Hide and Seek: What Blue Velvet taught me about sex

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Hide and Seek

I saw Blue Velvet in the summer of my thirteenth year. It had come out on home video, and I watched it with my eighteen-year-old cousin, her boyfriend, and a cute blond friend of theirs I deeply hoped did not care about our age difference. The movie was weird, and frightening, and a little bit boring, so we made fun of it. That summer, singing the song "Blue Velvet" became code for something bizarre or just plain stupid. I mean, we’d never seen anything like it. My favorite movie that summer was Die Hard.
   What’s interesting to me now, almost twenty years later, is that this wasn’t just any summer, this was THE summer. The summer everything changed. The summer I went from zero to sixty, from a shy kid with bad bangs to a shy kid with bad bangs and stories to tell at slumber parties. The cute blond friend of theirs? He certainly didn’t care about age difference. He kissed me that night (with tongue!). And a week or two later, after a drunken game of Truth or Dare, we ended up in an abandoned apartment, racing through a series of activities I still wasn’t sure really existed. But we’ll get back to this.

   For a moment, let’s talk about Blue Velvet. Although I was only thirteen when I saw it, I thought of myself as "an old thirteen," which is to say I read Stephen King and saw R-rated movies regularly. But I had never, ever seen anything like Dennis Hopper crying "Mommy!" into the glory hole of Isabella Rosselini. I knew what sex looked like, and that was not sex. Sex was like the scene in Top Gun, two silhouettes with heads thrown back in ecstasy, light pouring through the Venetian blinds, and maybe a little Berlin on the jambox. Okay, okay, that was Hollywood sex, so maybe sex was more like Fast Times at Ridgemont High — awkward, disappointing, but still sex. I had no notion of Blue Velvet‘s perversion, its voyeurism, its wanting to see but not wanting to look. Though other erotic films had gone mainstream — Blue Velvet came out the same year as 9 ½ Weeks, for example — those movies were about the nature of obsession, of good sex turned bad. They were also more interested in pushing the MPAA envelope: Can we show it doggy style? Can we show full frontal? Or, in the case of 1990’s Wild Orchid, can we show two people really doing it? (Oh, Mickey Rourke, you deserve your own essay.) Blue Velvet, on the other hand, wasn’t explicit so much as surreal, and the film’s bewildering swirl of danger, sex and violence suggested subconscious desires that, at thirteen, I simply wasn’t ready to handle.  
   Two decades after Blue Velvet‘s release, it’s astonishing how well the film holds up, especially considering how numb we have become to nudity, violence and gross-out imagery. David Lynch was trained as a painter,

At thirteen, I wasn’t interested in the deeper truths about sex — I wanted to know how awesome it felt.

not a filmmaker, and he creates images that burn in the brain: The ear in the field crawling with ants, Dennis Hopper huffing from a gas mask, Isabella Rosselini naked and staggering beside a white picket fence. As a suburban satire, Blue Velvet succeeds at a time when American Beauty and Happiness are already showing their age. The opening sequence fairly sums up the entire trajectory: The camera travels from the sun-dappled streets of quaint 1960s suburbia and then burrows into the soil where the black beetles writhe.
   It’s not surprising that (despite all this visual to-do) I found Blue Velvet boring, because it eschews traditional narrative. Like the surrealists who inspired him, Lynch is interested in a dream sense that defies
logic but uncorks some deeper truth. At thirteen, I wasn’t interested in the deeper truths about sex — I wanted to know how it looked, how awesome it felt, how exciting it would be. And this guy was handing me nothing but a big bag of crazy. Ears in fields, naked women on the lawn, nutty Dennis Hopper. Quite frankly: What the fuck was going on?
   So let’s go back to the part where I’m rolling around on the floor with the eighteen year old. And I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know where this is going, and I don’t know how to stop it. Don’t get me wrong: I was glad to have been invited to this little tango, but I also wanted the dance to stop. For years afterward, I will remember this event not as it was, but as I wanted it to be — light through the Venetian blinds, a little Berlin on the jambox. The story will achieve a narrative arc and a soft-focus ending, and it will wow many girls in pajamas who did not spend their eighth-grade summers getting drunk with high-school graduates. And it will take a long time before I can admit what a fiction all this is. That it was bewildering and scary and maybe even a little gross. Now, when I watch Blue Velvet, and Kyle MacLachlan stumbles from the closet, where he has been watching the Dennis

It will take tragedy and the love of sweet Laura Dern to pull him out of the madness.

Hopper-Isabella Rosselini peep show, and steps into this exotic, terrifying world from which he should run but never does, I know exactly how he feels. Quite frankly: What the fuck is going on?
   For me, this is the key scene in Blue Velvet. Until then, Kyle MacLachlan is a good kid, with more than his share of curiosity. Hiding in Isabella Rosselini’s closet is a bad idea, but one he can’t help himself from trying. Besides, what’s gonna happen to a good kid like him? He doesn’t know about grown men yelling "Mommy!" into the glory hole, either, but he soon will, and at that moment, he will wish that this were only a movie. Instead, it will unfold around him faster, and weirder, than he ever imagined. He will be unable — unwilling? — to leave, and so he will be pulled into the madness and it will take tragedy and the love of sweet Laura Dern to pull him out again.
   Things did change for me after that night when I was thirteen. But I didn’t get pulled into the madness; I went running in the opposite direction. I stopped drinking. I joined a church group and wore a cross around my neck and attended functions at bowling alleys and Mr. Gatti’s Pizza. I did this because in my conservative Christian environment such behavior was popular. But I also did this to be safe. Well, to be safer. Late in my freshman year, I started messing around with one of the senior guys, a youth-group leader who ended up making out with both of my best friends in the same month. You know, you can never be safe, not really. David Lynch knows that.  

Sarah Hepola has been a high-school teacher, a playwright, a film critic, a music editor and a travel columnist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, Salon, and on NPR. She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
©2006 Sarah Hepola and Nerve.com