Something Really Wild
David Lynch has never had mainstream sensibilities. His movies have a dreamlike quality which often veers into the territory of nightmares. In 1990, against all odds, Lynch found commercial success however briefly with the offbeat television show, Twin Peaks. Just as the show was reaching its saturation point, Lynch released his follow-up to the critically acclaimed 1996 drama, Blue Velvet. While audiences at the Cannes Film Festival went crazy for Wild at Heart, critics were more muted in their praise. Many were put off by the film’s graphic violence.
In the September 1990 issue of Movieline, co-editor Virginia Campbell took a very pro-Lynch stance in an article that heaps more praise on Wild at Heart than it probably deserves.
A friend of mine told me that when he went to see Blue Velvet in New York back in 1986, a small fire broke out somewhere in the theater in the middle of the movie. As wisps of smoke began to drift across the audience, people started to rise up out of their seats.
But up on the screen, Dennis Hopper, inhaling God knows what gas from his clear plastic mask, was in the middle of terrorizing Isabella Rossellini, screaming, “Mommy! Baby wants to fuck!” with Kyle MacLachlan watching from the closet in Oedipal thrall. Instead of stampeding for the doors like responsible New Yorkers, the people in this audience were just sort of half-heartedly backing their way up the aisles, eyes fixed on the screen. And when no actual flames seemed to materialize, they all sat back down again. If you ask me, that’s entertainment.
How in the world did a film as “entertaining” as Blue Velvet ever get made? Each time I’ve seen this movie, I’ve found myself asking that question. But actually, when you think of it, it isn’t all that mysterious. It was probably just a matter of Dino De Laurentiis bumbling along out on the fringe with yet another mind-boggling project to add alongside such outre classics as Orca, Million Dollar Mystery, and Conan the Barbarian. Dino was doing his usual thing– making movies no one else would dream of making–and David Lynch was just the dolphin that got swept up in his tuna net.
Wild at Heart, Lynch’s follow-up to Blue Velvet, has been a long time coming, largely because De Laurentiis went broke and nobody else in town would take Lynch on his auteur terms–he won’t make a movie unless he has the guarantee of real creative control, i.e., final cut. Lynch spent a good deal of time trying to launch projects such as Ronnie Rocket, in which a detective travels inside the consciousness of a young idiot savant dwarf rock ‘n’ roller, and One Saliva Bubble, the title of which (never mind the content) couldn’t be counterbalanced even by the proposed casting of box office names Steve Martin and Martin Short. Now, perhaps thanks to the trouble Lynch had getting a film off the ground, a much larger audience has been exposed to this director’s strange sensibility through the cult soap opera sensation “Twin Peaks.”
But Wild at Heart, a lurid, hilarious, and romantic road tour of psychosexual heaven and hell that stars Laura Dern as sexy southern yo-yo Lula Pace Fortune, a girl who escapes her mother’s clutches to pursue true love with good-hearted bad-boy parolee Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage), is what we’ve really been waiting for. It aspires to far more than “Twin Peaks” ever could have.
In fact, after all the fun with “Twin Peaks,” the gleeful collective revelling in its stunning weirdness, it’s almost necessary to reorient one’s thinking to what David Lynch is after on the big as opposed to the small screen. After all, the absurdist poetry of everyday American life (which Americans themselves seem to be getting hip to now) is just the tip of Lynch’s iceberg. Hearing about the film Lynch didn’t make before he made Wild at Heart does the job of reminding one of his larger ambitions.
Prague Comes to Tinseltown
Franz Kafka is David Lynch’s favorite writer–a fact that should surprise no one. And it is Kafka’s most famous story, “The Metamorphosis” (the dark, droll, heart-wrenching one that begins, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect”), that Lynch wanted to make into a movie about a year and a half ago, before he turned to Wild at Heart. In fact, Lynch still wants to make it. “It could be a no-win situation,” he admits (this is a story in which the protagonist is a cockroach). “But I would like to do it, because, you know, I would just like to do it. I think it would be really thrilling. We ran into some problems, though, with the bug. It was going to cost two and a half million to make the bug and then it still wouldn’t be able to do all the things… You see, I want the bug to come to work at, say, seven in the morning, and go into hair and makeup and come out and be able to work all day. I want to talk to the bug and rehearse and do all the stuff, and right now they say it’s impossible.”
