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BLUE VELVET: SPECIAL EDITION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern
Director:  David Lynch
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  120 Minutes
Release Date:  June 4, 2002

"It's a strange world..."

Film ***1/2

The Straight Story notwithstanding, the cinematic world of David Lynch is usually that of a dream, where images seem to float around and bump into one another at random, creating visuals that are surreal…sometimes fascinating, sometimes repulsive, and in many cases, both at the same time.  He always seems to make movies for his fans.  If you’re one of them, as I am, you tend to plunge headlong into his work with rabid abandon, and relish the fact that for a good two hours or so, you are as free from the real world as you can possibly get.  For those who aren’t fans, and this group includes not only general audience members but well-spoken critics like Roger Ebert, it’s understandable.  Those of us who cherish the vision of David Lynch have long since learned not to beat our heads against the wall over this issue.  The non-fan says of the Lynch film, “It’s creepy.  It’s weird.  It’s confusing.  I have no idea what it means.”  And those are the exact same reasons the rest of us like it.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re a David Lynch fan, I would suggest that Blue Velvet is probably your best litmus test.  Like all of his movies, the votes were decidedly split on this one.  Some called it one of the greatest films of the 80s.  Some saw it as sick, perverted, and twisted, and the lowest form of exploitation.  There’s truth in both arguments.

For starters, I would suggest admirers of American Beauty give Blue Velvet a look; there are a few thematic similarities.  Both films are preoccupied with the darker side of the American dream paradise known as suburbia, and both films achieve a kind of wicked humor by juxtaposing the glossy, white bread and green lawn image of suburban life with the strange stirrings and desires that lurk beneath the surface.

The opening shots of Blue Velvet visually expound on this theme.  This neighborhood, known as Lumberton, is as pretty as a picture postcard and as strangely unreal as a 50’s sitcom.  The fireman drives down the street and waves.  The radio gives the time “at the sound of the falling tree”.  A man waters his beautiful lawn, then struggles with the hose.  The hose is bent, causing the water to rupture through at the spout.  The man grabs his neck and collapses (was the image of the hose indicative of what was happening to the man?), and lies there motionless, while a dog ignores him and slurps the water from his hose.  Then the camera takes us closer and closer, in through the grass and under the surface of the lawn, where black, slimy bugs burrow and chew and crawl over one another.

The man is taken to the hospital, and his son Jeffrey (MacLachlan) comes home from school to help out.  Walking along the old fashioned country roads, he stumbles across a rotting severed human ear, which he immediately turns in to the police.  The detective’s daughter, Sandy (Dern), knows of a lady night club singer, Dorothy (Rossellini) who is under investigation for a possible murder connection.  Jeffrey, with all the zeal and gumption of a Hardy boy, decides to investigate her apartment for clues.

He soon ends up in way over his head, and deeply entangled in a mystery more strange and more dangerous than he ever imagined.  While spying from the closet, he learns that Dorothy is somewhat enslaved to a violent, gas sniffing madman named Frank Booth (Hopper, in the role that cemented his legend for all time), who may be holding her son and husband captive.  He beats and rapes her, while screaming out lines that would be funny if not said in such an unsettling context.  He leaves, but Dorothy soon discovers Jeffrey in her closet, and thus begins a strange new twist in the story, as the two become lovers.  Strange, because we learn a new facet about her violent relationship with Frank.  She actually likes to be hit.

The constant juxtaposition between the two worlds give the film a dark sense of humor, that’s probably only fully appreciated after the movie is over and some distance has developed.  There is a kind of temporal displacement, as Jeffrey and Sandy both look like clean cut, sweet kids out of the early 1950’s…Jeffrey even drives an old style red convertible, and the two hang out together in malt shops, and not to mention the soundtrack of old love songs like “Blue Velvet” or “In Dreams”…but looking at the hairstyles and cars of other characters, we know the film takes place in more recent times.  This kind of strange sense of time’s loss of meaning is the kind of effect Lynch often achieves in his movies, giving the pictures an extra dimension of surrealism that you can’t always quite put your finger on.

