BLUE VELVET (1986, Directed by David Lynch)

The films of David Lynch, widely regarded as a director of confusing “art” films, have been front and center in academic discussions of postmodern film. Thus, Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) is one of the central films discussed by Fredric Jameson as an exemplary cultural product of the postmodern era in his seminal work Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). Blue Velvet is also a central example cited by Norman Denzin in Images of Postmodern Society, his sociological discussion of the postmodern cultural terrain. Denzin notes in particular the film’s refusal to identify its historical setting, freely mixing images that appear to derive from different historical periods: “This is a film which evokes, mocks, yet lends quasi-reverence for the icons of the past, while it places them in the present” (469). In addition, this film repeatedly states its central message (“It’s a strange world”), but this message seems rather trite, suggesting that Lynch is more interested in creating artistic images than in any sort of critical engagement with real-world issues. There are, however, some important (though not at all obvious or unequivocal) messages that can be derived from this film when those images are decoded properly.

The film begins with a full screen shot of a sort of crumpled blue velvet curtain, as Angelo Badalamenti’s light classical theme (reminiscent of the thrillers of the Golden Age of Hollywood) sounds in accompaniment. As this opening screen fades, we hear birds singing and the soundtrack shifts to Bobby Vinton’s classic 1963 recording of the song that gives the film its title. The camera pans down to show a white picket fence with red roses blooming in front of it—an iconic image of American suburban domesticity (but one that here looks ostentatiously fake, providing an early warning of what it is to come in the film). We cut to a shot of a fire truck rolling down a suburban street, bearing a friendly fireman who waves to the locals as he passes by them, suggesting that we are in the sort of small town where everyone knows everyone and friendliness is the norm. A shot of more flowers in front of a picket fence is followed by one of innocent young school children being waved across a street by a kind and matronly crossing guard. All of the children are white, except for one little black girl, whose presence might be taken as an indication that we are seeing an ideal American town where racism has been overcome.

However, in this film few things are what they appear to be, and most things are worth a closer look. I would argue, for example, that the brief glimpse we get of this little black girl at the beginning of Blue Velvet almost inevitably evokes the case of Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old black girl who had to be escorted by federal marshals when she showed up to attend first grade at the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960—an image that has been engraved in the American mind by Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting. But, if one makes this connection, then this seemingly idyllic shot of an integrated group of school children suddenly becomes a reminder of America’s ugly and difficult past with regard to race relations. Given that the rest of the film performs a similar deconstruction of idealized visions of American small-town life, this connection, after viewing the rest of the film, becomes even more clear.

A lone black girl crosses a street with a group of white school children in Blue Velvet.

Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting depicting Ruby Bridges going to school escorted by federal marshals.

We then cut to the peaceful home of what we will learn is the Beaumont family, with the family patriarch out happily (and stereotypically) watering his lawn. A cut to the interior of the home shows Mrs. Beaumont sipping coffee and watching television, though what we see on the screen she is watching (a black-and-white closeup of a hand-held revolver, apparently moving in for the kill) is our first reminder that American culture and society might not be so peaceful after all. Subsequent images continue this dark turn, enhanced by sound effects. A closeup of Beaumont’s hose, leaking badly where it is attached to the faucet, seems only a minor sign of trouble, which then becomes more serious when the hose becomes entangled in a bush, impeding Beaumont’s progress across the lawn. He tugs at the hose, while cuts back and forth between the leaky faucet and the entangled hose suggest more trouble. Suddenly, Beaumont grabs the back of his neck and collapses onto the ground with what will turn out to be a near-fatal stroke. An unidentified innocent toddler waddles toward the fallen man, while a small dog aggressively seeks to drink from the still-spewing hose, furthering the juxtaposition of idyllic, all-American images with a dark intimation of mortality. Then the camera slowly pans into the grass that was being watered, as ominous sound effects accompany the gradual revelation of a deadly battle among insects hidden in the grass. A quick cut to a billboard announcing “Welcome to Lumberton” then ends the opening sequence, accompanied by a hilarious ode to logs and wood on the soundtrack.

