Copyright © 2010 by James Clark
While her lover, “Sailor,” is absent, headed into an ill-fated robbery/assassination, “Lula” trembles and cries out, “This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top,” the phrase resulting in the film’s name. In fact, its extended form, with the bit about “weird,” constitutes the heart of Lynch’s presentation of both of the films in view here. Though you might at first imagine she’s referring to corruption not having claimed her, she occupies a room in the Iguana Motel of Big Tuna, Texas, whose floor is compromised by a mesa of her vomit which for twenty-four hours she has somehow neglected to clean up. Sailor, too, had noticed the smell of “puke,” and doing something about it had never crossed his mind. During the 1980s, such tenacious infection dragging down “wildness” came in for close-up investigation by Lynch, and here we should look at two closely related instances.
David Lynch’s films exude a strange traction by way of a number of means, visual and aural, as heightened by mastery in compositional and narrative judgment. The story of his art’s maturation consists of a lavish outlay for the sake of freeing that most elusive of overtures. The groundbreaking Eraserhead clings to a little beast’s death throes to maintain the possibility of delight. Two films following that debut, Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990), audaciously concentrate upon the viscous lockdown oppressing his (and our) task of coordinating such an unruly play of power. In accordance with the windfall of America’s peculiarly fertile boisterousness, he sets these adventures in the most unselfconsciously overripe of its zones, the South. Moreover, the work situates the rebellious implications of that upswing amidst the poetry and attitudes of rockabilly music. Lynch is a connoisseur of rock and roll in its maximal incendiary payload. This most sensual, tactile of the arts has always thrived upon piratical menace toward a rational status quo. Blue Velvet snaps into view largely by virtue of a company of small-town North Carolina drug dealers whose leader has been transfixed by the following song.
“A candy-colored clown they call the Sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper,
“Go to sleep, everything is alright.
I close my eyes
Then I drift away
Into the magic night,
I softly say a silent prayer like dreamers do
Then I fall asleep to dream my dreams of you.
In dreams I walk with you.
In dreams I talk to you.
In dreams you’re mine all the time
We’re together in dreams, in dreams.
But just before the dawn
I awake and find you gone.
I can’t help it, I can’t help it if I cry.
I remember that you said goodbye.
It’s bad that all these things
Can only happen in my dreams.
Only in dreams
In beautiful dreams.”
“In Dreams,” as sung by Roy Orbison, is lip-synced by one of the boss’ business partners (“Ben,” as in the “bennies” the leader samples) during a stopover for a nocturnal “joyride,” wherein a college boy named “Jeffrey,” is held captive. Also in virtual captivity (due to her husband’s and son’s having been waylaid—her husband’s ear scissored off as a broad hint that she should continue to act as the leader’s dream girl) is “Dorothy,” an object of interest to Jeffrey too, and too bad for him, this night. The local King repeatedly compliments the performer on how “suave” he looks and acts with his pretty hair, powdered cheeks, red lips and long cigarette holder. “You’re one suave fucker!” Such lightness of touch demonstrably eludes his exertions. (The incisiveness of Dennis Hopper’s portrayal is something to behold.) But even that gold mine of grace can’t stop himself from punching Jeffrey in the stomach. “Frank,” for that is the not very French-seeming King’s name, would regard such an approach as gentleness itself; but he’s far more intent on hearing and seeing the song. The imagery of uncanny rightness, of moving beside and speaking with a beauty leaves him struggling with discernment introducing a high level of physical pain. The latter portion of the work, regarding the untenable nature of plenitude, sends him over a very well-travelled edge. He becomes teary-eyed and turns off the tape. “Let’s fuck! I’ll fuck anything that moves!”
