Exploring the Dark Side: Contrasting Themes in Blue Velvet
The subconscious psyche is one of the most fascinating and almost completely inexplicable aspects of human behavior. Even more intriguing than merely the subconscious is the notion of a darker, more repressed side that many individuals refuse to acknowledge exists within them. In David Lynchs film Blue Velvet, the director attempts to explore the psyche of a young man named Jeffrey Beaumont, most notably the clash between his darker side and good side for the first time in his life. Using themes that sharply contrast one another, Lynch provides insight into the character of Jeffrey and the struggle that he is faced with. Jeffrey is in a transitional period of his life, not very old, and is on a journey of both sexual and emotional growth. Lynch uses different forms of symbolism to comment on the character of Jeffrey, and each is contrasted with something else within the film, conveying the conflict within Jeffreys mind. Jeffreys hometown, Lumberton, is depicted as a normal town yet it contains an unseen, largely ignored criminal underworld full of sexual deviants and murderous drug dealers. Lumberton is used as a metaphor for Jeffrey throughout the entire film, as it represents two sides of one object, much like Jeffreys mind. The idea of love versus lust is also explored and contrasted in this film as it pertains to Jeffrey and his sexual choices, with a staircase often utilized as a symbolic representation of this battle. Finally, there is the issue of Jeffrey and Frank Booth, the man who represents all that is dark within Jeffreys mind, and is an indication of what Jeffrey could eventually become.
The opening sequence of Blue Velvet immediately establishes the various contractions throughout the film. As the film opens, the song Blue Velvet is heard distinctly on the non-digetic soundtrack and there is a shot of a pristine, clear blue sky. Tilt down from the sky to reveal blood red roses, immediately establishing a contrast in regards to colors. Dissolve to a slow motion long shot of a firetruck driving on the street with a smiling, waving fireman holding onto the side of the truck. Another dissolve takes place to a long shot of a crossing guard and children crossing the street, and then dissolve again to an establishing shot of Jeffreys house. Next, there is a long shot of Jeffreys father watering the lawn, then cut to a medium shot of Jeffreys mother inside the house watching television, followed by an eyeline match to reveal a gun on the television. The gun on the television is in direct contrast to what has been taking place visually up to this point. The mise-en-scene has been depicting an idealized American town, and yet the image of a gun is used as an allusion to something more sinister lurking within the town, with the interior of Jeffreys house perhaps representing the inner sanctum of Jeffreys subconscious. From here, Lynch cuts back to the long shot of Jeffreys father watering the lawn, followed by a close-up of the faucet where the hose is connected. Suddenly, the cuts are very rapid and the camera cuts between close ups of the hose, the faucet, and Jeffreys father, who eventually keels over in an apparent stroke. This is followed by a long shot of a dog attempting to bite the water spraying out of the hose, with a cut to a close up of the dog doing this behavior in slow motion. Slowly, the non-digetic sound of Blue Velvet fades out, giving way to an unintelligible and faint sound which appears to be non-digetic as well. However, the camera zooms into an extreme close up of the grass and tracks through the grass as well, with the unintelligible noise increasing in volume. The shot then dissolves to reveal an entire population of cockroaches infesting the soil, and what had previously been non-digetic sound has now become the loud, digetic sound of the insects movement. Immediately, there is a cut to an establishing shot of the city of Lumberton, followed by a pan of the tow and the non-digetic sound of a local radio station can be heard, conveying that Lumberton is a perfect American town. Lynch chooses to use such stark contrast in an effort to establish not only the differences in ones perception, but of the psyche as well. The opening sequence is used by Lynch as a metaphor for Jeffreys state of mind throughout the entire film, as Jeffrey realizes he has a dark side yet is trying (most of the time) to suppress it. The town of Lumberton, like Jeffrey, is an idealized version of what America and Americans should be like and yet, much like Jeffreys mind, it is full of dark secrets and contradictions.
