(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
“Wild At Heart is a love story that barrels down a strange highway through the twisted modern world,” David Lynch said of his 1990 film. “There are very tender moments, and there are very violent moments. And then there’s confusion and despair, and then suddenly – you’re in love. There’s got to be room for all of these things…film, in my mind, should have contrast to it. It should have many different kinds of feelings all weaving their way throughout.”
A lifelong painter, Lynch began drawing as a young child long before considering film. His mother, Edwina Lynch, would buy crayons and coloring books for his siblings, but not for young David. He was supplied with blank sheets of paper, no lines to color within. Lynch would later attribute this to his mother recognizing his innate artistic abilities: “Somehow a really beautiful thing came to her that those [coloring books] would be restrictive and kill some kind of creativity…boundaries will screw you.”
Lynch didn’t consider film as a medium until he was enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he had the realization that his static paintings could become “moving paintings with sound.” This would lead the twenty-five-year-old Lynch to apply to the newly founded American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where he moved to study filmmaking in 1971. In the documentary David Lynch: The Art Life (2016), he recalls the experience of moving to Los Angeles and learning the intensely technical craft of filmmaking by saying, “That California sunshine was pulling the fear out of me.” It’s a response that epitomizes the way that Lynch’s mind works. When asked about his formative experiences with film, Lynch’s memory is void of factual tidbits as they relate to the trade of filmmaking. Instead, he supplies a personified visual about what he remembered feeling. For Lynch, film was simply another blank canvas to paint on, no lines to color within.
Even in his quote about Wild At Heart, you’ll notice he doesn’t talk about the film’s plot or character arcs. He talks about emotions: love, tenderness, confusion, and despair. He talks about contrast: the lightness and the darkness. When discussing Lynch’s films, it’s important to contextualize his background in painting to provide a framework for the esotericism he puts onto the screen. More than he is a filmmaker, Lynch is a painter who makes films. Walking in the footsteps of Salvador Dali, Lynch’s celluloid expeditions into the unconscious mind are impressionistic and daring. The frames of his films are an evocative tapestry of symbolism and emblems, disinterested in the mechanics of structure in favor of emotional responses. His approach is so singular that it’s spawned the term “Lynchian,” a sort of “one-size-fits-all” descriptor for any artistic preoccupation with surrealism that adheres to dream-logic. While Lynch isn’t the first filmmaker to dive into surrealism (Luis Buñel, Federico Fellini, and even Alfred Hitchcock explored cinematic dream-states decades before Lynch), his authoritative approach is distinct enough to have its own terminology. At his most “Lynchian,” you get Lost Highway (1997) or Mulholland Drive (2001), both of which have devoted cult followings but are so deeply cryptic they defy mainstream audiences. At his least “Lynchian,” you get Dune (1984), which was riddled with enough interference from producers and financiers that in some cuts, Lynch replaced his name in the credits with Alan Smithee (a common pseudonym used by directors who didn’t want their name associated with a film). And somewhere in-between, you get Wild At Heart: a film that’s definitively “Lynchian,” but accessible enough to appeal to someone who doesn’t know what “Lynchian” means.
Despite it’s crazy colors and textures, Wild At Heart’s accessibility is neatly framed by the time-tested sub-genre of “lovers on the run” films, harkening back to They Live By Night (1948), Gun Crazy (1950), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Badlands (1973). These are stories audiences are accustomed to; crime-dramas that double as romances, linear travelogues that flirt with fatalistic desires, and unsavory characters. Lynch provides us with defined lines to paint within, which makes the moments where he decides to go outside all the more provocative.
At Wild At Heart’s center, we have our “lovers on the run” – Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern). Sailor is the archetypical “rebel without a cause,” the “Romeo in black jeans.” He’s the rabble-rousing descendant of Montgomery Clift and Elvis Presley, the “sensitive tough guy.” His suit of armor is a snakeskin jacket, synonymous with nonconformist apparel such as James Dean’s red windbreaker in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) or Marlon Brando’s leather motorcycle jacket in The Wild One (1953). But Lynch takes these costuming implications to the next level when he makes this subconscious inference a literal piece of dialogue that Sailor delivers numerous times: “This here jacket is a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” It’s this kind of on-the-nose paradoxical sentiment that transcends Wild At Heart from a “lovers on the run” installment to a remarkably offbeat satire of American pop culture.
Countering Sailor is Lula: the “girl next door,” the “blonde bombshell.” Unlike Sailor’s checkered past, Lula is from the right side of the tracks, raised in a wealthy household by an affluent southern family. Her intense sexualization is exacerbated by her premature loss of innocence, as we find out she was raped by one of her father’s business associates when she was thirteen. Lula and Sailor’s love is pure and primal, hyperbolized to a point of parody. Their canonical exchanges sound like a tacky pulp novelist’s “best of” dialogue, filled with quick hepcat slang and punchy one-liners. But it’s delivered with earnest intent, resonating in the bizarre space between sarcasm and sincerity. Although he’s working within cliches and tropes – his best attempt to color within the lines – Lynch subverts our expectations by presenting what postmodernists would refer to as “hyperreality.” Our star-crossed lovers are products of Americana pop culture, having spent so much time digesting the simulated reality of Marilyn Monroe films and Eddie Cochran records that their reality has become altered and influenced. They are archetypical emblems of a certain kind of nostalgia rooted in the rose-tinted perception of American culture circa 1950s that Lynch is so fond of.
