The tightrope that Lynch walks is the irony. Ebert, in his review of this movie, totally missed that, and saw the irony as sarcasm--an inexcusable backdrop for the bare emotional honesty that Rossellini inhabited in this role. I think he missed the point. The irony is not just for laughs and sarcasm--it is the irony of the modern hipster, years before it's time. To the hipster, so quoth The Hipster Handbook, irony caries more weight than reason. To the critic, it's offensive because it belittles seriousness. To a more modern eye, it's not a counter or undercut of the violence, it's a comment on the form of the movie itself. It is a layer in the movie. It's a framework for absurdity (everything in the movie is absurd, but Dennis Hopper is frightening and absurd, while McLaughlin and Dern are ernest and absurd. Rossellini is tragic and absurd).
Much like Mulhulland Drive later (which, Ebert loves), Blue Velvet describes the haunting of a mind. Through the visual language of film noir and white-picket 50s technicolor, Lynch shows us (literally) the vermin under the manicured lawn. His irony is not mocking life, but mocking idealized filmic life. He's not making a statement with film about how life is (and maybe shouldn't be) a certain way (re: Crash, the 2005 version), he's making a statement about the artifice of representing life. The map, after all, is not the territory--nor will it ever be.
So, if film is not life (suck that Goddard, truth at 24 frames a second my ass), then the purpose of film can't be to represent life. The purpose of film is to tell a story and make an emotional connection with the audience, which can certainly evoke strong feelings of empathy. While Ebert felt that Lynch kept the audience away from the stark emotional realities of Rossellini's experience with irony, I say that Lynch keeps the entire medium at bay with irony, eroticism, and violence. The three are intertwined and inseparable.
This is, I think, what Spike Lee was attempting with the flawed He Got Game, a movie that started seeped in this irony, but dissolved into mistaken earnestness. Also brought to mind is Todd Hayne's brilliant Far From Heaven where the irony is not as cynical, and is one step further removed from the action, but the sexual tensions and violence that comes from repression are represented.
Mostly, Lynch shows us that of the people who watch films, some will take everything at face value and become offended if the filmmaker doesn't approach certain taboos in the acceptable way. Some others--and this is the current mask of Hollywood, as evidenced in this years Academy awards--want film to change the world through social conscience. To these types Lynch holds up something reprehensible and beautiful and challenges both views. Accept the film for what it is, and the irony feels right at home with the sexuality and the violence. They are three pillars capped at equal heights.Where we saw it: DVD (Seen It Before) | We deign to rate it: 95 outta 100