One aspect of Jeffreys psyche being explored is the notion of his battle between innocent love for a young girl and the animalistic lust he possesses for an older, more mature woman. The good or innocent side of Jeffrey is personified in the character of Sandy. Sandy is often depicted wearing light colors, with blue eyes and perfectly brushed blonde hair. When Sandy is first introduced into the film, she enters through utter darkness, stepping out of the shadows and into the light in a medium shot. Lynch follows this up with a long reverse tracking two shot in which Jeffrey and Sandy make small talk and innocently flirt with one another. Dorothys introduction into the film, however, is quite different. The film first truly introduces the audience and Jeffrey to Dorothy with a subjective shot from her closet. After breaking into Dorothys apartment and nearly being caught, Jeffrey is peering at Dorothy undress through her closet door, introducing the primal idea of voyeurism as well. There is a profile close-up shot of Jeffrey, followed by a subjective shot of Dorothy, which then cuts to a shot-reverse-shot going back in forth from Jeffreys face to the subjective shots. Dorothy, in contrast to Sandy, is in her underwear, colored black, and she also has blood red lipstick on, along with black hair. Visually, Dorothy represents the primal lust that Jeffrey has in that she is viewed primarily from a voyeuristic point of view in a fantasy-like setting. When Dorothy finds Jeffrey in the closet, there is a long shot of her holding a knife in the air, about to stab Jeffrey and yelling at him to get out of her closet. There is an over-the-shoulder shot of Dorothy holding up the knife, followed by shot-reverse-shot, shortly followed by a point of view shot (from Dorothys perspective) as she commands Jeffrey to get undressed. Next, there is a longshot of the two of them, followed by a close-up of Jeffreys face, then to a shot-reverse-shot going back from his face to Dorothy at his waist and back to Jeffreys face again. Dorothy asks Jeffrey what he wants to which he responds, I dont know, conveying the confusion that Jeffrey has in regards to how to handle this situation. Dorothy and Jeffrey are also shot in separate framing, except for when Dorothy is at Jeffreys nude waist, where his naked backside and her face are in the frame. This conveys sexuality from a womans perspective, as Jeffrey is being objectified, yet is the object of pure lust. Cut to a long shot of Dorothy following Jeffrey to the couch where he is ordered to lie down, and then they kiss in a medium shot. This initial sequence ends with the digetic sound of Frank knocking on Dorothys door. In direct contrast to the animalistic lust experienced by Jeffrey is his and Sandys conversation about what took place in Dorothys apartment. This particular scene opens with a long shot of a street and as Sandys car enters the frame, she and Jeffrey are present inside of the car. A church is present in the mise-en-scene, as Sandy parks in front of it, and the digetic sound of a church organ can also be heard in the background. Lynch uses standard shot-reverse-shot while Sandy and Jeffrey discuss what happened, conveying their distance on what really went on in Dorothys apartment, as Jeffrey doesnt reveal the whole story to her. Cut to a medium shot of Sandy talking and she is telling Jeffrey about a dream she had in which, There was our world and the world was dark because there werent any robins and the robins represented love. Suddenly, the robins brought a blinding light of love and love would make the only difference. The digetic sound of the organ is swelling at this point, the church is present in the mise-en-scene over Sandys shoulder, and when the car finally exits the frame, the church is present on the screen for eight seconds. Sandys view of the world is largely based on a belief in the basic good of people, love, and robins. The image of the church also represents everything that is good in Sandys world. However, immediately following this scene is a high angle shot of the staircase leading to Dorothys apartment, representing the stairway into Jeffreys mind as he surrenders to the lust he feels for Dorothy and heads back to her place to have sex with her. His complete disregard for the supposed love he feels for Sandy is demonstrated in this particular scene as well, as there is a cut to a close-up of Dorothys apartment door, and Jeffreys hand enters the frame and knocks on the door. Cut to a long shot of the interior part of Dorothys apartment from behind Dorothy and she lets Jeffrey in, while the digetic sound of wind howling can be heard. Cut to separate framing, with a shot of Jeffrey and then suddenly Dorothy enters the frame in front of the closet where she first discovered him hiding. Cut to separate framing again and Jeffrey enters Dorothys frame this time, demonstrating that she is in control of this relationship as she is also on the right side of the frame in the mise-en-scene. Jeffrey seems like he wants to help, but ultimately gives in to his lustful feelings for Dorothy. In the love scene, there is a close-up two shot of Jeffrey and Dorothy, who says, Are you a bad boy? at which point she asks him to hurt her (which he initially rejects). As Jeffrey makes it clear to Dorothy that his intention is to help her, not hurt her, there is a cut to a close-up of a flame, at which point the screen goes black and the digetic sound of Dorothy pleading to be hit can be heard Jeffrey says, No! No! and Dorothy pushes Jeffrey away from her, at which point Jeffrey gives in and hits her across the face, immediately cutting to an extreme close up of Dorothys lips and chipped tooth, smiling. Cut to a slow motion, distorted shot of them having sex, and the digetic soundtrack is replaced by the non-digetic sounds of an animalistic nature. The extreme lust demonstrated here is in direct contrast of what he has been telling Sandy in previous scenes and is an illustration of the clash going in within his mind over innocent love versus animal instinct.