‘I was the same way when I was your age’: Blue Velvet

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Ben Brantley recalls his first viewing of Blue Velvet in 1986:

Much of the audience at the half-full theater that day appeared to be as unprepared as I was. As the final credits rolled, I heard a noise I had never before experienced at the movies: the sound of people hissing. Me, I was grinning like an idiot, and as I recall, I was trembling, too.

I went straight to the lobby, and started calling friends on the pay phone, telling them they had, but had, to see this film, and no, I wouldn’t say any more. Then I walked back into the theater, and sat down to watch it again.

The next day, I returned. This time the theater was full, and the audience applauded. Presumably, the reviews had had a chance to make their impact.

In my journal that night, I noted that my fellow theatergoers “did laugh throughout most of it, excepting the Hopper scenes, which seemed to confuse everyone with their aura of sexual menace gone over the top.” Only rarely have I encountered a work of art that rattles people in that way, as if they didn’t have the reflexes to accommodate it.

Yesterday I described the awful, wonderful sensation of realizing my homosexuality; but a brush with art can approximate these encounters, and, in my case, serve as proxies, a sense in which the art is a mirror. Harriet the Spy, Roxy Music, The Importance of Being Earnest. Blue Velvet produced the same effect one college summer several years after its first run. With its rich blues and immersive sound design, David Lynch’s movie flaunted its strangeness; it was the first movie I saw whose portrayals of sexuality depended on production design and color as much as performances. Laughter isn’t appropriate: it’s the laughter stimulated by seeing a body exhibited at a funeral home. And I did laugh at Dean Stockwell’s Ben. I didn’t laugh when Dennis Hopper, mouth thick and aflame with lipstick, covers Kyle MacLachlan’s face with kisses before punching the shit out of him. David Lynch suggested several ways his characters could have gone sexually. Imbuing MacLachlan and pink fresh-faced Laura Dern’s romance as its own kind of perversion is one of Blue Velvet‘s best jokes.

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