How does the scopophilic narrative of ‘Blue Velvet’ exhibit complicit acts of voyeurism and how does David Lynch use cinematography to make the audience equally complicit?
Let’s address the robin in the room, the one eating the bug on the window, the one that symbolises love conquering corruption. This is just one example of key motifs in David Lynch’s adaptation to Bobby Vinton’s song of the name; ‘Blue Velvet,’ that made this production the catalyst for independent filmmaking. Lynch projects Freudian notions of oedipal conflict and the only connections the characters exhibit are fetishism and masochism.
To elaborate, sadism is a form of sexual pervasion where arousal is achieved by inflicting pain on others. Masochism is where an individual achieves arousal by having pain inflicted upon them and Freud believed this was innate in male sexuality. Freud believed that the sadism of the man was met by the complementary masochism of the woman and this is heavily illustrated between the relationship of Dorothy and Frank, he beats and rapes her but later in the film we discover Dorothy actually gets aroused by this and struggles to function without it. Here Franks sadism eloquently fits with Dorothy’s masochistic tendencies and now oedipal themes begin to surface.
The psychological understanding of the Oedipus complex is when a child desires sexual intercourse with their opposite sex parent and Frank and Dorothy’s oedipal foreplay demonstrates these elements as Frank references himself as ‘baby’ who wants to seduce his ‘mother’. However, it is the character Jeffery who leads the oedipal theme.
In the beginning scene Jeffery’s father is in hospital in a critical condition which forces Jeffery to take over his father’s work and responsibilities, here we can deter that Jeffery’s oedipal experience comes from him having to replace the role of his father. It was only upon returning home that he found the human ear (symbolism of castration anxiety).
In classic Freudian psychoanalytic theory, severed ligaments in dreams symbolise male castration. We see Jeffery deliver the ear he found to Detective Williams who disregards the case for something he considers more serious which ignites Jeffery’s curiosity and he begins to do his own perverted detective work with help from Sandy – the Detectives daughter. Jeffery’s obsessive rapture and scopophilia all derives from a severed ear he found in the field.
When Jeffreys investigative work is further ignored by Detective Williams the grief; what comes with the unknown, encourages Jeffery’s search for an answer. However, this dismissal by authority figures resembles the journey a young boy faces until he achieves the resolution of their oedipal complex which occurs during the phallic stage of their psychosexual development which forms sexual identity. This resolution of the oedipal complex is needed for a healthy identity which means the young male must identify with the same sex parent whilst the primal id wants to replace the father; the ego grounds the young male with the reality that the father is stronger, additionally the son and father must have a positive attachment. The young male according to Freud, then experiences castration anxiety which is where the child is becoming aware of the differences between males and females but he assumes the female’s penis has been removed by the father and as a punishment; he might remove as a deterrent, for the sexual desires he experiences for the mother.
In response to the conflict the young male experiences he develops a defence mechanism which is his identity kick in and the super-ego is formed becoming an inner moral authority. An internalization of the father strives the suppression of the id and allows the ego to act upon the young males idealistic standards repressing the Oedipus complex. If the complex is not resolved then Freud suggested that the males then become fixated on the mother which can lead to challenges later on in life achieving a mature sexual relationship.
Now, let’s apply all this to Jeffery, the young male developed sexual desires for Dorothy (an older perverse mother figure). Dorothy then further provokes oedipal tension as Jeffery has two women competing for him – the sexually available Dorothy and the stereotypically desirable Sandy. Jeffery’s resolution of the oedipal complex is seen with his positive relationship with his father being pursued with them bonding at home now that he is healthy and out of the hospital and with rival Frank losing his power and life; and the final resolution of making Sandy; who signifies a socially rather than sexual desired woman; his significant other.
On the other hand, Frank, who clearly hasn’t had a positive relationship with his parents, uses Dorothy to pursue his infantile fear that he does not want to give up of being castrated towards his desire for the mother. The symbolic phallus gives opportunity for his castrations anxiety to take over. Franks asserts his dominion over Dorothy making her accommodate her apartment to his preference by making her dim the lights out dark and pour him a bourbon; she must not look at him and she must definitely wear blue velvet for this is Frank’s fetish and he can only achieve sexual arousal around it. I would suggest that the protagonists of the film are ‘polymorphously perverse adults whose sexual perversions refer to a variety of fantasies from necrophilia to fetishism – two sided coins of voyeurism and masochism. Blue Velvet is a visual representation of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of masochism and fetishes and oedipal conflicts.
Lynch has not had full artistic freedom in a film since his original first script ‘Eraserhead’. In ‘Blue Velvet’ Jeffery becomes a quasi-Lynch and indulges in the scopophilia that comes with all the erotic violence, shows the audience how the role of fantasy; shapes our sense of reality, in ‘Blue Velvet we are faced with a normalized America and how all the sexual depravity and violence is contained in Americas sordid underbelly. In ‘Blue Velvet’ we are removed from the confusing narrative of ‘Lost highway’ which is the only other of Lynches films to focus on the problems of human cognition at its focal point; human cognition drives the films narrative partnered with the erotica that comes with it. The story of Jeffery becoming some sort of agent making his epistemic project his main concern giving away more active and agentic involvements with a world he longs to know.