But this timeless, wholesome look to the town and the lead characters clashes harshly with the dark underbelly and bizarre violence and sexuality under the surface, as personified by Dorothy and Frank.  The fact that our protagonist, Jeffrey, crosses that line and finds himself more and more trapped by that dark side, adds to the already disturbing nature of the film.

Although not quite as shocking today, it’s important to remember that when the film came out in 1986, it was showing things on the screen that were quite out of the norm for mainstream Hollywood entertainment.  Which is, of course, why some reacted (and continue to react) with such unforgiving venom.  This film took many viewers to a place that they didn’t want to go, or even acknowledge its existence.  It was, in a sense, a cinematic raping of innocence.

I can’t tell you if Blue Velvet will be to your liking, other than if you already have an aversion to David Lynch, then this picture won’t be your idea of a good night home with the DVD player.  But if you feel adventurous and yearn for something a little out of the ordinary, then this film, like most of Lynch’s work, will truly open your eyes and unsettle your foundation for a couple of hours. 

Video **1/2

When MGM released their primary version of Blue Velvet some time back, I was initially thrilled at the aspect of being able to see it in its scope ratio format for the first time, but I thought there were problems in the margins on the transfer.  This new edition boasts a transfer "supervised by David Lynch", so I was expecting great things...however, I have to give the video the same **1/2 star rating I gave it before.  Not because the transfer if the same, but because some equal trade-offs seem to have been made.

The biggest difference overall is that the color here is up about two clicks from before...adjust the color down on you screen, and you'll see essentially what you saw before.  This version makes the coloring brighter and more vivid, but sometimes, a bit harsh and a little less natural.  Detail level is sometimes heightened by the improved coloring; other times, softened out.  Look at Priscilla Pointer's skirt in her first shot for an example:  whereas before you could see the texture of the fabric, now all you see is a mass of color with no definition.  Even the opening credits is a good indication:  the blue velvet background is a deeper, stronger shade of blue, but with slightly less texture.

Oddly enough, I don't think the same source material was used for both transfers...this print seems to be noticeably more affected by spots and dinginess than the previous issue.  Look at the blue sky and you'll see some shimmering caused by residue on the print!  

Some of the darker scenes, however, play out a little better here...though detail levels are still a bit skimpy, there is more definition and less haziness than before.

Overall, I would say the disc is not worth repurchasing simply for the new transfer, but there are other categories where there is definite improvement...

Audio **1/2

At last we have a full fledged 5.1 remix for this disc, and it sounds quite good.  Sound is crucial to a David Lynch film, and here we get more punch to the bottom end from the subwoofer, more panning effects, and clearer sounding dialogue than before.  Dynamic range is improved, as is Angelo Badalamenti's memorable score.

Features ***1/2

The new extras are most welcome, starting with a 72 new featurette "Mysteries of Love".  It features plenty of new interviews with cast members Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper and Laura Dern, plus plenty of archival footage of David Lynch discussing his film.  In addition, there is a deleted scenes montage (where still photos are used to recreate some of the footage that has unfortunately been permanently lost), an extensive photo gallery that includes some cool international posters, a short clip of Siskel and Ebert reviewing the film (Siskel loved it, and made it a top ten pick for the year, while Ebert loathed it, like he does most David Lynch films), plus a trailer and two TV spots.

There are also a few Easter eggs which aren't hard to find...amongst them are a clip of Ms. Rossellini discussing abusive love, cinematographer Frederick Elmes telling a robin story, and even David Lynch offering his thoughts on...McDonald's?  A very cool features package all around. 

Two additional notes:  one, despite earlier rumors, this disc DOES in fact feature chapter stops, and it also contains English subtitles for the first time.

Summary:

Fans embrace it, detractors loathe it…if you aren’t sure which one you are, slip into Blue Velvet for a couple of hours and see what you think.  One thing’s for certain…you won’t walk away from the picture on neutral ground.