The stage has now been set for the entire course of the rest of the film, which will be concerned with the revelation of dark goings-on beneath the surface of this placid town, whose calm surface obscures a depraved underworld of sex, drugs, violence, and death. In some ways, the plot is a simple one that reads almost like a dark parody of old-time youth detective stories such as those featuring Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys—except that it goes into dark territory that those stories would never explore. The plot is kicked off when young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), home from college as his father recuperates in a hospital from his stroke, discovers a severed human ear in a field. Such an abject discovery would certainly never occur in a Hardy Boys story, but the film shifts back to a relatively nostalgic mode as Jeffrey takes the ear to local police detective John Williams (George Dickerson), who of course knows the Beaumont family and agrees to check into the case of the severed ear.

However, impatient with the progress of the police investigation, Jeffrey decides to do some sleuthing of his own, aided by Williams’ daughter, high school senior Sandy Williams (Laura Dern). This investigation immediately leads them to beautiful lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who in turn leads them to discover a shocking world of crime and perversion lurking beneath the placid surface of Lumberton. Jeffrey, employing some rather problematic methods, learns that Dorothy is being terrorized by the deranged Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who forces her to submit to his weird, sadistic sexual proclivities by holding hostage her son and husband (the latter of whom was the owner of the ear found by Jeffrey earlier).

From this point, the double nature of the world of Lumberton is mirrored in Jeffrey’s double love life. Wholesome, chaste young love blooms between Jeffrey and Sandy as they bond over their investigation, but a much more perverse sexual relationship develops between Jeffrey and Dorothy, the latter of whom is so traumatized by her experience with Booth that she turns to Jeffrey for solace, exerting some power in that relationship in response to her complete lack of power in her dealings with Booth. But, of course, Jeffrey shows some doubleness of his own as he rather willingly responds to Dorothy’s sexual invitations while at the same time pursuing his relationship with Sandy, the two women thus forming a “good girl-bad girl” pairing of the type that is so often found in film noir, a genre that provided important models for so many things in this film.

Meanwhile, Booth turns out to be involved in an elaborate drug ring (with the complicity of Williams’ partner on the police force), but he is far too perverse to be a mere businesslike criminal. Instead, his criminal activity is merely part of what seems to be a general attempt to flout every possible aspect of acceptable bourgeois behavior. When Jeffrey falls into Booth’s hands, he exposes the young man to some of his bizarre social circle before beating him senseless and leaving him unconscious. Ultimately, though, the police move in on Booth’s operation, and Booth himself is shot and killed by Jeffrey, seemingly restoring order. Dorothy’s husband is killed by Booth and his gang, but Dorothy’s son is restored to her, and Jeffrey is restored to his family as well, including his recovered father. The romance between Jeffrey and Sandy seems set to proceed to a normal, socially acceptable conclusion. There are, though, hints that the dark side of Lumberton might be at least as authentic as the beautiful side, primarily in the way the film employs reminders of the tooth-and-claw nature of life in the animal kingdom. The film reminds us that the animal kingdom, like Lumberton, can be both beautiful and violent—as signaled by the film’s final image of a robin that lands on a windowsill announcing the town’s return to tranquility, but is at the same time eating an insect it has captured.

The whole Frank Booth/Dorothy Vallens story line reinforces the film’s central message, which is repeated several times in the film, almost like a mantra. This message (“it’s a strange world”) may go a long way toward explaining the tendency toward strangeness in Lynch’s films, which thereby simply becomes mimetic. However, what Lynch’s films represent is declaredly not reality but other representations of reality—which explains why they are sometimes so confusing to viewers who attempt to interpret them as being “about” the real world. Thus, the superficial tranquility of Lumberton—with its blooming flowers, singing birds, white picket fences, and friendly firemen—is quite transparently derived from nostalgic clichés of the American 1950s, with a look more reminiscent of a Disneyworld town than of any real town that ever existed in the 1950s or any other time. Meanwhile, the dark underside of Lumberton society seems equally stereotypical, deriving its material and look (cozy suburban homes suddenly replaced by stark urban red-brick buildings) from film noir—or what film noir might have been like without the Production Code, which placed strict limits on the kinds of images of sex and violence that could be included in Hollywood films between 1935 and 1968.

