Coming Home: Postmodern Ecstasy in Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’

Blue Velvet performs a profound destabilisation of domestic space and the body. Jeffrey Beaumont, the film’s protagonist, finds a severed ear in a field while walking home and proceeds to pursue an investigation of its origins only to plunge into the seedy underside of the American Dream. As Jeffrey probes the mystery of the disembodied ear, the object of his investigation becomes Dorothy Vallens, a psychosexually seductive nightclub singer whose child has been kidnapped by a deranged man named Frank. This article will examine moments of physical intimacy from Blue Velvet. I will analyse the ways in which exterior and interior coordinates become violently confused, as the space of the home as well as the space of the body both come to be dispossessed.

The home and the body come to be representative of Fredric Jameson’s postmodern subject – a depthless and de-centred entity. Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” speaks of how postmodernity represents the “end of the autonomous bourgeois monad or ego or individual” and the “de-centring of that formerly centred subject or psyche.” With the death of the bourgeois subject comes the recession of affect, as the subject no longer has a stable subjectivity or self with which to experience the world. Instead, the postmodern subject experiences impersonal intensities and euphoria. The postmodern subject embodies a form of simulacra – a mise-en-abyme of copies void of any stable archetype. Consequently this article will also examine the ways in which this instability and intensity is embodied in Blue Velvet.

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As Dorothy arrives home from a night of performing, she begins to undress and inhabit the space of her apartment, yet she is constantly being interrupted by exterior forces. For example, as she tries to undress – to “slip into something more comfortable”, so to speak – she receives a phone call from Frank. Thus her effort to be more at home in this space is thwarted. As she navigates this space, it becomes clear that she cannot seem to situate herself within her own domestic sphere – constantly moving frenetically from perch to perch and never resting in one place for more than a moment. As Jeffrey watches from inside her closet, Dorothy removes her wig and gets undressed, only to place her wig back upon her head a moment later. Thus even before Dorothy is aware of Jeffrey’s voyeuristic presence, she behaves as though she already has an audience, rendering private domestic space not so private after all. Dorothy’s public life as a performer bleeds into her private home life. Dorothy is never really at home the space of her own home. Instead, Dorothy’s home and her body are both represented as porous and perilous spaces – endlessly vulnerable to intrusion.

The space of Dorothy’s apartment is constantly being broken into, and in many ways has domestic disturbance built into its structure. In this sequence, the boundaries between inside and outside are rendered extremely ambiguous, and constantly bleed into one another. For example, her home features house plants, a television, a telephone and a record player – foreign and outdoor bodies that have been domesticated within this mise-en-scene. Therefore Jeffrey and Frank’s intrusions of this domestic space are not the only intrusions happening within this sequence. Frank arrives with an aggressive knock at the door, and proceeds to perform a physical intrusion of Dorothy’s body. The ominous soundtrack swells and swarms this space as Frank’s assault of Dorothy ensues. The soundtrack pervades the interior of this space while Frank pervades the interior of Dorothy’s corporeality. Together these elements combine to create a miasmatic atmosphere in which inside and outside are rendered indistinguishable from one another.

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In this sequence, domestic space becomes a stage upon which Dorothy and Frank are the actors, and Jeffrey is the spectator. The home is rendered an imprisoning space of exhibition and self-mimeticism. Frank violently oscillates between playing “daddy”, “baby” and the director on this stage – giving Dorothy directives such as “look at me” and “don’t you fucking look at me”. Subsequently, Dorothy wavers between playing Frank’s daughter, wife and mother. These characters therefore embody Jameson’s notion of a “breakdown in the signifying chain”  in that they cannot hold onto any stable form of subjectivity. It becomes clear that their interiority is ultimately an assemblage of depthless simulacra – countless citations of the self. Thus the inside and outside are rendered indistinguishable from one another because of the fact that they exist in a state of pure exteriority and performativity. Their depth has been “replaced by surface, or multiple surfaces”. Essentially, these subjects become liberated from feeling “since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling”. Frank’s orgasm comes to be the ultimate expression of the euphoria which replaces feeling and profundity with a form of rapturous and untethered affect.

Expressions of the body in ecstasy illustrate the spiritual evisceration of the postmodern subject, and the subsequent de-realisation of the boundaries between pleasure, pain, interiority and exteriority in Blue Velvet. These ultimate expression of corporeality – the body pushed to its sensorial limits – delineates a state of rapturous affect. Acts of intimacy in Blue Velvet embody a claustrophobic association between pleasure and violence. During one of the first moments of onscreen intimacy between Dorothy and Jeffrey occurs after Frank has raped her. Dorothy commands Jeffrey to “hold me…feel me…hit me”. Jeffrey holds and feels Dorothy, but at first, he does not hit her. Dorothy responds to this denial of abuse by proceeding to float around her apartment aimlessly, once again incapable of situating herself within her own space. A little later in the film, as Jeffrey and Dorothy perform intercourse, he fulfils her request for physical pain by slapping her repeatedly. Dorothy responds with outward expressions of elation: a wide-mouthed and chipped-tooth smile. In these brutal tonal shifts from seemingly tender intimacy to cruelty, it becomes clear that what Dorothy desires more than anything is simply to feel; these moments of affective intensity depict the postmodern body’s desire to feel something, or anything. The specificities of affect become unimportant, as “ecstasy” merely involves a rapturous loss of bodily control.

