Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.6: David Lynch's Wild at Heart

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

Grade: 70 (B)

David Lynch had hit the big time. Blue Velvet was an instant art house classic, and Twin Peaks was on its way to being a major hit on ABC. After filming the series pilot, Lynch tried to rescue his long gestating project Ronnie Rocket, as well as his surreal comedy One Saliva Bubble, to no avail. Lynch instead went on to adapt Barry Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart into a dark, surreal road movie that won him the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But Wild at Heart is not regarded as one of Lynch’s finest films. When it was announced as the Palme D’Or winner, the cheers were rivaled by boos. When it was released stateside, it received mixed reviews. Even certain Lynch fans speak of the film as being one of Lynch’s weakest releases. Wild at Heart has much to recommend it, but it’s also a blueprint of how a David Lynch movie can go wrong.

Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) are a pair of southern lovers separated after Sailor is jailed for brutally killing a man in self-defense. Pursued by Lula’s spiteful mother Marietta (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real mother), the two decide to break Sailor’s parole and run away to California. Marietta sends her suitor, private investigator Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), after the two, but when he refuses to kill Sailor, she appeals to her gangster suitor Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman) and his boss, Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard). As they run, Sailor and Lula come across a series of strange characters, from crazy rocket scientist Spool (Jack Nance) to Sailor’s old friend Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini) to creepy criminal Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), and learn that the world is “wild at heart and crazy all over”.

Wild at Heart starts out very well, with Lynch echoing his earlier film Blue Velvet with the way he juxtaposes horrifying violence (Sailor smashing a man’s head open) to campy humor (following that act by staring into the camera and pointing at it). He also continues his interest in explicitly sexual material, with a series of sex scenes between Cage and Dern that could make anyone forget that Dern was the innocent girl-next-door type in her last collaboration with Lynch. What makes pushes the often ridiculously over-the-top sex scenes to even funnier territory is the genuine sweetness in the central relationship. Yeah, they fuck like rabbits, but they’re a couple of good kids deep down.

Wild at Heart is more in-your-face than Blue Velvet (already a shocking film), often to great effect. It has a similar preoccupation with 50s décor, but it bears more comparisons to down-and-dirty biker and road movies than squeaky-clean melodramas. His use of sound is as striking as ever, but where Lynch really kicks into overdrive is in his use of aggressive, often shocking imagery. The film is filled with bright, hot tones (red, yellow, orange, and pink), often accompanied by explicit sex scenes. Lynch often cuts a scene, without a moment’s notice, into another, more shocking moment (see: Ladd covering her entire face with lipstick). His close-ups of fire, matches, and the highway brings elements of danger into play. Even better, though, is when he switches from something aggressive (Sailor and Lula dancing in a heavy-metal club) to Cage crooning Elvis Presley’s “Love Me” to Dern as the heavy metal band backs him up and the moshers turn into squealing, screaming girls. No, really.

For Lynch takes his love for the 1950s to the extreme in Wild at Heart- he’s making an art house version of an Elvis Presley road movie. That provides the structure, whereas Lynch’s more esoteric influences provide the meat. He’s still got Hitchcock’s flair for suspense and the surreal touches of Luis Bunuel or Alejandro Jodorowsky, but the strange comedy goes into overdrive with help from Jacques Tati and particularly the grotesques of Federico Fellini. The overpowering madness of Diane Ladd’s character falls in line with Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth as a Herzog style madman (or madwoman, in this case), and the intense emotional material recalls Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause.

There’s a number of terrific supporting turns in Wild at Heart, from Ladd’s madwoman to Stanton’s quirky private eye to an extra-creepy turn from Willem Dafoe, but the film doesn’t work without the charms of Cage and Dern. Lynch envisioned the film as a romance between Elvis Presley (Cage) and Marilyn Monroe (Dern), and the two fill the roles perfectly. Dern is every bit the comfortably sexy but sweet heroine Monroe was, with the same tinge of sadness. Cage is even better as a memorably nutty version of Elvis whose snakeskin jacket is “a symbol of my individuality and belief in personal freedom”. Whenever the film centers on the swooning (and, it must be said, horny) romance between the two characters and the dangers they face, it shines.

The problem with Wild at Heart is that it frequently loses its way from the main storyline. The secret to Lynch’s films is that, with few exceptions, Lynch’s features are at their best when given a genre structure to play off of. The Elephant Man allows him to bring his unique sensibility to the biopic. Blue Velvet is a rather tight noir/thriller (plus it has two hours of more indulgent material trimmed from the original four hour cut). Twin Peaks plays off of a noir/police procedural structure. Even something as puzzling as Mulholland Dr. fits well into the noir genre. The most notable exception to the rule is Eraserhead, but that’s a case where the whole film operates on a consistent nightmare logic that makes each segment feel like it’s part of the same piece.

Wild at Heart doesn’t follow either rule. It’s a road movie, and road movies tend to be wilder and less rigorously constructed than, say, a noir, a thriller, or a horror movie. Rather, it gives Lynch an excuse to unload whatever weird idea he has into the film as another strange encounter for Cage and Dern to encounter, and thirty-five minutes in, the film starts to go off the rails. Some of it is fascinating (Rossellini and Grace Zabriskie as the shady Durango sisters, Dafoe as Bobby Peru), but the better stuff seems to be more connected to the plot (and likely from Barry Gifford’s novel). On the other hand, there’s the following:

-the eccentric gangster Mr. Reindeer constantly being surrounded by topless women, whether he’s eating or he’s on the toilet
-Ladd impulsively covering her own face with lipstick
-an encounter with a  squawking man in a bar
-a story of Dern’s cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), a sandwich obsessed man who puts cockroaches into his own underwear
-Jack Nance talking about his little dog
-Pornographic filmmaking, “Texas style”- topless obese women

Lynch goes way over the top on the Fellini-esque grotesques, and his obsession with the creepier sides of sex and violence ranges from powerful (Ladd openly lusting for Cage) to overplayed (Dafoe’s threatened rape of Dern, though it’s well acted). When Lynch does a close-up of flies on vomit at one point, it’s hard not to think that he’s lost track of what separates the disturbing from the merely unpleasant.

More notably, Lynch uses the road movie structure to create a retelling of one of his favorite films, The Wizard of Oz. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea- Lynch has used Oz’ dream logic and tales of a polarized world as an influence on Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Dr., among other films. But the film pushes it by throwing in obvious, on-the-nose references:

-Shots of Ladd in Wicked Witch of the West garb (no, we get it, she’s bad)
- seemingly random shots of a witch’s crystal ball
-Dern tapping her red shoes together (no, we get it, she wants to go home)
-Jack Nance referencing Toto
-Dern telling Sailor to take her “over that rainbow” during sex
-a final bit where Glinda the Good appears to Cage to convince him to go back to Dern

It’s all a bit much. But not all of the diversions are bad- one sequence in which the two heroes find a horrible car accident with a dying Sherilyn Fenn is a particularly haunting scene that shows how death and destruction follows the two, no matter where they go. Set to “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak, it’s a reminder that anything tethered to the central love story and its complications works rather well. The film ultimately works because we give a damn about what happens to these two- we want to see them end up together, and when Sailor races through traffic to sing “Love Me Tender” to the love of his life, it’s a satisfying end to an often frustrating film.

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