That Blue Velvet contains images that slide freely from the 1950s to the 1980s opens the way for a range of interpretations. For example, as opposed to the easily recognizable nods to nostalgic versions of the 1950s, the dark material related to Booth and his gang might be related to conditions prevailing in 1980s, Reagan-era America. Jameson, however, reads Booth as a marker of the 1960s counterculture, which presumably disrupted the seemingly placid texture of 1950s America (though that vision of the 1950s always obscured the reality of racism, sexism, and anticommunist paranoia that made the 1950s anything but placid for many Americans). For Jameson, though, the 1960s counterculture, represented by Booth, is represented in Blue Velvet as

“more distasteful than it is fearful, more disgusting than threatening: here evil has finally become an image, and the simulated replay of the fifties has generalized itself into a whole simulacrum in its own right. Now the boy without fear of the fairy tale can set out to undo this world of baleful enchantment, free its princess (while marrying another), and kill the magician. The lesson implied by all this—which is rather different from the lesson it transmits—is that it is better to fight drugs by portraying them as vicious and silly, than by awakening the full tonal range of ethical judgments and indignations and thereby endowing them with the otherwise glamorous prestige of genuine Evil, of the Transgressive in its most august religious majesty” (295).

This reading provides some interesting insights into the film, though it might be a bit too confident in its decoding of the film, especially as there is evidence in the film that Jameson’s reading is exactly backwards. Rather than see the depiction of Booth and his gang in Blue Velvet as a critique of the 1960s counterculture from the perspective of the Reaganite 1980s, I would argue that it is at least as possible to see the over-the-top representation of Booth as a mockery of the exaggerated vision of the counterculture as drug-addled evil that was typical of Reagan and his followers. By this reading, the real object of critique in the film’s representation of Booth is not the counterculture but the Reaganite 1980s and that decade’s obscene caricature of the 1960s counterculture, while aligning Reagan’s folksy, downhome declaration of his project of restoring the traditional values with a nostalgic vision of the 1950s that was always at odds with reality. Reagan’s project in the 1980s was, in many ways, packaged as an undoing of the consequences of the 1960s counterculture, and Jameson’s reading would seem to align Lynch with this Reaganite project, a reading that I admit is in line with certain widespread suspicions about Lynch’s ideology[1]. But, on my reading, what Blue Velvet really shows is that Reaganism, with its assaults on the 1960s, dismissed the idealism of the counterculture in favor of a cynical program of collusion between the government and corporate capitalism, sold to the American populace with a program of pure fear—fear of the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, but also fear of crime and drugs of the kind represented by Booth and the 1960s. As Coughlin puts it, Blue Velvet “is not pleading for a ‘return to the fifties’ or deferring to a ‘nostalgia’ of the past, he is actively criticizing the past to facilitate a greater understanding of the limitations of many of its representations” (310).

Certain images within Blue Velvet seem to support this reading and undermine Jameson’s. For example, the allusion to Ruby Bridges in the school-crossing scene would seem to align Lynch’s film with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and against the racism of the 1950s. There is also at least one other moment in Blue Velvet that was clearly designed to remind viewers of an iconic (and politically-charged) image. Late in the film, a naked, traumatized Dorothy, having escaped from Booth in the chaos of his downfall, stumbles onto the Beaumont lawn in a posture that clearly recalls the famous photograph of a young Vietnamese girl (Phan Thị Kim Phúc) running down a road, traumatized, after having been badly burned in an American napalm attack. And we know for certain that the similarities between these two images are not coincidental, because Rossellini has stated that Lynch asked her to study the famous photo of the Vietnamese “Napalm Girl” as an inspiration for performance in this scene in Blue Velvet.

