"When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There's a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your window pane
To a place behind the sun
Just a step beyond the rain"
- "Over the Rainbow", The Wizard of Oz
Somewhere, in the great, vast unknown of the universe, a real Emerald City awaits. It may not contain a wizard, or an untamed set of flying primates. There are no witches patrolling its borders, or munchkins manning its infrastructure. The road there is not paved with yellow bricks, good intentions or those best laid plans that mice and men often fret over. It's a point on the compass unreachable by regular means, and legerdemain can only provide a minimal of guidance. If you're lucky enough to find it, if you can set your emotions to the right frequency and dive deeper into your core than you've ever traveled before, the rewards will be tremendous. And so will be the sorrows. In this jade green metropolis, senses are heightened and thoughts are opiates. Those hobbled by hurt are miraculously cured while others stifled by sin are saved. It's not Heaven, and it may be Hell. Dreams have been known to go there to die, and nightmares can occasionally call it home. It can be a wonderland of untapped pleasures. Yet is can also be a place that pierces the heart and drains the soul.
Indeed, in the land of Love, humanity melds with misery and wrecks havoc on the faint of spirit. It plays its siren song to lure you along the rocks of lust and longing, pulling you toward your eventual fated 'fall'. There are fulfillments more meaningful than any to be had in life, and defeats deadlier than the most powerful weapon. Very few make the overlong journey, and there is usually less reward in the arrival than in the voyage. But some will brave its shores, if only to mine its treasure laden tunnels and sip its slightly salted waters. It is the final destination for Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune, two lovers trying to escape the wicked, wanton world around them. In the verdant spires of Love's castles and the deep dark lushness of its forests, there is rawness and renewal, peace and fertility. But there is also a slimy subterranean level of disease, mold and rot, a poison that could potentially destroy them both.
In a world that is weird on top and untamed in empathy, love is not only a redeemer, but a ruiner as well. And as envisioned by one of the true geniuses of modern moviemaking, David Lynch, it's a domain located along a road less taken and badly traveled. In his magnificent, mannered 1990 opus, Wild at Heart, there are all manner of adventures and wonderful sights. But there is a collision between life and death, good and evil that will sully and stain the celebration. And one thing is for sure: our couple won't be in Kansas anymore...not that they ever really were there in the first place.
They are a couple on the run. After serving almost 2 years for manslaughter in the Pee Dee Correctional Facility, Sailor Ripley has been reunited with his inseparable soul mate, Lula Fortune, and they intend to celebrate. Their favorite band, Powermad, is in town and the hot, sweaty scent of a local hotel room beckons. There is no turning back. Sailor wants to put his checkered past and lack of parental guidance behind him and make a new life. Lula's goals are a little more vague. Pained by the death of her father (he burned to death in a 'questionable' act of self-immolation) and burdened by a mother who has a sordid, secret agenda against her man, this little girl lost is merely looking for someone to make her feel safe and secure. Sailor promises said protection, and knowing Momma is already up in arms, the pair determines to hit the road for the possible promised land of California.
But indeed Marietta Fortune has other ideas. This luminous bitch, bathed in the light of her own smoldering vindictiveness, wants Lula back and Sailor dead, and she will stop at nothing to achieved both of those aims. Initially, she thinks that the easy-going goodwill of boyfriend/private detective Johnny Farragut is the answer. But he seems to be more sympathetic with the young lover's plight than concerned. Desperate, Marietta calls on criminal colleague – and part-time paramour - Marcellus Santos, to help her. There is a shady, secret connection between the couple that seems to ensnare both Lula and Sailor at alternate points in their lives. With the help of mob boss Mr. Reindeer and a hideous hitman named Bobby Peru, Lula and Sailor are marketed. And as they amble into Big Tuna, Texas, it appears that it's the end of the yellow brick road for these heroic idealists. And the end of love as well.