After Dorothy exercises brief visiting privileges regarding her son, Donny, there is a second stage of the night of joy (during which we glimpse the black highway and its yellow-center line later to appear with more thematic preparedness in Lost Highway). Frank, who is driving with Dorothy beside him, slams on the brakes, imbibes some vaporous stardust, and careens into an infantile sexual tantrum, as close as he can come to “all these things.” The repertoire of the front seat hearkens back to a scene, witnessed by Jeffrey, at Dorothy’s apartment, whose sado-masochism cuts like surgery without anaesthetics. “It’s Daddy…Don’t you fuckin’ look at me…Mommy! (Crying) Baby wants to fuck! (Smashes her in the face)…Daddy’s coming home… (Frenzied and mechanical coitus)… (Leaving her beaten numb on the floor). Do it for van Gogh…” (That latter point about an abused savant, alerts us to the names of her family members at risk, husband, “Don” and son, “Donny”—looking to the donkey, Balthazar so viciously treated by rockabilly-inspired predators in Bresson’s Balthazar at Risk.) From the backseat, Jeffrey yells, “Leave her alone!” Frank and his rockabilly sidemen drag him out of the car—the King puts on some lipstick, breathes again into his tonic, applies some lipstick to Jeffrey, gives him several violent kisses, and then the group pounds him into an insensate pulp while a chubby middle-aged gal from Ben’s salon fidgets about, to Orbison’s song, on the roof of the car.
Southerners behaving badly is also the burden of Wild at Heart. It takes off from a spa-heavy North Carolina locale markedly upscale from homespun “Lumberton” (where the local radio station puts out weather reports like this—“It’s a sunny woodsy day in Lumberton. So get out your chainsaws! There’s a whole lotta wood to cut, so let’s get goin’!”) and its transparent devotion to material well-being. We’re sure enough back with rockabilly reachin’, but we’re treated to a pitch the “bothness” of which is decidedly more playable than that of Frank (“Booth”). True enough the Beast here kills a man, the credits barely done, not only disarming the assailant from his switchblade but proceeding to bash his head into a bloody shard on the casino’s marble stairway, with the kind of visceral thoroughness that was Frank’s trademark. He goes for a spell to the pen, and, on release, his girlfriend, Lula, played by Laura Dern, who was Jeffrey’s girlfriend, “Sandy,” in Blue Velvet, helps us find some light at the end of a pretty black tunnel, by—in response to his self-effacing, “Here you are, with a parole-breaking murderer”—riposting, “Don’t exaggerate. You’re only a man slaughterer.” In fact their gig, though, almost inconceivably, more violent and bloody than Blue Velvet, has been visited by the clear skies and wit of the work of Jacques Demy, and that makes a substantial difference. The impetuous star is Elvis-sounding “Sailor,” curiously tracing to the inflectedly-spoken sailor, “Frankie,” having a little affair with “Lola” who was pining for a Mike (“Michel”) who abandoned her and a baby seven years before, in the 1961 film by the same name. Sailor’s recent address was the “Pee Dee Correctional Institution,” “PD” reminding us of “Peau D’Ane” (Donkey Skin ). And, as you may recall, that film links to Bresson’s Balthazar at Risk (1966), Balthazar being a donkey who stands as a paragon of composure. Though they elicit mayhem the way Elvis elicited happy squeals, this admittedly rough-edged couple’s main occupation is finding their way to those gentle and sustaining features of love so prominent, and so evanescent, in Lola.
