Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews

Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round: David Lynch’s ‘Wild at Heart’

Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage

[Originally published in Film Comment, November-December 1990]

Back in the days when James Dean was only half a decade dead and Elvis Presley as many years famous, my best friend and I twice played hookey from high school to see Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind. On screen in brooding black and white, Tennessee Williams’ surreal parable—originally Orpheus Descending—played like an overheated projection of our small-town dreams and nightmares. Poised to get on any road, college-bound in a few months, we imagined in our terrible innocence that it might be possible to beat our way clear of Our Town’s soul-killing dumbness and repression. For us, Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani, a dark and smoldering earth-mother of 52) and Valentine Xavier (the 36-year-old Marlon Brando, still beautiful) acted as something like outlaw parents, larger than life in their sexual authority. We understood that this beatnik Adam and Eve could not escape crucifixion by the community’s paternalistic thugs: Gardens, artists, blacks, holy sluts and studs—any life that moved and flourished outside the townfolk’s small ken—had to be burned down.

Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando in ‘The Fugitive Kind’

In the ashes of the film’s last conflagration, an old black “conjure man” uncovers Brando’s signature snakeskin jacket, the advertisement of his wild-child sexuality and the promise of future comebacks. It’s Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward), a lost soul once jailed as a “lewd vagrant,” who falls natural heir to Brando’s mantle: “Wild things leave skins behind…. They leave clean skins and teeth and white bones, and these are tokens passed from one to another so that the fugitive kind can follow their kind.” When this born-again blonde—a dirty sailor’s-cap pulled down over her unkempt hair, her eyes bleared by mascara and too much “jukin'”—slides into her mud-spattered white Jaguar and drives out of town at dawn, she’s blessed by more radiance than Lumet’s little corner of Hell has yet permitted. Her going is witnessed by a lively bird perched on an overarching branch in the foreground. No Blue Velvet bug is being scissored to death in the beak of that robin, if robin it is. For my best friend and me, lewd vagrants that we fancied ourselves to be, The Fugitive Kind was a ticket to ride, leaving our Lumberton far behind in the hope that life in a road movie might lead to Heaven.

Thirty years later comes Wild at Heart, a film about two cheerfully lewd vagrants for the Nineties, Sailor Ripley and Lula Pace Fortune. And director David Lynch, for whom a road movie is just another birth canal, has deliberately swaddled his hero in that familiar snakeskin jacket.* While the deeply romantic narrative of The Fugitive Kind labored to deliver a bird from its cage, Wild at Heart’s storyline takes the form of a snake whose tail ends up in its mouth.

With some few exceptions, this sterile circle breeds only a litter of quotation marks. As voyeurs, we’re encouraged to twitch and giggle at bracketed reality: well-known detritus from pop-culture memory; a kind of cinematic vogue-ing that passes for the play of human emotions; and the obligatory directorial grotesqueries that TV’s Twin Peaks overdemocratized. Scarcely any character evolution occurs in the space and time between Wild at Heart’s Cape Fear, the big N.O., and Big Tuna, between Sailor Ripley’s first “Stab it and steer!” and the mother-and-child reunion in a traffic jam at film’s end. Only the lunatic purity of the performances by Laura Dern, Nicolas Cage, and Willem Dafoe shines in this postmodernist cul-de-sac.

All of Lynch’s work—like Hitchcock’s—can be described as emotionally infantile. But when he’s in perverse touch with his mommy-Muse, the authenticity of his unweaned (and probably not yet toilet-trained) vision is unimpeachably compelling. Lynch likes to ride his camera into orifices (a burlap hood’s eyehole or a severed ear), to plumb the blackness beyond. There, id-deep, he fans out his deck of dirty pictures—flat, bright snapshots a child’s shocked eyes might make of an alien landscape charged with inexplicable sex and violence. But the disturbing power of those primary-color Polaroids depends on our fear of the dark. Save for death’s roadside attraction and Bobby Peru’s (Dafoe’s) Ozian monkey demon, Wild at Heart offers only trivial thrills, cheapjack spooks and mysteries. It’s very like a Saturday Night Live spoof of Lynchland.