Like when planets collide or stars supernova, like the aura of turmoil and temperance that results from a mixing of atmospheres, Wild at Heart is a film about galaxies interacting, about worlds fusing and fighting. It marks a turning point in virtuoso auteur David Lynch's career, the beginning of a kind of trilogy to duality which would continue with two other masterpieces, 1997's Lost Highway and 2001's Mulholland Dr. All would explore the realms of existence, from the real to the ephemeral, fantastical vs. miserable. Forged in and around the same time as his other quintessential work, Twin Peaks (both Heart and Peaks arrived in 1990) there are definite overlaps in both theme and convention with that titanic television series. It represents, in the story and its telling, a liberation, a new sense of artistic experimentation for this true motion picture original.
Lynch loves to manipulate perception in order to play games, to give his audiences just the slightest hints at hidden precepts until he's good and ready to spring them on us. His celluloid canvases are clear works of aesthetic grandeur (a natural result, considering the filmmaker's fine arts background) using light like paint brushes, settings as still lives and people as pigments. With the deft hand of an expressionist matched against a surrealist's sense of folly, Lynch splashes grimness onto glory, the grotesque upon the gorgeous to turn beauty bad and the disgusting into something desirable. His movies are always unique, individual compositions marching to their own indefinable drummer and announcing their arrival in bold, baffling terms. More or less dismissed by the popular culture as a crackpot, or a resolute jester to all that is sacred about cinema, Lynch can be obtuse for even the most in-tune film fan. But Wild at Heart marks something monumental in his oeuvre, a moment that may even eclipse his first monochrome macabre of maternity, Eraserhead.
Whereas, in the past, he explored this visionary variation in that most personal, problematic movie (Eraserhead's baby as bane of existence is an exercise in cautionary claustrophobia) Wild at Heart reintroduces this dynamic to his work. With the success of the exceedingly personal Blue Velvet – so much like a fever dream of Lynch's small town sensibility that it practically radiates with relevance – the director felt free to experiment, to juxtapose even more of his mind bending brainstorms up against the conventions of the motion picture format to transform the medium into something you could sense, as well as see: an attempt to expand the movie's influence into the realm of another sense – touch.
Like a daydream being constantly tormented by oncoming demons, or a nightmare in which the wonderful land of Oz becomes an ever growing cesspool of cynicism and crime, Wild at Heart is at once both simple and complex, wholly complete and far too open ended. Like a lecture in allegorical symbolism lost in its own maelstrom of meaning, it is a film fashioned in the most abundant of literary realms, while failing to follow the given grammatical rules for such metaphorical suggestions. Some have called it the Wizard of Oz meets Bonnie and Clyde, or Sid and Nancy go to Candyland. Both definitions fail to recognize the singular vision Lynch applies to this tale (even if the main characters and part of the plot are taken from author Barry Gifford's novel of the same name). At its center, Wild at Heart is Badlands with more elusive ethics, It Happened One Night with far more obvious sex. Sure, the story of wicked witches and magical realms is relevant here, but Wild at Heart is striving for something of its own. And it succeeds in ways both special and subversive.
At the time of its release, the Frank L. Baum angle was greatly hyped, as if Lynch had found a new, novel way of incorporating the phantasmagoric fiction created by the author directly into his narrative. In many ways, time has only depressed these allusions, making them both more potent and far less meaningful. The easy connection is that, just like Wizard, Wild at Heart is nothing more than a strange exploration of what it is to grow older and discover yourself. Certainly, there is a yellow brick road of sorts, except the saffron sheen comes from the line of industrial paint down the center of a long, lost interstate and the cobbles have been replaced by hot Southern tarmac.
In Lula Fortune, we have a kind of Dorothy, a young woman escaping her sorry domestic circumstance for a journey of discovery in a brand new, liberating way. Far less concerned about returning home than finding her own fantasyland of love and sex, this wayward child only gets scared when the real world comes nipping at the gates of her illusion. Certainly, she is blinded by inexperience and a lack of wisdom, but there is a power in her possibilities, something that keeps her fueled to move forward.
