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Film Essays

Blue Velvet: Exploring the Underbelly of American Nostalgia

“Nostalgia (noun): a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past”
–  Oxford English Dictionary

This definition of nostalgia is still fairly new. Originally, nostalgia was a medical-psychological term to describe the feelings of soldiers far from their homelands. It was a crippling homesickness, and those diagnosed with nostalgia were given leave to return home for a short period of time to regain their strength. Since then, nostalgia has progressed from the pathological to the emotional.

Nostalgia is the feeling that if you could reclaim a sense of the past, everything would be better. Wasn’t everything better back then? Nostalgia is a sense of pride in a self-created history. It has come to dominate many forms of popular culture. The rise of the costume drama, pin-up advertising, vintage fashion, and even the increased use of vinyl record players are all forms of indulgence in nostalgia. A cultural pull toward the aesthetic of the past fascinates me. It seems both backwards and subversive.

The first time I came across Blue Velvet, it was in an article about nostalgia. I was working on my senior thesis, and I was writing about the use of the freak show in popular fiction. I was reading this particular article because it talked about American nostalgia and the grotesque. As it turned out, the article wasn’t all that useful to what I was writing about, but it put Blue Velvet on my radar.

When I saw the movie, I was immediately struck by the constant transitions that Lynch makes between nostalgia and a sort of warped present. Lynch revels in the kitsch of the past, and at the same time uses the past to reveal that there was never a time when “everything was ok.” He creates the world of the film through careful placement of anachronisms and by blending the old with the new.

Because of this, it’s very difficult to figure out when the film is actually supposed to take place. The costuming of the film utilizes a mixture of “classic” styles and contemporary 1980s clothing. As you can see in the below screenshot, sometimes the setting and the costuming looks like it came straight out of “Grease.” But if you look very closely, you’ll notice that the slouchy quality of the sweaters and the cut of the skirts are definitely very 1980s.

This temporal ambiguity is furthered by storytelling techniques particular to film. Lynch juxtaposes a script soaked in anachronism and turns of phrase found in film noir with a brilliantly colored film. Not only are the colors of “Blue Velvet” vivid, but Lynch purposely puts together scenes of almost unreal color. One could argue that it’s the default of directors to film in color, but it wasn’t Lynch’s default. By the time he was writing Blue Velvet, he had already directed The Elephant Man and Eraserhead, both in black and white.

This choice shows a delicious contrast to the film noir classics that Lynch is so obviously using for inspiration. It’s very similar, but things have turned out just a little bit different. The color makes this “parallel world” very close to our own. It blurs the line between eras, confusing the viewer, suggesting that the past was not as simple as we’d like to remember.

In Blue Velvet, the nostalgia we’re meant to feel for the era of film noir is just a cover-up for the disturbing things going on in our own minds. The unreal color Lynch uses at the beginning of the film adds to this feeling. Everything seems perfect right off the bat, but as the story goes on and more of the reality of the town is revealed to Jeffrey, the color resolution becomes less intense. Fewer lights are used, until the dream-like resolution of the film. But because Lynch switches back to this mode of filming, the viewer can’t trust the ending. It’s too similar to the dreamy beginning shots.

Nostalgia is created not only visually, but audibly as well. The language that mirrors film noir (i.e., “that’s a human ear all right,” and “it’s a strange world, Sandy”) adds to the idea that this is a parallel world to ours. The scoring of the film also borrows heavily from film classics through both the instrumentation and certain musical refrains. I can immediately recognize riffs borrowed or updated from Hitchcock classics, in particular Vertigo and Rebecca. For some of the more whimsical scenes, the scoring borrows from Hitchcock’s album release “Music to be Murdered By.” The scoring also utilizes certain singles, such as the titular “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton. This adds to the temporal ambiguity of the film as a whole, because these musical references don’t come from any specific era other than The Past In General.

Lynch’s film brings the sickness back to nostalgia. He combines the pathological and emotional, leaving the viewer uncomfortable. There are other aspects of the film (the ritualistic rape scene, Frank’s addiction to amyl nitrate, etc.) that make it widely considered one of the most disturbing movies of all time. But Lynch’s disfiguring of our inner desire for a dream of the past is unsettling in a way that is very difficult to describe. If you’re in the mood for a disturbing tale staring into the nostalgic American consciousness, crack a PBR and watch this film.

Abbie Plouff  2/21/12

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “Blue Velvet: Exploring the Underbelly of American Nostalgia

  1. “The language that mirrors film noir (i.e., ‘that’s a human ear all right,’ and ‘it’s a strange world, Sandy’)”

    One could argue these lines in particular are meant simply to highlight the absurdity and banality of the characters and situations involved, but fair enough. “That’s a human ear, alright,” is one of the most consistant laugh-getters in the entire picture.

    Characters like Dectective Williams and Jeffery Beaumont are both out of their depth when it comes to dealing with the bizarre mindset of their antagonists, and lack the vocabulary to adequately convey the reckless evil and psychotic hate with which they are confronted. Their verbal reactions are underwhelming to the absurd extreme – not simply a throwback to the contrived cadences of film noir.

    It’s also helpful to remember the context in which BV was actually released – it is very much a product of the 1980s and the popular conflation of an imaginary, nostalgic golden age with the “Morning in America” optimism of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down America. In 1986, “Blue Velvet” was understood as very much an examination of the Now, not the past – the pervasiveness of the grotesque underbelly of the American dream, no matter what the actual decade happens to be.

    Of course, depending on how and when you first encountered the film, your mileage may vary. 😉

    Posted by Phillip Lozano | February 21, 2012, 10:32 pm
    • Honestly, I agree with you. But I would argue that in Blue Velvet, Lynch utilizes anachronisms to show how out of touch the characters are with reality. Using nostalgia in this way takes Lynch’s criticism of the 1980s one step further, in showing that “Morning in America” optimism of Reagan is inadequate in dealing with the problems of the world.

      I think that those particular lines are really funny to me because they mirror films from an earlier era that I’ve also seen. And I definitely think that they do exactly what you said, but given the content and aesthetic of the film as a whole, I would argue that nostalgia is the tool he uses to show inadequacy and banality. There are other ways he could have done this, but chose that very specific language for a reason.

      Thank you for your comment, and also thank you for adding some more context to the discussion.

      Posted by abbieplouff | February 25, 2012, 9:22 am
    • I have to say this one didn’t do it for me at all. I think for all the disconnectedness and dream-like abitractson of Mulholland Drive it still amounted to something emotionally tangible ultimately we could empathise with Naomi Watts’ character and care that she should be stuck in this nightmare of personal failure and unfulfilled fantasy. Inland Empire’ just didn’t deliver a reason for me to care. It was so deconstructed, or structureless apparantly Lynch made it up scene by scene that I had no hook into the characters to invest in emotionally. Granted, this is not always necessary, but even as a purely impressionistic piece I didn’t feel this was particularly interesting. Many old Lynch visual and thematic tricks were repeated and rather loosely threaded together. Still a big fan, but hope he might make something as emotionally resonant as Elephant Man again one day.James, despite the lack of structure for Inland Empire, I still enjoyed the experimental style of it, and on some level I connected with Laura Dern’s performance but not necessarily with her characters. I agree, I didn’t care about the fate of Dern as much as I did Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. I would also like to see Lynch do something along the lines of The Elephant Man again, though that seems doubtful. DHS

      Posted by Ronan | March 10, 2012, 8:45 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Blue Velvet: Exploring the Underbelly of American Nostalgia « - February 25, 2012

  2. Pingback: Quick nostalgia kick: The Iron Giant (1999) « Video Word Made Flesh - February 25, 2012

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