Skip to main content

Rockin’ good news.

Wild at Heart
(1990)

(SPOILERS) 1990 was a banner year for all things David Lynch. In April, Twin Peaks began, exposing him to a far wider audience than he had probably envisaged, and a month later Wild at Heart premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, going on to win the Palme d’Or. Sometimes the recipients of the award are richly deserved, sometimes it’s a case of “What were they thinking?” and certainly, the film was greeted with as many boos as cheers when victory was announced. Controversy followed in its wake, agitating critics over its sex and violence. While I was (and am) a cheerleader of Twin Peaks, I can’t say I was ever that wild about Wild at Heart. I found it distinctive and fitfully inspired, but in general I didn’t vibe with the adulation it received. As such, this is the first time in several decades I’ve revisited the picture, and even given my non-committal response then, I have to say it hasn’t stood the test of time.


One would almost think Lynch was actively trying to offend with the film, which is turned up to 11 throughout; it has a similar kind of intentionally in-your-face quality to Oliver Stone’s later Natural Born Killers, and variation in pitch and tone, which made Blue Velvet so impactful, is entirely absent.


Indeed, even the expected Lynch oddness, that sinister world that underpins surface reality, is rather undercut by the decision to make everything come back to The Wizard of Oz. After a while, the references serve only to emphasise this as a big, bold, gaudy cartoon, one with brains splattered across the pavement, wicked witches (or mothers) on broomsticks and leads who caricature unbridled rebels without causes (a midpoint doodle between Badlands and True Romance, but without the emotional resonance of either, since the only pitch here is one of hysteria).


Lynch was adapting Barry Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula. He and Gifford obviously hit it off, as they would later work on Hotel Room for HBO and then Lost Highway, but producer Monty Montgomery had assumed it wouldn’t be the director’s kind of thing. Lynch saw it as “a really modern romance in a violent world – a picture about finding love in hell”, so it’s ironic that the passions of Sailor and Lula, despite the clear commitment of Nic Cage and Laura Dern, amount to little.


While Blue Velvet depicts a resonant, haunting world, leaving the viewer with a sense of the whole picture despite the aspects that leap out (such as Frank Booth), Wild at Heart sticks in the mind purely because of the surface reality; the fly-blown vomit in Lula’s room; the dog running out of a robbed bank with one of the teller’s blown-off hands in its mouth; and Cage’s ridiculous, mashed-up nose prosthesis in the final scene.


Which actually suggests it’s a lot wackier than it is. While Lynch seems to have thrown the kitchen sink at the picture (the title graphics promise something much more seductive and stylishly melodramatic than what we get), he appears to have done so in an entirely random way. The film is so languorous, it’s easy to forget it even has a vague trajectory (it is, after all, a road movie). There are competing villainies and passions, but they seem incidental or unfulfilled, and the red-lipsticked visage of Diane Ladd, amped up and over-acting all over the shop (she got an Oscar nom, but hers isn’t really especially entertaining over-acting, unlike some of the performers here) as she attempts to dictate the fates of Sailor and Lula, never attains the status of threat.


Obviously, Lynch would express disdain or indifference to any such traditional narrative considerations (such that he waivered over changing the ending from the novel to a happy one, even though it felt right to him, because it might be considered too commercial), but it leads Wild at Heart into a kind of formless territory where it’s only the incidentals that engage; Blue Velvet works so well because it has the luxury of play, content in the knowledge that its basic structure is solid. Here, Lynch’s tics and cuts and fades and inserts seem affected, almost self-parodic, like he’s aware that this is what he does now; they seem mechanical (and sometimes arbitrary). Perhaps it’s from working off someone else’s material, but Wild at Heart’s impact is only intermittent.


Sailor: It’s too bad he couldn’t just visit that old Wizard of Oz and get some good advice.

You have the great Harry Dean Stanton, used entirely forgettably. JE Freeman fares better as gangster Santos (he would later have an amusingly nasty role in Alien Resurrection), but the only substantial part that lingers is Willem Dafoe’s hilariously perverse Bobby Peru, with his revolting gummy teeth, pencil tache and twisted menace (forcing Lula to say “Fuck me”, he reduces the odious assault to a punchline as he makes off with “Someday I will, but I got to get going!”)


Lynch knows he has something to savour with Dafoe, although he never quite makes the most of the potential. That said, a close-up is his leering, gargoyle mug in a stocking goes a long way, and his gleefully slapstick demise (blowing his own head off by accident) is illustration that, if Lynch is aiming for something very different tonally, he’s only able to capture it fitfully.


But there are some resonant incidentals en route. Most of the gathered Twin Peaks alumni have little impact other than visual (Grace Zabriskie in a blonde wig – Isabella Rossellini likewise, both emphasise the raven eyebrows – Sheryl Lee as the Good Witch, David Patrick Kelly as a heavy), but Sherilyn Fenn’s car crash victim is a rare moment of genuine emotional weight, even if Sailor attempts to undercut it (asked if she will make it, he comments “I don’t know, but she’s going to bleed all over our car, I’ll tell you that”).


00 Spool: Mentally, you picture my dog, but I have not told you the type of dog that I have. Perhaps you might even picture Toto from the Wizard of Oz. But I must tell you that my dog is always with me.

Jack Nance makes more of an impression in his one scene than his previous two features with the director (“My dog barks some”). A hotel sequence could have come straight out of Twin Peaks, with its eccentric tableau of a hotel manager (Peter Bromilow) on crutches and doddery old guys with walking sticks.