Sailor’s last name is “Ripley,” and there is a believe-it-or-not quality about his comings and goings. Not so unlike “Frankie,” he has grafted upon his so-so charisma a vernacular strongly redolent of the entertainment industry, in Sailor’s case, particularly the regal generosity of interpersonal attention and the quiet, easy drawl of Elvis, deprived of its life-changing topspin of wildness. Lula, parked at the pen’s exit in a red convertible, has Sailor’s snakeskin jacket at the ready, to get him back into the swing of things, image-wise. Later, he trots out this belief-bending statement: “My snakeskin jacket is a symbol of my individuality and my belief in individual freedom.” On the night he goes platinum with that little invention, he beats up and forces a thug who had tried to handle Lula, to apologize, takes over the mike from the bandstand, serenades her with a rendition of “Love Me” and has most of the girls in attendance squealing with more or less ardent feeling. Their performance has far less to do with Love than with Me. They sink into each others arms, delighted by their sexpot status. Additional introduction of this player’s (and, in the Carolina segment, all the principals’) always being “on,” always playing the entertainer—radiating a spray of workable energy, but in the service of a canny egotism—always the seeker of approval, is his, even on disposing of his would-be killer, Elvis-like pointing, to a presumably enraptured audience—in this case Lula’s mother—who happens to be the person he knows full well had tried to have him killed.
Just as things threaten to completely plasticize over, there is a cut to them in bed, rutting right off the rails, and then she asks, “Why didn’t you sing, ‘Love Me Tender’?” At that moment, for the first time in the film, we gain some purchase upon their acting under the sign of Cocteau’s masterpiece, wherein Belle (Beauty) improves not only Bête’s (Beast’s) manners, but his heart. (Consigning that current to a nether world, Sailor explains, “I’d only sing ‘Love Me Tender’ to my wife.”) Lula, however, is an American beauty, and that means, in the lexicon of Lynch, a largely uncontrollable devotée of sky’s-the-limit quantity of all good things, including (and especially) sexual loving. She bears some resemblance to Blue Velvet’s Dorothy as being corrupted by Frank’s sado-masochism, both Frank and she functioning from a sense of being defeated. For Lula, it was Sailor’s virtually incessant commitment to the glamor, the social-enhancement of a love affair as against being seriously engaged by love in its vast and not self-serving dimensions that she most readily responded to (having grown up with the melodramatic cravings of her mom). Their exchange with regard to her waiting for him during the two years he spent at Pee Dee involves stock, stale expressions. “You stood by me. I love you.”/”I love you, Sailor. You marked me the deepest.” On declaring, “I’ll stand by you, Sail,” she touches upon Lola’s goofy and delicate loyalty to her fat-Elvis Michel with his white Cadillac convertible. But she is seldom far from the personal embellishment such gestures can provide. The ribaldry of their sexual banter smacks more of cleverly playing to an audience than speaking to a lover. “You are so aware…You’ve got the sweetest cock. It’s like it’s talking to me when it’s inside. You take me over the rainbow…You’d better run me back to the hotel. I’m hotter than Georgia asphalt…” In many of their scenes of lovemaking, she is twisted and pounded like a prop, and screams in pain.
Wild at Heart dollops out a swampland of such Southern Gothic ballast to encrust its protagonists’ rockabilly lava life in a critical mass of foreign and toxic matter. Lula’s mother, “Marietta,” (embarked upon a history of maximal—drug industry endowed—well-being [her family name is “Fortune”], and wanting to look both dangerous and respectable) has a way with lipstick almost as nauseating as Frank’s and, while her homicide stats can’t hold a candle to his, she has engineered an auto-da-fé of her husband and, from out of her war-paint, wants Sailor’s scalp not only because he doesn’t seem likely becoming the millionaire she’d insist upon for Lula, but because she imagines he knows about the murder, having been in the employ of her crime-prone paramour, “Santos.” (She’s also involved with a “Johnny,” whom she sics on the Elvis-manqué in tandem with her well-connected fire-bug, and with that we have a bemusing revamp of the career of the “suave” early sixties guitar-team, Santo and Johnny. No matter how bleak the day-to-day, Lynch knows how crucial it is to keep laughing. As such he has that mean mamma coincide with Victor Herbert’s operetta figure from Naughty Marietta, whose most memorable incarnation was actress Jeanette MacDonald—a strawberry-blonde hard to squelch—in the movie version. Further undigested matter within this circus parade occurs by way of strains from Richard Strauss’ “Im Abendrot” [“Sunset”] trailing out upon Sailor and Lula’s rare moments of tenderness.) She further enhances the too-much-Technicolor appliqué by fitting into the Wicked Witch of the East, occasionally flipping along on a broom to urge on the hunt.
Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey is a far more steady and benign hunter; but his exertions would ultimately seem to amount to no more than the puff of smoke ending those of Marietta. Pulled out of college to take over his stroke-victim dad’s hardware shop, he jumps at the chance of relieving that boredom by way of finding by luck a severed ear in an empty lot. Between the horrors accounting for that mutilation and the lethargy of Lumberton at its best, the film draws attention to socially graceful Jeffrey and a likewise-bored accomplice, Sandy, warming, and then cooling, to the specifics and the collateral of the mystery. On bringing the ear to a police detective, Jeffrey thinks out loud that such work “must be great;” the detective adds, “It’s horrible, too.” Taking a walk one night, he finds remote acquaintance, Sandy, coming out of a sheer blackness, clearly wanting to speak to him, she being the detective’s daughter and knowing a bit (through eavesdropping) about that ear. There’s a night club singer and some bad men. “It’s a strange world, isn’t it?” she remarks, more hopefully than in dread. She knows where the singer lives (at an apartment on “Lincoln” Street, a site of justice and warfare) and next day he picks her up in his dad’s red convertible and they discuss the case. The voice of experience (Sandy being still back in high school) points out, “There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience.” He has a plan for gaining entry to the mystery lady’s place—as a pest control man, assisted by her distracting the prey (in order to steal her key on behalf of further investigation) in the guise of a Jehovah’s Witness going door-to-door.
Sandy begins to regret getting him started, but he’s just hitting his stride; they catch one of her shows (at the “Slow Club”), as the “Blue Lady,” singing (very badly) sentimental songs with “blue” in the title, like “Blue Velvet,” and they execute the break-in while she’s at work. Missing Sandy’s warning signal, he is eventually detected by her on the premises (at “Deep River” Apartments), he finds himself at knifepoint roughly handled by her, Frank drops by, and (Jeffery being hidden by her) he witnesses some savage love-making (“Yes, Sir. Please Frank, Sir…”). After Frank leaves, he says, “I’ll help you.” She says, “Don, hold me….Do you like me? Do you love me?”/”Yes.”/”Do you like the way I feel?”/”Yes.”/ “Feel me! Hit me!”
“It’s a strange world, Sandy” is how he begins his report the next day. “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?” Sandy counters this gloom with a report of a recurrent dream of hers featuring robins dispelling darkness. “There is trouble ’til the robins come.” “You’re a great girl,” he enthuses. “You’re a great guy.” The upshot of this war of the worlds is post-battering Jeffrey setting off a police raid upon Frank’s headquarters, Dorothy showing up nude and lacerated on Jeffrey’s front lawn and Jeffrey, in his final and conspicuously joyless act of resolve, shooting Frank at Dorothy’s corpse-strewn home. That that was that is clarified by a preceding exchange (as follows) being realized in action. “I’ve seen something that was always hidden. I’m in the middle of a mystery… [to Sandy] You’re a mystery and I love you very much.” We last see Jeffrey on a lawn chair and Sandy smiling at a robin on their kitchen window. The robin has a struggling maggot in its beak, but that sort of thing was never again going to make an impact on them, having successfully closed Pandora’s Box.
