And then the young man picked up the severed ear and stared deeply into its ant-encrusted whorls.
That was the moment I fell completely for – and into – “Blue Velvet,” and I can still feel the excitement of its darkness wrapping around me, like a blanket at bedtime on a night you just know your dreams are going to take you someplace new. I had walked into the theater a naïf, and left bruised and confused and elated. And how I would love to feel that way again about a movie, and to see it in the same state of unsullied expectation.
The day was Friday, Sept. 19, 1986, the opening day in New York for “Blue Velvet,” and I went to the first show at the Bay Cinema in Kips Bay. I had seen some of the earlier work of David Lynch, its director — “Eraserhead” (at midnight, of course, in a theater thick with sweet smoke) and “The Elephant Man” – and liked what I tasted well enough. But I didn’t approach his latest film with the ardor I brought to the offerings from the godlike directors of my college days – Coppola, Altman, Bertolucci or Kubrick.
It was the trailer for “Blue Velvet” that made me feel I had to see it. And it had to be before everybody else started talking about it.
It’s important to note that I saw the ads not on television but in a theater, where big images can reach out and shake you. Whoever assembled the trailers for “Blue Velvet” appeared not to know what to do with this bizarre and wriggly mystery story, which came across as equally ominous and ridiculous, and not something that could be distilled into a minute or two of snappy montage. The ads were framed by stately quotations from magazines, jeweled with words like “masterpiece” and “visionary.”
Such language comes cheap in advertising, and often portends artistic embarrassment. It was clear that “Blue Velvet” was going to be electrically good or equally bad.
That year, I was between full-time jobs, doing freelance work that left me overpaid and underemployed. So I was able to revive a practice that had given me much pleasure when I first arrived in New York eight years earlier — going to films in the daytime, and not in screening rooms, with chatty opinion-spinners, but by myself in local theaters.
Moviegoing was a different avocation three decades ago from what it is today, when films are gnawed to the bones on Twitter before they make it to the screen. In 1986, a bright afterglow still lingered from the 1960s, when that quivering monolith, the Youth of America, embraced film as a personal and potentially life-changing art. Though you might be influenced by your friends, or occasionally by what you read, picking a movie usually felt like a highly individual choice.
So I deliberately did not look at the reviews for “Blue Velvet” in the newspapers on that Friday morning, nor did I check to see if my favorite critic, Pauline Kael, had weighed in. (Anyway, I adored her more than I agreed with her.) I went to “Blue Velvet” in the same way I strive to approach plays today as a theater critic (though it comes less naturally) – like a virgin, apprehensively waiting to be seduced.
This was exactly the right frame of mind for “Blue Velvet,” which is all about the loss of innocence. Its young, inquisitive hero, Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan), returns to his small hometown (in North Carolina, my home state!) after his father has a heart attack. Jeffrey becomes aware of the shadows in a world that had hitherto seemed perpetually sunlit, and he is drawn to them.
That severed ear I mentioned? A human artifact of a kidnapping gone wrong, it’s a portal to an underground world, inhabited by dangerous people. They include, unforgettably, two really sick criminal bosses embodied by Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper, and a tarnished angel of a nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini). There’s a good girl on hand (the young Laura Dern), just begging to be taken home to mother, but Jeffrey’s id keeps pulling him toward the singer, who knows he wants to do “bad things.”
This sounds like a plot from a midcentury B-movie. But “Blue Velvet” presented film noir through the shocked and fascinated eyes of a Hardy Boy, who can’t believe what he’s seeing. The movie’s landscape mapped itself in lushly colored images, often presented in giant, invasive close-ups. Its language was primal and mythic. And it affected me in the way that fairy tales did when I was a child, planting seemingly simple seeds that flowered into endless shades of night.
Much of the audience at the half-full theater that day appeared to be as unprepared as I was. As the final credits rolled, I heard a noise I had never before experienced at the movies: the sound of people hissing. Me, I was grinning like an idiot, and as I recall, I was trembling, too.
I went straight to the lobby, and started calling friends on the pay phone, telling them they had, but had, to see this film, and no, I wouldn’t say any more. Then I walked back into the theater, and sat down to watch it again.
The next day, I returned. This time the theater was full, and the audience applauded. Presumably, the reviews had had a chance to make their impact.
In my journal that night, I noted that my fellow theatergoers “did laugh throughout most of it, excepting the Hopper scenes, which seemed to confuse everyone with their aura of sexual menace gone over the top.” Only rarely have I encountered a work of art that rattles people in that way, as if they didn’t have the reflexes to accommodate it.
Since that September, I have fallen in love with other movies. But I can’t say I have ever been quite as stirred or rattled by the originality of any one of them. (Early Almodóvar came close.) Shortly thereafter, I was reabsorbed into the working world of media cultural coverage, where anticipatory buzz obviates real surprise.
Now, thanks to the Internet, everybody buzzes, and your own first responses to films are often corrupted, if not pre-empted. For many people, movies are mostly something you see at home, at your leisure and at your own pace. I own “Blue Velvet,” in several editions, on tape and on DVD, and I watch it again now and then, and I still feel a ripple of the old frissons.
But, of course, it’s not the same as the first time. Except, occasionally, when it shows up in my dreams – in one of those rare nightmares that you don’t want to end.
An earlier version of this article misstated the theater’s name at the time “Blue Velvet” opened. It was then called the Bay Cinema, not the Kips Bay Theater.