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Retrospective: David Lynch Part Four: From Oz to the Electric Chair by Donald McCarthy

Between seasons one and two of Twin Peaks David Lynch put out the film Wild at Heart. Thanks to Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, Lynch enjoyed a career high point and a level of fame he’d never achieved before and probably since although he came close with the Oscar nomination for Mulholland Drive. It’s unfortunate that the film he premiered at this point did not hold up to his two previous personal films, Eraserheadand Blue Velvet. I don’t mean to imply that Wild at Heart is an atrocious film; it’s not, certainly not like DuneWild at Heart just can’t keep a solid tone and the quality varies so wildly that viewers are left wondering what they just saw and not in a good way such as with Eraserhead or Lynch’s short films.

The first mistake the film commits is an odd obsession with referencing The Wizard of Oz. The wicked witch and the good witch are both seen in the film, the latter appearing in the climax to help Nicholas Cage’s Sailor achieve an emotional understanding about his relationship. Having the climax revolve around a character from another movie randomly show up is questionable at best and after the violent shootout, which comes minutes before, the switch in tone is so jarring that the viewer pushes back against the development.

Lynch often has his actors deliver dialogue in a different way than most directors. Sometimes this is very effective as with Twin Peaks and Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, but in Wild at Heart the acting is sometimes so over the top that eyes are rolling. The first scene, in which Sailor is almost killed by an assassin sent by his girlfriend Lula’s mother, is incredibly stylized and off-putting. The violence is extreme as Sailor bashes the assassin’s head in but at no point is it clear how we should be taking this. Is it darkly funny? Menacing? I’m not sure and it’s this odd stylization that crops up in Wild at Heart that is the second reason the film does not work as well as it should. This goes right along with the tonal problem I mentioned before. I keep asking myself how seriously I’m supposed to take the film and therefore I’m not nearly as engaged with it as I should be.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert takes the film’s inconsistent tone to task, using the first scene as an example:

“Ripley disarms him, and then smashes him to a pulp, viciously and with great thoroughness, taking the man’s hair in his hand and pounding his skull violently against the marble floor until the bones crack and blood spatters and the man is dead. Then Ripley staggers to his feet, steadies himself on the handrail, lights a cigarette, and glares up from beneath lowered brows, gasping for breath, the cigarette dangling from his lip.

“Some people laugh when they see this scene. They like the way the look is overplayed: Cage looks like a villain in a silent movie. I didn’t laugh.”

I don’t agree with all of Ebert’s critiques, certainly not with his questions about misogyny in the film, but I can see where he’s coming from in questioning the honesty of the film. The violence could be effectively horrific or overblown and satirical but Lynch never seems to decide which he wants. For instance, Sailor and Lula come across a car accident and find a character played by Sherilyn Fenn who has been injured. She dies from her injuries. There’s nothing funny here and the scene is damn serious. Contrast that not only with the opening scene, but with Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru blowing his own head off with a shotgun blast; we see the head fly off and land nearby. It’s an amazing visual scene but, again, I’m confused as to how I should take it. I don’t think this is Lynch’s intention by any means. Lynch likes to be ambiguous and vague but he’s not out to purposely confuse audiences’ emotional reactions. The Lynch biography Beautiful Dark by Greg Olson has an interesting quote on what the film aimed to do: “Barry Gifford’s book, and Lynch’s film, present Sailor and Lula’s love as sexual, soulful, supportive and steadfast… But Lynch knows that surface reality hides layers of subterranean experience and knowledge, and he adds this pet theme to Gifford’s text, having Sailor declare, ‘We all have a secret side, baby.’”

Olson is right that the dark, secret side of life is a pet theme of Lynch’s. Lynch just doesn’t explore it nearly as well in Wild at Heart as he did in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. It’s too bad, too, because the relationship between Sailor and Lula could’ve been an intriguing way to look at people’s darker sides and how that can complicate and complement a relationship. He comes at this theme again in Mulholland Drive to much better effect.

I first watched Wild at Heart when I was 18 and hadn’t watched it again before this project. I hated it the first time I saw it and wondered how the hell the man who wrote and directed Mulholland DriveBlue Velvet, and Twin Peaks could deliver such a turkey. Needless to say, I didn’t go out and buy the movie after the experience and I viewed it as a bad film. When I rewatched it for this article I was surprised to find myself quite a bit more open to the film’s achievements. I still saw a lot of flaws but I also saw a lot that worked and a lot that had potential. Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern both put in good performances (no surprise with Dern but Cage can be hit and miss in his films), allowing their characters to come across as believable which must be incredibly hard considering how all over the place the tone is and how cartoonish Sailor and Lula can come across; just look at their names. I’m not sure how much of the blame can be put on author Barry Gifford as he wrote the novel of the same name the film was based on but considering he didn’t have the odd The Wizard of Oz scenes I tend to think the fault lies more with Lynch.

