David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet argues that the machismo that lies at the heart of mass-American culture’s representation/manifestation of “manhood” is a LEARNED behavior.
The color scheme of Dorothy Valen’s apartment reveals that the protagonist Jeffrey is traveling back into the womb. (Indeed, when Frank Booth arrives there, he tells Dorothy’s vagina “Baby wants to f–k,” underlining this point. In the thematic schema of Lynch’s movie, Jeffrey will go through a symbolic rebirth. Thus, the severed ear is a symbol alluding to the Osiris myth).
Frank Booth (not only does the villain of the piece share the surname of the notorious assassin John Wilkes Booth, but the ear of his victim was found on Lincoln St.) has murdered a father figure to become the father. If we refer to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, like the primal father, Booth has a monopoly on the women. (Booth is doubled by Ben, the Kabuki-faced homosexual who runs the bordello with used up has-been “broads.”). For Jeffrey to become a man in this patriarchal society, he must kill the primal father (his own father is felled by a stroke and is symbolically dead/removed from the story) and take over the horde, or at least a “piece” of it (Dorothy).
Dorothy has been brutalized, is likely drugged, and is suffering from Stockholm syndrome, an indentification with her captor/tormentor. Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, she — the symbolic mother, Jocasta — demands that her Oedipus brutalize her, as his “father” has. Eventually (Jeffrey earlier refused her demand that he hit her and thus forfeited his place in her bed), in the throes of passion, he does slap her, and the film goes into slow motion and the soundtrack has carries the sounds of jungle cats in attack as they couple.
Jeffrey is now learning to be a “man.” At the diner with his young female neighbor Sandy, a more suitable partner, he moves in on her and kisses her. He has found his own machismo and his future mate. But to claim her, too, he must eliminate the father.
The fact that we are in mythological territory is heralded by the blind black man at the family hardware store. He is both a Homeric figure and doubles Jeffrey/Oedipus. The blind black man is the future, the “blindness” that will come with experience as Jeffrey assumes his place in the patriarchal culture after the story of the movie is completed. (Odin sacrificed an eye to gain knowledge, but there is critical take on the price of acquiring knowledge and taking one’s place in society: One loses one’s vision.)
Sandy’s father, of course, is a detective who may or may not be in league with his own doppelganger, his partner, the Man in Yellow. (Yellow symbolizes disease, as it was the color of quarantine signs, and also of decadence, as it was Oscar Wilde’s color; it also references Robert W. Chambers short story collection “A King in Yellow;” characters who read the eponymous play that gives the collection its name go mad or meet horrible deaths).
Jeffrey has to neutralize Sandy’s father (as a father, he doesn’t want his daughter dragged into this mystery). It can be said that by exposing the perfidy of the Man in Yellow, Jeffrey had brought Sandy’s dad back to the light — there is the hint of corruption with Sandy’s father, as the dick’s house is much fancier than Jeffrey’s father’s house and may have been the fruits of corruption, though his future stepfather will be redeemed.
Frank’s path is fallow: the post-menopausal women of the bordello and the homosexual Ben represent a dead end in reproductive terms. In the scene where Jeffrey is taken for “a ride” (a standard part of nearly every policier), the prostitute dancing as a “go-go girl” on top of the Dodge Charger is post-menopausal. Frank has announced the “ride” by yelling “Let’s f–k!” (after saying he’ll f–k anything) but his “eyes” (and his rouged lips) are only for Jeffrey, his doppelganger/son.
(Frank also has his own literal doppelganger, himself in disguise, as everyone does, though not in such a literal sense. Ben’s karaoke turn also suggests everyone is just “miming” their lives, that everyone is living a life in disguise).
Frank’s homosexual impulses are revealed when he kisses Jeffrey feverishly before pummeling him almost to death. Thus, the homoerotic element of machismo is elucidated, as it was earlier, with Ben singing “In Dreams” behind an electrician’s light. (In this, Ben also doubles Dorothy, the torch singer, in both senses: As singer and as a carrier of the flame, of light. Prometheus, the mythological figure who stole light- and heat-giving fire from the gods, created humans from clay. Frank will create the man that Jeffrey will become from clay, a synonym for feces, which is what the young Jeffrey represents to him at first. Aside from the F-bomb he drops all the time, Frank is also fond of using the S-word.) All these disguises are rooted in their opposites; Ben is another part of Frank, Ben Franklin [$100 bill], John Wilkes Booth; Abraham Lincoln, etc.).
Before he became a filmmaker, David Lynch trained a visual artist. He still is a painter who mines the Jungian imagery of dreams for both his canvases and his films.
Jeffrey is born again and leaves the womb-apartment via the birth canal-hallway after the violence/symbolic birth of Frank’s death. He kills Frank, and thus Golden Bough-like, becomes the father/king. He has been reborn, as an American man.
(Jeffrey has even learned the example of violence from Sandy’s dad, who always wears his rod in his shoulder holster; thus, he knows where the Man in Yellow’s rod is — he reaches into his shoulder holster, retrieves his gun-penis, and — now corrupt with alliance with yellow, kills Frank with the Yellow Man’s “rod”).
Jeffrey returns to the normality of middle-class Lumberton, but of course, he is a different person. He has f—ed, slapped around dames (in the best Hollywood fashion — as Woody Allen’s Bogart says in “Play it Again Sam,” “I never saw a dame yet that didn’t understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45.”) and killed a man. He is now an American male, in the best Hollywood-John Wayne/NRA sense. Sandy had better not give him any s—, or he’ll show her who wears the pants!
A companion piece to Lynch’s Blue Velvet would be Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris for a similar exegesis of American machismo, though it is more literal (and the Paul character played by Brando even more pathetic as Tango is tragedy, not comedy-satire). Berltolucci, who did not speak English, had to cede some of the duties of auteur to Brando, who gave him one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.
In Last Tango, particularly in the end scenes after they leave the apartment, Brando goes through a kaleidoscope of fragmentary male attitudes based on cinema displays of machismo, from the suave Brit who asks if he can sit down with Jeanne at her table in the tango hall, to a channeling of Jimmy Cagney, exclaiming “You dirty rat!” after she masturbates him under the table.
Brando, whom writer-director/actor John Huston and director Elia Kazan claimed was a genius, was able to understand and limn the role of cinematic depictions of machismo in the construction of male identity.