Capstone project, M.A. English Literature, Duquesne University, Spring 2016
"Blue Velvet," released in 1986, is one of the more cohesive stories by the enigmatic filmmaker David Lynch, yet it still baffles viewers with its extreme violence and unusual characters. In this capstone project, I unravel the many Freudian images within the film and argue that story is a bildungsroman in which the protagonist symbolically reaches adulthood. I also explore the question of whether the portrayal of extreme violence is appropriate within the context of film-making, which as an art-form requires actors and actresses to "live" the intense world of the film.
This project began as a seminar paper for a Literary Theory course in 2015. At half the length, I dissected "Blue Velvet" using Laura Mulvey's psychoanalytic framework and related research. Over the course of the next year, I expanded the paper for my capstone project.
David Lynch has cited the 1986 Blue Velvet as one of his most personal films, inspired by his desire to sneak into a girl’s room and inadvertently become involved in a detective story. (“Blue Velvet: An Interview With David Lynch”) Appropriately then, the film’s resolution, in which Jeffrey Beaumont, our protagonist, returns from his formative tenure within a seedy underworld to a blissful domestic paradise that borders on the eerie, comes directly from his dreams. Lynch states in an interview that, “this film allows a person to become a voyeur and to have an experience of a world that is hidden.” (David Lynch TV Interview 1986) The most apparent hidden world within Blue Velvet is the criminal sphere that the protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont, unearths within his bucolic home town; however, multiple layers operate within the film’s larger framework, perhaps most directly the hidden dreams and desires of David Lynch himself. Though his method of drawing inspiration from his own dreams and intuition renders Blue Velvet a perfect candidate for psychoanalysis, Lynch himself resists all efforts, critical and otherwise, to interpret his work. Lynch privileges intuition as an artist’s most valuable tool and likewise encourages audiences to enjoy his work intuitively rather than analytically. Lynch as a director strives to evoke feeling rather than prescribe meaning. (“Blue Velvet: An Interview With David Lynch”; Rodley 137) Nonetheless, audiences and critics turn primarily to psychoanalysis as a means to interpret the sexual and violent excesses that pervade Blue Velvet. Many audiences, though, have found these excesses unnecessary and offensive.
Blue Velvet caused such a stir that protestors picketed outside of the theater when it opened in London. (Rodley 150) They found its portrayal of women and sexual violence misogynistic; not only casual audiences but also certain established film critics, such as Robert Ebert, found Blue Velvet appalling. The excessive nature of Blue Velvet announced itself from the moment Dennis Hopper was cast in a lead role. The actor’s reputation as a drug-addled, unpredictable, violent figure preceded him and subsequently preceded Blue Velvet itself. Though Hopper represented the same monstrous qualities of the villainous character (Frank Booth) whom he plays in the film, in reality, the role represented a tempering of Hopper’s previously wild persona. The actor had just given up drugs and alcohol and achieved his frenetic performance thanks to adrenaline and David Lynch’s enthusiastic directing style, rather than with the aid of intoxicants (Olson). Just as this newfound sobriety imbued Dennis Hopper’s performance with an intriguing nuance for contemporary audiences, the characters within the world of Blue Velvet also present audiences with deeply nuanced representations of gender, sexuality, and violence. It does this by exploring both its characters’ psychological depths and the cultural codes of gender to which they either adhere or fail to adhere.
Sigmund Freud would find great interest in Blue Velvet, which was assembled from its creator’s daydreams and miscellaneous fantasies. David Lynch doesn’t even try to pretend the film isn’t personal; he admits that he identifies with the young Kyle MacLachlan, an unsurprising connection even aesthetically, considering the Lynchian suit and tie the boy dons throughout the film. The film, in addition to being constructed in a dream-like fashion, is surreal in itself. Freudian imagery and symbolism pervade the landscape, and the Oedipal complex that Freud outlines in The Interpretation of Dreams populates its narrative structure. This Oedipal structure is doubled, with our protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) at its center. The narrative follows Jeffrey on a journey from his 50s era, small-town home, through a subversive, violent underworld, and ultimately returns him safely to the world of paternal law and order. Jeffrey enacts his Oedipal drama in the underworld before returning to his home a fully realized man, who has internalized the trauma associated with growing up. In this way, the film is a bildungsroman; yet, Blue Velvet is not about growing up so much as it is about the tragedy of being unable to return to a harmonious and innocent time prior to adulthood.
