Wild at Heart

(USA 1990)

“Man, I had a boner with a capital ‘O.'”

—Sailor Ripley

 

“And this here’s a story with a lesson about bad ideas.”

—Lula Pace Fortune

 

“Don’t turn away from love, Sailor.”

—Glinda the Good Witch

Wild at Heart is one of David Lynch’s more maligned films. Roger Ebert hated it to the point of indignation (https://www.google.com/amp/www.rogerebert.com/reviews/amp/wild-at-heart-1990). Vincent Canby seemed perplexed—I can’t tell whether he was bored, annoyed, or just flummoxed (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE5D7123EF934A2575BC0A966958260). Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “appalling,” “inept,” and “debasing” (https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1990/08/bad-ideas/). A host of other critics rolled their eyes and sighed, dismissing it, I suppose, as a violent and exploitive piece of shock fluff.

I never saw Wild at Heart until now. Some of the points raised by its detractors are valid, but I still liked it for the same things that made them hate it. Erratic, vulgar, and really sweet, it’s offputting yet compelling and—surprise!—it has a happy ending.

An atypically straightforward narrative for a Lynch project, Wild at Heart is a decidedly deranged, bloody road movie/romance/thriller based on Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name. Upon his release from a North Carolina prison after serving time for murder—never mind that it was self-defense—Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) exits the jailhouse to find his lover, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern), waiting for him outside in the sunlight with his snakeskin jacket, the symbol of his individuality and his belief in personal freedom. They spend some time catching up in a motel room and at a speedmetal concert before they decide to blow off his parole and take off for California.

Meanwhile, Lula’s mother, Southern lady Marietta (Diane Ladd), is making plans of her own—and they involve her private detective boyfriend (Harry Dean Stanton) and a hit man (J. E. Freeman) who’s got Sailor as his target. A bad omen detours the starcrossed lovers to Big Tuna, Texas, where they unwittingly plant themselves smack in the middle of a bad situation that looks to be turning deadly fast.

OK, I’ve seen versions of this same story before. The plot is familiar and for the most part implausible—not to mention really, really thin at times. Lynch goes overboard with his depiction of sex, violence, and gore—even though they all have a place here. None of this matters, though, because the characters, which are both the focus and the strength of the film, are fantastic.

As usual, the casting is stellar. Cage is at his best here, working that edgy deadpan earnest manic thing he did so well in his early films. Dern is flawless as a sweet Southern girl who’s found her place with bad boy Sailor, everyone else be damned. Willem Dafoe is super creepy as hayseed bad guy Bobby Peru—those teeth! Above them all, however, is Ladd, who’s fucking fabulous even with her face covered in red lipstick. She’s vengeful at times, remorseful at others; but all the while, a perfect lady. She shines here. There’s a reason she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1991). This film works because the actors give it their all.

Wild at Heart is loaded with Lynch’s trademark what-the-fuck weirdness—a man at a bar quacking like a duck (you read that correctly) and cousin “Jingle Dell” (Crispin Glover) sitting on the floor in the bathroom screaming for Christmas or standing at the counter in the dark making a hundred sandwiches for lunch are bizarre moments even by Lynchian standards. There’s a lot more to it, though. I love the theme of finding a happy place in the midst of horrible things happening. I love all the references to various staples of Americana—cowboys, cars, highways, Elvis Presley, and my favorite, The Wizard of Oz. I love that underneath it all is a touching love story that we can all relate to.

What I find most interesting, though, is that so many things about Wild at Heart scream Quentin Tarantino, yet he had nothing to do with it. In fact, it came out two years before Tarantino’s first major film, Reservoir Dogs. I never thought of David Lynch as an influence on him, but Wild at Heart makes me wonder.

Side note: Wild at Heart is a rated R movie. For the screening I attended, however, I was lucky enough to catch an unreleased rated X version. The X rating was no doubt due to the graphic violence—it wasn’t the sex scenes. The print was in bad shape, all scratchy and beat up, but it was totally worth it to see an X-rated Lynch film.

