Guest Post: The geography of Blue Velvet

Guest writers Filipa Ioannou and Michael Rosen examine David Lynch's use of space, architecture, and geography in his 1986 classic, Blue Velvet.

Hello, friends. Sean here. Just checking in briefly to say that this week’s edition of The Long Shot is different. Not just in terms of its length (under 1,500 words, believe it or not), but also in terms of the author. I did not write this week’s newsletter. Instead, I asked my good friends (and equally good writers/reporters), Filipa Ioannou and Michael Rosen, if they wanted to submit a Guest Post. What follows is the first Guest Post in Long Shot history, a careful examination of David Lynch’s use of geography in his 1986 classic, Blue Velvet. I’ll be back next week. In the meantime, please do enjoy Filipa (also known as “Floop” in some poker circles) and Michael’s take on Blue Velvet. I did.

That’s it for me this week. The remaining words belong to Filipa and Michael.

Blue Velvet is ostensibly set in a small logging town called Lumberton, fittingly enough. The houses are surrounded by picket fences. The lawns are vast; the foot traffic is nonexistent. Laura Dern’s character is named Sandy. Everybody is white — except the two guys at the hardware store.

Because this is David Lynch, however, things aren’t what they seem. As Sandy suggests she and Jeffrey Beaumont check out the apartment where the alleged murderer is holed up, the two are greeted with a catcaller. This isn’t suburbia anymore.

Indeed, throughout Blue Velvet, Lynch’s configuration of space acts as a fulcrum on which the opening of another world parallel to ours turns. The dissonance between the different types of buildings — seen through the eyes of Jeffrey, who, newly but imperfectly mature with his recent transition to college, is reexperiencing his hometown in the wake of a personal tragedy, which has created another sort of opening in the rhythms of the everyday — is the primary driver of our understanding that we are entering a space that is like ours but also not, priming us for the Lynchian image-salad to follow.

David Foster Wallace, in a much-cited essay written in 1996, provides us with a working definition of the Lynchian. “An academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term ‘refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter,’” he writes.

In the built environment, this duality primarily finds a visual vocabulary through the incongruity of a seven-story building plopped in the middle of a buttoned-up suburb, viewed largely under cover of darkness. The apartment just doesn’t make any sense.

For a moment, though, perhaps we should digress back to plot. For those in need of a summary: The year? 1986. The place? Lumberton, North Carolina. Young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is home from college, his father felled by the weirdest heart attack scene in modern cinema and languishing in the hospital. The discovery of a disembodied human ear in the fields behind his house leads Jeffrey on a journey through the ~seedy underbelly~ of his home, a journey originally midwifed by a tip from Sandy (Laura Dern), who melts out of the background shadows on a darkened suburban street and delivers the deranged pickup line, “Are you the one who found the ear?”

Sandy tips Jeffrey off to the existence of some kind of criminal enterprise centered around the apartment home of a sordid lounge singer, Dorothy Vallens (or, as she is described in the Amazon Prime description for the movie, a “roadhouse floozy.”) He infiltrates the home disguised as an exterminator, steals a set of keys, then reenters later, only to be forced to hide in a closet where some extremely nonstandard voyeurism ensues.

Everything is close together, both in the reality of the filming locations (mostly shot in Wilmington, North Carolina, home of the world’s largest special effects water tank), in the movie’s internal map of itself (says Sandy of Dorothy’s apartment relative to her home, “It’s close by, that’s what’s creepy,”); the scenery is periodically interrupted by the winkingly on-the-nose trucks overloaded with lumber rumbling through town every half-hour or so. Yet the buildings themselves seem to connote spaces that are of entirely different types of places gathered around two poles, one of them suburban, bucolic and diurnal, the other urban, raffish, nocturnal.  