Dorothy definitely needs her nemesis, and mother Marietta fills those foul, wicked witch booties rather nicely. A matron both channeling and changed by the baneful black arts she has sold her soul to, dame Fortune spins as wildly as the wheel bearing her moniker. Like the great hand of the gods sweeping over all to control the fate and destiny of the pitiful players she thinks are under her control, she's manipulation on the verge of implosion. Crafting schemes upon plots, cons inside of ruses, she's played all the sides against each other for so long that iniquity is the only result her actions can have. Inhabiting a space neither recognizable nor realistic, Marietta is like a wasp trapped between the screen and the door. She's fighting mad to get out and attack: only problem is, she doesn't recognize who her true enemy is, or the results her villainy filled outbursts will have.
Sadly, Sailor is not the great and powerful Oz. He is not the humbug Prof. Marvel, a hallow man of smoke and mirrors. Sailor may occasionally channel those evil spirits that lie on the outskirts of the Emerald City (and in that way, he does resemble the half man, half hologram aspects of the Wizard), but that is not his true self. He is not the Tin Man, as he has a deep well of emotion and an inherently decent heart. He is not the Scarecrow, even though he makes some incredibly boneheaded decisions along the road to his eventual redemption. No, the closest creature to Mr. Ripley's glorified good intentions and sensitive demeanor – at least around Lula – is the Cowardly Lion. He is capable of great violence and even greater sweetness. He is thoughtful as well as primal, instinctual and spontaneous. He may cower when the responsibilities of adulthood come calling, but he will defend his helplessly lost ladylove until the day he dies.
As much as it manipulates and modifies this classic mythology, Wild at Heart is really its own modern day fairy tale, a story of a sexual dream state constantly attacked and tattered by the outside world swirling around it. It's a fable founded in fucking, an epic poem carved out of hope, fear, the sinister and the sublime. While Lynch is often accused of confusing his narrative to suit his own arcane purposes, this is nothing more than a standard saga of star-crossed lovers about to arrive at their last intergalactic way station. It's the never-ending battle between youth and maturity, freedom and accountability, situated in a realm where elements both magical and maniacal pop into place, diffuse their dense, deep desire, and fade away into the wormwood. Within it's fabric, Wild at Heart is a parable for the instinctual struggle between childhood and growing up. It pits rebellion against responsibility, bravado against mortality to signify what is, perhaps, the greatest inner earthquake someone can go through. Sailor and Lula want to avoid, or even cheat this concept, hoping to find their own natural Neverland in the far off breezes of the calm, California coast. But just like the buckshot that pierces the signs along those dirty back roads of hidden America, life is taking target practice against them.
This is filmmaking as a funny, fatal foretelling about everlasting love. Wild at Heart is essentially that typical formula road trip in which realms of existence, not individual archetypes, interlock and clash. We get the eccentric characters along the way, the evocative locales, and the constant threat that keeps our impassioned pawns on the move. But there is also something more divine, more transient at work here. That long stretch of pavement Lula and Sailor are moving along is part Heaven (New Orleans) and part Hell (Texas), a roadmap from the joy of being betrothed and all the fantasy elements that surround that feeling (the high voiced man in the bar, the impromptu dance party in the fading sunset). But once they come across a car accident, where they witness a wounded passenger stumble and fumble for life, they enter a decidedly dark place, a rancid ribbon of blacktop reaching down into the very bowels of the underworld itself. By the time they reach Big Tuna (in classic mythology, fish often symbolize a static state somewhere between bliss and banishment) they're like the renegades waiting on the posse. They can sense that punishment is coming, they just aren't sure from where – and whether is will be external, or internal.
It's interesting to note the lack of sex in the latter part of the narrative. Indeed, Lula announces the end to the pre-marital fun by vomiting all over the Iguana Hotel room. It's a sign to Sailor, a heavy-handed note indicating that passion has served its purpose: now its time to pay the personal piper. For the first half of the film, fornication is symbolic shorthand, a way of showing closeness and connection without the wasted energy of words or witticisms. One senses that this is a couple founded in copulation, and that all other aspects of their relationship have been a direct outgrowth from their personal fire. Like the old clichés claim, sex is an awakening, an ultimate bond of both giving and taking. At the start, Lula is Sailor's erotic equal, a woman who wants as much as he does to apply and receive pleasure. But as the various vicious elements of the outside world start to creep in, as her mother's vice grip extends its murderous maw, the ballet of the bedroom ebbs, and then drops off. By the finale, you sense that the physicality the couple once shared has been tossed into the hot desert wind just outside their rank, repugnant room.
