in its place and the land is as perfect as the rosy cheeks of the schoolchildren who plod their way to class. Though something is disturbed, brewing beneath the surface as if a dormant geyser of violence, smut and surrealism, ready to disrupt the perfect order of American suburbia.
The scene reaches its conclusion when a man watering his front lawn suddenly falls to the floor clutching his neck, before the camera takes us away from the scene and down through the undergrowth of the groomed grass, inside the underbelly of grime, dirt and scuttling creatures. Behind the facade of contemporary perfection, a dark truth is slowly uncovered by Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) the son of the man now recovering from a stroke when he discovers a severed ear in a field nearby to his home.
Taking Jeffrey on a wild fever dream of paranoia and surrealism, the ear itself is the conduit by which he accesses life’s dark underbelly, leading him to danger as the curiosity behind its origins become too compelling. “I don’t know why it had to be an ear. Except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body, a hole into something else…The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind so it felt perfect,” director David Lynch reported to the New York Times.
Leaping down the rabbit hole, as if travelling down the dark cavern of an ear canal, Jeffrey tracks down a lounge performer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), connected with the incident who inadvertently leads the young boy into a world of crime and dark mystery. Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is the peculiar escort that guides Frank blindly through this new underworld, bearing little resemblance to the comfort of suburbia. Booth, a psychopathic gangster and drug lord, is a terrifying uncanny figure with an eerie, disturbed psyche, situated somewhere between childish infatuation and carnal rage. Huffing a nondescript gas through a transparent pipe, Booth seems to operate on different fuel to the average being, living in a totally different reality entirely.
Capturing Jeffrey, Booth takes the young boy to Ben, a criminal associate who is insistent on performing a mimed rendition of Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’. Standing closely beside Ben as he performs, Booth is transfixed, as if assessing a work of extraordinary beauty whilst coming to some sort of personal epiphany. He cuts the dream short by pausing the music and removing the tape, angered perhaps at the lack of Roy Orbison’s fantasy in his own life.
Arising back out from Jeffrey’s ear in the film’s final act, we escape the dream, only to discover that real life is in itself a surreal fantasy. A bird lands on the windowsill of Jeffrey’s mother’s house as she, her son and Sandy (Laura Dern) examine its beauty. The bird is, however, undeniably fake, looking more like a puppet than the real-life creature as it clutches the same bug that inhabited the undergrowth of Lumberton during the film’s introduction. The dreamworld has now been exposed and fantasy has suffused into reality with the fakery of the bird revealing a failed pursuit for concrete meaning. To question the reality of the bird is to question life itself, to believe the fantasy is far easier.
Blue Velvet is David Lynch’s greatest triumph as it not only acts as the perfect exemplar of his style, but it thematically accesses so many contemporary discussions, the paranoia of ‘the other’, the fear of difference and also the dominance of goodwill.