As Frank reaches orgasm, he repeats the phrase “Daddy’s coming home” and thus “home” is equated with a complete loss of control and mastery over one’s own body. According to Jameson, postmodern space has “succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself” (Jameson 83) and thus the orgasm comes to be the terminal expression of this spatial and temporal disorientation. Furthermore, Frank’s way of “getting home” is through the vagina, which suggests an effort at returning to the ultimate home of the womb. This illustrates an effort to “recreate the missing object world which was once the lived context of existence” and the ways in which this past object world is always out of reach, as a return to the womb is inherently impossible. Thus Frank comes to embody a form of postmodern nostalgia – a futile effort to return home to a history which is in actuality a “simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach”. However, after climax, Frank appears to be fully satisfied. He collects himself and proceeds to strut victoriously out of Dorothy’s apartment. Thus Frank does not appear to desire an actual return to the womb. Rather, he desires the orgasmic spatial and temporal disorientation that comes from performing the bodily ritual of a desire to return to the womb. He does not actually miss “home”, but rather desires to cite nostalgia in order to achieve orgasm. Therefore, above all, Frank desires the decentred affective intensity that is symptomatic of the postmodern condition.

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After catching Jeffrey and Dorothy affectionately embracing outside the door to her apartment, Frank proceeds to abduct the pair and take them on a car ride to what he calls “Ben’s place”. As the gang arrives at their destination, Frank announces that “this is it”. The following shot features Ben’s place announcing “THIS IS IT” on a neon sign in its window. This illustrates a confusion of corporeal and spatial utterances, or a confusion between the spatial and the social. This establishes a fluidity between corporal and spatial coordinates that is symptomatic of the postmodern condition. In the world of Blue Velvet, both the body and the home are confused and thus made “incapable of distantiation” (Jameson). Oppositions between interiority and exteriority dissolve within this sea of simulacra. The body and the places in which it resides are indiscriminately flattened into simulacra. Ben’s place is just as depthless as the bodies that inhabit it and so within this postmodern landscape, what you see is truly what you get. Thus it becomes apparent that “this” is, in fact “it”. Ben’s place comes to establish the dissolution of bodily and spatial borders that is symptomatic of the postmodern condition as a destination in itself.

The postmodern bodies of Frank, Dorothy, and Jeffrey are therefore ultimately homeless entities – displaced and dispossessed within domestic corporeal space. The world of Blue Velvet is one in which ideas of home are rendered anything but sheltering or comforting. The representation of the ultimate home comes to be the womb, which is a space that is always out of reach and thus postmodern nostalgia constitutes a longing for a home that doesn’t exist. Jameson addresses this question of homelessness in positing that postmodern bodily disorientation demands an “imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions” (Jameson). Thus the homeless and selfless body possesses a nostalgia for something that does not exist as of yet – a nostalgia for the future (Chu). Perhaps the future contains the possibility for the postmodern disoriented bodies of Frank, Dorothy and Jeffrey to be re-articulated and re-oriented as posthuman entities. However, for the time being, Blue Velvet does not attempt to remedy the postmodern condition, but rather revels in its affective intensity in its dissolution of bodily and cinematic borders.

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Blue Velvet deconstructs the space of the home and the body in order to lay bare a destabilization that was always already built into the very structures of these spaces, as the home and the body are both porous and permeable architectures. Towards the beginning of the film, the camera performs a slow zoom into the blackness of the canal of the severed ear. This action, and the severed ear itself become symbolic of the postmodern body in Blue Velvet: a purposeful fall into a disembodied mise-en-abyme. Jameson’s essay longs for a re-establishment a sense of place, or beginning to “grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as social confusion” (Jameson). In illustrating a complete loss of bodily control as the ultimate expression of postmodern domesticity, the film offers the alternative of embodying the disorienting postmodern condition of corporeal homelessness. After all, the body always already fosters a “chaos of contradictions – the peace and the violence, the fact and the fiction, the desire and revulsion” (Rombes). Thus the hilarious, terrifying and exhilarating experience of watching Blue Velvet is to experience of the postmodern elements of one’s own body that were always already there to begin with.

(Sources: Chu, Seo-Young. Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep?; Girard, René. Precarious Balance: A Comic Hypothesis; Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism; Rombes, Nicholas. Blue Velvet Underground: David Lynch’s Post-Punk Poetics)

 

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