The “Napalm Girl” photo is widely regarded as emblematic of the abuses committed by American troops in Vietnam and of the reason why the bulk of the Vietnamese people were so staunchly opposed to the American intervention in their affairs. By depicting the brutalized Dorothy in a pose calculated to recall the famous Vietnamese photo, Blue Velvet makes a very strong political statement, without a word of dialogue or exposition. Dorothy suffers the same fate at the hands of Booth that Phan suffered at the hands of the official American forces in Vietnam, leading to the inescapable suggestion that the American intervention was driven by some of the same perverse inclinations that govern Booth’s behavior. It is but a step from this connection to the conclusion that the “real” America is not the wholesome world of the surface of Lumberton but the depraved world of Lumberton’s underground[2]. In any case, this image would seem to constitute a sharp criticism of the American involvement in Vietnam as sadistic and unhinged (like Booth), thus aligning Blue Velvet with the antiwar movement of the 1960s, which was the central issue uniting all the different elements of the 1960s counterculture, once again undermining Jameson’s notion that the film is intended as a dismissal of the counterculture.

Blue Velvet follows in the footsteps of any number of American films in its portrayal of a seemingly idyllic American town that conceals an inner darkness. Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), for example, has often been mentioned as a possible predecessor to Lynch’s film, though Hitchcock’s film in a sense goes farther by locating darkness within the American family. Meanwhile, the idea that the shiny surface of modern civilization in general conceals a dark underbelly that is its true character is a widespread one that goes beyond American culture, revealing powerful anxieties at the heart of the entire project of modernity. In many ways, the ur-text of this notion is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), another text that involves a physical journey that is also a symbolic journey into the darkness of the unconscious. The title of Conrad’s text ostensibly refers both to Charlie Marlow’s trip into darkest Africa and to the journey into the unconscious that this physical journey symbolizes. On closer examination, though, Conrad’s title more pointedly refers to the savagery that lies, not in the heart of the African jungle, but at the heart of the seemingly advanced European civilization of the time. Marlow’s description of the city of Brussels as a “whited sepulchre”—as a tomb that appears to be glistening and clean on the outside but that contains a rotting corpse on the inside—metaphorically captures this vision of a European civilization that exists as a thin veneer over a savage core to which Europeans might revert with the slightest provocation[3]. This same image, of course, might equally well be applied to Lynch’s Lumberton.

The strangeness of the world of Blue Velvet is directly related to its heavy use of dreamlike energies from the unconscious. At the same time, Lynch has quite consciously produced his film’s air of strangeness by the use of a number of strategies, including a vague sense of non-specificity that goes beyond its blurring of boundaries between different decades. For example, the status of Lumberton as a locus of the lumber industry is emphasized at the beginning of the film so strongly that one expects this industry to be a crucial factor in the film, but then it really isn’t. Meanwhile, all those early images identifying Lumberton as an idyllic American small town are thematically important, and seemingly small-town settings (such as Arlene’s diner) pop up occasionally throughout the film, but mostly Lumberton appears to be a moderately sized city, with actual urban and industrial areas, creating a great deal of uncertainty about just what sort of setting we are in. For those familiar with Lynch’s work, that early emphasis on lumber, along with the presence of MacLachlan and the general strangeness of the film, would respectively seem to identity Lumberton as a direct forerunner of Twin Peaks, though Lumberton seems bigger and more urban. Blue Velvet, in fact, was shot in Wilmington, North Carolina, a city of over 100,000 people and thus one that is significantly larger than Twin Peaks[4]. It might also be interesting to note that perhaps the single most distinctive feature of Wilmington is that it is set on the Cape Fear River (shown in an early shot in Blue Velvet), thus among other things linking the setting to the legacy of the Cape Fear film of 1962 (remade in 1991), which features disturbed killer Max Cady, a clear forerunner of Frank Booth.

