The power of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart is the endurance of an Elvis Presley song (or two), the staying power of a children’s movie, and the sight and sound of a match being struck: romantically mellow, wackily comic, and deadly, darkly serious.
Lynch gets more and scarier mileage out of fire in Wild at Heart than he did out of Frank Booth’s lighter in Blue Velvet. In between the two came the game-changing Twin Peaks, which, soon after Wild at Heart, Lynch would round off with Fire Walk with Me. It’s easy to see the whole arc from Blue Velvet to Fire Walk with Me as part of a single centralizing vision, an identifiable phase of his artistic development—his “fire period,” if you like.
You find it everywhere in the reds and yellows of Wild at Heart: fire as a murder weapon; fire as the spark of recollection and of wisdom; not only a destructive force, but a creative one as well. The reds and yellows of Wild at Heart recall the reds of Hitchcock’s Marnie—the nagging, ever-present trigger to a memory that hovers just outside the border of consciousness and refuses to be grasped and confronted in all its detail. There as here we see red washes shroud the screen like the curtain between the lies we live and the truth we can’t face. Sailor tells Lula: “We all got a secret side, baby.”
[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.
[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert C. Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 16/11/2006, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]
The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its Navigators, whom the spice has mutated over four thousand years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space; that is, to travel to any part of the known universe without moving.
—Princess Irulan, in David Lynch‘sDune
That’s what David Lynch’s Dune does: It gets us from place to place and from beginning to end without ever seeming to move—at least in the way that a more conventional science-fiction action thriller is expected to move. The unkindest viewers and critics have called it boring.
Even the film’s action sequences sit in the memory more as tableaux than as moving images. “My movies are film-paintings,” Lynch said, in a 1984 interview during post-production on Dune. What strikes us even as we watch the film, and comes back most in our recalling of it, is the composition more than the dynamic—posture more than gesture:
Paul with his hand in the box, his imagination conspiring with the mental powers of the Bene Gesserit to objectify a pain that exists only in the suggestible mind
Paul’s mentors, Gurney Halleck, Thufir Hawat, and Wellington Yueh, introduced to us as a human triptych
Feyd Rautha in his futuristic g-string, posing as if for a beefcake photo
Alia, in a transport of ecstasy, holding aloft her crysknife as the Fremen overrun the imperial forces, a nightmarish composition by Lynch out of Bosch, all darkness, and a fully-formed witch who should be no more than a little girl, lit by fires and explosions, wrapped in Bene Gesserit robe and headpiece, with an expression on her face of triumph in slaughter that no little girl ever wore
This emphasis on the static over the kinetic is not so remarkable in an artist who, after all, began his career in—and remains committed to—the compositional rigors of painting, collage, and sculpture. But to see how it relates to folding space, we must further illuminate this concept of traveling without moving.