In 1986, famous movie critic Roger Ebert wrote of David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, “The movie is pulled so violently in opposite directions that it pulls itself apart” (Ebert). Ebert’s primary critique is that the film is divided between an ironic and humorous, tongue-in-cheek tone in scenes of suburbia and starkly realistic depictions of sexual violence. Likewise, Tracy Biga examines the film in terms of dichotomies, paying particular attention to allegedly oppositional relationships between the film’s two female characters, although the reviewer does this in a context of analysis and interpretation rather than condemnation. For Biga, Dorothy, the femme fatale rape victim, represents a mother figure “internalized as an object from which he [Jeffrey, the main character] does not distinguish himself” (Biga, 46), whereas Sandy, the younger woman whom Jeffrey eventually chooses at the end of the film, is her “opposite” (Biga, 44) as the “external object” (Biga, 49) that lacks interiority because she is not a part of him. Therefore, the critical reaction to the film evinces an appreciation of its treatment of otherness—distinct demarcations between the familiar world of suburbia and the mysterious underground sector of criminal and sexual activity, between sexual, dangerous women and asexual, innocent girls, and between men and women. What this strand of analysis omits, however, is the extent to which the film proposes that the others define and speak while the familiar self behaves passively. Attending to the treatment of otherness in Blue Velvet would also reveal the ways that the film functions as other for the audience and treats it audience as other, blurring these categories without merging different identities into a single entity.
On a textual level, Blue Velvet (imdb link here, final scene video here) demonstrates a subject moving from understanding otherness as foreign and distinct to owning it as an aspect of the internal self to apparently excising it completely. Two symbols of otherness emerge early in the film. First, in an iconic opening sequence, the camera pans away from a gorgeous, middle-to-upper class neighborhood to an infestation of dirty roaches in the soil underneath the lawns. Second, Jeffrey begins his realization of the existence of an underworld apart from his idyllic suburban home when he discovers a grotesquely decaying severed ear in an open field. The former symbol suggests borders between the perceived “good” familiarity and the undesirable or vulgar unknown, yet it also reinforces those two concepts’ proximity. In addition, the roaches, though perhaps not literally parasites, connote consumption and rot, as they presumably feed from the waste in the neighborhood’s soil. The other in this case thus represents physicality and dependence. As such, the opening sequence begins with the idea of otherness as separate but certainly connected and perhaps even destructive to its opposite, like a leech sucking the life force out of the goodness above. The second symbol, the decomposing ear, functions in a similar fashion, as it is detached from its source body, distinct onto itself from its surroundings. However, the camera pans inward, into the ear itself, and there is no exiting shot until the film’s final scene. The implication, then, is that the entire course of the film, including the scenes that take place entirely in blissfully pure suburbia, occurs within the other-as-ear. Therefore, even before Jeffrey directly confronts the actual otherness (literalized in the deviant sexuality of criminal Frank Booth instead of just symbolized by static objects), the idea that the other and the self are distinct is made problematic at best.
Jeffrey’s decision to investigate the case of the severed ear is entirely voluntary, continued after he reports his discovery to the police. He is drawn to the other, endangering himself in order to define it, understand it, or take part in it. For example, after he witnesses Dorothy’s abuse at Frank’s hands by staring voyeuristically through the closet door, he does not report this latest detail to the police or give up entirely. He continues to visit Dorothy’s apartment, attend her performances as a singer in a nightclub, and follow Frank, without being forced to. Notably, even if we read his attachment to Dorothy, as Biga does, as an attempt to join with the internal mother, the external mother figure Sandy, the one who is other in the sense that she does not share his primal sexual urges, has already appeared before Jeffrey meets Dorothy. The oversimplified interpretation of this is that he is first drawn to Dorothy because of what Biga sees as her similarities with him. For instance, Dorothy appropriates the “male gaze” (Biga, 44) and male sexuality as symbolized by the phallic knife she wields in order to force Jeff to strip. However, what complicates this assumption is that at the stage at which Jeffrey breaks into Dorothy’s apartment in order to spy on her (an action performed with Sandy’s help, no less), he is not consciously aware of his own sexual impulses. Sandy begins the film as the woman most similar to Jeffrey with her place in the suburbs (as well as with her white Anglo-American identity, as Dorothy also exhibits ethnic otherness as an Italian immigrant); Dorothy is presumed to be entirely separate. Therefore, the earliest incarnation of the subject’s relationship to the other is predicated on the assumption of difference. In addition, Jeffrey wants to know or discover the truth of that over without merging with it; he hides in the closet, attempting to keep himself apart from the scene to which he is so attracted. That he is pulled away from the closet and into the sexuality that he attempted to enjoy from a distance leads to the conclusion that the otherness enforces control over the subject. The distance cannot be maintained, and this merge occurs without the subject’s choice in the matter.
