Great moments in swearing: Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet is a film with an enduring power to unsettle viewers. Its unique brand of ‘darkness in colour’ (to borrow Pauline Kael’s phrase) features also at the level of language, with the cornball goofing of its young sweethearts set against the malevolent and compulsive profanity of Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper.

For his book Lynch on Lynch, Chris Rodley asked David Lynch if all of Frank’s fucks were in the script or if any were improvised. Lynch replied:

I had many, many, many of them written in the script, but Dennis always added more, because you get on a roll, and you can’t help yourself. And if an actor is locked into the groove so solidly, even if they say extra lines, or not exactly the way they’re written, they’re truthful. And for me Dennis was one of those guys. He always says that I could never say the word on set and that I would go to the script and say, ‘Dennis, when you say this word.’ [Laughs.] That’s not true exactly.

The filmmakers initially passed on Hopper because of his reputation, but the actor persisted and Lynch, thankfully, reconsidered. Without presuming to psychoanalyze Booth – ‘there’s enough material there for an entire conference,’ as the psychiatrist said of Basil Fawlty – we can see in his profanilect* motifs of incest, defecation, and violence, among other things. He swears inventively but also routinely, and constantly.

Enough fucking about. Let’s look at some examples. (Spoiler and trigger warnings ahoy.)

Blue Velvet: Dennis Hopper, standing next to Dean Stockwell in a red-painted apartment, says, "Let's hit the fucking road!"

Our first encounter with Frank Booth is from Jeffrey Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan’s) hiding place in the closet of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini): we see Booth give free rein to oedipal fantasies and other fetishes, including the texture of velvet:

close-up on Dennis Hopper, who says, "Baby wants to fuck."

close-up on Dennis Hopper, with an anguished expression, saying, "Get ready to fuck! You fuckers! Fucker!"

close-up on Dennis Hopper, subdued again, saying, "Baby wants blue velvet."

If Booth does not like you – and chances are he doesn’t – then he won’t bother with pleasantries:

Blue Velvet: Isabella Rosselini greets Dennis Hopper in her apartment: "Hello, baby."

Dennis Hopper, raising his arm angrily, replies, "Shut up! It's Daddy, you shithead!"

Dennis Hopper meets Kyle MacLachlan in the corridor outside Isabella Rosselini's apartment and asks her, "Who is this fuck?"

Or with your name:

Same position: Hopper says, "Don't you look at me, fuck!"

Hopper turns in the car to face Rosselini beside him and says, angrily, "Don't say please, fuck head!"

He does not like warm beer:

Hopper, flanked by Rosselini and Stockwell in the latter's apartment, yells, "One thing I can't fucking stand is warm beer!"

Hopper continues, "It makes me fucking puke!"

And he has particular serving preferences:

A woman carries the drinks in on a tray and Brad Dourif asks Hopper, "Want me to pour it?"

Hopper replies, "No. I want you to fuck it!"

Hopper clarifies impatiently: "Shit, yes! Pour the fucking beer!" Rosselini looks on anxiously and Stockwell smirks suavely.

And tastes:

Outside on a dark street, MacLachlan has just told Hopper he drinks Heineken. Hopper answers crossly, "Heineken."

Hopper continues: "Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!"

And toasts. Party host Ben (Dean Stockwell) proposes drinking to his friend’s health. Frank demurs:

Back in the apartment, Hopper replies to Stockwell, "Shit, let's drink to something else."

Turning to Rosselini, Hopper says, "Let's drink to fucking."

Hopper continues: "Let's say, 'Here's to your fuck, Frank.'"

close-up on Stockwell, who says, "If you like, Frank."

close-up on Stockwell, his eyes momentarily opening wide, saying, "Here's to your fuck."

Booth is impressed:

Hopper lifts his glass to Stockwell and says, "You are so fucking suave!"

Hopper, looking closely at Stockwell while Rosselini looks on, says, "God damn, you're one suave fucker!"

He continues, "Shit, man. How the shit are you?"

Speaking of suave fuckers, James Harbeck has examined ‘your fuck’ in detail in ‘The possessed fuck’. Hopper and Stockwell (whose unforgettable Roy Orbison moment is here) are fond old friends. But this is not someone from whom you want a love letter:

Outside at night, Hopper, his mouth messily smeared with lipstick, grips the back of MacLachlan's neck and asks him: "You know what a love letter is?"

Hopper: "It's a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker!"

Hopper: "You receive a love letter from me..."

Hopper: "...you're fucked forever!"

Hopper, shouting now: "You understand, fuck?"

extreme close-up on Hopper and his lipstick-smeared mouth: "I'll send you straight to hell, fucker!"

If a love letter from Booth is a bullet, imagine what a string of swears is. The following montage of his fucks, though edited so heavily it omits surrounding words and context, gives a sense of how violently charged his speech is:

Contempt brings out the shit in it:

Hopper enters Rosselini's apartment and calls out to a seemingly empty room, "You shit-for-brains, man!"

Hopper moves further into the apartment and says, "I can hear your fucking radio, you stupid shit!"

It’s not all fuck and shit for Mr Id-on-the-loose:

In the car, close-up on MacLachlan while a minion of Frank's says, "He's a pussy, Frank."

Frank answers, addressing Rosselini, "But he's our pussy, right, Tits?"

But it usually is, and fuck is the fulcrum on which Booth’s most memorable swear turns. Rounding up his posse for a joyride, Booth lets loose an immortal, indiscriminate imprecation:

Lynch’s startling smash cut at the end disappears Booth yet retains his laugh, giving him a daemonic aura, before propelling us onto a road hurtling by underneath. Before we rejoin Booth in the car, we sense him tearing out into the world, hell-bent on fucking it in whatever way makes impulsive sense to him, all the while swearing a blue streak.

Throughout the film, Frank puts fuck and its derivatives to promiscuous use – as modifier, intensifier, putdown, punchline, verb of variable meaning. It’s safe to assume, in the clip above, that Let’s fuck = Let’s go. But when Frank Booth says he’ll fuck anything that moves, the possibilities are multiple and uniformly unwelcome.

* * *

When James Harbeck and I set up Strong Language in late 2014, my first post was a ‘Great Moments in Swearing’ bit on John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’ve been meaning to follow it up ever since. Fucking finally.

* This coinage hasn’t caught on yet, but I live in hope.

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