The wizard of weird

David Lynch paves a violent yellow-brick road

Brian D. Johnson September 3 1990

The wizard of weird

David Lynch paves a violent yellow-brick road

Brian D. Johnson September 3 1990

The wizard of weird


David Lynch paves a violent yellow-brick road

An extreme close-up of a match head bursting into flames engulfs the screen—and scorches the retina. The image, which opens Wild at Heart, is a Zorro-like signature from America’s hottest director. With his new movie, David Lynch reaffirms his reputation as American cinema’s arsonist-in-residence. A romantic melodrama pushed into comic overdrive, Wild at Heart is a movie of shocking violence, extravagant sex and perverse humor. Freely plundering imagery from The Wizard of Oz and attitude from Elvis Presley, Wild at Heart offers a joyride on a yellowbrick road puddled with blood. Horrifically beautiful, it combines the visceral terror of Lynch’s 1986 hit movie,

Blue Velvet, with the slow-tease surrealism of his acclaimed television series, Twin Peaks. The result is an amoral work of deadpan exhibitionism, as unnerving as a strip-o-gram valentine. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but Wild at Heart is wickedly entertaining.

Whether Lynch has made a profound artistic statement or an elaborate hoax, Wild at Heart demonstrates his exceptional talent for getting attention. Beneath the calculated weirdness of the director’s work lies a flamboyant streak of showmanship. He seems to delight in pushing poetic licence to the limit. While the answer to the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” dangles like a yearold election promise, Twin Peaks enters its second season this fall as the most talked-about soap since Dallas.

With Wild at Heart, which won the grand prize at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, Lynch again tests the limits of public tolerance. Initially threatened with an X rating in the United States, the movie has fanned the flames of the current debate over censorship in the arts. And the riddle of whether Wild at Heart is high art or shameless obscenity is central to a movie that suggests the two can coexist.

Lynch calls his film “a violent comedy.” Meeting with Maclean ’s in Los Angeles, the 44-year-old director said with quiet understatement, “Some of the scenes are shocking—it’s a pretty shocking world.” Added Lynch: “ Wild at Heart is not for everybody. I have been telling my mother not to go anywhere near it.” According to the movie’s co-

producer, Monty Montgomery, 75 per cent of audience members at Los Angeles test screenings rated the film as “excellent,” but the same number said that they would not recommend it to their friends. Concluded Montgomery: “It was like having a good time at a strip joint, but being too embarrassed to tell people about it.”

Written by Lynch and based on the manuscript of a 1990 novel by American author Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart is a tale of two southern lovers, Sailor and Lula, on the run from a gang of creepy killers. As Sailor, Nicholas Cage plays the sunstruck flip side of the dopey romantic he portrayed in Moonstruck (1987). He talks (and sings) like a campy reincarnation of Elvis Presley. He wears a snakeskin jacket that he earnestly describes as “a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” He addresses his sultry girlfriend as “Peanut.” Cage plays Sailor as

pure caricature, unrealistic but consistently funny. As Lula, Laura Dern manages a more impressive feat, by filling out an equally outrageous stereotype with emotional conviction. Dern, who played a nice suburban girl in Blue Velvet, is transformed into a ravishing sexpot with a dirty drawl and lines like “You got me hotter than Georgia asphalt.”

But in Wild at Heart, not all that sizzles is sex. Lula is haunted by memories of a kerosene fire that killed her father. Images of conflagration fill the screen at measured intervals throughout the movie. And as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the movie’s violent intrigue can be traced back to a sinister family secret about the cause of the blaze.

The movie opens with a scene of excruciating violence as Sailor uses his bare hands to kill a man who comes after him with a knife. Two years later, after serving a manslaughter sentence, Sailor is out on parole and back in Lula’s arms. But Lula’s mother, Marietta—a shrill harridan portrayed by Dem’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd—is determined to put an end to their romance. She orders her boyfriend, Johnnie (Harry Dean Stanton), to track them down. And while Sailor and Lula drive west through the Deep South, hoping to find the end of the rainbow in California, Marietta arranges for a mobster named Santos GE. Freemam) to put out a contract on Sailor’s life—a mission that is relayed through a cult-like succession of ghoulish criminals.

Rarely have so many depraved characters been crammed into a single movie. Assembled like freaks under a carnival tent, they include a drug lord named Mr. Reindeer (Morgan Sheppard), who keeps a harem of barebreasted slave girls; a deranged cousin from Lula’s past (Crispin Glover), who keeps cockroaches in his underwear; a psychopath with a hideous grin named Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe); and a gun moll with yellow hair and a simian brow (Isabella Rossellini). A black angel in a bolo tie, Dafoe delivers the movie’s most exquisite performance, highlighted by an unforgivably sick gag involving sexual violence. Rosseli lini, the director’s girlfriend—who Q was dragged naked through the mud " in Blue Velvet—retains her dignity in an aloof cameo.

