The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we delve into the strange world of David Lynch’s mind, attempting to make sense of things along the way.
Ah, 1990. There were many things that really defined that strange, pubescent decade. Between the internet taking its first baby steps into maturity and the disco fad of the 70s and 80s slowly fading back into the back recesses of the cultural consciousness, 1990 was also defined by two huge shifts in pop-culture: The wave of experimental indie-filmmaking sparked by the likes Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino, and the even newer waves of radical television shows that were changing the entire medium of television as a whole.
David Lynch happened to be a pioneer of both of these exciting shifts in popular culture. The indie-filmmaking spree that fueled festivals like Sundance wouldn’t have been popular without films like his own Blue Velvet and Eraserhead inspiring many young up-and-coming filmmakers. But most importantly of all, 1990 was the year that Lynch unleashed Twin Peaks to televisions across the nation, bringing the medium to revolutionary levels of experimentation and capturing the attention and acclaim of millions of viewers across the globe.
But even with the bombshell that was Twin Peaks dominating popular culture all throughout 1990, Lynch ended up receiving even further honors when his then-latest film Wild At Heart won the coveted Palme d’Or in the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. And though critical reception was very divisive, it was even more of a financial success than his surprise hit Blue Velvet. It’s easy to see why this was very oddly received by critics, however. While many of Lynch’s films take place in what feel like alternate fantasy versions of the real world, this is one of the only ones to take place in an alternate fantasy parody of the real world. And unlike the ludicrous jabs at Hollywood culture displayed in Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, Wild At Heart displayed Lynch at his most manic and downright cartoonish.
It’s a delirious, bizarre, but incredibly enjoyable ride, that’s also as strangely absorbing as all the rest of Lynch’s best work. Without further ado, David Lynch’s Wild At Heart.
“This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.”
Wild At Heart‘s history may not be as convoluted or fascinating as the Dino DeLaurentiis debacle that led to the creation of both Dune and Blue Velvet, but it’s interesting regardless. Wild At Heart is actually based on a novel by Barry Gifford, but the novel came out the same year as the film. How does something like that happen? Well, Gifford’s manuscript was actually passed around from producer to producer until it landed on Monty Montgomery, Lynch’s new producer who also worked with him during Twin Peaks. Montgomery almost didn’t give the unfinished manuscript (completed with the exception of the last two chapters) to Lynch because he thought it wouldn’t have been “his kind of thing”.
Instead, Lynch ended up loving the book, offering to write the adapted screenplay and direct the film himself after it personally spoke to him. “It was just exactly the right thing at the right time,” he said of Gifford’s novel. “The book and the violence in America merged in my mind and many different things happened.” To him, the exploits of snakeskin jacket-wearing Sailor and his erotically charged girlfriend Lula were more than just a modern romance. It was something that seemed to communicate something to him about our modern culture. Watching the film today is a surreal experience even outside of the film’s own idiosyncrasies mainly because of just what Lynch set out to say about that modern culture, and how it almost relates to our own.
Wild At Heart opens with a perfect tone-setter: with a passionately romantic orchestral ballad serving as background music while fire burns across a black screen. The opening credits begin to roll, with the film’s title zooming onto the screen and landing with an action movie-esque “punch” sound effect. We then immediately transition to the opening scene, which shows Sailor (Nicolas Cage), his girlfriend Lula (Laura Dern), and her psychotic, domineering mother (Diane Ladd) at a party in Cape Fear. The audience barely has time to really get a sense of this place and these characters before we witness Sailor brutally beating a man to death set to the thrash-metal song “Slaughterhouse” by Powermad.
In about 5 minutes, everything about Wild at Heart’s tone is apparent. This is a perverse, violent, nutso depiction of romance that even Bonnie and Clyde would shrug off as too hardcore for them. And the film only gets stranger and more violent as it progresses. Sailor is sent to prison as a result of his actions in the opening scene, but it isn’t long before he breaks parole to whisk Lula away to a place where they can get married without the law always behind his back, and an over-protective mother behind her’s. And speaking of crazy mommy issues, as soon as the lovebirds escape their nests together, Lula’s mother opts to get her daughter back by sending a hitman over to find the couple, kill off Sailor for good, and bring Lula back safe and sound.