Yet Jeffrey does not accept the influence of the other on his own expressions of sexuality. Put another way, the idea that the other can speak is unacceptable. Once Jeffrey is pulled into the world of the other, he insists that Dorothy, the most persistent symbol for what is foreign and different, be removed from that world by telling her to leave Frank. However, Jeffrey fails to realize both that Dorothy is incapable of leaving until her son (kidnapped by Frank along with her husband to ensure Dorothy’s obedience) and that Dorothy does not want to relinquish the sexuality that inhabits that otherworld. At the same time, Jeffrey begins to pursue Sandy more aggressively, attempting to join with the woman who is more aligned with the asexual mode of living to which he is more accustomed. However, as Biga points out, Jeffrey finds that the woman he held as other is more similar to him sexually than Sandy, who expresses disgust when she learns that he had sex with Dorothy. Yet this is not an instance of Jeffrey-the-subject consuming or sublimating Dorothy into his way of life, ignoring what is different about her while appropriating her as the same as him or as an aspect of himself. Rather, Jeffrey is the one absorbed into otherness, who is made to change his idea of self due to his similarity to the other. She does change (at least not in the middle portion of the film); he does, and he experiences this revelation with despair, most clear in the scene in which he sobs on his bed after remembering sadomasochistic encounters with Dorothy. In another telling moment, the sexually violent criminal Frank says to Jeffrey, “You’re like me,” not, “I’m like you.” There is therefore a shift from the assumption of separation to a realization of similarity that effectively undermines the self-conception of the subject.
Of course, the film does not end with Jeffrey staying in the underworld, accepting Frank’s comparison, or even continuing a relationship with Dorothy. Jeffrey kills Frank from his hiding place in the closet, reasserting his separation from the world of Dorothy’s apartment at the same moment that he symbolically excises his sexual aggression in the form of Frank. Dorothy’s last scene takes place in idyllic suburbia, on a park bench with her son. She has been absorbed into the familiar world, her role established as literal mother rather than an internal psychosexual one. The conclusion, then, is that the subject has rejected his similarity to the perceived other and compensates by attempting to destroy that otherness, either by killing it off (Frank) or stripping away what does not conform to the familiar culture (Dorothy). In this way, Jeffrey fails as a new ethical critic in reading and interpreting otherness: in insisting on the necessity of sameness, and in executing that insistence by making the other same to the original model of self rather than letting the self be equated to the other. Yet the ironic tone of the ending suggests that this attempt, like Jeffrey’s attempt to understand otherness, fails. The ear out of which the camera finally pans in the final scene is not the same severed ear that begins the trip into otherness; it is attached to Jeffrey. Furthermore, that journey into otherness is not only attached to him, sewn on artificially like Dorothy is to the dominant culture of suburbia, but is inside him, within the ear. In addition, Dorothy does not successfully fulfill the role of the happy, asexual mother. The final expression on her face, which ends the movie, is plaintive, not relieved or joyful, and the last line is a voiceover of Dorothy singing “I can still see blue velvet through my tears.” Earlier in the film she sang the song “Blue Velvet” for Frank while he gripped an actual piece of the cloth and cried; that Dorothy can still “see blue velvet” suggests that the otherness represented by Frank and the sexual expression of that time of her life has not disappeared. Finally, the other early symbol of otherness, the bug population crawling underneath suburban lawns, ironically asserts the survival of otherness in the final scene as well. In the middle portion of the film, Sandy describes a dream in which robins represent love to conquer “darkness.” In her last appearance, she and Jeffrey witness a robin with a bug in its mouth; the obvious implication is that Sandy’s world of familiarity has conquered otherness. Yet the otherness, the lack of assimilation, persists. Jeffrey’s Aunt Barbara, a character completely associated with the sameness and safety of the familiar suburban neighborhood, expresses disgust, saying she could never eat a bug. Furthermore, we do not see the robin actually swallow the bug; it sits in its mouth, legs twitching. The other is still visible, still distinct in form from the dominant subject that attempts to consume it entirely; in addition, through consumption, that subject simply reminds the audience of its dependence on the other from which it feeds. The failure to eradicate otherness reinforces the connection in a way that once again ties the subject to the other rather than the other way around.
