I remember when David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet was released in 1986, critics seemed to read it as an expose of small town culture. As I recall, the bravura opening sequence, in which picture postcard images of a small town—a waving fireman, a clear blue sky, brilliant flowers radiant before a white picket fence—end with a man suffering a stroke, the camera burrowing into the green grass beneath him to reveal beetles teeming in the shadows, was read quite literally: the placid surface, these critics said, actually hid darkness and turmoil, small towns harbored illicit, even destructive, desires and behavior.
To my mind, that seemed fairly banal and didn’t touch the weirdness of experiencing Blue Velvet. In his disdainful review of the movie, Roger Ebert seems to have agreed with me, asking of the movie, “What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses.” Ebert’s complaint doesn’t merely arise from that opening sequence, but rather from the entire film, which he argued has two realities. One satirizes small town life in which everything looks like it came from the 1950s and people speak in clichés. The other depicts a world of sexual perversity and violence “told absolutely on the level in cold-blooded realism.”
I don’t know about you, but I hardly found “cold-blooded realism” in those nightmarish scenes with Frank Booth terrorizing Dorothy and Jeffrey—such as the scene in which he smeared lipstick around the bottom half of his face, conjuring a demented clown, while saying “kissy, kissy” in a baby voice, washed in the haunted glow of a flashlight held under his face before aggressively kissing Jeffrey and then creating a disturbed puppet of his hand to “sing” lyrics from Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” while he intensely recited along, all while a woman danced atop a car. Just describing the scene pushes me back into the abyss of my unconscious.
Ebert’s, and most critics’ from that time, misunderstanding is that there are “two realities” in Blue Velvet. One is the lie that small towns are idyllic safe havens. The other is the dark truth of what they really are. Rather, they are one reality: dream. As dream, this reality is irrational, the safe and mundane often threatening, the darkness an expression of the light. “We are the same!” Frank tells Jeffrey at one point, a truth that Jeffrey had already experienced when, prodded by Dorothy to slap her, he finally does and it arouses him.
I suspect that interpreting Lynch’s film as being about the pretense of small towns as bastions of moral uprightness allowed critics to distance themselves from a movie that sought to circumvent rationality through dream and reveal the mystery of this “strange world” that we normally live in as if it were something we actually understood. That is, such an interpretation allowed the critics to believe Lumberton wasn’t right here, right before us, its dense forests threatening, as a matter of time (“at the sound of the falling tree, the time is …”), to crush us, in essence creating the very fiction they claimed the movie belied.