You’re probably wondering why the concept of young lovers on the run from law enforcement and crazy criminals sounds so familiar? Well, that’s because this sort of violent, twisted romance story set in an exaggerated America has been done before in the Tarantino-penned Tony Scott cult-classic True Romance (which, hopefully, most of you readers are familiar with). The funny side to this comparison, however, is that while True Romance is more greatly remembered, Wild At Heart was released three years before it. Granted, it was technically a Tarantino film, so it’s easy to see Tarantino being influenced by this film just as much as the likes of Badlands and Bonnie & Clyde.
Yet as I thought about True Romance multiple times throughout rewatching Wild At Heart for the retrospective, I began to notice the bigger picture: Wild At Heart is doing exactly what Tarantino had “pioneered” quite a long while before he broke out on the scene with Reservoir Dogs. Wild At Heart is not just a deranged romance, but a pop-culture mish-mash steeped in iconography; mixing and remixing various references like a cinematic DJ to create something subversive and original.
There’s Sailor, a walking, talking Elvis action-figure straight out of the Jailhouse Rock (with hints of James Dean thrown in, to boot). Lula, a hyper-sexualized, live-action Jessica Rabbit figure who loves her dopey boyfriend just the way he is, violent faults and all. Odd musical insertions that evoke sleazy grindhouse films and pulp novels are scattered throughout. The picture as a whole feels like a tour guide through Americana in much the same way Blue Velvet was; the difference being that while Blue Velvet was focused on the darkness lurking within hedge-trimmed, white picket-fenced middle-class suburbia, Wild At Heart has its gaze directed at…well, it’s kind of hard to explain.
You know those cheesy Southern bars that you’d go to that would have animal heads, guitars, and Confederate flags all adorned on the walls and ceiling while country music plays in the background along with the sounds of a hillbilly couple loudly getting busy in a nearby bathroom? Well, David Lynch managed to distill that abstract, unexplainable feeling you get when you go to those kinds of places. You could feel the dirty, hormonal, sweaty sexual tension as you watch it, and that’s meant to be something of a compliment.
But among all the pop-cultural referencing laced throughout Wild At Heart, the most important, noticeable, and constant allusions in the film are the numerous ones pertaining to The Wizard of Oz, with many pieces of dialogue referring to Sailor and Lula’s journey using terminology and imagery from the classic film. A crystal ball is shown multiple times, Sailor refers to his journey as the “Yellow Brick Road” and his destination as “the Emerald City”, Lula’s crazy mom smears red lipstick all over her face in a manner that echoes the green paint of the Wicked Witch of the West, and speaking of witches, Glinda the Good Witch shows up as a cameo/deus ex machina in the very end of the film.
This being a David Lynch adaptation, it should come as no surprise that many, many things from the source material were altered to make the picture more Lynchian. One of those changes was the inclusion of these Oz homages. The only real explanation behind their meaning is when Lynch stated in an interview that when he wrote the original draft of the screenplay, he kept the novel’s original ending in which Sailor and Lula split up for good and didn’t like it very much.
“[The first draft was] depressing and pretty much devoid of happiness, and no one wanted to make it,” he said in an interview. “It honestly didn’t seem real, considering the way they felt about each other. It didn’t seem one bit real! It had a certain coolness, but I couldn’t see it.” The ending was then altered to have Glinda the Good Witch come in and talk some sense into Sailor, convincing him to go back to Lula and raise their child together. “It was an awful tough world and there was something about Sailor being a rebel. But a rebel with a dream of the Wizard of Oz is kinda like a beautiful thing.”
That still doesn’t offer much of a direct explanation–this being Lynch and all, a man who refuses to explain the meaning and symbolism behind all of his work–though I’ve always felt that there’s something more subversive going on within its pop-cultural referencing, in much the same way that Tarantino’s films taught me that there could always be some kind of abstract, visceral, or intellectual reasoning behind his kind of pop remixing.
When Wild At Heart was originally reviewed by critics, many of them really didn’t know what to make of it. Many acknowledged and respected Lynch’s directorial skill and stylistic flourishes, but couldn’t manage to really see past the iconography that the film parades around, making the characters feel, in a way, completely empty and superficial beyond the pastiches. And you know what? Maybe that’s the entire point. Lynch’s films have always taken place in a bizarro, fantasy version of the real world, and what is the parodic, exaggerated Americana of Wild At Heart if not another Oz for another Dorothy?
Our dreams are meant to tell us something about our lives. Lynch has always been a firm believer of that as a strong advocate of transcendental meditation. Dorothy would’ve never learned that there was no place like home if she didn’t take her journey through the Oz. Almost all of Lynch’s movies, in a way, are these kinds of dreams, except they embody the characteristics (and many times, fears) of a larger culture and/or society than they do a single individual.