In the inexplicable span of just a few seconds earlier in the movie, Jeffrey and Sandy are able to transition from the leafy streets of Sandy’s neighborhood to that “seedy underbelly,” which, for some reason, exists. On that first walk together, the two gaze up at the apartment complex. “She lives on the seventh floor,” Sandy whispers, awed. It’s a large brick structure. The camera favors a tight exterior shot of the building. Its height, as far as we understand it, is limitless.

Why is there an enormous apartment building in the middle of a tiny logging town? With Lynch, asking “why” is largely a futile question. It’s more fruitful (and fun!) to interrogate the “how.”

The seventh-floor apartment complex is one of the central disorienting images and shots in “Blue Velvet” that subtly evoke a constant sense of surreal discomfort. Some of these shots are overtly weird, like the ear in the middle of a field (and young hero Jeffrey picking it up and putting it in a paper bag?). There’s another category of image, we’d like to submit, that is even more unnerving; these particularly haunted images get under our skin because they’re just a degree or two removed from reality, and never explained.

There’s a football team, for instance, doing jumping jacks on a tennis court. Frank Booth huffs from a gas mask. A naked Dorothy keeps her heels on in her own ersatz home, trekking across the carpet in them, even after taking off her wig. These little off-key details imbue the world with fear and mystery. But in this movie, nothing disarms like the urban environment.

If we were to distill the “urban” element of the movie down to its key elements, one would be its quality of liminality. In this movie, the entire narrative function of the apartment is that it is very bad at keeping the wrong people out. Jeffrey is easily able to encroach upon the space simply by showing up at the door in his exterminator jumpsuit and declaring that he is the bug man here to spray things down. That the boundary between inside and outside continues to be porous is essential to multiple future plot points (including a pivotal scene in which Dorothy shows up stark naked outside the literal white picket fence of Jeffrey’s suburban home, the filming of which got Lynch banned from shooting in the streets of Wilmington) and is underscored by the bizarro inside-out quality of the apartment building itself: The stairwell, invisible from the earlier exterior shots, is outdoors, looked upon by blocked apartment windows, and the hallways are black holes, illuminated by occasional sconces and with dark grey carpets and walls that blend together, absorbing most of the light. Although the site of the lounge singer’s captivity, the apartment is treated like a public space by heroic and villainous men alike, who enter at will for purposes of surveillance or simply as part of their cat and mouse game with one another.

We see more of the surprisingly built-out “seedy underbelly” of the town of 20,000-odd people when the movie’s suspenseful climax takes us, Dorothy and Jeffrey, captives of Frank Booth, on a meandering journey to “Ben’s” in a car overpacked with Frank’s posse of sinisterly off-kilter bohemians. Illuminated storefronts flash by outside the window as Frank roars along a ghostly commercial corridor. The outside of Ben’s place looks like a standard dive bar, yet inside, the gang is ushered into a bizarre apartment that looks not unlike a spacious gynecologist’s office. Residential, commercial — the delineation of spaces is collapsing, a destabilization that continues when Frank beats Jeffrey in an open field later that night that’s been converted into a sort of de facto public access nightclub as the car stereo blasts a Roy Orbison song and a flunky of Frank’s sways inscrutably atop the roof.

But the apartment building is really the defining image of Blue Velvet — although, just as in DFW’s conception of the Lynchian, just as the mundane and the macabre are contained in one another, so too are the careful suburbs and the swirling forbidding city. There is something that is just as eerie as Jeffrey staring out the idyllic kitchen window at a robin chomping on a grub in the film’s denouement as there is about Jeffrey staring out the closet door watching a stranger take off her wig. But it is the apartment that surfaces this weirdness. It’s the apartment where Jeffrey spies on Dorothy in the movie’s most iconic scene; it’s the apartment where the story concludes in a horrifying, bloody showdown. In physical space, the apartment is just around the corner, but in the conception of the audience, it belongs to another world: shrouded in darkness, guarding prurient secrets, towering over the town. In its physical character, it is fundamentally separate from every other space in Blue Velvet, opening itself up for the movie’s darkest fantasies to reveal themselves.