TSPDT rank #920 IMDb
screened January 3, 2007 on DVD, South San Francisco, CA
August 1990 – Sitting in my room, flipping through the latest Premiere magazine before I return it to the library (where I work part time reading books while shelving them). A full page color ad of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern looking sexy in snakeskin and neon pink pastel in front of an orange-streaked stormy sky. I tear it from the magazine (who would notice?) and post it on my wall next to other Premiere ads I’ve torn – Pretty Woman, Ghost, Dick Tracy, Born on the Fourth of July…
The summer of 1990 was the last best moviegoing summer of my life – 3 films at the theater each week (for the price of one, thanks to careful planning of showtimes and lobby routes). Did I harbor a hope to someday make films? I think I was too consumed with consuming to think beyond the next triple feature and jotting them in my screening log.
I waited for Wild at Heart to show up in town. When it finally did, it was the fall and I was busy with school and work – triple feature days, even double feature days were hard to come by, and the family creed was never to pay full price for something. The film came and went from the local theater in just a couple of weeks.
January 2007 – I’m sitting in the living room of my mom’s house, where I’ve seen so many films (and it’s still awkward to refer to it as “my mom’s house”). I’m about to inaugurate my project to watch the final 100 films on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? list of 1000 greatest films. But first, I need to watch #900. Of the 101 films to choose from, I go with Wild at Heart, since it brings back memories of being home back then, if only to compare them to being home now.
Two factors sit in my mind as I watch. My viewing of Inland Empire back in October made me dubious to Lynch in ways I hadn’t been before. As excited as I was that a respected director was embracing digital video as a medium of choice, seeing the crudity of the results was like seeing the proverbial man behind the curtain. Narratively it was his most oblique project to date, but stylistically it made his many tricks and techniques painfully transparent: the heavy reliance on distorted close-ups of goon-faced weirdos, wild color palettes and over the top music to achieve his effects. His attempt to justify the ways of video to man backfired as far as I’m concerned, because it showed how much his cinematic bag of tricks relies on celluloid to make his visions sweet and salable.
I’m also experiencing some cognitive dissonance in watching and listening to Nick Cage and Laura Dern fucking with rabbit-like abandon while my mother is fastidiously scrubbing the floors around me on her hands and knees. Not as awkward as the time I played Tsai Ming Liang’s Vive l’amour during suppertime, but it touches on an insecurity I’ve long had, that whatever I seem to want or do seems to alienate me from her. It’s something that I’m trying to address on this trip, my longest stay at home in years. I can’t help but bring my personal preoccupations to my viewing of Wild at Heart. Of all the wild and goofy members of the ensemble, I can attach most to Laura Dern, who, beneath her wild and sexy veneer, is but a sweet innocent running away from her all-controlling mother.
But the film allows me to identify with the mother as well, through Diane Ladd’s oddly restrained and heartfelt performance, even when she’s acting psychotic, and by the film’s end I feel more compassion to her than to those who fled her clutches. Her demise at the end is perhaps the one time Lynch is able to make thoughtful use of the Wizard of Oz allusions that he heaps upon the narrative – turning the domineering menace of Diane Ladd and the Wicked Witch into a craven desperation with its own set of pathos.
Genuinely human scenes are hard to come by in this film, though no less than Slavoj Zizek has ferreted insight from at least a couple characters and moments. Zizek has written about Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru (whose presence he describes as a “giant erect penis”), and in particular a scene where Peru forces Dern to say “fuck me” only to mockingly decline “her” request.
Zizek’s analysis of this scene (which I think can be found in his book The Plague of Fantasies) draws some intriguing insights into sexual desire and power – he calls the scene a kind of “psychological rape” that’s as troubling as any physical act. The problem is that the film doesn’t build on this moment – little if nothing carries over for Dern emotionally from this scene into the rest of the film.
It’s one of many stand-alone dramatic set pieces in a film full of ain’t-it-cool, ain’t-it-scary ‘fragments strung along a rather basic arc. The first half of the film is largely composed of Dern and Cage talking before, after and between fucks.
They’re actually very endearing and well-acted, and in a way it makes sense to linger on the two central lovers as long as Lynch does, because there isn’t a whole lot of interest beyond the two of them.
The second half is a whirlwind tour of the southern part of the U.S. with no particular aim but to keep moving across asphalt interspersed with frequent weirdness breaks. Characters like a blonde thug played by Isabella Rossellini do a lot of mugging for the camera and go away without a trace. Scenes that are meant to have shocking dramatic power, like Sherilynn Fenn’s death scene amidst a car wreck, fall flat. And even Lynch was not immune to the cheesy family reconciliation conclusion that marked Hollywood’s bad conscience in the Spielberg regime. What I would have made of all this had I seen it 17 years ago, I wonder? Would I have lent more credence to its weirdness, as part of the ongoing cavalcade that passed unfiltered through my visits in an enchanted realm of flickering images? I wouldn’t mind returning to that state of unconditional wonder, not unlike the young heroine in Pan’s Labyrinth who takes everything, light and dark, real or imagined, as part of her journey.
My problem with Wild at Heart, and with Lynch’s weaker efforts, is not that he indulges in the weirdness of humanity. This trip back home I’ve had plenty doses of weirdness, contending with my mother’s obsessive frugality (leftovers for four days straight) while reconnecting with a host of family friends whose collected offerings of experiences (from ordering brides from China to surviving uterectomies) and pastimes (from buddhist meditation to shoplifting from Goodwill) are as weird and wonderful as they are real. One gets the sense in Wild at Heart that Lynch’s interest in human strangeness is less as a reality than an affectation, a desire for shock and spectacle. I’m sure that for some people, such as the 1990 Cannes jury, two hours of weirdness is as much as they can take. The rest of us have to contend with it as a daily reality. That reality needs to be reflected.