There are two parts to the title Dr. T and the Women. Let’s take each part separately.
The women are the ladies in the orbit of Dr. Sully Travis, a Dallas gynecologist. Dr. T has a wife (Farrah Fawcett) who is quietly losing her mind, a sister-in-law (Laura Dern) with Ivana Trump inclinations, and two daughters. The elder daughter (Kate Hudson, of Almost Famous), a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, is about to get married, causing much hullabaloo; the younger daughter (Tara Reid, from American Pie) gives tours of the JFK assassination plaza, and sees conspiracies wherever she looks. A golf pro (Helen Hunt) at Dr. T’s country club also figures in his life, as a possible new direction for his emotional energy.
Kelly Reichardt’s films quietly creep up on plotlines, sniffing around the possibilities of storytelling before shifting away into a different kind of thing. In Meek’s Cutoff, a wagon train of pioneers is lost in the parched West; in Night Moves, a group of environmental saboteurs plans a bombing; in Wendy and Lucy, a traveler faces a transportation problem on the road to somewhere. None of these situations is allowed to come together in the usual kind of completion, which means you’re left with Reichardt’s wonderful way with actors and dialogue and a sense that we should be concentrating on gesture and intonation rather than plot.
I don’t want all movies to be like this, but I’m grateful for Reichardt’s talent for warping our movie expectations.
Maybe there’s something in Cheryl Strayed’s writing voice that has enthralled readers of her bestselling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, an account of a solo walking journey. If so, that voice hasn’t translated to the movie version.
The film stars Reese Witherspoon, who also produced it. You can see why the star wanted the material: it’s a big role, full of bad behavior and attitude and acting-out. We meet Cheryl Strayed (she made up the last name) as she embarks on hiking a thousand miles of the PCT. We also see plenty of flashbacks to an unhappy life — promiscuity and drug abuse are highlighted — and track the sad fate of Strayed’s mother (Laura Dern).
[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.
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.
David Lynch, the once boyish maverick of such dark, demanding, and confounding films as Blue Velvet and Lost Highway (not to mention the gentle, G-rated slice of slightly askew Americana, The Straight Story), is 60 now. You can see his age in has face and his graying hair (still wildly brushed as if trying to escape his head), but his output is, if anything, even greater now. He’s producing short films for his website, painting, even marketing his own signature coffee.
And he’s still making films the only way he knows how: his way. He made heady and dreamy three hour drama Inland Empire, shot totally on digital video (his first feature made in that format), with such Hollywood pros as Laura Dern and Jeremy Irons, yet financed and produced completely outside of Hollywood.
“It’s mostly common sense making films,” he insists. “You don’t need a studio. You need some money and you need ideas and then you go make your film.” He even bypassed the studio system to distribute the film independently. “There are many, many, many great theaters available to people and that’s the place where people see films,” he explains. “So if you can get your film into a theater, that’s all you need. And now you can make your own DVDs. If you have a conduit to stores, you put them down that conduit. Again, it’s a lot of common sense.”
Lynch came to Seattle in January 2007 to appear at a special preview screening of Inland Empire and talk at Town Hall on Transcendental Meditation and granted a few select interviews. Dressed in his trademark neat white shirt and simple black suit, he sat back for the interview with a cup of coffee within reach and an occasional cigarette between his fingers. Soft-spoken and pleasant, calm and confident, answering most questions with simple and succinct answers, he comes off as a gentle but eccentric elementary school teacher patiently trying to explain filmmaking and the creative process as if it were nothing more than basic addition and subtraction.
You wrote in your book, “Catching the Big Fish,” that you spent a lot of time in the woods while you were growing up. Is that where the settings and atmosphere of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks came from?
Wood is an influence, but it wasn’t… I always pictured Blue Velvet as having lumber around it, but it was shot in North Carolina. But there’s a lot of lumber around in North Carolina, too, so it worked out. But I pictured it more as a Northwestern kind of town. Then when Twin Peaks came out, yeah, there’s things, but I wrote it with Mark Frost, he’s not from the Northwest. There’s always things about our childhood that ideas come from. So it was an influence for sure. The woods. Wood and woods.
Blue Velvet captured something I’d never seen any other movie do at that time. It presented what should be a simple and peaceful rural community and revealed this dark layer underneath the surface, not simply a criminal underworld but a moral underworld. And I had lived for a year in La Grande, Oregon, which Blue Velvet‘s Lumberton evoked perfectly for me.
There’s a dark layer underneath every community. Looking back, people made a big deal about Blue Velvet showing the surface and then something under the surface. Since then, if you see TV and newspapers, more and more has been revealed that was hiding there all along. I say the sickness is being revealed and people are dealing with it, which I guess is a good thing. So it’s not just La Grande, or it’s not just in Twin Peaks or Lumberton, it’s everywhere.