It’s pronouncements like this one, delivered deadpan in a genially pinched voice and mid-western accent, that make for Lynch’s considerable reputation as an eccentric. Everything written about Lynch sooner or later begins to recount what are, to be fair, strange fascinations (morgues, human organs, factories, Reagan Republicanism), curious habits (eating the same thing at Bob’s Big Boy every day at the same time for seven years, living without furniture, always wearing shirts buttoned at the neck), and quaint expressions (“cool enough,” “neat”). Lynch does give the press something to run with. He presents a case of double cognitive dissonance: first, you have a very friendly man (he’s got a great handshake, the warmest in Hollywood) who talks without missing a beat about such personal predilections as dissecting bodies; and you also have an obviously sophisticated person who intermittently affects extremely unsophisticated enthusiams, all without a trace of irony (Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper in “Twin Peaks” is reportedly a deliberate, affectionate portrait of Lynch).
It’s all well and good to shake your head at Lynch’s eccentricities. But his creativity, much like Kafka’s, is rare and mysterious and not to be diminished (or romanticized) by the details of his personality. Kafka once admitted that the key to his art was his ability to dream while he was awake. The inexorable, skewed logic of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and the new Wild at Heart also seems to be derived from conscious access to what are properly unconscious states of mind. The imagery alone bespeaks the sheer ingenuity of dream reality, in which several psychological imperatives are satisfied in single gestures. If you bring this up with Lynch, and ask him if he too can dream while he is awake, he almost answers yes: “I think that’s the whole thing,” he says. “Every film is like a waking dream. All the ideas are like daydreams.”
Take the idea of the ear in Blue Velvet. The story begins when Jeffrey finds a human ear lying in the grass–horrible and fascinating in its detachment from an unknown body–and the camera literally enters into the ear. At the film’s end, when Jeffrey has solved his dark mystery, the camera emerges back out of an ear. But this ear is attached to a body– Jeffrey’s. In the terms of dream logic, then, the whole intervening drama has taken place inside Jeffrey’s head, and it is Jeffrey’s unconscious problem–one having to do with a breakdown between reality (the body) and perception (the ear)–that has been resolved.
Lynch does not, of course, deal openly with abstract notions like these. He proceeds from dream images toward ideas, and he leaves those ideas up to you. Wild at Heart has a terrific example of this. In a scene that resembles the kind of nightmare in which the awful event (you killed someone, you’re lost, whatever) has already happened, Sailor and Lula come upon a car accident minutes after it occurs. There’s shattered glass, blood, dead bodies. And then a beautiful girl (Sherilyn Fenn) walks distractedly toward them out of the night, with blood oozing into her hair. She says nothing about the accident; she doesn’t seem to notice the blood. What she’s worried about is how angry her mother’s going to be with her because she lost her purse. You’ll have to see Wild at Heart to appreciate what a frightening, perfect microcosm of Lula’s inner situation this scene is. It’s the vision of a real dreamer.
“Movies are an incredible thing,” Lynch says. “Because it’s possible to say very abstract things with this medium and to give people feelings that are really thrilling and, you know, big feelings. It can be so magical. I’m always looking for the right kind of story to allow certain things that I think film can do to happen. That’s one of the reasons I love Wild at Heart. It’s got some kind of strange cinema going on in it. It feels different, it’s a different way of telling a story.”
Lynch was having no luck with his own scripts when friend and producer Monty Montgomery turned him on to Barry Gifford’s then-unpublished novel about two modern hayseed lovers on the run from an angry, possessive mom. (“Monty wanted to direct the story and he wanted me to read it to see what I thought. And I said well, what if I like it, what then? And he said, well then you can direct it. Which is kinda cool. I said I was just joking. But then I read it,” Lynch laughs.) Gifford’s characters were full-tilt originals, simultaneously down to earth and out to lunch in a way Lynch fell for right off–he says he mentally cast Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage on first reading. But beyond Lula and Sailor, the novel’s situation appealed to him: “It’s a love story where people start off being in love, which is kind of unusual. In a wild modern world, it’s an indication of how it’s cool to be in love. And Lula and Sailor have the perfect take on sex in the middle of a solid relationship. They are, like, so innocent and yet completely wild at the same time. It’s like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad.”
Of course, just how the Garden of Eden goes bad is the point at which Wild at Heart moves on into Lynch territory. The book is structured as an inspired dialogue of affection and irrelevance between Lula and Sailor on the road, with added monologue from the detective on their trail. Lynch set the film up with a backstory of evil, violence, and mystery that lends it, for all its gum-chewing, funky charm, an epic nightmare quality. He begins by showing us the murder Sailor committed (for which he’s now on parole); he has a good man viciously assassinated; and he includes an absolutely surreal subtext drawn from The Wizard of Oz.
