My ventures into David Lynch territory have been limited. As an old boy, I saw Mulholland Drive and was more attracted to its prurient content than its mystery wrapped in an engima wrapped in a riddle story. And yet I can not help but feel that if I had paid full attention to the movie it would not have made complete sense to me, aside from providing the engine for some very inspired rambling.
The story of this movie is, in some senses, quite simple. It walks and talks in some ways like a film noir. Drawn back home to Lumberton, USA, by the collapse of his father, young Jeffrey (played by Kyle Maclachlan) stumbles upon an ear lying on the ground during a walk at night. Intrigued, he heads over to talk to his friend Sandy's father, a local cop. He reconnects with Sandy, and they decide to use information she has obtained from her father to investigate the missing ear themselves. Their interactions smack of good old fashioned youth and vigor, summoning up the sexless, chaste, and eager tales of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
It is here that the movie develops its split personality. One track of the narrative follows the tale of Sandy and Jeffrey's investigation, the other follows Jeffrey's descent into Lumberton's netherworld. One connection drawn from Sandy's father is that the ear is somehow connected to a jazz singer at a local club in town. Further investigation involves a complicated plot to sneak into her apartment and further investigate. While checking it out, Jeffrey is discovered upon her return and is made to hide at the appearance of Frank, played by Dennis Hopper. Frank has a taste for doing nitrous hits and engaging in rough sadomasochistic sex with the jazz singer. It becomes somewhat apparent that Frank has kidnapped the singer's relatives, and is using them as leverage to extract sexual favors from the woman.
Jeffrey becomes sexually involved with the singer, and discovers that the rough treatment of Frank, far from harming her, does quite a bit for her. Jeffrey is internally conflicted about this when she makes demands upon him to perform during their encounters. As Jeffrey is drawn deeper and deeper into this world, Sandy becomes more and more concerned about him. Jeffrey is eventually confronted by Frank, and they have an absolutely ludicrous night out (which includes one of the all time great Marcus repeated quotes). The rest of the film I will not even try to describe, but suffice to say that its ending is less linear and more deep than that of say, Return of the Jedi.
Having culled various interviews, criticisms and readings I find myself most drawn to Lynch's own descriptions of what he meant in the movie- that in many ways he does not even know what he means until he sits down and watches the movie. What does it even mean, does it even mean anything? I'm tempted by one reading promulgated by the author David Foster Wallace and illuminated for me by my friend Grant. This reading claims that Frank and Jeffrey are the same person, just two sides of the same coin. This reading dovetails nicely with the frame of the movie. The town is essentially a civic Janus- two faces on the same body. There is Lumberton, meant to be Anytown, USA, where shiny fire trucks and happy citizens like Sandy walk about with nary a care in the world. Then there is dark Lumberton, the shadowy, violent, corrupt, and masochistic town of Frank.
Ron's parallel drawn in his initial review of A History of Violence is I think quite correct, and very telling. Cronenburg and Lynch are two of the primary promulgators of the "weird but good" movies, and I think this movie and Violence are making similar points about the libidinal economies of normal communities. The machinations of the good and wholesome can only run on the kinetic energy of dark violence and sex. I don't think that Blue Velvet is even condemning this violence either. After all how much of what occurs between Frank and Jeffrey is even real? And if Isabella Rossellini's character finds the sado-masochistic sex satisfying and has it consensually, it is difficult to read the movie as a condemnation of it. Even our all American boy Jeffrey enjoys it a bit.
There are literally a thousand threads to be found in this movie. Let us explore some, because I really do not know where else to start.