Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Misinterpreted: Wild At Heart

          Roger Ebert, before he decided that he liked David Lynch after all upon the release of Mulholland Drive, found Wild At Heart to be a wildly unbalanced, tonally confusing, and offensively violent failure of a film. Ten years later, Ebert praised Inland Empire for the exact same thing. He called the latter a bold, ambitious vision that few directors can achieve. I'm glad that Ebert appreciates Inland Empire for all of its idiosyncrasies, but it feels unfair that Ebert would wait until Lynch is almost universally loved in the world of film criticism before he started giving the director the benefit of the doubt.

           In his reviews for ERASERHEAD, Blue Velvet, and Wild At Heart, Ebert criticizes the way Lynch's movies don't explain themselves. He acts as if Lynch has no big plan for his films, and that they are just random moments of style that amount to an empty experience. He criticized Blue Velvet for its sexuality, ERASERHEAD for its dense imagery, and Wild At Heart for its violence. He said it was a director pushing buttons for the sake of controversy, and that Lynch's films are full of hate.

           Not to sound dramatic, but there are people who believe that Huck Finn is a racist novel because there's racism in it. Just because something depicts cruel acts of humanity, this does not mean that that product endorses cruel acts.

           Yeah, Wild At Heart is violent. It begins with Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) beating an African-American man to death in one of the most shockingly violent scenes I've ever seen. Sailor, our hero, committing such acts of violence so early in the film is indicative of the kind of journey Lynch is taking us on.

           Sailor is not a hero. He is young, impulsive, passionate, and free. He represents the dream of 1950's youth--the invincible, endlessly cool lover who will do anything "for [his] girl." He is Elvis and James Dean rolled into one. From his snakeskin jacket to his oiled hair, he is the epitome of style.

           In a sense, Sailor is the embodiment of what Ebert accused Lynch's films of being--good style, easy on the eyes, but, ultimately, empty. To call the characterization of Sailor broad-stroked and lacking of any subtlety is not a criticism, but an observation. His violence, his raw sexuality, his hatred--these are all elements used to describe an ideal. And, as the movie continues, the viewer should come to realize that the film does not like Sailor. The film wants Sailor to change, but he can't. How can he? He's an ideal. He isn't a real person.
          You could say that I'm reading the film this way because I love David Lynch. You're probably on to something. Once I commit to a filmmaker or painter or singer, I am fiercely committed to that artist and love what he or she does. However, with Wild At Heart, I think there's a good argument for my reading of the film.

         It becomes clear early on that the film is a loose (and I mean loose) adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz, complete with a good and bad witch and a road onto which the heroes must journey. Now, let's think about The Wizard of Oz for a second. What is Dorothy? Is she a character lovingly designed with subtlety and nuance? No, she's the ideal little girl. She is innocent and sweet and cannot stand when other people are hurt. Like Sailor, she is a representation of a dream. She must be read this way for us to invest in her story.

       Now look at Sailor. He is 1950's America (a subject Lynch never really seems to stray from), and he represents every ignorant, hateful, alienating aspect of the decade and what it represents. Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) is in love with his spirit. He is a go-getter, a fighter, a man who fully believes in his own convictions, and for the duration of the film, these convictions all center around her.

          Lula is the way people of Sailor's ideal view women. She is the pinup, the codependent, the passionate virgin looking for adventure. Her obsession with Sailor is poisonous. It infects her life and her relationship with the outside world. She very literally goes to the edge of the Earth to keep Sailor in love with her. You see that picture up there? Lula spends approximately 80% of the film in a position very similar to that one. Most of her dialogue is the exclamation "Sailor!" She is not a real person. She can't be. She is a type, just as Sailor is, and when Lynch puts both of these types into the same room, they explode.

        The rational world cannot handle these extreme examples of 1950's idealism. They are embroiled in a tragic romance not unlike Bonnie and Clyde, or the lovers in Terrence Malick's Badlands, or even Romeo and Juliet.

         What sets them apart from these other tragic love stories is that they are aware of their own story. From the earliest point, it becomes clear that Lula and Sailor are knowingly and willingly becoming entrenched in a tragic love affair. They are exhilarated by the knowledge of their own demise. Each time Sailor gets in a fight, or drives his car too fast and too dangerously, or lights up a cigarette, Lula smiles and screams with glee. Only true love can burn so bright. Only true life must be ejected from this world. Only true love can inspire the monsters to attack.

          As in The Wizard of Oz, the journey of the hero is tested. In the case of Wild At Heart, the hero is Sailor Ripley, and the journey is his path toward enlightenment. For Dorothy, her true test was a fight against the Wicked Witch--a woman who hates where she is from and what it represents. The witch represents, for Dorothy, the way that she may end up if she doesn't change her mind about her family and her home. She may end up alone in a tower, hating everything that's content.

         For Sailor, his Wicked Witch Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). Peru is the end result of what Sailor is slowly becoming. He is impulsive to a fault--exploding into violence at the smallest whim, and his sexuality is so strong that it is hostile. Peru is mean and closed-minded. He is a dark example of arrogance and brute strength. He knows what he wants and he gets it with God on his side. Sailor sees himself in the man. He knows that, if he doesn't watch out, he will become Bobby Peru.

        Wild At Heart is a fable. This is not one of David Lynch's complex dissections of the human identity. It is a morality a tale, a pretty straightforward one at that, and it uses its Wizard of Oz imagery to guide viewer in his/her understanding of it. The film is often considered a misfire, despite the fact that it won the Palm D'or at the Cannes Film Festival, because of its unusual tone and bizarre sense of humor, but I find it to be one of the director's most enduring and interesting films of his career.

        If you've never seen it, definitely give it a look. If you've seen it before and you are shaking your head at the lengths I will go for my fanboy passions, then you should watch it again. Perhaps you'll change your mind.

How do you feel about this movie? Let me know in the comments. 


  1. Great post. Interesting as always. I have a movie to watch.

  2. Granted, I haven't seen Wild at Heart since I saw it in the theater in 1990, but I liked it (the violence didn't throw me). In fact, I loved everything by Lynch until I saw Lost Highway, and then the bloom went off the rose. But, after talking to you about LH (and reading your Capstone essay about it), I feel I need to watch it again and reassess. Great post!

  3. Thanks for your sharing. Your comments about Wild At Heart is very enlightenment. Wild At Heart is my first Lynch movies and it won't be the last one.