With W. Morgan Sheppard, Grace Zabriskie, Isabella Rossellini, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee

Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films

Distribution: Manifesto Film Sales, The Samuel Goldwyn Company (USA), Palace Pictures (UK), Bac Films (France), Cineplex Odeon Films (Canada), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Háskólabíó (Iceland), Meteor Film Productions (Netherlands), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), Solopan (Poland)

125 minutes
Rated X (alternate version)

(Music Box) B

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.davidlynch.de

Harold and Maude

(USA 1971)

“And if you want live high, live high;
And if you want to live low, live low;
Cuz there’s a million ways to go, you know that there are.”

—Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”

 

“Dinner at eight, Harold. And do try and be a little more vivacious.”

—Mrs. Chasen (Harold’s mother)

 

“I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this, yet allow themselves to be treated as that.”

—Maude

For a double date night, we caught a screening of Harold and Maude at Chicago Tribune film critic Mark Caro’s series, “Is It Still Funny?” I was astonished to learn that this film was a box office bomb. Indeed, many respected critics, Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby among them, were not impressed when it originally came out (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/harold-and-maude-1972 ) (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=990CE7DF1138EF34BC4951DFB467838A669EDE ). Maybe its morbid overtones and absurdist deadpan black humor put people off. Maybe, like some of the authority figures in the film, the idea of the title characters “doing it” grossed them out. Maybe they couldn’t see beyond the obvious to get the point of the whole thing. Whatever it was, they clearly missed the beauty here. I don’t know, but Harold and Maude is one of my all-time favorites.

Young Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is obsessed with death, probably because he’s not particularly invested in his own privileged life. He stages elaborate and often gruesome suicides to distress his wealthy, prim, socialite mother (Vivian Pickles). He drives a hearse. He hangs out in cemeteries. He crashes random funerals. One day, Harold crosses paths with Maude (Ruth Gordon), a crazy old lady he saw scarfing down an apple and sneezing loudly at a burial just a few days earlier. She approaches him in church during a funeral mass, and afterwards drives off in the priest’s car. Harold doesn’t know what to make of her. Maude is wacky and carefree with a rebellious streak. She lives in an old train car. She talks incessantly about life. She used to “liberate” canaries from pet shops, and now she enlists his assistance in rescuing a tree from a city sidewalk. Maude takes Harold on something of a roller coaster ride, going on adventures and showing him life’s many pleasures: art, music, dancing, flowers, just being alive. After he sabotages his mother’s attempts to find him a wife through a computer dating service, Harold decides to marry Maude. Their relationship culminates with a surprise party he throws for her 80th birthday—and a surprise she gives him.

Harold and Maude, which started out as a masters thesis that screenwriter Colin Higgins wrote at UCLA, easily could have slid into a mawkish mess. It doesn’t, though: it’s deceptively deep, and director Hal Ashby strikes an inimitable balance of sweet and weird. For one thing, he keeps things simple and lets them unfold naturally. Harold and Maude are both odd, but not in a forced or creepy way; they’re tender, relatable, and even adorable despite the fact that they make an unlikely match and cause discomfort to everyone around them. Their chemistry, like this entire film, has an easiness to it. Cat Stevens’s breezy soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment—I can’t imagine anyone else’s music here (Ashby originally approached Elton John: http://mentalfloss.com/article/69546/10-perfectly-paired-facts-about-harold-and-maude ). The story is interesting far beyond a formulaic romantic comedy; it maintains its edge with biting and macabre humor—fake suicides, dates gone horribly wrong, sessions with a psychiatrist, Harold’s fake murder of Maude, and that hilariously ghasly denouncement from a repressed priest (Eric Christmas). Pickles is flawlessly uptight and understated, and watching her is a delight in every single scene she has. Tom Skerritt (he’s the cop) in a small early role is a bonus. The tone and look both grow cheery as Maude pulls Harold out of his shell and he starts making his own choices.

This film has so many moments that still give me chills, not the least of which is Harold’s cry when he learns what Maude has done on her birthday. The hospital scene is wrenching for so many different reasons. The conversation in the daisy patch that pans out and turns into a graveyard (a la Arlington National Cemetery) and the momentary glimpse of the tattoo on Maude’s arm are subtle but jolting. Harold’s metamorphosis is the best part: standing on top of a cliff holding his banjo, he walks away playing “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” It’s one of the few happy endings to a film that I truly love.

In 1997, the United States Library of Congress deemed Harold and Maude “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

91 minutes
Rated PG

(Music Box) A+