Blue Velvet Redux

by

05/27/2023

Neighborhood: East Village

I wondered if a movie could produce the same terror decades on, even if I’d worked hard to forget the plot and its disquieting images. Like the severed ear lying in a field—a waxy dead thing, crawling with ants. And Dennis Hopper, huffing into a mask. Isabella Rossellini’s red mouth in eerie close-up. Not to mention the gory ending.

Decades after I first watched it, Blue Velvet was showing at a theater in my town and, against all my instincts, I thought I’d better go; even after what had happened the first time I’d seen it, or maybe especially because of that. This would be a kind of personal immersion therapy. My partner said he’d go with me, and that was a comfort. He’s held my hand through any number of scary movie scenes. But then, when the day arrived, he had to go out of town for a work trip. I’d be on my own. I considered staying home, but in the end, I thought, the time has come and the time is now.

I first saw the movie in the fall of 1986, shortly after it came out. It had been accompanied by a flood of media coverage, as it existed back then, before our swirl of on online social media. It might have been at the Cinema Village on 12th Street. I was with my then boyfriend, Henry, and his friend Laura. I always wondered if there’d been a thing between them. Henry said no, but I often picked up a sort of flirty tension between them that set my nerves jangling. It took something out of me not to show it and to pretend to be cool. Laura was petite, like me, and as thin as a ballet dancer, and she always carried a bulky shoulder bag that looked like it weighed as much as she did and might topple her. “My life is in this bag,” she said. “It’s like a portable closet.” Even on a two-hour trip to a movie, she carried it with her. She was ready for anything.

The ear. I wanted to yell at Jeffrey Beaumont, the movie’s young protagonist. “Dude! Why are you going into that creepy dark apartment building! Are you a fucking insane idiot?” The guy was clearly not a New Yorker and had zero sense of self-preservation. He was like every preppy frat boy I’d met at college, guys with money and crisp button-down shirts, who think that the rules don’t apply and that everything will always work out. Fortunately, willowy Sandy Williams had learned a few things from her detective father, and Jeffrey, from his hiding place in the closet, finally figures out how to deal with Dennis Hopper. Everything worked out fine for Jeffrey Beaumont, though not so much for Dorothy Vallens, who was as traumatized as I was. As the final credits rolled, I knew I’d be having bad dreams about this movie for weeks.

We exited the theater, all three of us stunned. Laura loved nothing more than dissecting films, but even she was quiet as we walked east towards her neighborhood and Henry’s apartment a few streets away. At the corner, the light turned red. A group of kids loitered on the opposite side, milling about. Some looked like teenagers, with hairless faces, gawky limbs. One or two couldn’t have been older than nine. We checked them out as we waited for the light to change. They looked at us. The nine-year-olds should have been home in bed. It was a moment of New York City math. It’s a busy enough street, whatever these kids have in mind they aren’t going to try anything with so many people around. Henry wasn’t a huge guy but he could look tough when he wanted. We three didn’t speak—we were still processing the movie we’d just seen— but looking back, I think we were all considering the same math problem. We hesitated for a second as the light turned green, then we crossed as a tight trio.

The kids must have laughed at our stupid math. As soon as our feet touched the opposite curb they surrounded us and then everything happened with brutal speed and all at once.

One guy grabbed Laura’s bag with her life inside it.

“My bag!” she screamed. Henry took off after Laura’s bag.

Something solid and heavy landed on my head. I was looking straight at a kid who held a wooden pole in his hand. Another kid was tugging on my shoulder bag, which was much smaller than Laura’s. Inside was just a small purse with a few bucks and a diaphragm in its plastic case, but I really liked the bag because someone had made it for me years earlier. There was some push and pull, and I felt dizzy, and then the bag was gone. My head hurt and felt hot and damp. Pumped with fury and a rush of Jeffrey Beaumont-level nerviness, I screamed like Sandy Williams and didn’t stop screaming as I chased the kid who’d grabbed my bag. I could hear sirens as I turned the corner where I found my bag in a trashcan. The purse was gone, of course. I was soaked in sweat as I ran back to the corner. Henry was there with Laura and her rescued bag, surrounded by an overkill of cops.

“You’re bleeding,” Laura said.

“I am?” My head had stopped hurting (thank you, adrenaline). “It’s nothing. I’ll be fine.” But when I reached up to wipe damp hair from my face, I felt a raised lump and my hand came away covered in blood as bright and shiny as the fake stuff that the set dresser had spread so liberally in the movie’s climactic scene. Henry went a bit pale. It took me a moment to remember the kid with the stick, but there he was, being cuffed by one of the cops.

“Does your mother know where you are?” I asked him, stupidly. He was probably wishing he’d whacked my head with a bit more gumption.

An ambulance turned up, I told Henry that I was fine and just wanted to go to bed, but he said that wasn’t happening and the EMS guy said no, that definitely wasn’t happening. Laura and her bag went home in a taxi. At the end of a long night in the emergency room, I had a staple in my scalp, and a white gauze headwrap, stained with a blotch of dried blood.

If I feel around, I can still find the faint raised scar. It twinges under pressure and is a friendly reminder that math isn’t my strong suit and that there’s no shame in going with your gut. Don’t walk into a dark scary building without backup, or into a pod of kids loitering on a street corner.

A week later, the staple was removed. By then, the violent end of our Blue Velvet evening had already become a good dinner party story, but Henry and I never spoke about the movie. I did have nightmares for weeks about the film’s final bloodbath and our follow-up street chase scene. Soon enough the evening’s events were refashioned into my very own mashup script that replayed in my head whenever I walked alone at night.

Thirty-seven years later, I hoped I could release this script’s subterranean hold. As I walked to the theater, the buildings on our quiet main street cast noir shadows and I wondered if this evening would turn out to be a huge mistake. But in the warm-lit lobby, I found two friends and once we were upstairs in our seats with bags of popcorn, I was reassured by the company of my neighbors who’d also seen Blue Velvet when it first came out, though I was willing to bet that no one else had experienced her very own David Lynch-esque bonus.

Blue velvet curtains, a deep blue sky. I braced myself as the title song began and the camera panned down to red roses against a white picket fence. Red firetruck. Yellow tulips. School children crossing a street. A man collapses while watering his lawn, the water from the hose arcing like a spray of urine. We all laughed. Beneath the lawn, beetles crunch and chomp. Jeffrey Beaumont throws a pebble across a meadow.

Good news. The movie was still dark, but we all found the humor this second time around, well trained after seasons of watching Breaking Bad, Dead to Me, Barry, and Yellowjackets. Even the ear got a big laugh.

***

Julie Metz is the author of the New York Times bestseller Perfection and the memoir Eva and Eve. She grew up in Manhattan, spent some years in Brooklyn, and now lives in the Hudson Valley. juliemetz.com

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