Ultimately, we don’t really know where Lumberton is supposed to be or how big it is supposed to be. It is also at times hard to tell when it is supposed to be. As noted by Denzin, Blue Velvet includes a number of inconsistent historical markers, though its principal historical mix is between the mid-1980s, when the film was made, and the 1950s, from which many of the characters seem to emerge and returns us to the question of 1950s nostalgia, though this nostalgia is itself quite vaguely defined in the film. In fact, the 1950s are never overtly identified as an object of nostalgia in the film, but fifties nostalgia was so well established by this time that Lynch could assume viewers would recognize the various cues that point in this direction. By the 2020s, of course, the 1950s nostalgia in Blue Velvet takes on an extra layer of irony because the film was made in the mid-1980s and is ostensibly (on the basis of automobiles and other items within the film) set there as well, while the 1980s had themselves become a common object of cultural nostalgia by the 2020s.

One thinks here of the Netflix series Stranger Things (2016– ), whose nostalgia is tellingly focused less on real life in the 1980s than on the pop culture of the 1980s (such as the films of Steven Spielberg or the music of The Clash), suggesting the thoroughly mediatized nature of our memories of the past in the era of the spectacle. The series reads very much like a pastiche of several well-known cultural products of the 1980s, such as Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986)—with a dash of The X-Files (1993–2002) thrown in as well. There is an occasional nod to the real 1980s, as when one family displays a Reagan-Bush yard sign in the second season, which is set during the 1984 presidential campaign. The series is filled with direct references to the culture of the 1980s, including a liberal helping of 1980s popular music, often heard diegetically, but also included as background music either to scenes or to the closing credits. Snippets of various television programs or commercials are also seen, while numerous films of the decade are referred to as well, either in passing (as in the inclusion of movie posters on the kids’ walls) or even as part of the plot, as when a group of the kids in the show go trick-or-treating dressed as the gang from Ghostbusters (1984). Finally, a number of specific commodities (toys, snack foods, sodas) that one might associate with the 1980s appear within the series.

All of these items make Stranger Things seem like a spectacle of 1980s nostalgia objects, pointing toward the way in which nostalgia in general is a fundamentally spectacular phenomenon built on the replacement of actual memories of the past with images of a past time that might well have little or no connection with the material reality of that time. In the case of Stranger Things, the nostalgia value of the series is enhanced by the fact that it is primarily set in a small Indiana town and is dominated by characters who are children or teenagers. The series features numerous scenes of things such as kids riding around town on bikes or inexperienced teenagers exploring the dynamics of sex and love for the first time, creating a sense of the 1980s as a simpler and more innocent time, much in the way the 1950s had long been portrayed in popular culture, including in 1980s works such as Stand By Me. Even the adult characters in Stranger Things are often played by actors (Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine, Sean Astin) who had first risen to prominence as cultural icons playing children or teenagers in films of the 1980s, adding an additional nostalgia effect.

In addition to the obvious echoes of Stand By Me, Stranger Things calls attention to the similarities between its depiction of the 1980s and the depiction of the 1950s in earlier nostalgic works in other ways. For example, the secret government experiments that set the events of the series in motion are modeled on the actual “MKUltra” CIA mind-control experiments, which were officially authorized in 1953. MKUltra is, in fact, directly mentioned several times in Stranger Things, and in ways that acknowledge the link to the experiments that drive Stranger Things. In addition, even some of the products that are used to create a “1980s” atmosphere for the series are actually products of the 1950s. Eggo frozen waffles, for example, play an especially prominent role, but these products (which were quite popular in the 1980s) actually date to 1953 and were first marketed under the “Eggo” brand label in 1955.

