Monday, August 17, 2015

On the Run With Sailor and Lula

"This whole world's wild at heart and weird on top."

Lula (Laura Dern)

"There is something inside of me that resists the films of David Lynch," film critic Roger Ebert wrote after the debut of "Wild at Heart" 25 years ago today. "I am aware of it, I admit to it, but I cannot think my way around it. I sit and watch his films and am aware of his energy, his visual flair, his flashes of wit. But as the movie rolls along, something grows inside of me — an indignation, an unwillingness, a resistance."

I don't think a lot of people really remember just how hot (not in the physical sense but in the successful sense) David Lynch was when he wrote and directed "Wild at Heart." Among his many projects was his TV brainchild Twin Peaks, which had a meteoric ride that began in April 1990 and continued until June 1991. At the end, the ratings were tanking, but it lit up the sky there in 1990. Many said it had developed a cult following for Lynch.

It was while Lynch was working on the first episodes of Twin Peaks that he was approached about directing a movie based on a novel called "Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula," the tale of a couple of lovers on the road together. Lynch was the one who introduced the crime angle; in the movie adaptation, Sailor and Lula weren't on the road so much as they were on the run.

I guess that was one of the movie themes of that time — people on the run from the law (or something). To an extent, I suppose, it is always a movie theme, but it isn't always as popular as it seemed to be in the late '80s and early '90s.

And, even when there is an unusually high number of such road movies in the theaters, few are as surrealistic — and I say that fully aware that "Thelma & Louise" premiered less than two years later — as "Wild at Heart."

Anyway, as I say, Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) were on the run — but it started out that they were running from Lula's overbearing mother (played by Dern's own mother, Diane Ladd), who got other folks involved — gangsters, for example, and a detective (played by Willem Dafoe).

Both of the leads were played by young but familiar actors. Cage was cast regularly in movies in the 1980s — "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "The Cotton Club," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Raising Arizona," "Moonstruck." By the time he made "Wild at Heart," moviegoers were pretty accustomed to the idea of Cage as a leading man.

Things were different for Dern. "Wild at Heart" was hardly Dern's first appearance on the silver screen — that came nearly 20 years earlier, when, at the tender age of 6, Dern was cast in 1973's "White Lightning" — but many moviegoers probably didn't know that in 1990, and most probably were not aware of her resume. She was cast in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," which received three Academy Award nominations, in 1974. She had had many supporting roles (earning a reputation within the industry for earnest portrayals of virtuous but rather naive characters); she had worked with Lynch before, on 1986's "Blue Velvet," and some of her roles could be regarded as leading roles, but "Wild at Heart" was probably the first truly successful movie in which she was widely recognized as one of the stars.

A big part of the plot of "Wild at Heart" was sex, as one would expect with an oversexed, hot–blooded type like Lula — and Cage's character was always willing to oblige her, as just about any man in that age group probably would. It's been quite awhile since I've seen the movie, but it seems to me that Dern and Cage marked just about every event with a roll in the sack ...

Even though that is — to an extent — the kind of behavior that is expected of people Sailor's and Lula's age, it was part of what made the movie so surreal. "You've got me hotter than Georgia asphalt," Dern said to Cage at one point. She must have spent her life in a constant state of arousal.

Part of it was Lynch himself, though. The structure of the road film freed Lynch to indulge himself in all sorts of ways, which led to mixed results. That part was probably predictable. But he also took viewers to some intriguing places — like the aftermath of a two–car collision in which a young woman, suffering from an obviously severe head injury, emerged from the wreckage, staggered around for a little while, asking what had happened and trying to find her wallet, and then died in front of the amorous couple. Sailor and Lula regarded it as a bad omen.

Which it was, I suppose, particularly for the girl who died.

Ebert dismissed "Wild at Heart" as "a film without the courage to declare its own darkest fantasies." There may be truth in that. I only saw it once, many years ago. Maybe I need to see it again.

"I've seen the movie twice now," Ebert told his readers. "I liked it less the second time."

My advice to you is to judge for yourself.