It’s difficult to believe that it is fifteen years since I took an unwitting female companion to see Wild at Heart at the cinema ,because it seems like only yesterday. I remember it distinctly. The lights went down, the strains of Schubert’s ‘Im Abendrot’ boomed from the speakers and those credits splashed across the image of intense flames. The fire and the classical music faded to be replaced by a disorientating view of an ornate ceiling and the familiar sound of Glen Miller’s “In the Mood”. Sailor Ripley (Nicholas Cage) dressed like a cool Potsy from ‘Happy Days’ skips down a marble staircase and is confronted by a man in a suit who declares his intention to do harm, and everything explodes. The music becomes a thrash hammer accompanying the brutal blows as Ripley smashes the antagonist’s head again and again and again on the brass railings, his blood splashing starkly against the pale steps. Thus does ‘Wild At Heart’ introduce itself to the unsuspecting viewers and declare boldly, “You’re not gonna fucking believe this movie and it will stay with you forever!”
It has to be the craziest first three minutes of a film I’ve ever seen.
The combination of the intense, hymn-like music and the vision of boiling flames has a unique effect on the viewer. It is hypnotic. The subsequent rapid transitions in image and sound and the shocking switch into brutal violence and thunderous music is dizzying. That is how ‘Wild At Heart’ works. It keeps you off balance because you can’t bear to look away, even when you want to or have to.
David Lynch has forged his career from keeping us off balance and the juxtaposition of diverse sounds and images in just one of his techniques. The explosive sound of ‘Slaughterhouse’ by little known metal monsters Powermad (they sadly split shortly after their debut album was released) punctuates the action and almost always accompanies Sailor’s violent paroxysms. Powermad are now a little part of movie history. Shortly after Sailor is released from a correctional institute for the murder of the man on the steps he and his girl Lula elope, much to the chagrin of Lula’s mother. Whilst attending a Powermad show (an opportunity for Sailor to show his Elvis style kung-fu dance moves) an unwise patron of the club makes a move on Lula and refers to Sailor as a ‘faggot’ for wearing a snake-skin jacket. Sailor exclaims “This is a snake-skin jacket, symbol of my individuality and belief in personal freedom!” After making an example of the fool he proceeds to sing Elvis Presley’s “Love Me” to a delighted Lula, with Powermad themselves providing accompaniment.
Cinema just does not get any better than this.
Lynch has a long-standing connection with more extreme forms of music, as reflected by the soundtracks to both ‘Wild At Heart’ and ‘The Lost Highway’. Using such diverse elements as Angelo Badalamenti and Rammstein to create emotional soundscapes that not only accompany but also enhance the onscreen imagery is not unusual in film. Lynch simply does it better than most. Another great example is the use of ‘Wicked Game’ by Chris Isaak. The music seems to haunt the lonely highway when we see Lula menaced by the spectre of her mother in the form of the wicked witch (one of many references to the Wizard of Oz) and the lovestruck couple happen upon a devastating car crash. Incidentally it is that car crash that gives Lynch an opportunity to demonstrate his fascination with the brain as we see a bewildered Sherilyn Fenn put her fingers into the wound in her head, remove a piece of brain and bemoan, “I’ve got sticky stuff in my hair! Has anyone seen my hairbrush?” It echo’s the scene in ‘Blue Velvet’ where a shot police officer stands with exposed brains like a malfunctioning android. Lynch has used the brain, head and mind as powerful symbols throughout his career. The Elephant Man was killed by the weight of his own head, in his version of ‘Dune’ he eschews the book’s attitude to physical combat in favour of mental discipline used to kill. ‘The Lost Highway’ and ‘Mullholland Drive’ ponder identity and mental illness. Lynch says the brain is “just like a plate, but the nervous system and the mind is, uh, It's the thing that traps us and ultimately frees you." He regularly gives lectures and speaks on ‘Consciousness, Creativity and the Brain’.
So is he a genius or just crackers? Or both?
He did bring us the backwards-speaking and funky-walking dwarf in Twin Peaks.
He also has started his own foundation dedicated to raising $7 billion so he can make transcendental meditation available for students, and build a university for world peace in Washington, D.C.
He cast Isabella Rossellini (his wife at the time) in the role of Dorothy Vallens, the brutalised lover/victim of Dennis Hopper’s terrifying Frank Booth in arguably his most disturbing film ‘Blue Velvet’. On voyeurism Lynch said, "I'm convinced we all are voyeurs. It's part of the detective thing. We want to know secrets and we want to know what goes on behind those windows. And not in a way that we would use to hurt anyone.” Through ‘Blue Velvet’ he makes us voyeurs. It’s difficult to watch but we can’t look away. It’s also maniacally funny, because if you don’t laugh at the sight of Dean Stockwell miming ‘In Dreams’ to Frank Booth you’d probably cry. The marriage with Rossellini did not long survive the release of ‘Blue Velvet’. She cited his increasingly bizarre behaviour (including laughing hysterically during the filming of the ritualistic rape scene) as cause for the split.
Interestingly Robert Loggia wanted to play Frank Booth. Lynch later cast him as the similarly disturbing Mr Eddy in ‘The Lost Highway’, continuing the tradition (as he did with Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru character in ‘Wild At Heart’) of populating his worlds with the most terrifying and powerful tyrants.
Lynch described ‘The Lost Highway’ as a “psychogenic fugue”, another example of his fascination with the mind and psychosis. Ironic as a self induced fugue state is one of his creative techniques for brainstorming ideas, brought on by epic quantities of very strong, sugary coffee and doughnuts. It would be easy to forget that Lynch also has a keen sense of self-deprecating humour. Witness his performance as Gordon, Agent Cooper’s deaf boss in ‘Twin Peaks’, nor is he above self parody, evidenced by the achingly slow version of his signature white lines on the highway in ‘Straight Story.’
Ultimately David Lynch’s movies conform to a template of his own making and ‘Wild at Heart’ fits that template perfectly. Lynch said it was “about finding love in hell – which might be a theme in all my movies!”
It’s a fairy tale, a romance, a violent road movie, a rocking good time and it’s required watching.
Stab it ‘n’ steer!