Even when Diane Ladd’s naughty Marietta gets Kali-faced, she doesn’t make it as the devouring mother of a kid’s worst nightmare. Her bloody mask is just a neon smear of lipstick because Ladd plays it like a put-on: there’s no night in her. To gauge how far short she falls, one has only to recall the kewpie-doll star of that tacky little theater down in the dark behind the radiator it Eraserhead—a pouch-cheeked miniature mommy who whisper-sings (in early Julee Cruise) her mesmerizing invitation, “In Heaven everything is fine,” while sweetly squashing sperm and inspiring a little man literally to lose his head over her.

Diane Ladd’s naughty Marietta gets Kali-faced

In Lynchland, good and bad mommies, witches and fairies, pretty much run the show, keeping the players on a short tether. Such power is mystery, generating a free-floating, primal anxiety that Lynchians breathe in and out like air. (The director’s former sound man, Alan Splet, could make you hear it in wasteland winds and industrial exhalations.) In many of Lynch’s dreamlike films, there’s a strong pull—dreaded and desired—back to the womb. Eraserhead begins with what may be a psychotic fantasy of conception: Henry Spencer’s floating horizontal head flanked by a sperm-shaped thing that eventually zooms into a heavenly hole, brimming with cosmic light. Later, Henry (Jack Nance) loses his adult, human head; it’s replaced by a mindlessly screaming baby/penis, the twin of his own ever-hungry offspring. Only after he’s done away with the baby—his own hot needs—can he get back to Heaven. There he is wrapped in the sticky embrace of his kewpie-doll angel, her halo of frizzy flax far brighter than the hair either of his lubricious mother-in-law or his sexless wife.

In Lynch, anatomy is often indiscriminately sexualized. The nasty parts can change shape or location, even live a life of their own. Mouths are confused with vaginas, noses with phalluses. In the aftermath of the enigmatic rape by Wild at Heart’s Uncle Pooch, Lula’s hymeneal blood seems to have migrated north, to her mouth; and Sailor Ripley’s nose must be broken to tame him into a family man. Often, Lynch’s characters make a desperate bid for self-sufficiency in the form of an obsessive interest in oral gratification, but such appetites only reenact an old attachment. (In Dune Lynch achieved a solipsistic extreme by making the Harkonnens an incestuous, all-male hive, every clan member’s chest fitted with a “heart plug” that could be readily yanked so that they could drink each other to death at will.)

In the first moments of The Elephant Man, the camera touches on a woman’s eyes, her mouth, then the full-face portrait of the mother whom John Merrick (John Hurt) has deified in his conscious life. But this is uncensored dream, where he hears the sounds of steam pistons lifting and falling while the huge shapes of elephants lumber across the woman’s portrait, their squealing and trumpeting an echo of Eraserhead’s loudly libidinous baby/penis. Mother is now on her back, her head twisting wildly from side to side, in pain or pleasure. Is this sexual orgasm or childbirth, an imagined Oedipal rape or a memory of birth trauma? The truth is as all-inclusive and guilty as that which drives Blue Velvet‘s Dennis Hopper as he sucks on his oxygen mask—a kind of mini-trunk—while staring at the darkness between Isabella Rossellini’s legs: “Daddy’s coming home.” When John Merrick dies, he is transmogrified, like Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer, into a cloud of dust that returns to that familiar circle of light, euphemized here from heavenly hole to mother’s face, then eyes, set among the stars.

‘The Elephant Man’

Merrick’s elephantine disfigurement is the visible stigmata of his failure to be a “good” son to his mother: he has, in dreams, lusted to penetrate her in any way possible. Just before reaching the freakshow corner where Merrick is displayed, Lynch’s camera passes a jar in which a foetus floats, labeled “the fruit of original sin.” What that large-headed worm calls up, along with Eraserhead’s baby/penis and Blue Velvet‘s oxygen-masked “I’ll fuck anything that moves” enfant terrible, are the down-and-dirty realities that flesh is heir to, and that Lynchians find it difficult to face. “I am not an animal!” Merrick screams as he’s cornered in the lavatory, where all the oral and anal evidence of our nonangelic natures emerges. Anti-Darwinian Lynch would like to halt process altogether, shut the steaming flesh-factory down, so that his characters might be forever young and pure, secure in their faith in the Wizard of Oz and Santa Claus.