It is tempting to see the current wave of nostalgia for the 1980s as a simple generational change in which the Culture Industry simply shifts its nostalgic target over time to maintain a focus on a time that roughly corresponds to the childhood years of individuals now in their prime adult years. And this explanation no doubt contains some truth. However, I think that the current nostalgic focus on the 1980s also has a particularly postmodern aspect that Jameson has described as a “nostalgia for nostalgia” (Postmodernism 156). One might also describe this phenomenon as a sort of meta-nostalgia. We are now, I would argue, no longer able to maintain a genuine nostalgia for the past; instead, we are faux-nostalgic for the 1980s because that was the last decade in which we were still presumably able to feel a genuine nostalgia for the 1950s.

Seen in this way, it is not surprising that Stranger Things is only one of numerous recent pop cultural products to have employed nostalgic visions of the 1980s to connect with audiences in the twenty-first century. Steven Spielberg’s own Ready Player One (2018), for example, contains a veritable barrage of references to the popular culture of the 1980s, a culture to which Spielberg himself was a central contributor. Particularly telling as an example of 1980s nostalgia is the “San Junipero” episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror, in which the year 1987 is chosen as the setting for an idealized simulated environment, with the music of that time used with particularly good effect to help create that environment. Isra Daraiseh and I have discussed this episode in detail elsewhere, but for now I would simply like to point out that the nostalgic vision of 1987 featured in this episode is overtly a specifically a simulation designed, not to be realistic, but to replace reality with a more pleasant simulation, so that the episode shows a clear analysis of just how nostalgia works.

Blue Velvet, however, already calls into question the validity of 1950s nostalgia, suggesting that the turn toward postmodern nostalgia was already well underway in the 1980s, even if it was not as mainstream as it is in the 2020s.Thus, while Lynch’s film employs a panoply of retro images from the 1950s, it ultimately undermines any attempt to digest these images in a nostalgic way. The film’s 1950s imagery is associated with youthful sexual innocence, with calm, crimeless streets, with safe, comfortable homes. But everything that happens in the film warns us that these images are superficial and unrealistic. Beneath the placid, idyllic surface of Lumberton lurks a dark world of sexual depravity and abject violence. Moreover, there is no sense of temporal sequence in which the film’s images of tranquility and wholesomeness are associated with the 1950s, while the images of darkness and depravity are associated with the 1980s. Instead, all of these images are overlaid, existing simultaneously, with the ultimate implication that the stereotypical 1950s images represent what the citizens of Lumberton in the 1980s wish their world could be like with no implication that their world was ever that way, even in the actual 1950s.

As is typically the case with Lynch’s films, music is crucial to the overall impact of Blue Velvet. For one thing, Angelo Badalamenti’s score escapes association with any particular time period, though its refusal to point toward any other time makes it seem fairly contemporary to the 1980s. It also employs a range of styles (with a tilt toward jazz) to produce a vague sense of strangeness and threat, a sense that the placid surface of things in Lumberton might be disrupted at any moment—as, of course, it frequently is in this film. This score, though, is so thoroughly integrated into the texture of the film that it doesn’t particularly leap out as a feature. What does leap out is the use of well-known popular songs that supplement Badalamenti’s often-jazzy original score in important ways.

When such popular music is imported into a film, it comes into the film with a pre-existing set of memories and associations with the time period in which it originally appeared. The most obvious case of the use of popular music in Blue Velvet s the repeated sue of the song that gives the film its title, which dates all the way back to its composition in 1950 by Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris and which first became a hit for Tony Bennett in 1951. The version used prominently in the film, however, is the much better-known version recorded by Bobby Vinton in 1963, which (among other things) points to the way in which our cultural memories of the “1950s” include the first few years of the 1960s as well.