The sex scenes between Lula and Sailor end up being a bit much. It’s funny at first but gradually develops into tedium. I’ve seen some critics refer to Wild at Heart as erotic and I have to wonder what types of terrible love films they’ve been watching if this is erotic. Again, Cage and Dern save these scenes from becoming completely absurd and they give viewers a vested interest in what could have been, and still occasionally are, two really annoying characters. Cage’s occasional shifts into Elvis Presley territory come across as endearing as opposed to annoying (usually) and Dern’s shrillness is oddly understandable, especially when you consider her mother (who is, weirdly enough, played by her real life mother, Diane Ladd; this phenomenon crops up again in HBO’s excellent two season series Enlightened with Dern and Ladd). One of the film’s hilarious scenes includes Lula listening to the radio and becoming increasingly angered that every station is reporting on some sort of gruesome event. The over the top news is right on target and a perfect moment of satire that the rest of the film doesn’t live up to.

All this said, the film’s best character is neither of our two leads. No, it’s Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru, a disgusting, vicious man that is incredibly over the top but just about works. I mean, his teeth, man, they fucking defy description. So gross but so captivating. Dafoe has always been a great actor but he brings something special with him to this role, similar to how Hopper did in Blue Velvet but Hopper had the benefit of being in a much better movie. Dafoe’s character was the only aspect I particularly liked when I originally watched the film and even though my appreciation grew this time around, Dafoe’s Bobby Peru remains the highlight. Even in a scene that threatens to become crass, such as Peru’s encounter with Lula, Lynch is honest with the Peru character in a way that makes his scenes work. Peru doesn’t have the terrifying otherworldliness of BOB or the Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks nor the insane intensity of Frank Booth but Peru’s oddness and vile state of existence mark him as a truly memorable villain. Again, it’s too bad the rest of the film doesn’t live up to this.

Critics of Lynch say that Lynch does weirdness for the sake of weirdness and this film is one time when I can agree. From The Wizard of Oz references to the frogman Sailor and Lula encounter to Diane Ladd covering herself in make-up to Grace Zabriskie’s ridiculous turn as a madwoman, Wild at Heart has too many unearned WTF? moments in it. It’s not a surprise that when essays are written about Lynch they tend not to talk all too much about Wild at Heart since it’s not a workable film. I think it’s important to see where Lynch errs because it allows us to see if he learns from his mistakes and he seems to. He doesn’t attempt another film like Dune after that fiasco and his issues with tone settle down after Wild at Heart.

Curiously, the film did win the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990. It’s too bad that it’s this film Lynch won for and not Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me or Blue Velvet. I’m always happy to see Lynch get recognition but I’d like it better if we could slap that award on one of his better films. The Cannes Film Festival will award Lynch again come Mulholland Drive, thankfully.

While Wild at Heart got a very polarizing reception, its box office number did fairly well considering the small budget of the film. With a television show and two successful movies after Dune, one would think Lynch’s career would be easy from here on out.

Didn’t happen.

Twin Peaks was cancelled after its second season and the film that followed the show bombed. Hard. He created another show, this one a comedy, called On the Air which lasted all of three seconds before being bounced. He did a three episode miniseries on HBO called Hotel Room but it went under the radar as HBO did not have anything near the reputation it enjoys today. To this day Hotel Room remains extremely difficult to find.

Lynch decided to return to film with Lost Highway, which he co-wrote with Barry Gifford. The duo viewed the film as a noir-like piece and you can see that in the results. The film’s disjointed narrative prevents it from being like the noir films of old but the second half of the film definitely has the feel of a noir film, especially with Patricia Arquette’s femme fatale.

Lost Highway returns to the fractured narrative of the Twin Peaks film and Eraserhead as opposed to the more straightforward Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. In fact, I’d say of the films up to this point, Lost Highway is the most difficult to understand. While I usually try to forego explaining too much of Lynch’s meaning, for the purposes of our discussion here I should tell how I believe Lost Highway unfolds.

Fred Madison, played by Bill Pullman, is married to Renee Madison, played by Patricia Arquette (an underappreciated performance by her). At some point, Fred begins to become convinced she has having an affair with a man named Andy or someone Andy knows, likely Dick Laurent, played by Robert Loggia. The film starts off with Fred Madison listening to his intercom; a voice on it tells him Dick Laurent is dead. Not until the end of the film do we see Dick Laurent die and it’s at the hand of a future Fred Madison who then goes back to his house and intercoms the same message, presumably to his earlier self. At some point, Fred also brutally murders his wife. Oh, and he turns into a younger man, played by Balthazar Getty, named Pete Dayton and has an affair with a woman who looks just like his wife but with blonde hair.

