Side trip: Wild At Heart (1990)

Side trip: Wild At Heart (1990)

David Lynch never enjoyed a higher profile than in 1990. With the launch of Twin Peaks he became a household name (well, at least in moderately with-it households). In the spring of the same year, his film Wild At Heart won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, beating out the great Zhang Yimou film Ju Dou and what in retrospect now looks like a bunch of second-tier work from directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Clint Eastwood, Bertrand Tavernier, and Ken Loach. It arrived after a summer of Twin Peaks hype and featured a marketing campaign that prominently billed its director. Suddenly, Lynch was a name-above-the-title man.


In this post, I mainly want to talk about Wild At Heart as it relates to Twin Peaks since, well, that's why we're here. (Also, Scott Tobias did a fine straight-up review not all that long ago.) Not that it's hard to draw comparisons. There's a considerable overlap in both themes and casting and for a little while in 1990 the two projects seemed weirdly inseparable.
Appearing in August a few weeks ahead of Peaks' second season, Wild At Heart felt at the time a bit like an extension of the series, even if now they're not usually spoken of together. Shot between the Peaks pilot and the first episode, it featured series regulars Grace Zabriskie, Sheryl Lee, Jack Nance, David Patrick Kelly, and Sherilyn Fenn. Mostly the roles bear only a passing similarity to their Peaks characters, but after watching a bunch of episodes it's striking to see, say, Mrs. Palmer dressed up as a dominatrix. I suspect in real life Grace Zabriskie is a charming professional. To work as successfully as she has as a character actress, she'd almost have to be. But she does crazy so well it's unsettling. Here she plays the part of Juana Durango, who seems almost like a Black Lodge version of Mrs. Palmer. The wild eyes are the same but where in the series reflect a perpetual, wounded fearfulness, here she's the one doing the wounding. With maniacal glee.
Like most of the Peaks players here, Zabriskie is only on screen briefly, but she makes a deep impression. This is a road movie and like most films in the genre, the story belongs to the travelers. Everyone else is just a station along the way. Here it's Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) doing the traveling. First seen attending an unnamed social event together, they're soon separated when Cage is sent to prison for killing a knife-wielding tough in self-defense. (Well, "overkilling" might be the right word.) The attack on Sailor wasn't unmotivated. He was paid for his services by Lula's mom Marietta (Diane Ladd) partly because Sailor rejected her sexual advances and partly for reasons that Cage won't reveal until later in the film. After serving a few months of prison time, Sailor reunites with Lula. Soon he decides to blow off his parole and hit the road. And we're off.

Wild At Heart adapts a novel of the same name by Barry Gifford. It's the first in a six-book series featuring the characters of Sailor and Lula and the various underworld figures in their orbit. Gifford and Lynch would collaborate twice more, once for two episodes of the three-episode HBO series Hotel Room and once on the screenplay for Lost Highway, but only Highway would find them working as writing partners. Here the script comes from Lynch. I haven't read it or any of its follow-ups, nor have I seen Wild At Heart's quasi-sequel, Perdita Durango featuring Rosie Perez playing the character played here by Isabella Rossellini. Maybe someone who has can speak to the similarities. My understanding is that the dialogue comes almost straight off the page. But everything else feels extremely Lynchian.
Lynch has referred to the film as his vision of "love in hell" and the film itself bears out that description. Sailor and Lula are like Jeffrey and Sandy in Blue Velvet or, for a little while at least, Donna and James in Twin Peaks. They've found true love in a dangerous, violent world that seems contemptuous of their happiness. When the film focuses on that, it works incredibly well. I don't know that there are too many scenes in the Lynch oeuvre better–or outright beautiful, even–than the one below. Here Lula, doing a stint of driving, freaks out at an assault of disturbing headlines and tries to drown it out with loud music (courtesy of the Minneapolis metal band Powermad), ridiculous dancing, and as Angelo Badalmenti's lush score kicks in its approval, a passionate embrace.


The scary outside world becomes a better world of two.
Dern and Cage (channeling Elvis better than he ever had before or ever would) are both pretty brilliant in this film in performances that make no distinction between bottomless carnality and puppy love. They're good kids in a universe that easily drives folks mad, bad, or both and the film spends a lot of time exploring this world, both as they encounter it in their travels and as they recall it in flashback. It's almost like Twin Peaks blow up to the size of America. In New Orleans they meet weird-talking strangers. In Big Tuna, Texas–a barren desert flip-side to Twin Peaks' woodsy idyll–they encounter some "filmmakers" and are told that "Them are making a pornographic movie… Texas style." (This apparently involves cowboy hats and grossly obese naked women but the unsavory freespiritedness of it recalls the Hornes cutting loose.) Behind the scenes lurks a criminal mastermind named Mr. Reindeer. Attended at all times, even on the toilet, by topless women, he lives in what could pass as an uncensored version of One Eyed Jacks. Sheryl Lee's film-ending cameo casts her as a spirit guiding the actions from the world beyond. She's Glinda The Good Witch, not a dead homecoming queen, but the spirit is the same.
Am I stretching a bit here? Maybe. But Wild At Heart and Peaks complement each other nicely, even if the early episodes of the TV show point to some of the shortcomings of the film and the shortcomings of the film anticipate the failings of the series' later stretches. Revisiting Heart, I was struck by how good the good parts are and how much weaker the rest of it was than I remember it. I used to consider this as top-rank Lynch and as long as it keeps the focus on the main characters, it remains that way. But there's a lot of weirdness for its own sake here. Crispin Glover's cameo as the sandwich-and-cockroach-enthusing Cousin Dell plays into the story thematically as an example of the consuming power of madness, but elsewhere there's so much extra business in the margins that it's easy to get distracted. I like Diane Ladd here but her own descent into madness seems overextended and overplayed. And the many, many Wizard Of Oz references that once seemed so brilliant to me now feel way too obvious. As much as I still like the film, I could feel it sinking to the middle of my Lynch rankings as I watched it.
For some it was already there, or lower. The backlash began pretty much with the announcement of the Palme award, and no one was more vocal than Roger Ebert, who objected to the way Lynch cut violence with jokiness.


I see what he's saying, but I'm not sure that's a legitimate complaint. (Ebert was cool on Lynch's work until embracing The Straight Story a few years ago and since then Lynch can seemingly do no wrong. He even loved Inland Empire. I wish I could say the same.) Other reviews ranged from enthusiastic to puzzled to annoyed. Audiences showed up in respectable numbers, drawn in part by an aggressive publicity push that had Lynch's name front and center. But anyone expecting something made for the multiplexes and not the arthouses no doubt left disappointed and the overexposure probably played a role in the Peaks backlash that followed.
But ultimately I think the two projects make nice companion pieces. Wild At Heart feels like Lynch unfiltered. Twin Peaks forces some discipline on him, but ultimately the vision is the same. Just look at the scene in which Sailor and Lula, cruising along to the strains of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," happen on a horrific accident by the side of the road. Only Sherilyn Fenn survives, and not for long. Looking and sounding every bit like Audrey Horne she lives only long enough to spout some frantic nonsense and complain about the spongy stuff in her hair. Then she collapses. Not everyone makes it to the end of the road.
Peaks' Bob keeps talking about fire. In Wild At Heart Lynch returns again and again to the sound and image of a flame being struck. The suggestion is clear: Fire only lights up those it doesn't first engulf.
Next week: We're back to Twin Peaks and its environs where Audrey remains alive, if not exactly well. But Maddie's looking pretty healthy and likely to stick around for many episodes to come. Right?

More TV Club