Bob Dylan once said that Roy Orbison sings in the style of a “professional criminal.” When it comes to singing about pain, The Big O is indeed merciless. I still remember my only bad breakup when I spent days listening to Orbison’s “It’s Over” on loop, the equivalence of stabbing my heart with a knife and at the same time licking up my own wounds. Orbison’s voice is achingly effective as he hits higher and higher notes, but the aim is not a sentimental one. Full of longing for the past, the song is a wish to return to that happy place, and yet it ends on a note of acceptance: whatever love that once exists, it’s over. Such are the romantic woes of Orbison’s songs whose narrators are simultaneously wistful and sensible; they knowingly dream of dreams that either never come true or culminate in fatalistic ends. This theme can be found in “Blue Bayou,” “Only the Lonely” and most famously “In Dreams,” a song immortalized by David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).
The “In Dreams” sequence enters Blue Velvet like a forgotten wound suddenly ripped open. Up until this point in the film, every character moves in a mysterious haze. The elusive night club singer, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), plays the role of the femme fatale with her witchy rendition of Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” while hiding her own trauma. Frank (Dennis Hopper), a mentally unstable criminal, has murdered her husband and kidnapped her son in order to sexually manipulate her. Falling under Dorothy’s spell, fresh-faced college student Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) is eager to solve the mystery, with the help of Sandy (Laura Dern), his girl-next-door pal. While these men and women appear to follow stereotypical story arcs, their characterization is titled to the side. Masquerading as a calm moment before the storm, “In Dreams” is the exact moment where the unmasking happens as the characters’ emotions are laid bare.
The scene has a strange romantic undertone that is also incredibly eerie. Every detail is slightly off-balanced. Ben (Dean Stockwell), who lip-synchs “In Dreams,” stands between two curtains that frame his figure into a stage-like composition. The curtains, however, don’t adorn the traditional crimson color — they are green instead — and Ben’s mouthing words to the song quickly resembles a freak show. His strenuous expressions are a grotesque attempt at channeling the song’s yearning feelings, but he is so caked with powdery makeup that no genuine emotion seems to crack. Nevertheless, lip-synching often has the effect of blending identities. Layers of performance are on display as Ben pretending to be a singer pretending to be a man who suffers from unrequited love. This singular moment casts a doubt over romance; do acts of love come from a genuine source or are they mere reenactments of what lovers are supposed to do?
The scene further intercuts between shots of Ben and his audience. The contrast is immense. Most of the background characters who populate the frame appear to be indifferent. Sitting cross-legged on the couch behind Ben is a blonde woman wearing black stockings who has a vacant expression on her face. Similarly, standing behind Jeffrey is a band of ghosts; a man dancing with a snake while standing on the sofa and two equally detached-looking women. The two men standing next to Jeffrey are also mere spectators. The cluster of characters signifies the varying degree of emotion and detachment, the tension between giving oneself in wholeheartedly and playing it cool.
On the other hand, Jeffrey, Frank and Dorothy’s inner cores gradually emerge as the song progresses. A subtle recognition of horror sweeps over Jeffrey’s face; he’s not a rebel at all. While his adventure with Dorothy promises a fulfillment of sexual and masculine fantasy, it also brings danger, and Jeffrey now realizes that he really does belong to his white picket fence. Meanwhile, Dorothy is completely stripped of her femme fatale mystique. After seeing her kidnapped son, she walks out of the locked room a broken mother, a woman who has been abused for too long. Out of the three characters, Frank is most affected by “In Dreams.” It is he, not Ben, who resembles the narrator of the song. He covets Dorothy but cannot have her. The tragedy springs from his success in turning his sickening dream into reality.
During “In Dreams,” the physical distortions of Frank’s face recall the infamous mutilated ear that opens the film. Such is the power of dreams. They can build one up and they can tear one down. Twisted dreams are even more dangerous for the pieces never quite fit again properly. Roy Orbison’s songs have the same dissecting ability. They force listeners to uncomfortably stare at their own emotions without sentimentality. They serve as a reminder of the reason why we are embarrassed of feeling too much; in the real world, dreams and wishes never come true.
Blue Velvet is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Phuong Le (@smallnartless) studies film at Manhattanville College and interns at Film Comment. Her writings can be found at Movie Mezzanine as well as her own blog, Cinematic Gloom. When not writing, she enjoys caring too much about David Bowie.