Lee Morrissey writes of new ethical criticism in his application of that style to Milton’s Paradise Lost, “In this model, which Nussbaum calls ‘literature as moral philosophy,’ and which we might also call reading about ethics or reading for ethics, literature serves an almost demonstrative or ostensive role, showing readers how (or how not) to treat others ethically” (Morrissey, 329). Blue Velvet is an example of a film open to analysis for moral philosophy; we as interpreters watch about and for ethics, and Jeffrey and the other characters serve as an example of how not to treat others ethically. The assumption Ebert makes in the critique that opens this paper is that the two “opposite directions” are not meant to overlap in the same space or on the same body, when in actuality the film asserts that any attempt to extricate oneself from the “opposite” otherness necessarily fails. First, it is certainly unethical in the sense that it is done without the consent or active participation of those who define and are defined by otherness. Dorothy’s life is redefined, not on her terms, and she ends the film in a context that silences her and allows the familiar subjects to speak. Furthermore, she quietly despairs at the end, subjugated to an act of absorption that denies her the sexuality that makes her “other.” Second, the act of eradication or denial or otherness does not even prove truly beneficial for the parties that enact it. The denial of otherness for Dorothy is also a denial of otherness for Jeffrey, who has to lie about himself to preserve the final scene. Even the person who apparently inhabits the “honest” subject outside of sexuality, Sandy, loses. As Biga says, “Sandy’s failure is that she never turns around and looks at herself” (Biga, 44). Her role as enforcer of sameness (with her disgust toward Jeffrey at his sexual displays with Dorothy) dominates her identity and precludes the possibility of having an actual self, constantly defined through others even as she defines them. The irony of the film’s falsely happy ending does not terminate with the credits; the critical reaction to the film that it is too contradictory, too inconsistent, or too divided between irony and realism betrays the same impulse to reject heterogeneity. In this way, the film is an other, and we attempt to silence what it is saying about otherness when we try to resolve these inconsistencies. Yet, once again, silencing fails, because the film reminds watchers of their own “otherness.” By watching the film, we assume the role of Jeffrey in the closet, voyeurs hiding behind a wall of separation much thinner than we realize. By stating that the scenes of socially unacceptable sexuality “seem genuinely born from the darkest and most despairing side of human nature” (Ebert) and wishing that the entire film had focused on these insights instead of retreating to suburbia, Ebert reveals that the appeal of the film is located precisely in those locations of otherness and disorientation. Although this mentality reflects the concept that the attraction to otherness is really an attraction to what is inherent (or “genuine”) in ourselves, it ignores and excises the repression that allows this otherness to be other—put another way, it others the act of othering, attempting to eradicate the very action that is being repeated. In this way, regardless of the way one interprets the film (as masterpiece revealing how humans subjugate otherness in a pretense of normality or as trash to be modified or ignored because it is an othering mechanism), it forces you to occupy the position of other as much as its own material is other to its audience. The conclusion, then, whether looking at the film on a textual or meta-textual level, is that the demarcations between other and subject and the rejection of otherness cannot be logically maintained and only invalidate the identity of the allegedly (and, I would argue, falsely) homogenous subject.
Biga, Tracy. Rev. of Blue Velvet, dir. David Lynch. Film Quarterly 41.1 (Autumn 1987): 44-49.
Blue Velvet. Dir. David Lynch. De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 1986. Film.
Ebert, Roger. “Blue Velvet.” Rev. of Blue Velvet, dir. David Lynch. Chicago Sun-Times. 19 September 1986. 6 December 2011.
Morrissey, Lee. “Eve’s Otherness and the New Ethical Criticism.” New Literary History 32.2 (Spring, 2001): 327-345.