“Blue Velvet” is, on the surface, a sentimental song describing an idealized lost love, remembered as wearing blue velvet on a particularly rapturous night, with the blue velvet becoming a kind of memory trigger from the future perspective of the song, in which this loved one is now long lost. But the song’s key refrain emphasizes the fact that this rapturous night and this wonderful love are things of the past, which makes it a perfect anthem for a film in which nostalgia for a lost idealized past is such a crucial concern, while this nostalgic element is also enhanced by the fact that the song originates in the period on which Blue Velvet’s nostalgia is focused:

But in my heart there’ll always be

Precious and warm, a memory

Through the years

And I still can see blue velvet

Through my tears

In Vinton’s pop version of the song, the element of lost love remains central to the lyrics but is somewhat muted by the fact that Vinton’s delivery is not particularly tortured, emphasizing pleasant past memories rather than current torments and tears. In this sense, Vinton’s version stands in stark contrast to the version delivered by Dorothy Vallens in her lounge act in Blue Velvet. Dorothy is not a very good singer, but she is a sincere one, and her delivery of the song clearly conveys some of the torments that she is currently going through in her life. Her version thus undercuts any attempt to read the song as a sweet pop cultural recollection of times gone by and places the emphasis squarely on the lack of sweetness in the present.

Dorothy’s performance of “Blue Velvet”is a direct predecessor to that key moment in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) when real-world singer Rebekah del Rio steps to the microphone, a tear painted on her cheek to signify her status as “La Llorona,” or the “Weeping Woman,” a figure from Latin American folklore. Del Rio then proceeds to present a moving and powerful a Capello rendition of Roy Orbison’s classic hit “Crying” (1961), though in a Spanish translation. Del Rio’s performance, in fact, is so effective and heartfelt that it sends the characters watching her into tears; Del Rio herself faints and falls to the floor in the midst of the performance, seemingly overcome. And yet the performance goes on, revealing that she had only been lip-syncing to a recording, though the scene suggests that this fact does not necessarily undermine the power of the performance.

A lip-synched version of Orbison’s music features in Blue Velvet as well. After Jeffrey and Dorothy fall into the clutches of Booth and a couple of his thugs, they are introduced to Booth’s gang of drugged-out misfits, including the “suave fucker” Ben (Dean Stockwell), who actually seems more effeminate than suave, but who seems to be something of a leader of this group, who mostly seem to be almost like mascots kept around for Booth’s entertainment more than actual members of his criminal gang. This is certainly the case with Ben, who regales the whole group, at Booth’s request, with his own weirdly-lit lip-synched rendition of Orbison’s “In Dreams,” a 1963 hit that fits perfectly with the oneiric character of so much of Blue Velvet, including this performance itself, which seems to move Booth almost to tears, until he interrupts it, grabs the cassette tape from which the song was playing, and leads his entourage out to a remote sawmill, one of the few indications in the film that we are in a logging town. There, Booth starts to sexually abuse Dorothy. When Jeffrey tries to intervene, Booth responds by playing “In Dreams” on the cassette deck in the car while, seemingly energized to savagery by the song, he badly beats Jeffrey, leaving him lying unconscious on the ground.

Like “Blue Velvet,” “In Dreams” is nominally a sentimental song of lost love, but in Stockwell’s weird pantomime or as accompaniment to a savage beating, the song functions in the film as anything but nostalgic. In fact, the setting in which the song is played in Blue Velvet makes it seem like an anthem to vicious madness. Orbison was reportedly quite upset at the way the song was used, though in fact its use in the film helped to re-energize Orbison’s flagging career, helping to boost the release of a greatest-hits album in 1987. Unfortunately, Orbison unexpectedly died of a heart attack in late 1988, just as the new super-group he helped to found, The Traveling Wilburys (including such rock royalty as Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Tom Petty, as well as Orbison), had recorded their first album and seemed headed for great success.

The prominent use of the songs “In Dreams” and “Blue Velvet” might appear to support the notion that Blue Velvet is informed by a nostalgic vision of the 1950s, given that references to the music of the decade have long been crucial to 1950s nostalgia in general. However, the use of these songs in Blue Velvet actually undermines 1950s nostalgia. For one thing, both “In Dreams” and Vinton’s version of “Blue Velvet” are from 1963, suggesting that our cultural memory of the 1950s might be a bit inaccurate. More importantly, as I have noted above, Vinton’s rendition of “Blue Velvet” is undermined in the film by the version performed by Dorothy Vallens, while “In Dreams” is subverted by Ben’s bizarre pantomime of it.