The key to understanding these events is to know that not all of them really happened. Much of this is a product of Fred Madison’s guilt-ridden mind. The technical term for this is a dissociative fugue. We get a clue to this when two detectives come to his house and one of them asks him why he doesn’t have any photographs. He replies, in one of my favorite film lines, “I like to remember things my own way…Not necessarily the way they happened.”

Once we understand that much of the film is Fred’s fantasy life, a life where he can be with his wife and where he’s the one she’s having an affair with, the plot actually becomes quite clear and simple. After realizing his wife was having an affair, Fred follows her to an encounter with Dick Laurent. He waits for her to leave and then barges in, kidnapping Dick Laurent and bringing him into the desert where he proceeds to execute him. After this excursion he goes home and brutally kills his wife, chopping off parts of his body. His mind then begins to disassociate and he’s confused as to why he’s in a police station and why he’s about to be given the death penalty. As he awaits his death in the electric chair his mind begins to concoct an alternate life as Pete Dayton, one that doesn’t always match up and in which reality sinks into.

On first viewing this is not particularly clear which is not the worst thing in the world; there’s something to be said for having to examine a film a little more closely before understanding it. Personally, I think the film could use an additional clue or two as the puzzling aspect of it sometimes overtakes the characters’ journeys (Mulholland Drive has a similar puzzle to it but the characters never suffers because of it). Still, the film is definitely one of Lynch’s best and contains a couple of absolutely stellar cinematic moments. The cream of the crop is hands down the moment Fred Madison meets Robert Blake’s The Mystery Man (as of today this is Blake’s last performance and judging by how his recent interview with Piers Morgan on CNN shows Blake barely has a nodding relationship with sanity I doubt he’ll be cropping up again anytime soon) at a party he and his wife attend.

For me, this scene is perfect Lynch. This comes partially from personal experience as I feel at sea when I’m at a party; the larger the party, the more uncomfortable I become. This has nothing to do with a phobia of people but with a loss of control. The more people there are, the more likely the event could get out of hand. When you’re surrounded by mutterings and loud music, conversation becomes limited to pleasantries and the experience becomes a false, lifeless one. Fred Madison is having just the same feeling as he wanders about the party, separated from his wife so the scene really plays for me.

The approach of the Mystery Man, and he’s quite startling on first watch, stops all of this dead. Lynch dials down the music and the background conversation until it’s muted as the Mystery Man comes closer. The Mystery Man is pale, has no eyebrows, and doesn’t blink. Everyone at the party should be staring at him but no one seems to notice and later on he’s seen talking with other as if he’s not at all out of place. Most likely, this is because much of the experience is imagined and the Mystery Man is a normal person.

What I like is that Fred readily interacts with Blake’s character. Sure, the Mystery Man is weird but he’s at least different from the soullessness that otherwise surrounds him. And who wouldn’t be intrigued by the Mystery Man’s greeting: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

At first Fred just says, “I don’t think so” but then he follows up, wondering where he thinks this guy has seen him before. Surely Fred would recall meeting such a character.

The Mystery Man replies, “At your house, don’t you remember?” While the audience doesn’t know it yet, Fred’s house is where he’ll kill Renee. He is likely subconsciously aware of the fact that this will go down by this point in the film and this encounter is his mind’s way of confronting the fact. If you need further proof, consider that the Mystery Man goes on to say, “As a matter of fact, I’m there right now.” He gives his phone to Fred and tells him to call the house. A visibly disturbed Fred does so and…

…yes. Yes, the Mystery Man is at his home, too. Fred has made up his mind on some level; he’s going to kill his wife and the man she’s having an affair with.

Once the Mystery Man is done with his ominous dialogue, he leaves, and the music returns along with the talking of the guests around Fred. Fred is thrown back into the party but now he’s terrified. Someone may very well be in his house, someone who knows what’s going on in the back of Fred’s mind.

The Mystery Man only appears in the film twice more: once when he speaks to Fred when Fred is imagining himself as Pete Dayton and again at the end when Fred becomes himself again, after shedding the imaginary life of Pete Dayton. His presence is felt throughout every scene after his arrival, however. In a way, he’s similar to BOB in Twin Peaks; BOB only appeared in a handful of episodes but a feeling lingered, a feeling that at any moment he’d pop out.