In his new movie, Lynch reserves the degradation for Ladd, whose over-the-top performance is painful to watch. Clawing the air with Halloween-orange fingernails and smearing her face with lipstick, she creates an ugly caricature of the Wicked Witch of the West. The movie spells out its Wizard of Oz allusions in neon—in a fantasy sequence, Ladd’s Marietta literally rides a broomstick. Lynch is more interesting when he does not show his hand so clearly.

Wild at Heart has an intricate plot, which leaves its ragged threads in a squalid Texas town called Big Tuna. And it has a redemptive

ending that could have been hatched on Hollywood Boulevard. But the movie’s power lies in its cryptic, episodic nature. Lynch deals out scenes and characters like tarot cards, with comedy and horror changing faces in a flash. The story sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. But the narrative is just a device to trigger the images, which have a rhapsodic beauty—their inexplicable magic is the real substance of Lynch’s film-making.

Lynch, who has an art-school background, brings a level of abstraction to the screen that sets him apart from most American film-makers. Although he patronizes his characters—

Sailor and Lula’s love is a brainless passion— his actors speak of him with reverence. “He is very much like a painter or a sculptor with his directing,” said Cage. “He mixes the absurd, the scary and the pure.”

Wearing a chunky skull-ring and a maroon silk jacket with a matching hat when he spoke to Maclean ’s, Cage appeared as outrageous as Sailor himself. In fact, the snakeskin jacket worn by his character came from the actor’s own wardrobe. And like Sailor, Cage chainsmokes. Despite the horror that Lynch brings to the screen, the director creates a lighthearted atmosphere on the set, according to Cage. “He’s one of the only directors I know who can say, the later and colder it gets, ‘Hey guys, let’s have more fun.’ ” Added Cage: “He’s extremely positive, and light on his feet—he floats. He’s very spontaneous. A script at the begin-

ning of the day will look different at the end.” Dem spoke with similar enthusiasm. “David makes every movie experience Disneyland,” she said. “Everyone has a blast. It’s a family doing its work together—David never exploits.” Even Dem’s mother, who seems so humiliated in Wild at Heart, is lavish in her praise of the director. Ladd said that Lynch, aware that she did not like Blue Velvet, sent her the Wild at Heart script via Dem with the message “You tell your mother this will play hot and sexy.” Working with the director was “a great experience,” she added. “He does not betray trust. He never raised his voice on the set. I never heard him utter a curse word.”

Considering the extreme profanity of the script, that is remarkable.

For his part, Lynch draws a fastidious line between life and art. “For me, films are not real,” he said. “They are like reality set apart. You go into a dark room to have an experience that you get nowhere else.” However, he added, he bases his art on the “absurdity, darkness and confusion” of human behavior.

Lynch still works on the margins of Hollywood—no major studio dared to back Wild at Heart, which was made on a relatively modest $ 10-million budget. But, in his own fashion, Lynch has created a funhouse-mirror image of the Hollywood formula. As Dem pointed out, “It has sex, violence, music, family, buddies, and it’s a road picture—hell, it’s got it all.” Indeed, Lynch claims to be more typical of mainstream America than he might seem.

“The American public is surreal and they understand it,” he said. “The idea that they don’t is absurd.”

In many respects, Lynch could be considered the new Andy Warhol. Like the American prince of pop art, who died in 1987, he explores the lurid and the sensational with voyeuristic detachment. Like Warhol, he is an artistic revolutionary with the political outlook of a conservative. Like Warhol, he makes a perverse fetish of the normal. And he has even created a nerd-like mystique for himself—the press kit for Wild at Heart offers just one line of biography under the name David Lynch: “Eagle Scout, Missoula, Montana.”

There is one scene in the movie where Lula, lamenting the state of the ozone layer, says, “One day, the sun’s going to come up and drive a hole clean through the planet like an electrical X-ray.” Lynch’s lens is a little like that sun, burning through the white skin of middle-class American culture with a beautiful, dangerous heat. Whether Wild at Heart’s voodoo is the work of a shaman or a sham artist, it amazes and disturbs with stunning effect. If Lynch’s aim is effect for effect’s sake, the ultimate joke may be on those trying to figure him out. It is an engrossing game—for now. But if David Lynch is going to go the distance, he will, like the Wizard of Oz, have to step out from behind the wildness and show some heart.