Thus, John Merrick is more than happy to play Romeo to Mrs. Kendall’s sweetly maternal Juliet (Anne Bancroft), and to bury the memory of his monkey-cage sojourn in the magic of her theater full of mythologized beasties and an airborne fairy. Similarly, Laura Dern’s Sandy, the blond angel in Blue Velvet, rescues Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) from any permanent fall into the darkness behind his brain by letting the robins loose against subterranean buglife. (No such cure is offered Lula’s cousin Dell, Crispin Glover, in Wild at Heart when he enjoys not ants but cockroaches in his pants.)

It’s no wonder Lynch’s characters are rather short on dramatic will and spontaneity, often freezing into absurd, cartoonlike poses for lack of any wholehearted sense of self; their existence is always a function of someone else’s more powerful, conceptual sway, the mother who made them. In Lumet-Williams’ The Fugitive Kind, Brando imagined himself as Valentine Xavier with such powerfully knowing innocence that his snakeskin jacket was an organic part of his being—the earthy balance to the bird-soul that, he explains, touches down only in death. His sexual healing of thwarted mother Magnani and the new life that’s born of their union is only partially done in by Death, a rotting, impotent old man (Victor Jory)—a male version of Wild at Heart’s Marietta and, like her, responsible for burning a father.

In Wild at Heart, lost child Sailor Ripley camouflages himself in the skins of adults: the jacket he compulsively totemizes as “a symbol of my individuality and personal freedom” and the persona of rock god Elvis Presley, a latterdav Orpheus who perished in the hell of his own body. Someone called Wild at Heart “Elvis and Marilyn on the Road to Oz”; it’s apt that the patron saints of Lynch’s film should be icons of arrested development, dead of oral gratification. To conflate fictions, Sailor is a Lynchean Peter Pan on the run with Tinker Bell, looking to score eternal, untroubled prepubescence, not from the Wizard of Oz—no male has the power to confer that kind of absolution in Lynchland—but from Glinda, the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee).

Sheryl Lee

Staying on the Yellow Brick Road requires armored innocence on the parts of Sailor and Lula, willed blindness to the facts of life outside fairy tales—those “bad ideas” that are the disease of adulthood. What causes Sailor’s psychotic tantrum in the opening moments of Wild at Heart is his temptation in the toilet by his mother-in-law, her attempt to make him sink into that subterranean knowledge he keeps at bay with music, sanitized sex, and lots of smokes. When Marietta’s minion Bob Ray Lemon (Gregg Dandridge), the first of the movie’s dark angels, spews dirty talk full in his face, Sailor’s flat-toned “Uh oh” signals his censor has kicked in: such bad ideas must be beaten out of mind—literally.

Victorious, he takes time to light up, plugging a pacifier into his mouth before aiming his arm and finger like a gun in primal accusation of the wicked mother above him. It’s an archetypal, almost hieratic tableau: mother, daughter and son/lover paralyzed in a typically Lynchean triangle, the evidence of their complicity momentarily quashed. Here and the two other occasions in Wild at Heart when Sailor and Lula teeter dangerously on the verge of epiphany, something like real passion moves in this otherwise bloodless, often silly movie.

‘Wild at Heart’ on the road

In The Fugitive Kind, when Marlon Brando sleepily assures Magnani “I can burn a woman down,” his flat-out sexual hubris hits home. But Wild at Heart’s “hotter than Georgia asphalt” sex plays to an audience conditioned to read such bravado as all style and no content. Add to this Lynch’s tendency to locate the erotic only in the forbidden, and the heat raised by the couplings of his innocents becomes more a matter of cliché’d simile, sex within the parentheses of all-consuming flames, than the real thing. Bathed in the golden or ruddy glory of Lynchean womblight, Sailor and Lula appear to be locked into commercials for lust rather than sex itself. Like precocious preteens, their climaxes come more in shared smokes and anecdotes than in their bodies’ most secret places. Fucking is just the jig they do in bed—can it be as graceless, separate, and lacking in sensuality as their teenybopper crouching and pumping on the dancefloor?

Lula’s little-girl mantra—”If we can stay in love for the rest of our lives, the future will be so simple and nice”—depends on a kind of terrible stasis, an idealism that can’t survive experience. But booking space on a pop-art Grecian urn turns dicey as Lula and Sailor happen upon Death’s roadwork, in a sequence that is Lynch at his hallucinatory best.