As the audience we can see a strong sense of hegemony as Dorothy controls and orders him around but Jeffery is compliant and follows Dorothy’s orders in their perverted erotica.
It’s been thirty years since Lynch released ‘Blue Velvet’ and the audience witnessed the timeless America shown in the opening scene representing the hyperreality one would witness at Disneyland; ‘Blue Velvet’ is a fantasy that could be evoked at any point from the boomer to Reagan era however it is interpolation that is needed for the audience to create meaning so from the opening scene of America we see a nostalgic montage of blue skies and white fences with red roses and one the crescendo reaches the source of the noise (beetles fighting) the cinematography focuses on an extreme close up of these bugs I believe to make the audience feel discomfort or have feelings of disgust similar to something someone would feel when they are part of corruption. This also makes the idyllic suburban scenes feel unsettling for the audience one they realise Jeffery’s father is hospitalised after his stroke. The audience can take meaning from the contrast shown between the underworld and the normalised American suburbia where there are blue skies and sun compared to the chiaroscuro shadowed insect scene, the audience can witness how the innocent and happy and the violent and filthy co-exist completely unaware of each other’s presence; or in Lynches words it “inverts the American dream,” (calibanrip.com). The audience must use interpolation in order to create meaning for the bugs and the suburbs that are shown for if they don’t then the message that Lynch is attempting to convey is disregarded.
Lynch was one of the movie brats that were a new generation of auteurs, this is where Lynch released his first debut ‘Eraserhead’ and in this post-classical Hollywood era Lynch pioneered the highest movie art that was adventurous, disturbing and erotic. ‘Blue Velvet’ displays toxic masculinity for the audience to view which was something that occurred in Hollywood in the time the film was released and the era of the movie brats. The audience is set up from the opening scene to masculinities role in society as the father goes to hospital and his son must take over but because the movie takes place in a nebulous, 1950’s-esque world the mention of if the mother could handle this herself is neglected. Frank is viewed by the audience as a perverted and dangerous man but without Frank what follows in the film will not make sense – Frank is masculinity personified and he is the embodiment of masculinity dictated from the darkest parts of humanity. Frank even says to Jeffery later in the film when he looks him in the eyes and states: “You’re like me,” which if denotated tells the audience that there is no middle ground for nature to meet on, you’re good or bad there’s no in between.
Lynch uses cinematography to make the audience feel just as complicit as he shows Dorothy’s apartment in a deep red to represent purity vs sex. Whenever Jeffery contemplates crossing the border to the dualistic society departed from the respectfulness of Lumberton’s public image to the sinister danger of the dark underbelly – whenever Jeffrey feels enticed, he is cast under red light.
The audience is invited inside her apartment as Jeffrey spies at her through her closet we see the poor Dorothy being abused and raped by Frank, the audience are forced to watch this from the subjective shot of Jeffrey so we can have a first-person perspective of the compliancy Jeffery allows by not intervening. Now the audience must watch the broken Dorothy crave violence like a Pavlovian response to sex and desire. In Lynch’s films the female by gender; in this case Dorothy is a target as he addresses these phenomena’s that occur in society – Dorothy wears a blue velvet dress to represent innocence surrounded by horror.
So, as Dorothy represents this in the film, Frank is forcing her to represent these ideas to him the same way he represents hate and masculinity. Frank is so terrified of emotional experience he makes Dorothy dress up so he can experience what vulnerability feels like, then uses his fear as hate and violence. The way Frank fixates over the blue velvet dress and how he cuts swatches of it off sticking it into his and Dorothy’s mouth; the deep blue of the velvet and softness of the material symbolizes normality in human experiences that Frank can’t seem to integrate into his personality.
Predominantly, ‘Blue Velvet’ is an antithesis of the peculiar and strangeness in society. The film shoes that order is unattainable in modern society and we as an audience must keep watch and protect each other as authority is unreliable as the police dismiss Jeffrey until he is cornered in a closet once again but this time armed. The ‘Yellow Man’ is a dirty cop in the film’s revelation showing that the idealistic notion of the thin blue line is undetermined.
Lynch prods at the audience to eviscerate social mores from perspectives from the outsiders of society who are inclined to observe. The issue of voyeurism is depicted and gifted with a difference; the narrative relies on its central mystery and the audience know nothing more than what Jeffery does and it his obsession with the question why that draws him back after witnessing the rape of Dorothy, it’s always the why that draws the audience’s attention in too.
In the thirty years of change that’s happened to society since the release of ‘Blue Velvet’ we can take irony in that nothing much as really changed at all and being witness to all these things still doesn’t fill the voyeur’s hunger. Lynch makes the audience feel complicit because they too watch the violence and sexual abuse, passively and compliantly. The truth is you can look, but you can never forget what you have seen.
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