Lula and Sailor, moving West, far away from the Carolina bailiwick, have begun their show on the basis of far more voltage than the Lumbertoners, and demonstrate a more subtle fabric of betrayal (individual and conjugal) and recovery. At one stretch of the highway they come upon a wrecked car with dead occupants. There is a survivor of the initial impact, a woman bleeding from the head, dazedly walking around and agonizing about mislaid property. “My mother’s gonna kill me.” In her presence the drawly declamation, that serves them virtually throughout, subsides and they show the kind of attentiveness to another that graces the pitch of Lola. “We gotta help this girl…get her to a town…Let’s get a hold of her. You gotta come with us, Honey.” As she fusses about her “sticky” hair (oozing blood) Sailor watches in pain. He has also taken into account she is going to get blood all over his sleek, black T-Bird convertible, and that his problem about the parole may come up in meeting the authorities. Lula has become distraught and cries, “She’s gonna’ die right in front of us, Sailor!” He lowers her to the ground, she talks about a lost lipstick and her mouth becomes flooded with blood. “She died in front of us, Sailor,” is Lula’s literalist attempt to sort this out. “Why’d she have to be there?” Sailor comes out with, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” (Down the line, she’ll cap it off with, “I hope seein’ that girl die didn’t jinx us.”) Lula rushes to him and they hold each other tight. She cries. They drive into the night, the Santo and Johnny motif accompanying them.
Capitalizing on that fracture upon the calcification of Grand Old Opry obtuseness, the Texas phase of operations casts light upon that malice of “weird on top,” prompting Lula to follow up on her “wild”/”weird” purchase in this way: “Sailor…I wish you’d sing me ‘Love Me Tender.’ This is just shit, shit, shit!” The formative disclosure comes packaged in a most innocuous context. She and Sailor are having a drink with fellow patrons at the scrubby environs of the Iguana. There are two guys, so nondescript as to defy rendering. And precisely because these perennial good old boys are quite literally adrift (the chubby one had served on a battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War) their barfly nullity, with not a trace of emulating power-celebrities, allows of a special overtness for the subversive hostility they bring to every contact. Scrabbling for any little advantage, they smirk and titter at the new arrivals as confronted by, first, an old man with alcohol dementia berating them about his invisible dog, who “might be Toto from the Wizard of Oz,” and then a pencil-moustached psychopath with nasty, sawed-off teeth taking five from a “Texas porno” he’s filming in one of the units, starring a number of scarily overweight women. This “Bobby Peru”—“like the country,” he explains, proudly smiling with morbid overestimation—was in the Marines and he sinks the sailor-boy vet in impugning his safe removal from harm’s way. He also comes into view as aiming to sink Sailor, the name with questionable substance. Bobby does not lack a patina of role-playing—he’d be fine getting shot to pieces by Clint Eastwood—but he has chosen a performance of such sheer enmity as to usefully progress the thread of primaeval ugliness as cued up by the name “Iguana (Motel).” Lula asks, “Lordy, what was that all about?” when they get back to their room. She precipitates a flashback to her having been raped at age thirteen by an “Uncle Pooch,” and having undergone an abortion, her terrified face enlarged by a surgical instrument, with the rest of her body diminished to insect proportions. She informs her man she is pregnant, and goes on to reflect, “We sort of broke down on the Yellow Brick Road.” Next day, Bobby comes by (Sailor out fixing the T-Bird) and performs a virtual rape (jocularly begging off after her acquiescence) more incisively violent than a straightforward procedure would have been. Accompanied by a Spaghetti Western soundtrack, and the prospect of murder, he brings that filthy mouth close to hers and, in close-up, incessantly prompts from her, “Fuck me,” until she, close to hysteria, whispers, “Fuck me.” (Such a savage elicitation of the vomitous propensities of the gravity referred to by the phrase, “weird on top” also brings to the fore the Beauty and the Beast compass [especially the edition inhabited by Blue Velvet’s Frank], and how Sailor—along the sightlines of Lola, a Michel lookalike—is effectively bench strength for the [farcical, as it happens] real Michel, real Mike. Uncle Pooch, by the way, soon after getting out of line, goes over a cliff in a fiery car, as did Mike and Christina; and this time the Soberin is Marietta.) After Bobby leaves, Lula cries with total vehemence, the cost of integral sensuality beginning to fully dawn. A coda to this storm sewer is Bobby’s being merely a final cog in a corporate contract upon Sailor, tracing from Marietta, through Santos and a New Orleans-based effete Brit CEO of a murder syndicate the head hunter of which is a crippled female psychopath who, along the way, pops several of her throat arteries in disposing of Johnny. Sailor, needing cash, is easily picked off by Bobby for a robbery gig (in which he would be collateral damage), but there are unforeseen complications and Lula’s piece of work goes back to jail.
