For all the human intrigues and noir mysteries in David Lynch’s work, there is always the intrusion of the otherworldly, and a foreboding sense of that which lurks beneath the story. The most famous examples of this are those supernatural beings which occupy the corners of his films – the dancing Man from Another Place and his Twin Peaks cohort and Lost Highway’s Mystery Man are two paradigm cases. But while the bizarre and uncanny are clearly evident in Blue Velvet, it’s hard to say that anything is truly ‘otherworldly’ going on. How does the straightforward narrative of a young man’s descent into the criminal underside of small-town USA become invested with such menace, such magic?
The answer is sound, the creation and command of acoustics and physical space that goes one further than a visual, classical mode of filmmaking. Of all Lynch’s films, this is most clear in Blue Velvet – in the opening sequence, we are repeatedly made aware of the importance of sound and its relationship to the events to follow. Against the opening, full-colour tableau of flowers, picket fences and sunlit suburbia, we hear the floating tune of Bobby Darin’s ‘Blue Velvet’, and the encroaching sounds of insects, running water and barking dogs. After a schmaltzy radio bite, introducing us to the tone of the town of Lumberton, USA, we meet a silent Geoffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who tosses a stone into whistling grass. Geoffrey does two things before the main plot truly begins – he visits his ailing father, who fails to communicate to him, and then he finds a human ear.
The ear becomes a gateway into the main plot, and the terrifying truths of Lynch’s universe. The mystery of the ear’s owner, leading into the stories of lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and her abusive ‘captor’ Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), is repeatedly moved forward by sound and hearing. From the facts of the case, overheard by Sandy Williams (Laura Dern, in her first of many critical roles in Lynch), to the bizarre coupling of Vallens and Booth, described by Michel Chion as a “an archaic acoustic impression”, that is, a weird image reconstructed from sounds, a great deal of the film’s key scenes arise first in the acoustic register.
Not since the singing, dancing Lady in the Radiator has the performed song been so prominent in Lynch. ‘Blue Velvet’ reappears, sung by Dorothy Vallens at the Slow Club. Her song doubles with the fetish-object of her nightgown, the blue velvet that muffles Frank’s voice, transforming Hopper’s Booth from caricature villain to nightmarish human being. Later, Frank will sing to Geoffrey – Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’, which has earlier been lip-synched by “suave motherfucker” Ben (Dean Stockwell) to magical effect. And in one of the film’s pivotal scenes – Laura Dern recounts her dream of the robins and a “blinding light of love” – Chion writes that “she has the eyes of a blind person”. Though vision and Lynch’s stunning cinematography are prominent parts of Blue Velvet, the ideas of sound and voice are most central to the narrative and Lynch’s thematic treatment.
The result of this acoustic filmmaking is, as in Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, the masterful command of space and time, the creation of a living, breathing location. Lynch’s treatment of small-town America, in Lumberton, Wild at Heart’s Big Tuna, and of course Twin Peaks, gives you the sense of having lived and wandered in these places. This command of space carries onto the map of relationships and psychology that makes Lynch’s characters so memorable, characters that speak, weep and resonate with the world around them. This return to sound is not a regression, as it might seem from the image of the ear as gateway to sin and corruption, but rather a return to the type of understanding that envelops, enfolds its subject. As Geoffrey and Sandy dance together to the sound of Julee Cruise’s “Mysteries of Love”, we see the hopeful signs of a David Lynch that hopes to take us through the dark.