In Umberto Eco’s essay on Casablanca (1942), entitled Casablanca, Or The Cliches Are Having A Ball (1994), he concludes by saying, “Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.” Although Eco’s writing about Casablanca, this excerpt speaks directly to Lynch. In looking at Wild At Heart, there is so much sardonic iconography occurring that we don’t know when (and if) we should be laughing. It’s so dense with prototypical trademarks of American culture that it functions as artifice. Norman Rockwell becomes the Dr. Jekyll to David Lynch’s Mr. Hyde, making Wild At Heart an atypical piece of art cluttered with so many bastardized stereotypes of Americana that it becomes its own aesthetic.
Wild At Heart is sandwiched in-between Blue Velvet (1986) and the serialized Twin Peaks (1990-1991), both of which are Lynch’s most revered works. Because of this, Wild At Heart has largely existed in the shadows of what preceded and proceeded its release. This chronology is of note because Wild At Heart plays with many of the same themes of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks – the seedy underbelly of the American dream, organized crime, metaphysical influences – but widens its aperture far beyond the confines of small towns. It’s Lynch at his most ambitious, expounding upon his trademark themes with his largest canvas to date: the American southwest. Just as he subverted the sleepy town of Lumberton in Blue Velvet from a post-stamp illustration of suburbia to a clandestine hellscape, Lynch takes the romantic deserts and highways of America and turns them into a sun-soaked nightmare. The world of Wild At Heart is ultra-violent and perverted. Roads are littered with mangled car
wrecks, televisions play footage of blood-soaked hyenas ripping apart carcasses, radio stations broadcast reports of murder and necrophilia, and criminals roam freely. “This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top,” Lula says, and she couldn’t be more right.
Amidst all the chaos and savagery, Sailor and Lula’s love for each other seems to be the only pure thing in the whole world. It’s the emotional anchor that holds Wild At Heart together, even at its most idiosyncratic moments. This is best exemplified by a scene when Lula pulls off to the side of the road, fed up with the reports of death and carnage on the radio. She demands Sailor put some music on, and the two dance wildly to speed metal (the 1990 version of “kids diggin’ that crazy beat!”). As the camera cranes out, the diegetic metal is replaced by a sweeping Angelo Badalamenti score straight out of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. As the sun sets, Sailor and Lula embrace, whispering “I love you” to each other. This is Lynch telling the audience a platitude born out of Hollywood films: “Against all odds, love will prevail.” And although it’s a cliche, Lynch believes it. And we do too.
Throughout Wild At Heart, there are a variety of literal and figurative allusions to The Wizard Of Oz (1939). It’s a reoccurring motif in Lynch’s body of work, the narrative dynamic at the core of his authorship: a sympathetic character embarks on a dream journey and becomes overwhelmed by darkness, trapped by powerful forces, desperate to find a way back to reality. In Wild At Heart, the yellow brick road is a two-lane highway and the Emerald City is California. As Sailor and Lula’s journey progresses, we come to realize they’re stuck in their version of Oz. After being sexually assaulted by Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), Lula clicks her heels together, but unlike Dorothy, there is no Kansas to return to. There is only this waking nightmare – the modern world as Oz – from which there is no escape.
Coupled with The Wizard Of Oz motif is the idea of free will. In Wild At Heart, Lynch often cuts away from scenes and superimposes them onto a crystal ball in some unknown place, where a witches hand hovers above. This concept of an omnipresent, third-party entity pulling the strings of destiny is persistent in Lynch’s films. Much like the Mr. Roque character in Mulholland Drive, the crystal ball sequences bring into question how much autonomy Sailor and Lula have. There is a higher realm outside of their reality where shadowy forces govern, playing characters as avatars, their fate already sealed.
On its surface, Wild At Heart has a happy ending, perhaps the happiest ending to any Lynch film. After being visited by Glinda The Good Witch (Sheryl Lee), Sailor has an epiphany and reunites with Lula and their son. Standing on top of a convertible amidst a traffic jam, Sailor serenades Lula with “Love Me Tender,” having earlier confessed that he would only sing that song to his wife. It’s a cheesy Hollywood ending that works on a meta-level; the cherry on top of a whole film playing with cliches. But it’s important to note that the traffic jam is a result of a horrific accident. Before Lula reunites with Sailor, Lynch shows us the grotesque aftermath of a car crash. While it may be a happy ending for Sailor and Lula, it’s a tragic ending for the world around them, where violence and death still reign supreme. Lynch has often said that Wild At Heart is about “finding love in hell.” And while Sailor and Lula do find love, they’re nonetheless still stuck in hell – or some “Lynchian” version of it.
Wild At Heart is Lynch at the height of his popism, blurring the lines between the art house cinephile and the fair-weather movie fan. It’s familiar enough not to alienate, entertaining enough to enjoy passively. It functions as a hybrid of the well-worn American folklore you grew up consuming and what you can barely remember from a bad dream you just woke up from. It’s the perfect blend of Lynch coloring inside and outside the lines. For the unfamiliar, Wild At Heart is the best gateway into Lynch’s filmography. | e hehr