Eraserhead both embodied the fears of a father who couldn’t take care of his child and the fears of the post-Baby Boomer Generation. Blue Velvet was a statement of the darkness and evil that lurks in even the most quiet, and seemingly perfect of places, and how we manage to travel between the worlds of innocence and evil every day of our lives. Both films, in a way, were comments on American culture and used distinctly American iconography to communicate these fears and traits. The industrial complexes and Cold War undertones of Eraserhead, the white picket fences and jazzy diners of Blue Velvet, etc. Wild At Heart, much like those previous two films, is also a commentary on American culture, but it’s a much more modernized portrait.
America’s then-popular idea of what modern romance was is perfectly exemplified in the film’s brutal opening scene that I already embedded above: A man so unrealistically infatuated with a woman that he’d “kill” for her; and that kind of inability to control that bloodlust is what both attracts and repels the two of them. It’s uncommonly hard to tell whether their relationship is purely sexual or if there truly is some kind of innocent spark that’s lying beneath the erotic tension between the two of them. Either way, there’s something almost animalistic about their romance, and in a way…that portrait hasn’t changed much by today’s standards. Really, the only difference between the masculine lovers of 80s-90s romance and the ones of this generation are that the monstrous men are now actual monsters.
It’s easy to see why the critics of 1990 were unable to empathize with the intentional artifice of these characters. They’re all empty vessels; dolls that say their pop-inspired catchphrase when you pull the string. Yet as undeniably empty as these characters are, it’s emptiness with a purpose. This was what trashy American pop-culture of the late 80s was really like, in a way. And the film distills that in order to see how it ends up affecting the society surrounding it as a whole.
This becomes clearly apparent in a rather hilarious scene in which Laura Dern is driving their car on the highway and as she’s changing stations on the radio, each station plays nothing but depressing, horrible, violent news. Unable to handle the harsh truths of the real world crashing down on her from all sides, she literally stops the car yelling “I can’t stand it!” and begs Sailor to find a radio station that plays music of some sort. Finally, Sailor finds a station playing metal, and the two literally jump up and down and dance to the thrashing guitar riffs before that unabashedly romantic orchestral piece from the opening credits fades back in just before they begin to embrace again.
This is their Casablanca moment, fueled by the sweat of the Southern sun and the heart-pumping beats of Powermad. That’s what their American Dream is. The American Dream is wild at heart and weird on top.
Wild At Heart technically ends on a much happier note than the novel, but I still wrestle with the conclusion’s meaning. I’m assuming that the original novel ended with Sailor and Lula splitting up strictly because Sailor was that much of a thorn on Lula’s side who could only bring her down from having a happy life. And because of that, I’m unsure whether Lynch’s decision to have them come back together is something you’re meant to be depressed by or uplifted by. On one hand, the two will probably continue to feed off their own mutual sociopathy, fueled by their bestial love for each other and their pop-culture riffing, all as the credits roll to Sailor’s rendition of “Love Me Tender”. Yet on the other hand, what brings them back together is the purity of Glinda the Good Witch, and if there’s one creation from popular culture that’s undeniably “pure”, it’s The Wizard of Oz.
I guess it doesn’t matter what that conclusion means anyway. Either way, they will remain in Oz for the rest of their lives. What it boils down to is whether it’s really okay to embrace that reality or not. They’re undeniably happy together, bestial love or otherwise. And like Lynch said himself, “A rebel with a dream of the Wizard of Oz is kinda like a beautiful thing.”
As I mentioned earlier, Wild At Heart wasn’t the only success for David Lynch in 1990. Twin Peaks swept the nation in ways very few shows manage to accomplish. The question of who killed Laura Palmer was on everybody’s mind, and lovable characters like Agent Dale Cooper and eccentric Leland Palmer were there to keep audiences tuned in. But all shows have an end point, and Twin Peaks was unfortunately canceled after only two seasons due to a dip in ratings.
But Lynch wasn’t quite done with Twin Peaks. There was still more closure he wanted to bring, especially after the purposeful cliffhanger that the series finale left things in (orchestrated in the hopes of making sure audiences would clamor for a third season). And like a rising phoenix that probably made Mitch Hurwitz proud, Twin Peaks was given a rare, special gifts that few canceled shows ever get: A second chance.
Next week, we discuss the show’s impact and how it all lead to one of Lynch’s most horrifying, unsettling, and underrated films. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
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