Then there’s the standout lunacy of Crispin Glover’s cousin Dell, a basket case who actually is, unlike Peaks’ Johnny Horne, believing aliens with black rubber gloves are following him around, intent on destroying the spirit of Christmas, controlling the rainfall (aliens will recur in Peaks of course), and who stays up all night making sandwiches (“What are you doing?”; “I making my lunch!”) The tale reaches its antically mirthful climax as Lula recounts how Dale was prone to infesting his underwear with cockroaches, and “One day they found him putting one big cockroach right on his anus”, to which Cage’s delivery of “Hell, peanut!” takes some beating.


Indeed, while the love story between Sailor and Lula leaves me entirely unmoved, both deliver some memorably amusing moments. There’s Lula’s response to the stream of effluent on the news (turtles released into the Ganges to reduce human pollution, and thence crocodiles to devour floating corpses) and Cage (who did a good backflip back then) at the conclusion, after being beaten up by the gang, intoning in drawling Elvis deadpan, “I want to apologise for referring to you gentlemen as homosexuals”.


Sailor: I didn’t have much parental guidance. The public defender kept saying that at my parole hearing.

Cage has always been a marmite actor, but there’s little doubt he was at his creative peak during this period, even if his method antics (he cites working with Lynch and the constant script revisions for helping ween him off method crack) had been a bit much. The likes Of Birdy, Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona and Moonstruck had shone a flattering spotlight on his talents, and Wild at Heart fully taps into his larger-than-life capacities (he’s basically doing Elvis to Dern’s Marilyn) in a way we wouldn’t see again until the end of the decade.


But, like Lynch’s directorial approach, there’s something of the embodied parody to Sailor. This is what comes to mind when you think of Cage doing crazy; bashing in brains and extoling the virtues of a snakeskin jacket, singing Treat Me or Love Me Tender, or even delivering a winningly goofy geek laugh. Yet Sailor, like a Lula, is simply a surface sketch of a character; as Lula, Dern couldn’t be more different from her performance in Blue Velvet, but without any interior life, the flashbacks to rape, or her encounter with Billy, lack depth.


Maybe because it attracted so much attention, Wild at Heart merely seems attention-seeking in retrospect, without much else to support its case. Variety’s review exploited colourful adverbs to the hilt (“joltingly violent”, “wickedly funny”, “rivetingly erotic”, and “seethingly sexy”), but to be honest it isn’t much of any of those things; it’s trying too hard to shock and so feels faintly passé. It flourishes a fine soundtrack; I’ll give it that much (including Chris Isaak and his signature song).


Perhaps, if he had kept his focus on Twin Peaks, that series would have maintained its quality, but as it is it’s fortunate he had his contributions to the show as a pointer to what he could do, otherwise the drop-off from Blue Velvet would seem much more dramatic. Wild at Heart has its plus points, but it’s a shame it’s one of Lynch’s most renowned works when other, more deserving efforts, have less exposure.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

The past is a statement. The future is a question.

Justified Season Six
(SPOILERS) There have been more than enough damp squib or so-so show finales of late to have greeted the demise of Justified with some trepidation. Thankfully it avoids almost every pitfall it might have succumbed to and gives us a satisfying send-off that feels fitting for its characters. This is a series that, even at its weakest (the previous season) is leagues ahead of most fare in an increasingly saturated sphere, so it’s a relief – even if there was never much doubt on past form – that it doesn’t drop the ball.

And of those character fates? In a show that often pulls back from giving Raylan Givens the great hero moments (despite his maintaining a veneer of ultra-cool, and getting “supporting hero” moments as he does in the finale, 6.13 The Promise), it feels appropriate that his entire (stated) motivation for the season should be undermined. He doesn’t get to take down Boyd Crowder, except in an incarcerating sense, but as always he is sanguine about it. After…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you.

Mr. Robot Season 2
(SPOILERS) I suspect my problem with Mr. Robot may be that I want it to be something it isn’t, which would entail it being a much better show than it is. And that’s its own fault, really, or rather creator and writer-director of umpteen episodes Sam Esmail’s, who has intentionally and provocatively lured his audience into thinking this really is an up-to-the-minute, pertinent, relevant, zeitgeisty show, one that not only has a huge amount to say about the illusory nature of our socio-economic system, and consequently the bedrock of our collective paradigm, but also the thorny subject of reality itself, both of which have been variably enticing dramatic fodder since the Wachowski siblings and David Fincher released a one-two punch at the end of the previous millennium.

In that sense, Mr. Robot’s thematic conceit is very much of a piece with its narrative form; it’s a conjuring act, a series of sleights of hand designed to dazzle the viewer into going with the flow, rath…

It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
(SPOILERS) In retrospect, 1973 looks like a banner year for the changing face of the horror movie. The writing was on the wall for Hammer, which had ruled the roost in Britain for so long, and in the US the release of The Exorcist completed a transformation of the genre that had begun with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; the realistic horror film, where the terror was to be found in the everyday (the home, the family). Then there was Don’t Look Now, which refracted horror tropes through a typically Nic Roeg eye, fracturing time and vision in a meditative exploration of death and grief. The Wicker Man, meanwhile, would gather its reputation over the passing years. It stands as a kind of anti-horror movie, eschewing standard scares and shock tactics for a dawning realisation of the starkness of opposing belief systems and the fragility of faith.

In comparison to this trio, The Legend of Hell House is something of a throwback; its slightly stagey tone, and cobweb…