There are many other emblems, some more obvious than others, utilized during this expedition into the ether. Recalling icons from the past melded with a hangman's homage, Sailor's fixation with Elvis and Lula's Marilyn Monroe on moon pies are both realities and red herrings in Lynch's lunatic lament. The King was at one time a ferocious rebel, the riotous race music man that every parent feared his or her child would fancy. But sometime after the arrival of The Beatles, the Boy from Tupelo mellowed into a matinee idol of ineffectualness. In Sailor's obsession with his songs and his persona, we see both sides of the man called Presley – the original danger devil and the kinder, softer simp. Monroe, for her part, played the pained sex symbol to the hilt, dying to be respected while trading on the talents that got her noticed in the first place. As embodied by Lula, this concept takes a decidedly depraved turn, as its molestation and abortion, not fame and a false sense of security that sends Heart's glamour gal closer to the edge.
Other visual cues come from some of the film's more memorable moments. When Marietta fears she's doomed her child by getting Marcellus involved, she goes on a mad makeup jag that results in her face being covered in bright red lipstick. Certainly, this is a symbol of rage and savage sexuality, but it is also a mask, an attempt for the manic mother to hide from the horrors she's fostering. The vile, villainous Bobby Peru is walking, talking toxicity, a man whose mouth has been reduced to a series of stumpy, rotting teeth. Certainly, this showcases his inner degeneracy, but it also suggests that something about Bobby is biologically evil, as if his genetics knew how he would turn out and signified it for the rest of the population with a polluted, poisoned rima oris. From Sailor's none-too-subtle snakeskin jacket (it's better to hear him explain what it means) to the evident flaws shared by most of the criminals (misshapen legs, unfortunate hair) Lynch is occasionally heavy handed. But when he wants to sneak one by us, he does so with memorable, malleable mischief.
Take the brilliant, baffling Crispin Glover, essaying the impossible to trace deranged manchild Cousin Dell. As described by Lula, Dell is a misguided young man with a fetish for placing bugs in his ass and an unhealthy devotion to Christmas. Lula considers him the epitome of the influence of "bad" thoughts (Dell also has those white trash givens of fearing aliens and watching for men in black). Sailor thinks he's just insane. When Lula finishes the anecdote about the her mixed up family member (which we witness in one of Lynch's most arrestingly visualized set pieces) she mentions how, one day, Dell just disappeared, and this is a very telling statement, something that sums up Wild at Heart in a definitely nutty shell. Dell's vanishing represents the ultimate escape, the phoenix-like ascension into another, far better(?) plane. But it also represents menace, as a certifiable unhinged individual is roaming the world with acidic, antisocial thoughts running around in his Yuletide obsessed head.
Glover literally transforms himself in the role, getting lost in the fringes of playing someone who's finally made it, albeit internally, into their own private fantasy world. Only speaking one line, but saying several sensational volumes in his body language and attitude, Dell becomes the central image of Wild at Heart. He's the carefree corrupted, the innocent inundated by the terrors of reality until he simply snaps.
Glover is not to be outdone in the performance department by the quartet of quality that comes from the leads. Laura Dern has never been better as Lula, expressing both a liberating sense of lust and a deep, dark desire for affection in her wounded, wilting child bride brazenness. As her partner, paramour and main problem, Nicholas Cage seems to separate himself from his Method and actually come across as both artificial and organic. When required to put on the machismo and call up the criminality, he can match any bad ass move for move. But in his more contemplative modes, this is a young man who still believes in the power of love and the healing hands of a glowing, good witch. As Beelzebub with a need for an orthodontist, or at least a set of dentures, Willem Dafoe is note-for-note perfection as the precarious, perverted Bobby Peru. It is one of his best performances, filled with dark humor, palpable menace and a rotten, raging set of hormones. When he stops and laughs at Sailor during the film's final violent outburst, face covered by a nylon stocking and mouth cracked open in an unsane smile, Dafoe is debasement and dross, pus poured into a human form and made animate by the bile of a billion condemned corpses.