She keeps the baby, names it “Pace”—perhaps for the peace that never happened for them; perhaps for the pacing her man would do in the cell—pursues her love by waiting for him once again, only to be told by Sailor, on his release, she’d be better off without him. “This ain’t no good…No need to make life tougher than it has to be.” She’s in a zebra-skinned accessorised convertible with her little boy, and she cries. Sailor is mugged leaving the scene (his pace recalling Roland Cassard walking out of Lola’s life), as he lies unconscious his functioning but lost-to-kitsch sensibility takes direction from a good witch—“If you’re truly wild at heart, you’ll fight for your dreams. Don’t turn away from love!” After (over-)thanking his bemused assailants—“You’ve taught me a valuable lesson in life,” he pursues Lula in a traffic jam, discrete as ever, galloping over the assembled car roofs, reunites with her and the boy (sort of in tune with the outcome of Michel/Elvis, Lola and her little boy by him) and sings to her, as the credits roll, “Love Me Tender.” The ostensible apotheosis has been decisively tempered by the metaphorically enhanced liabilities plaguing them. And yet, they have struggled free of the redolence of atrophy attached to Jeffrey and Sandy.
Before administering to Jeffrey a gang beating for which he will not be thankful, Frank tells him “You’re like me,” a declaration seemingly not hard to refute. Frank had insisted to Ben, “I’m real fuckin’ good,” and had gone on to boast, regarding his prisoner, “I can make him do anything I like.” He then absorbed what he could from the tough love emanating from “In Dreams,” cut it off short with some irritation and went on to the final stage of the joyride where he strained the credulity of even the other passengers and definitely the audience with his characterization of Jeffrey as a colleague. Being obsessive about and continually defeated by an exigency of regal management of his desire to a point of equilibrium, Frank’s reckoning as to his soulmates would dispense with factors not strictly germane to delivering those goods. (As such he was at one with Lost Highway’s Mr. Eddy in referring to Fred the wimp, “You and me, Mister. We know how to out-ugly those sons of bitches.”) Though confused about much in the “strange world” the strangeness of which Jeffrey and Sandy treated as an enhancement unique to their generation, Frank was ruthlessly accurate on the subject of what is arduous far beyond the blues, and his overt sense of self-appallment on the assault of Jeffrey spells that out, by concrete cinematic/dramatic terms, not abstract verbal delineation. Jeffrey (“Beaumont,” “Beautiful Mountain,” an unkind designation for someone proving averse to heights) was like him in being defeated by the same gravitational downdraft that left his kingship a sick joke even to himself. (Ben proposed a toast to his “health,” in response to which he says, “Ah, shit, let’s drink to something else. Let’s drink to fuck!”) As such, he would practise as long as he lived a bravado—during the assault he strikes a bodybuilder’s pose and insists Jeffrey check the size of his muscles—stupid for all to see. His impotence transmitting to sexual violence (he threatens Jeffrey with that “love letter” consisting of “a bullet from a fuckin’ gun”), he would always have on hand lipstick with which to smear his lips and face and “impress” upon an adversary (in this case, Jeffrey) his “wildness” by fiercely kissing him. “Pretty. Pretty.”
Both of the films exude a special dramatic excitement with respect to historical death-spirals seldom seen as such, and pointed out by figures whose credibility could not be worse. While the surfaces of these narratives could be a health-hazard to viewers with delicate tastes, the infrastructures offer enough subtleties and thrilling conundrums to occupy the most sensitive and demanding of cinephiles.