All in all, it seems most advisable to read Blue Velvet as a critique of nostalgia more than as an example of it. For example, Crescencia Chay concludes that “Blue Velvet masterfully paints an impressionistic and nightmarish dreamscape of small-town suburban America that highlights the problematic ideology of Americana in the postmodern condition. Through the deconstruction of this seemingly perfect American suburbia, the film highlights the ways in which postmodernism has engendered illusory feelings of nostalgia and wistfulness for a manufactured ‘dream’” (93).

That Blue Velvet’s intentions toward idyllic visions of small-town America (or 1950s America) are mostly subversive can also be seen in the film’s ending, which at first glance might appear to endorse those idyllic visions. Normalcy seems entirely restored (though normalcy also includes a robin eating a bug. More importantly, though, the normalcy that is restored is just a bit too “normal.” As Berry puts it, this ending is “transparently ironic, a ridiculously happy ending to the smalltown life of a nuclear family. The symbolic order of the ‘normal’ world has been shown by Lynch to be a mere sham and an never really be fully restored” (89). Given all that we have seen before about the kinds of things that really go on in Lumberton (and we have to wonder whether Booth’s death will ensure that bad things don’t continue to happen), the ending of the film seems quite contrived and inauthentic, somewhat like the inauthentic versions of American reality that were so consistently purveyed in American television sitcoms of the 1950s. Real American life in the 1980s is not like what was shown in those sitcoms—and neither was real American life in the 1950s.

Works Cited

Berry, Betsy. “Forever, In My Dreams: Generic Conventions and The Subversive Imagination in Blue Velvet.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 16, no.2,1988, pp. 82–90.

Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood: What’s New in Film and Why It Makes Us Feel So Strange. Greenwood Press, 2007.

Booker, M. Keith. Strange TV: Innovative Television Series from The Twilight Zone to The X-Files. Greenwood, 2003.

Chay, Crescencia. “‘He Put His Disease in Me’: Abjection, Depravity and Postmodern Suburbia in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.’” Film International, vol, 19, no. 1, March 2021, pp. 87–93.

Coughlin, Paul. “Postmodern Parody and the Subversion of Conservative Frameworks.”
Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 4,2003, pp.  304–311.

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[1] In response to arguments that Lynch’s legendary Twin Peaks television series is suffused with Reaganite ideology, I conclude in my book Strange TV that “Rather than present a Reaganite view of the world, Twin Peaks wishes it could present a Reaganite view of the world, but seems to know, deep down, that such a view is so untenable as to be ridiculous” (114). Or, as Martin puts it, “Blue Velvet’s imagery may be in close proximity to that employed by Reagan, Palin and the New Urbanists, but in Lynch’s laboratory, the symbolic shatters” (245).

[2] One might compare here Norman Mailer’s 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam?, which similarly suggests that Vietnam was made possible by certain pathological elements in the American psyche.

[3] This late-Victorian fear of reversion to primitive savagery (or “degeneration”) perhaps reflected most overtly in literature in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), in which the ultra-sophisticated Dr. Henry Jekyll develops a potion that activates Mr. Hyde, the primitive brute that still lurks within his modern exterior, only to find that Hyde’s primordial vigor makes him the stronger of the two, leading him to take over.  On the extent to which the discourse of “degeneration” became a popular fascination in Britain (and, to a lesser extent, America) around the end of the nineteenth century, see Kershner.

[4] A welcome sign at the Twin Peaks city limit lists the town’s population as 51,201, but the town seems much smaller. Indeed, a mock visitors’ guide published for fans of the show reveals that the population of the town is actually 5,120.