David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) can be seen as a precursor to his successful television show Twin Peaks (1990-1991). The most striking parallel is that both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan as the protagonist and that in both works, MacLachlan’s character unravels the dark mystery of a seemingly idyllic town. What separates Blue Velvet from Twin Peaks and what will be the focus of this essay is that ultimately, Blue Velvet is about the Freudian-like desire of the audience through the eyes of MacLachlan’s character, Jeffrey Beaumont. Twin Peaks, on the other hand is an examination of America through a host of different characters. Moving on, I argue that Blue Velvet becomes self-reflexive through its use of camera angles that either place the audience in the role of MacLachlan (first-person) or angles that place the audience as the subject being spoken to.
By placing the audience within the film, in the context of Blue Velvet’s story—which I will explain shortly—Lynch is perhaps pointing out that the desires of the audience are those that align with Jeffrey and by extension, Blue Velvet’s psychopathic antagonist, Frank Booth. The desires in question are ones centered on power and sexuality, where Jeffrey (the audience) want to dominate and control Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). The desire for control in Blue Velvet is one that is at first unconscious and seemingly rejected and so the opening of Blue Velvet is dedicated towards displaying the conscious desire of the audience, the American Dream.
Soothing music and slow camera movement give way to the introduction of suburban neighborhood that is marked by colorful flowers, white picket fences, friendly firemen, and so on. We then see Mrs. Beaumont (Priscilla Pointer) inside, watching television. What’s to note here is the violent imagery present within the program Mrs. Beaumont is watching; a disembodied hand, holding a gun, pointed at someone. Here, by placing the gun within the television, the violent connotation is made fictional and thus removed from the events of the real-world. In the American Dream, everything must be perfect, and the presence of violence serves to threaten that and so it is made fictitious. Mrs. Beaumont can have the allure of the violence without any of the consequences. Yet, by watching the violent program, Mrs. Beaumont is expressing her desire to revel in violence but her presence within the American Dream stands as a paradox to her violent desire and so it is made unconscious so as to not disrupt the bubble of peace.
The American Dream is disturbed, however, when Mr. Beaumont (Jack Harvey) suffers a stroke while watering his lawn and consequently falls onto the grass. The camera then zooms down into the leaf blades and as if slowly unraveling a mystery, the grass slowly parts in order to reveal a swarm of ants made all the more disgusting by the zoom-in which focuses their bodies into one writhing mass. The scene abruptly ends, and we’re then given a billboard picturing a blonde woman, and the words, “Welcome to Lumberton.” The message here is clear. The opening scene of Blue Velvet is metaphorical for what Lumberton really is like. The picturesque suburbia seems perfect but underneath that beauty there lies a disturbing ugliness that may be the true nature of it all. The result is that the “Welcome to Lumberton” shot that follows the introduction is comedic, because it highlights the grime of Lumberton through the contradictory use of pleasant imagery.
Jeffrey Beaumont soon comes to town in order to aid his family. Jeffrey is young, naïve, and innocent and so he’s made the perfect foil to Lumberton’s seedy darkness, and the perfect stand-in for the audience who wish for justice to win. That’s only true, however, until Jeffrey finds himself investigating a conspiracy involving kidnapping, murder, drug trafficking and rape. The previous characteristics of Jeffrey are stripped away and he is forced to confront who he might really be: Frank Booth.
The first scene to examine which aligns the audience with Jeffrey is Jeffrey’s witnessing of Dorothy’s rape. After sneaking into her apartment in order to investigate for clues, Jeffrey is forced to hide in the closet after being caught by Dorothy but before Frank Booth comes to visit her. Inside the closet, the camera then turns onto the scene in the living room, giving the audience Jeffrey’s perspective. Booth begins to assault Dorothy and as he throws her onto the floor, the camera cuts to Jeffrey within the closet, and we are able to see a mix of fear and excitement on his face. While assaulting Dorothy, Frank continuously yells “Don’t look at me,” and at times after saying this, the camera will cut back to Jeffrey who is performing the forbidden act of observance.
Jeffrey and by extension the audience then, have the privileged power of observance, because they can see the events transpire without worrying about the consequences of Booth’s violence. While this is similar to Mrs. Beaumont’s observance of the television, the key difference here is that the violence enacted on Dorothy—in the world of Blue Velvet—is real. It is the need for real violence that Jeffrey desires and while he may not be complicit in the act of violence here, he will soon begin a descent into his own unconscious desires.
Jeffrey’s second meeting with Dorothy works to showcase his becoming of Frank and thus his embracing of violent desires. Lying in bed, Jeffrey and Dorothy discuss the events currently transpiring. Dorothy begs for Jeffrey to hit her, and the image is then removed, leaving only a black screen. The screams of Dorothy begging to be hit begin to blur with Jeffrey’s refusal. By taking away the image, Lynch is playing with the desire and expectation of the audience. The image is taken away, and the audience begins to wonder what is happening. Will Jeffrey hit Dorothy? The answer of course is yes. The image returns and Jeffrey slaps Dorothy twice. Lynch provides a close-zoom in shot of Dorothy’s deep-red painted lips, smiling. The color of Dorothy’s lips and the angle used highlight Dorothy’s sexual nature but more importantly by showing Dorothy smile, Lynch is linking violence to sex. The pleasure of Dorothy, Jeffrey, and the audience can only come about through sexual violent acts.
The final scene I will examine is one where Jeffrey rejects the notion of his desire, an act that places his actions into the unconscious realm. Once again, as stated in the introduction examining the film’s opening sequence, the rejection of violence is one that is needed in order to preserve the psych. The conscious desire is the American Dream, representing peace, and so violence can only exist within a fictional realm (television).
Jeffrey finds himself too deep into the events of Dorothy’s life and is thereby captured by Frank. Taken on a car ride, Jeffrey finds himself in the backseat, surrounded by Frank’s friends. In the front sits Frank who shortly stops the car in order to abuse Jeffrey. Frank looks at Jeffrey, but the medium shot used also makes it so that Frank is seemingly looking at the audience. Now without the protection of the closet, the psychic defense privilege of observance is gone, and the desires that the audience/Jeffrey don’t want to admit are forced to come to light. This is made clear when Frank begins to yell, “What the fuck are you looking at,” a call back to the earlier rape scene. Jeffrey can only meekly say “nothing.” Frank then continues to look at Jeffrey before he dons an oxygen mask, takes deep breaths, and finally tells Jeffrey, “You’re like me.”
Because of Jeffrey’s actions of observing/performance of violence, Frank’s accusation rings true. While the audience may not have been complicit in harming Dorothy, they are complicit in watching Dorothy be harmed. Jeffrey/the audience are made into Frank then, because of their desire to sexually harm Dorothy or to watch Dorothy be sexually harmed. This desire, however, is an unconscious one and it is removed from thought, thus making it unconscious. In its place comes the American Dream with promises of peace. When that conscious desire for peace is ruptured, the unconscious desire for sexual violence begins to pour through and it manifests itself as acts towards Dorothy.