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Blue Velvet is Lynchs use of Frank Booth to represent all that Jeffrey could become. While Jeffrey represents the typical all-American boy, Frank Booth represents the typical all-American nightmare. Frank drives a fast car, drinks American beer, and sells drugs, making him the antithesis of Jeffreys character. Franks introduction into the film takes place from Jeffreys point of view while he hides out in Dorothys closet. From a subjective long shot, Dorothy can be seen through the closet door at which point Frank enters the frame, followed by a pan to the living room. Dorothy says, Hello baby, to which Frank responds promptly with, Shut up, its Daddy, shithead. Cut to a medium shot of Frank with a drink ordering Dorothy to spread her legs wider and wider, and there is a shot-reverse-shot of him and Dorothy, followed by a long shot of the two of them sitting down. Frank then says, Now show it to me, and Dont you fucking look at me! followed by a close-up of Dorothy, then to a medium shot of Frank, followed by a profile close-up of Jeffrey, and then to a medium shot of Frank huffing nitrous oxide while he utters the phrase, Mommy and becomes very sexually aroused. Frank then proceeds to rape Dorothy in a medium shot, with his position being dominant over Dorothys in the mise-en-scene. Frank is like an animal and when he finishes, punches Dorothy in the face. As soon as Frank leaves, Jeffrey enters the frame in a long shot and attempts to help Dorothy. Pan over to the couch, and Jeffrey is trying to console Dorothy to which she responds, I dont like that, followed by a cut to a close-up of them hugging, then a close-up of Dorothys red lips and mouth asking Jeffrey to hit her. Jeffrey initially balks at this proposition, but as the film progresses, will ultimately become like Frank and give into his primal lust when he strikes Dorothy during a sexual encounter. After this scene, there is a dream sequence of Jeffrey in a medium shot walking out of darkness towards the camera at which point top lighting completely engulfs him, followed by a dissolve to a blurred image of his father, to a shot of Frank, followed by a cut to a burning candle with the digetic sound of Frank saying, Now its dark, then to a close-up of Dorothys mouth saying, Hit me, with a cut to a close-up of Frank throwing a punch and the digetic sound of Dorothy can be heard screaming, No!Lynch chooses to use the dream sequence as an exploration of Jeffreys subconscious and to illustrate that he is already choosing to associate Frank with his own father. Lynchs decision to do so is a foreshadowing of how Jeffrey will act in the future and the resemblance between Frank and Jeffrey will develop even more as the film progresses. As previously discussed, Jeffrey and Dorothy have a sexual encounter that seems to bring about Jeffreys darker side in comparison to Frank. After their encounter, there is a cut to a medium shot of the outside of Frank and Dorothy outside her apartment door, then cut to a medium shot of Frank entering the frame down the hall, then back to the two shot of Jeff and Dorothy, followed up by a long shot of the three of them in the hallway, at which point Franks friends enter the frame in the background. Cut to a medium three shot of Frank, Jeffrey, and Dorothy and Dorothy is located in the middle of the mise-en-scene, between the two men. Dorothy represents the same thing for Jeffrey and Frank, lust, and yet she is separating the two of them visually at the same time.
After Frank decides to take Jeffrey for a ride, there is a cut to a close-up of screeching tires, then to a close-up of headlights, followed by a long shot of Franks black car speeding into and out of the frame. Cut to a close-up of Jeffrey inside the car, then to a three shot of one of Franks goons, Dorothy, and then Frank, which is immediately followed by a cut to a three shot of Franks friend, Jeffrey, and Franks friend, all situated in the mise-en-scene in that order. Jeffreys position in the mise-en-scene again implies that he is becoming like Frank more and more, although still separate in the sense that he has not become entirely Frank-like in nature. Cut to a long shot of Jeffrey leaving the car, and Frank is wearing all black clothes, while Jeffrey is shot wearing a black jacket and white pants. The clash in his clothing is also representing Jeffreys association with Frank in that half is good (the white) and half is bad (the black) while all of Frank is bad. In another scene, there is a cut to a long shot of Franks car, followed by a cut to a medium shot of Frank and Dorothy, then cut to a shot-reverse-shot of Frank yelling at Jeffrey, at which point Frank huffs his nitrous oxide and says, Youre like me, followed by a close-up of Jeffrey, cut back to Frank and then back to Dorothy. Jeffrey tells Frank to leave Dorothy alone, which enrages him, and as Frank pulls Jeffrey out of the car, there is a medium shot of the outside of the car, at which point Frank puts on lipstick and theres an over-the-shoulder shot of Frank kissing Jeffrey saying, Pretty, pretty, pretty. At one point, Frank even sticks the object of his fetishism, a piece of blue velvet, into Jeffreys mouth. Frank is introducing Jeffrey to a side of himself that he largely chooses to ignore through homosexuality and sexual fetishism. The darker side of Jeffreys psyche is being represented by Frank in that homosexuality remains largely unexplored by Jeffrey, as does violence, but in Jeffreys encounters with Dorothy, the film demonstrates that anything is possible as Jeffrey progresses. Jeff is constantly in a battle with himself not to give in to his instincts and yet Frank is in direct contrast as he gives in to them and even lets them control his life.
Blue Velvet does an excellent job of exploring the uncharted regions of the human mind. Through the use of various visual symbolism, Lynch achieves his goal of entering into Jeffreys mind and discovering just exactly what anyone is capable of. The dark side of Jeffrey is revealed, and while he explores it himself, Jeffrey ultimately rejects it and chooses a normal life with Sandy. The films goal is achieved and yet, as it ends, shows that perhaps the dark side of the mind is just waiting to be discovered in all of us.