“I don’t know if you’re a detective, or a pervert” – Sandy Williams
It’s probably about time we talked about curiosity.
I’d forgotten how much of a ripping yarn there was at the centre of Blue Velvet. I remembered all the oddities, all the weird and disturbing moments, the brilliant use of music – but not the mystery story that drives it. That is to say, a story about being curious.
Being curious is what makes narratives work: often in terms of moving characters around so they can create ‘plot’, but pretty much always in terms of the reader/viewer/player/listener/audience. Detective stories especially push this right close to the surface. The audience are closely aligned with the detective, their motivation united: discover the answers. (There’s a whole essay in me somewhere on how detective stories are the ultimate story; no doubt it’d feature phrases like ‘fiction suits’ and ‘cogs and gears of narrative’ so it’s probably best I’m writing this instead.)
But if you’re willing to stretch the parameters of how you define curiosity, most stories work along the same lines: what would that be like? what’s over there? what if I…? And, the basic engine of Story: what happens next? And characters do your work for you, answering your questions by satiating their curiosity.
So, in the case of Blue Velvet: there’s an ear. (“Yes, that’s a human ear all right” a police detective cheerfully says of the thing, crawling with ants and starting to go mouldy.) And so the question is set: where did the ear come from? It’s not too overwhelming a mystery, and the story could trail off in another direction. But Jeffrey, coming home from college to his boring hometown of Lumberton, gets curious. And, as he sneaks into a woman’s apartment and hides in a cupboard and watches through the slits to satisfy his curiosity, the question the audience is asking themselves changes: what will he find out? and, more immediately thanks to the carefully measured pace and the stabs of thriller music, is he going to make it out alive?
You know all those times someone tells you there are only this many stories, really, seven or four or one? It’s silly, really, and incredibly reductive. But I have to throw my hat in this point, I’d say there are two types. Stories about curiosity being rewarded, and stories about curiosity being punished. Detective stories tend to be about curiosity rewarded, for example. Horror stories are about curiosity punished. (No, don’t just go and see what’s in the—OHGODOHGODYOURFACE!)
Jeffrey witnesses atrocities, is threatened and beaten. His initial curiosity is certainly punished. But even fearing for his life, he can’t help himself: someone mutters something and there’s that little ping of a clue and Jeffrey pokes his nose in once more. He’s more addicted to answers and plot than someone two books into a Stieg Larsson bender.
Blue Velvet combines the pleasure of discovery – of all the strange images the film has to offer – with the stomach-churning desire for this to go no further. That little voice that says: if I eject the disc now, everything will stay at least this okay.
And that’s the, er, curious thing about curiosity: we need it for the story, we crave it, but if it’s pitched just right, something in you doesn’t want to find out. Or least, doesn’t want to pay the cost of knowing.
And that feeling wins out in Jeffrey, about three-quarters of the way through the film. He doesn’t want to be curious anymore; he wants off this narrative and into a story where the only curiosities are about a girl, what lies beneath, and what they feel like. And it looks like maybe sks and costs are going to be the ones that story has to offer – jealous ex-boyfriends and sneaking around… But it’s not done with him yet.
The thing about Blue Velvet is, it’s not quite a detective story, or a horror story. So in the end which will it be: the kind of story where Jeffrey’s curiosity goes rewarded? Or punished?
…Well, that would be spoiling things, wouldn’t it?