Interestingly, the film's most initially praised exercise in excess - by Laura Dern's real life mother Diane Ladd as Marietta Fortune – is today it's most unclear. There is no doubt what Ladd the actress is doing here. She is channeling her own mothering instincts into a Actor's Studio slagheap of sense memory, and placing the entire conceit into a cauldron over very high heat, simply waiting for it to boil and bubble over. Then she will add in her own atomic anger and Marietta's murderous mean streak and amplify the entire enterprise with volts of venom. To suggest that Ladd is over the top is, perhaps, to miss something more suggestive about her performance. And make no mistake, she does command the screen and fill it with her enchantress as amoral gun moll necromancy.
Yet Marietta has not aged well over the years, moving from serial killer to shrew over the course of a decade and a half. What once seemed like showboating now comes off as partially pathetic. It turns Marietta into less of a villain and more of a victim, and it's not an easy place for this performance to sit. Lynch probably saw Marietta as Frank Booth without the need for Oedipus's problems to fuel her rage. He is half right, and the impression that Ladd leaves is not necessarily one of theatrical brilliance. She is playing to the back row, meaning she occasionally misses the mezzanine and the orchestra.
Still, it's a testament to Lynch's undeniable skill as a filmmaker that nothing Ladd does or tried to do cheats or sidetracks his film. Indeed, just like Freddy Jone's high-pitched speech about pigeons or the naked obese women running around in Big Tuna, this hysterical, hammy over the top thespian treat adds untold scope to the simple story at play. It is conceivable that, at some point in the future, this director could make a visually dull film, but Wild at Heart was and is not that mediocre movie. Loading his lens with a rainbow of realties and playing with both the tenets and the terms of reality, he opens up the doorway to a region where Oz streams with offal, where paradise pulsates with infection and even the most basic of elements – a tiny lamp, a silver dollar – radiate with an unspeakable optical force.
A master of narrative misdirection (the ballsy bifurcated storyline of Lost Highway, the sudden shift into an alternative reality in Mulholland Dr.), Lynch avoids such a sudden swerve here by flawlessly balancing all his aspects – fantasy and foul, honorable and reprobate – like a flim flam man juggling a jillion crystal shells. Certainly, the final sequence is a definite leap into the illogical, but when viewed against all he has laid out before, it makes perfect sense. While he would go on to surpass this achievement several times over in his next few films, Wild at Heart remains the starting gate, the place where Lynch finally left the methods of the mainstream behind him to follow his own yellow brick road. And the result is something so sensational, so filled with meaning and importance that it could be studied several times, and something new found each time. In a career marked with more monumental magnum opuses than full-out flops, Wild at Heart heralds the final break from the norm for this formidable filmmaker. And the institution of cinema has been the better for it. This is a great motion picture, realized by one of the medium's true masters.
Lynch personally supervised the remaster, and more importantly, the re-color correcting and re-timing of this DVD transfer (something he explains in great detail in his discussion on the technology as part of the disc's wealth of extras) and the results are breathtaking. Undoubtedly one of the best anamorphic widescreen images this critic has witnessed, Wild at Heart literally shimmers from within its 2.35:1 original aspect ratio. Those of you who have only experienced this film in its original, horrendous full frame VHS video versions – or less than detailed laser disc – will have your sensibilities shaken by how absolutely amazing this movie looks.
Rivaled only by the recent issue of Eraserhead by Lynch himself (and the awe-inspiring print of Mulholland Dr. provided by Universal's DVD), Wild at Heart is a clean, crisp example of digital perfection. Flames burst forth like the very fires of Hell themselves and the vast vistas of America stretch out like lost canvases from God's own gallery. Frame-by-Frame, element-by-element, Lynch went back and painstakingly reworked each and every bit of this picture, and the results are stupendous. More than living up to its fairytale ideal, Wild at Heart is now a truly magical looking movie.