Most important, Lynch gave Wild at Heart his signature psychosexual kick. He transformed Lula’s mother, Marietta (played by Laura Dern’s real mother, Diane Ladd), into a character who parallels Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet–Marietta Fortune’s obsession with separating Lula from Sailor goes well beyond the parameters of a caring Mom. In part, Wild at Heart plays as a kind of Pink Velvet, a counterpart to Jeffrey’s discoveries in Lumberton. It’s the feminine side of the great, horrible adventure of facing one’s sexual nature and winning liberation from the parents inside one’s head. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey cries at the memory of violent sex with mystery woman Dorothy. In Wild at Heart, Lula cries after allowing herself to be seduced by the violent Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe).
Tidbit Goes to Jupiter
Maybe Laura Dern was destined to become David Lynch’s Grace Kelly. When she was five, she saw Hush. . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte on TV and watched in horror as Bette Davis opened a hatbox at the top of a flight of stairs and her father’s head rolled out. (Laura’s mom had to call Bruce Dern on a set and have him talk her down.)
Lynch’s casting director Johanna Ray brought Dern to the director’s attention after a long search for Blue Velvet‘s Sandy. “David told me he wanted ‘the most beautiful, popular girl in high school,’ ” says Ray. “So I brought in a lot of top, interesting, beautiful actresses, and he didn’t respond to any of them. Finally he picked up the photo of one actress who was not so conventionally beautiful, who was more human and less unattainable, and he said she looked interesting. Then I knew he would respond to Laura, and the first time he saw her, that was it.”
Dern and Lynch have been close friends ever since Blue Velvet. “He has a giant heart,” she says of him. “He’s Disneyland for me.” He calls her Tidbit. “David trusts me,” she says. “Laura trusts me,” he says. Lynch never considered anyone else for the role of Lula: “I saw her 100% and a lot of people didn’t. They knew I was friends with her and they respected her work, but they didn’t see her as Lula. It was many things–whether someone is as bankable as somebody else, whether they’ve ever done anything like it before.” If the doubters feared that Laura–so demure as Sandy– would never be able to steam up Wild at Heart, they just didn’t yet know the kind of eroticism Lynch wanted on screen. It’s quite unlike anything we’ve seen–very graphic (at least in the early screening version I saw well before the film went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May), but healthy and full of feeling. As invented by Dern and Lynch, Lula embodies the most self-possessed, realistically feminine sexiness any American movie has ever presented. Not fuzzy, romanticized pap and not centerfold, wet-dream stuff either. “One idea of sexuality is that the woman’s the vixen,” says Dern, “and then there’s Sandy in Blue Velvet, the Madonna you may want to marry but not sleep with. I’ve seen those two so much in films it drives me nuts. I realized Lula would give me the opportunity to be sexual yet pure at the same time. She’s so turned on, but there’s an innocence.”
Dern’s transformation into Lula didn’t come easily. “Laura read the book and loved it and I thought we were there,” says Lynch. “But when we started rehearsing we both realized we had a long way to go. Laura went to work. I’d tell her something, and she’d say, ‘OK, I understand,’ and she’d come back and a whole giant old barrier would have come down and Lula would come closer to being. Three or four giant things had to be removed from inside her, and then Bingo! Man-oh-man, it was coming out.”
Lynch’s erotic vision definitely banked on the trust he knew Dern had in him. When Dern realized Lynch and cinematographer Fred Elmes were going for a close-up of her naked breasts, she protested, “David, do you know what’s going to happen when the boy in the eighth grade that I never liked goes to the Cinerama Dome to see this movie? Do you understand?” But as she got into the role of Lula, Dern took the lead. In one scene that never made it into the film, she decided, with the camera rolling, to simulate an orgasm as Lula relates to Sailor her dream of being ripped open by a wild animal. For another, genuinely inspired moment that was cut from the film after the screening I saw, Dern had Lula hover over Sailor alluringly, and when the scene was being shot she spontaneously lowered her thinly body-stockinged self onto Cage’s face, purring, “Take a bite out of Lula.” Believe me, it would have made cinema history.
“A couple of people working on the film saw that scene and said they had to hide their eyes!” exclaims Dern.” And one of them said to me, ‘what a nasty scene!’ And I thought, ‘nasty’ is oral sex? People out there beat each other to get turned on, and this is nasty?”
“Lula should be a definition in the dictionary now for ‘bird-brain genius,’ ” Dern says of her character. “That’s what she is, an airhead wisewoman. She’s the coolest thing. I love her. She’s the ultimate person. She’s definitely on Jupiter, as I have been since I did the film. I don’t think I’ll ever come back. I might visit Pluto or Saturn, but Earth is not a possibility for me anymore.”