Ghostly clothes drift along a night highway. A bloodied figure staggers in and out of the headlights of an overturned car. A girl, scalp awry and dead on her feet, whines that her mother will kill her for losing her purse. Death bares its face, its mouth filling with blood. Self-absorbed to a fault, Lula crosses her fingers and hopes “seeing that girl die doesn’t jinx us.” Too late: change is in the wind and it carries the stench of morning sickness, and Bobby Peru’s bad teeth.

The best thing in Wild at Heart, the film’s second dark angel is up to the same tricks as the first, but he’s less easily exorcised. Every time Bobby Peru skins his lips back from those horrible brown stumps, he rubs our noses in mad monkey-life, the reeking, rutting animal that crouches somewhere in even the most evolved of skulls. Here is mortality at its ugliest, signaled by gross appetite and decay (“My one-eyed jack’s a-yearnin’ to go a-peepin’ in a seafood store”). Lula and Sailor are no match for him; he breaks their fragile faith in themselves and each other. His coldblooded turn-on of Lula is shot like a dirty movie, graphic and up close in the unadulterated light of day. No amount of clicking her red shoes together can get Lula back to “nice and simple” Kansas. She’s been made to acknowledge the unsunny places in her own sexuality, the mindless autonomy of the flesh.

Laura Dern’s Lula and Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru

Because Sailor and Lula have been eviscerated of anything like evolving souls, their fates are ultimately settled by a deus ex machina—harpie Marietta having conveniently melted away into a heavenly blond fairy. Lynchland’s version of Eden is open for business again, that little Fruit of Knowledge incident forgiven and forgotten. By film’s end, Lula seems to have permanently stiffened into Marilyn Monroe’s classic posture of infantile ecstasy—knees flexed, chest thrust forward and pelvis back, one arm bent over her head. No amount of let’s-pretend can transform this unfallen Eve into a woman once moved by the blood and pain of childbirth. The pitiful itinerary of Sailor’s pilgrims-progress runs from the raw sexual energy of “Love Me” (“Take my faithful heart / tear it all apart / but love me”) to the castrated and domesticated “Love Me Tender.” From the initial phallic outrage of his stand against the vengeful mother above him (worm’s-eye shot), he has been brought low: Glinda approvingly surveys a broken-nosed boy flat on his back, the recipient of “a valuable lesson in life” (god’s-eye shot).

In the end, Wild at Heart gridlocks the beautiful and terrible dynamics of living in Time. The lessons that might have seasoned Lynch’s lovers-on-the-run into something more than eternal thumbsuckers are simply blown away, along with Bobby Peru’s awful head (his fate echoing that of the film’s first bearer of bad news). Wild at Heart’s last and only legacy is the equivalent of the familiar Lynchean “keyhole” shot: a little boy looking up, through a car window, at his embracing mother and father … the genesis of yet another erotic triangle?

I remember how, in the spring of 1960, The Fugitive Kind helped exorcise the Fifties for me, permitting the future to get born. Now, as we slip into yet another new decade, I wonder whether some young small-town dreamer is trying to track the road movie in Wild at Heart as it time-trips around in a pastiche of the past, a garish gallery of funhouse mirrors from which there is no exit. I hope not: No matter how hot and bright it seems to burn, David Lynch’s paean to arrested development is hollow at heart.

­­­­­­*Reportedly, Tennessee Williams is Laura Dern’s third cousin, and her parents, Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, met while playing in an off-Broadway production of Orpheus Descending in 1960. The snakeskin jacket is no coincidence, as close comparison of The Fugitive Kind and Wild at Heart shows. The genealogy of Sailor Ripley, with his narcoleptic gaze, can be traced to Brando, Elvis Presley, and the Robert Mitchum of Cape Fear.

Copyright © 1990 Kathleen Murphy

Postscript 2014: In his collection of random nonfiction essays and arguments, A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again (“David Lynch Keeps His Head”), David Foster Wallace simplistically misinterprets my analysis  of Lynch’s “infantile” POV, confusing a description of the director’s stylistic approach with a mental health diagnosis or even a moral judgment about Lynch’s character. Just to set the record straight, Wallace is utterly off the mark when he asserts that I write off Lynch’s movies as merely “sick” or “dirty” or “infantile,” just like the man who made them. All of those adjectives may be at play in a director’s work, in no way diminishing its excellence. It’s enlightening fun to psychoanalyze Lynchland, but no responsible film critic would be presumptuous enough to equate that approach with a clinical reading of Mr. Lynch’s personal state of mind.