For Lynch, sound is just another aspect of the overall cinema experience. It is not an afterthought or a simple case of sound corresponding to motion. The audio elements of his films are just as important as the visual, and Wild at Heart does not skimp on astounding sonics. Presented in both the original Dolby Digital Stereo sound (very, VERY good) and a brand new, 5.1 Surround mix, this is one amazing aural experience. When matches alight, the sparks send the speakers into seismic shudders. Conversations caress the channels and ancillary elements fill in and flesh out many of the scene dynamics. Lynch is also one of the few directors who understands the need for negative space and ambient atmosphere, and the sensational soundtrack to the film is a definite derivation of this ideal.
With the help longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, the music sours with a resonance that suggests both the fabled and fatalistic nature of the narrative. And of course, there will be those of you who instantly recognize Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" as it plays out – perfectly - over a pivotal night driving scene. In combination with the mix and the other mood-enhancing facets, this is one fabulous auditory experience.
In a move that will have fans cheering while simultaneously wondering why other studios can't follow suit, Wild at Heart is given a sensational, special edition treatment that drowns the disc in delightful contextual additions. First up is the aforementioned David Lynch: On the DVD featurette, a small but highly substantive look at the remastering process. Amiable and eager to explain – which more or less sums up his attitude toward all of his appearances here – Lynch gives us the grand tour of how DVD is created, crafted and, interestingly, corrupted. It helps explain why it takes so long to get his films on the digital medium. The director himself is the subject of a borderline puff piece entitled Specific Spontaneity: Focus on David Lynch. More or less a series of testimonials by the actors and crew interviewed for the Wild at Heart Making of documentary, there is some great stuff here along side all the gladhanding. Just to hear these actors discuss his directing approach is worth the price of admission.
Additional marketing material can be found in the original electronic press kit for the film. It's fascinating to see how Hollywood tried to position this movie when it was originally released. There are several TV spots (all of which focus more on Cannes and Twin Peaks that the film itself) and the original theatrical trailer. Along with a nice, if non-essential slide show presentation of our lost lovers (entitled "Sailor and Lula's Image Gallery") and some MGM ads, the basic components of a professional release are all in place.
But the real gems come in the following two finds. In Love Death Elvis & Oz almost everyone involved in the film – from author Gifford to Grace Zabriskie (who played the near cameo role of hitwoman Juana) are here to talk about what it was like to make this amazing movie. It's all plaudits and partial recall as Cage, Dern, Ladd, Dafoe, Glover and others discuss the opportunity to work with the legendary man, and how much kinship they felt with their characters. Filled with insights into deleted sequences and missing moments (many of the more oddball characters saw their dialogue literally disappear in editing), this 30 + minute journey through the film's genesis and general acceptance is engrossing and engaging.
Even better is something called Dell's Lunch Counter. Using an interactive menu screen (you click on various piles of scrunched up sandwiches lying on a countertop – anyone who's already seen the film should be chuckling at that concept) we are treated to nine interview outtakes concerning such divergent details as how the characters of Lula and Sailor came about, the meaning of the red pipe, the good witch and the pigeons speech, some discussion of Cannes and the snakeskin jacket. It's a great added feature, one that truly fleshes out the scope and stature of this amazing movie.
And for those of you who care: Yes, the DVD does have chapter stops.
Most of us never get to the land of Love. We usually breakdown somewhere along the route and settle for the next ride that comes along, hoping it's not too horrible or hard. For others, the stay is temporary, Visa voided before the complete experience can be had. In some ways, it's better to think that love never comes, or when it does, that it won't last. Over time, love fades and changes, breaking down and disintegrating. In it's place, other emotions should exist, more solid sentiments like faith and trust, honesty and friendship. Passion can be the place where you build your hideaway for happiness, but it should never be the mortar that holds up the walls. Once the ardor dissipates, your structure is left vulnerable to decay and demolition.
For Sailor and Lula, love seems to have conquered all. It has made them wiser and instilled a sense of caution into what was once a carefree celebration. But it's definitely no merry old land of Oz. Indeed, the wizard is long gone and the wicked witch is just a minor memory. In their place are the lessons life has longed to teach them, the portents closing off the past forever. Of course, one can always pray for a little magic, a chance to taste the sweet succulence of youth one more time, pitfalls and perils be damned. It is possible you know. Sailor and Lula think so. So does David Lynch. All you have to do is believe. All you have to do is be wild...at heart.
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