Thursday, December 27, 2018

Weird on Top: A Discussion of David Lynch

by Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob DiCristino
Week Eight: Wild at Heart

Rob: Welcome to Weird on Top, a symbol of our individuality and our belief in personal freedom. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Alejandra: And I’m Alejandra Gonzalez.

Rob: Our David Lynch extravaganza continues with 1990’s Wild at Heart, written for the screen by Lynch and based on the novel by Barry Gifford. It stars Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as two young lovers on the run from parents, parole officers, and private eyes. Cage’s Sailor Ripley is a hard-living, Elvis-loving outlaw. Dern’s Lula Fortune is a smart and sultry runaway. Together, they’re breaking free for California along a yellow brick road of their own design, one that skews far away from the horrors of modern living. Meanwhile, Fortune’s mother (played by Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd) enlists the help of private investigator Johnnie Farragut (The Immortal Harry Dean Stanton) and gangster Marcello Santos (J. E. Freeman) – with whom she shares a secret past — to hunt down the pair of lovers at any cost.

Ale, what are your thoughts on Wild at Heart?
Alejandra: Wild at Heart is a movie I always remember loving pretty deeply despite having only seen it two or three times. I was really excited to revisit it because I finally got my hands on the Shout Factory release from earlier this year, and it completely blew me out of the water as if it were my first watch. One of my favorite things about Wild at Heart is something I think sets it apart from Lynch’s other work, which is how much this takes place in our world. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but so many of Lynch’s films seem to be dealing with an alternate reality and feel so out of this world that it always makes me feel like I’m an outsider watching somebody else’s nightmare. Wild at Heart is brimming with pop cultural references that serve as constant reminders that this is happening in the same world as ours. The same world where Elvis reigns as the king of rock, where Marilyn Monroe was hotter than Georgia asphalt, and where The Wizard of Oz takes anyone who watches it over the rainbow. These references are everywhere, from Sailor serenading Lula with Elvis’ “Love Me” and “Love Me Tender” to Lula constantly mentioning the Wicked Witch of the West. As someone who feels a profound connection to The Wizard of Oz, I really appreciated how often it was brought up here. The parallels are clear, most notably the lovers’ road trip compared to Dorothy’s journey to find the Wizard. I found that Lula’s constant referencing the film was there mainly as a sign of her naïveté. Like Dorothy, Lula yearns for something much bigger than what she knows back home. She finds this place “over the rainbow” in Sailor, her very own Wizard. But, much like Dorothy learns about the wonderful Wizard of Oz, Lula soon discovers that Sailor has some dark secrets of his own and must grow up before the audience’s eyes on this journey beside him.

Rob: While I agree that Wild at Heart uses familiar iconography to keep it grounded, it does feel at times like a bit of an alternate universe. I mentioned to you earlier that I thought it was the most Twin Peaks — meaning the original ‘90 - ‘91 series — of any of Lynch’s films, even more so than Fire Walk with Me. The dialogue is formally composed and intentionally verbose. The scenarios are melodramatic, campy, and, at times, bizarre. Angelo Badalamenti can be heard banging around on a jazzy piano in the background. The entire Diane Ladd subplot feels like a scheme hatched by Ben and Audrey Horne! This may be because Lynch began working on the film shortly after completing the Twin Peaks pilot. Who knows? Either way, I loved it and felt right at home in this universe.

I like what you said about Lula yearning for a bigger world. We have our usual Lynchian themes of sexual abuse, but what differentiates Lula from Laura Palmer is that she has the agency to articulate her point of view and someone she loves who can listen, understand, and provide support. I honestly felt that one of the most romantic scenes in this very romantic movie was when Lula, disgusted by the stories of death, destruction, and perversion she hears on every radio station, pulls the car over, runs out, and demands that Sailor find her some music before she loses it. He jumps into action (settling on the head-banging Powermad) and joins her for a roadside thrashfest as the camera cranes upward toward the horizon. It’s a really beautiful moment of love and empathy between these two misfits who understand each other in ways no one else does.
Alejandra: You’re totally right when you say that it does still feel part of an alternate reality at times. I mean, despite all of these reminders that Wild at Heart works within the same realm as our everyday lives, it still reeks of weirdness and doesn’t suffer at all from a shortage of the surreal. One of my favorite moments in the film happens when Lula is telling Sailor about her cousin Dell and his obsession with Christmas. The story is so bizarre and anybody unfamiliar with Lynch’s work would deem it out of place, but I think it is a testament to the intimacy that the lovers share. In fact, most of my favorite scenes are the post-coital conversations between Lula and Sailor as they nestle in bed together and smoke their cigarettes. Even the sex scenes themselves are incredibly intimate, as they focus closely on the couple’s faces, and even more particularly, their hands. As a big fan of hands, I would just like to thank Lynch one time for totally understanding me on that front! Actually, hands are a big deal throughout Wild at Heart and seem to be focused on very often. When Lula’s mother has that crazy nervous breakdown when she covers her face in lipstick, we are also met with a shot of her red hands. We also see a dog scurry away with an amputated hand in its mouth. I don’t know what any of it means, but it was really working for me and it’s something I need to look into. Lynch hand fetish confirmed?