The creepiness of the Mystery Man is only matched by the violence of Mr. Eddy (also known as Dick Laurent- I know, I know, stick with me here). In a perfect Lynch scene where he combines horror and comedy, Mr. Eddy goes ballistic on a driver who was tailgating him. His insistence that the driver get a driver’s manual is absolutely hilarious and never fails to amuse me but at the same time I’m repulsed by the level of brutality Mr. Eddy forces upon an innocent, if assholish, man. Lynch cast Robert Loggia in the role after he saw Loggia go on a cursing streak when he learned he wouldn’t be getting the part of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Loggia assumed he’d never end up in a Lynch film because of this tirade but Lynch was so taken by Loggia’s passion that he decided he’d be the perfect fit for Mr. Eddy. He was right.

The horror and violence is nicely complemented by Patricia Arquette’s sexy yet mysterious Renee (or Alice in Fred’s fantasy life, a play on Alice in Wonderland- this is how you correctly do an allusion to another work as opposed to what happened in Wild at Heart). Arquette’s performance is perfect as she goes from glacial to intensely human within seconds. She’s also nude or mostly undressed in a number of key scenes which brings me to a topic I’ve wanted to discuss for some time: Lynch’s use of nudity.

Believe it or not, you can shoot nudity and not make it feel like the screen has turned into an exercise in male gaze. In Blue Velvet the very attractive Isabella Rossellini is nude but Lynch doesn’t shoot her glamorously; he shoots her as he would any other scene and thus we don’t end up admiring her body but instead feeling bad for her because of the situations she’s in with Frank Booth. Roger Ebert’s outburst about Rossellini being humiliated in the film shows a grave misunderstanding of the nudity in the film. It seems uncomfortable because we’re not used to such a style of nudity; Lynch doesn’t make it beautiful and when it’s supposed to be ugly he makes it damn ugly. Kyle MacLachlan is also nude in the film and he shoots MacLachlan in the same light. It’s normal for male nudity to be shot as something normal but female nudity is almost always heightened. The same occurs in Wild at Heart with Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern. Their sex scenes are sometimes stylized but neither actor is particularly glamorized.

Lynch forgoes this approach in Lost Highway and he shoots Patricia Arquette’s nudity in a very alluring manner. He hasn’t suddenly sold out; Lynch has a purpose for everything. The first time we see Arquette naked she’s almost posing as she drops her robe but it lasts for only a second. Fred watches her, knowing she’s likely with another man, and wishing she was only with him. The viewer is supposed to be tantalized by Arquette’s beauty before she’s yanked away from us, like how Fred feels she’s been yanked away from him. Arquette appears briefly naked when she has sex with Pete but the nudity is equal opportunity there. She appears in her underwear in the film’s end with Pete in the home of pornographer Andy. In this scene she looks quite beautiful and alluring but Andy is playing a movie on a large projector and Renee/Alice is in it. It’s a pornographic snuff film. It’s vulgar. Lynch is challenging the enjoyment of Arquette’s nudity because we’ve known throughout the film that Renee/Alice is an unwilling participant in Mr. Eddy’s activities. We shouldn’t find her nudity attractive when she’s at Andy’s house because she has to have sex with him to get by. It’s a rapid change from sexy to disturbing.

One last scene where nudity plays an interesting role is a flashback we get to Alice “trying out” for her part in Mr. Eddy’s pornography industry. She is initially unaware just how far she’s expected to go and her audition consists of having a gun held to her head so she’ll strip. This scene comes narrowly close to misery porn but skirts it as the reaction from the men in the room is odd in that there isn’t much of one. It’s so business-like that they act as if this is a regular audition which makes the scene less pornographic and more disturbing and thought provoking, almost as if it’s a challenge of the way people sell out in capitalism and he’s taking it to an absolute extreme here. He’ll use uncomfortable nudity to excellent effect in Mulholland Drive, the best of his films (and, as I’ll argue, the best film ever made).

Lost Highway received mixed reviews upon release but has become more and more respected as time has gone on. Movie critic Keith Phipps, an excellent critic, initially gave Lost Highway a negative review but upon the release of the DVD very much came around to it. This seems to be a common phenomenon and it’s interesting to note that as Lost Highway’s reputation has risen Wild at Heart’s has fallen. Whether this is a fair reevaluation of the films or merely a sign of changing tastes I’ll leave up to you.

The film did not do well at the box office but this didn’t seem to damage Lynch’s reputation as he was still in demand in both the realm of film and television. In fact, television will play a large part in Lynch’s next venture…

Next: We will discuss Mulholland Drive in our penultimate article on Lynch before I circle back to The Straight Story in order to compare it to Inland Empire in our final article. See you soon.

Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is