Psychoanalytic theorists such as Lacan and Freud postulate that the experience of growing up inflicts considerable trauma upon a child’s psyche, from the mirror stage which occurs as an infant to as late as the onset of puberty and the exploration of one’s sexuality. This trauma is necessary to discover sexual difference and also to learn about gender roles and performance of gender. As Blue Velvet’s masculine protagonist and hero, Jeffrey Beaumont, enters adulthood, he participates in traditional patterns of homosocial behavior and receives traditionally gendered sexual rewards. This privileging of the male protagonist is due to his position as not only a male, but a male who hearkens from the film’s patriarchal sphere. Blue Velvet is populated by, on one hand, inhabitants of Jeffrey’s all-American hometown, who repress their trauma and who successfully participate in their prescribed roles of adulthood; and on the other hand, inhabitants of the chaotic underworld, who fail to perform their cultural and gender roles due to an excess of trauma that they reflexively re-enact on a constant basis.
The unusual aspect of Blue Velvet’s Oedipal resemblances is the duality of two family structures. Jeffrey cannot enact his growing up ritual within the ordered world that he calls home because it involves activities and emotions which are taboo in this seemingly safe small town. The underworld where he ventures is broken, yet only here can the boy participate in the Oedipal drama necessary in order for him to reach adulthood. Blue Velvet suggests that to successfully become an adult member of society, a person must both undergo a traumatic, Freudian sexual awakening and also learn to suppress that trauma and perform their culturally prescribed gender; in its distinction between worlds, it offers a critique of the repressed, patriarchal sphere to which Jeffrey belongs. This critique occurs most noticeably in the fluidity of gender roles present within the underworld. Though much of the film is encoded with traditional gender roles, David Lynch operates within these roles to challenge them, blurring the lines of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality. Especially the film’s subversive characters— Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini)— challenge their prescribed gender roles. At times, they perform their gender to excess, and at other times, their guard falls and their performance becomes androgynous. The excessive violence, sexuality, and melodrama that characterizes their relationships causes them to break gender binaries and challenge cultural notions of patriarchy.
I will unpack the Freudian, mainly Oedipal traces within Blue Velvet’s plot by analyzing Jeffrey’s relationship with each of the main characters of Blue Velvet. These relationships reveal the psychological undercurrents of Jeffrey’s sexual and individual maturation, a maturation that results in trauma that he must learn to suppress in order to return to his patriarchal home. Laura Mulvey’s analysis of cinema and of Blue Velvet specifically will offer insight at certain points to reveal how certain characters either fulfill their culturally prescribed gender roles or challenge them, and Linda Williams’ theory of excess in cinema will also help unpack how Blue Velvet challenges gender roles through its varied use of genre convention. Finally, an inspection of key images and songs that recur throughout the film will reinforce the themes of nostalgia, destruction, and rebirth. These motifs emphasize the idea that trauma is both transformative and in certain cases, productive.
Works Cited/ Works Referenced
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De Lauretis, Teresa. “The Technology of Gender.” Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. 1-30. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.<http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/gustafson/FILM%20165A.W11/film%20165A%5BW11%5D%20readings%20/delauretis.technology.pdf>
Ebert, Roger. “My Problem With “Blue Velvet”” Rev. of Blue Velvet. 2 Oct. 1986: n. pag. RogerEbert.com. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <http://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/my-problem-with-blue-velvet>.
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Lynch, David, and Chris Rodley. “She Wasn’t Fooling Anyone, She Was Hurt And She Was Hurt Bad: Music And Blue Velvet.” Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber and Faber, 1997. 125-51. Google Books. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Mulvey, Laura. “Netherworlds and the Unconscious: Oedipus and Blue Velvet.” Fetishism and Curiosity. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. 137-55. Web. 11 Apr. 2016. <http://bavatuesdays.com/wp-content/Laura_Mulvey.pdf>.
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Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess.” Film Theory and Criticism; Introductory Readings. Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 602-16. Print.