In all seriousness, it’s really interesting to watch these incredibly tender scenes and compare them to the cold frigidity of what sex was like in Lost Highway. In many ways, it makes Wild At Heart one of Lynch’s most humane films and one that makes my heart all warm and tingly despite how bat shit things get. I know you had a problem with the love-less nature of Lost Highway, so what did you make of the romance in Wild at Heart?

Rob: Comparing these two is very interesting. Lost Highway is, as you said, very cold and alienating. Sex and love are lies in that movie; they’re out-of-body experiences that fundamentally corrupt our identities in permanent, inescapable ways. On the other hand, sex in Wild at Heart is crucial and life-affirming. These characters are driven by their passion for each other — the interstitial sexual images punctuated by matches sparking to life makes this clear. Their naive passion may cloud their overall judgement, but it’s also a powerful shield against all the extracurricular bullshit that tries to trap them in societal boxes. It’s like Mission: Impossible. They can run from the real world as long as they keep that match burning. I actually thought about True Romance quite a bit on this rewatch. I think they’re interesting companions. Clarence and Alabama are (or at least act) more mature than Lula and Sailor, but they come to similar conclusions about love and sacrifice.
Two questions for you: Which was your favorite cameo appearance? For me, it’s Sherilyn Fenn as Girl in Accident. And what do you make of the Willem Dafoe character? He’s definitely got a Frank Booth-ness about him, and I’m wondering if Lynch is using that archetype for the same or different purposes as Blue Velvet.

Alejandra: Well, Sherilyn Fenn was my favorite cameo, too. There’s something really moving about that scene in a way that allows the audience to see Lula and Sailor’s relationship evolve into something forever unifying. They have now been through something together. Although the couple sees someone die at the beginning of the movie, it’s very different because we understand that that person was a bad guy, while Sherilyn character was the victim of some tragedy. However, If I had to choose a different favorite cameo, I think I would say that I loved seeing Isabella Rossellini again. As far as far as Bobby Peru goes, I did find myself thinking back to Frank Booth (who, in my opinion, is Lynch’s best “villain”), and sometimes even saw Bad Coop in him. I think Lynch’s best villains (if not all of them, actually) have a certain mobster element to them that is met with an unhinged insanity that makes them feel truly menacing. This is making me wonder which of Lynch’s bad guys would win if they were all pitted against each other. My money is still on Frank.
I’d also like to take this moment to be completely in awe of the outfits in this movie. I know it’s not the most intellectually stimulating topic, but it’s one of the things that completely drew me in to Wild at Heart to begin with. And it’s clearly an element that means something, since so much emphasis is placed on Sailor’s snake skin leather jacket. It’s also sort of interesting to me because in so much of his work (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks), Lynch loves to make the decade ambiguous by having his characters dress in outfits that look straight out of the '50s. In Wild at Heart, though there are tons of references to pop culture from that decade, the characters dress in a much edgier fashion that feels more appropriate for the era in which the movie was released. Do you make anything of that?

Rob: That’s a really interesting point. My first instinct is to say that it’s in support of the “young and reckless love” angle, a kind of heightened aesthetic to go along with the heightened reality in which they’re living. Things are just sexier when you’re young and in love and on the run, and the outfits — especially Dern’s (good lord) — reflect that rose-colored perspective. It definitely adds something risky and seductive that feels of a piece with Lynch’s overall style while also ramping it up considerably.

I really enjoyed this Wild at Heart revisit. It’s not a film I think about watching all that often, but it really came to life for me in the context of our series. For the last few weeks, I’ve been considering my overall thoughts on each of the films and how I might rank them when we finish up. So far, Wild at Heart is the only one whose ranking I would dramatically change from where it was when we started. This and The Straight Story have been the biggest revelations.

Any last thoughts on Wild at Heart?
Alejandra: Because I don’t revisit it very often, Wild at Heart always ranked kind of low on my list of Lynch Favorites, too, despite remembering having loved it so much. Although that has changed with my latest watch, I think it mainly has to do with how incredible all of his other work is, but that’s not to say that Wild at Heart is any different. I think that like The Straight Story, I seem to often overlook his more humane work because it’s not what I typically turn to Lynch for. But even just looking at the relationships in Lynch’s other work, such as Ed and Norma’s in Twin Peaks, it’s pretty clear that one of his greatest strengths is establishing intimacy and humanity between his characters like we see in Wild at Heart. This column has brought it to my attention that if there’s anything Lynch is capable of, it’s everything.

Rob: We’ll be back in a bit to talk about Lynch’s most recent theatrical effort, 2006’s Inland Empire. I’ve never seen it, and my Blu-ray just arrived, so I’m pretty excited. Until then, remember: This world is wild at heart…

Alejandra: And weird on top.

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