For much of the Blind Spot Series, I won’t have much choice in how I watch the selections. Given how old the titles are, and their ready availability on dvd/blu-ray, most of these old favorites will be watched from the comfort of my couch, accompanied by very few friends (if any). But if I’m lucky, in watching some of these films, I’ll get a little bit more atmosphere and tone…like a crowded theatre…or a midnight showing…or in the case of WILD AT HEART, both.
The trickiest thing about watching old movies is context. The next trickiest thing is context, and after that, context again. Lack of context can sometimes make it difficult for us to see what all the fuss was about when sitting down to watch a film so long after its release. That inability to see the attraction, can actually lead to full-on aversion. What’s more, context is of the utmost importance when one is approaching the work of director David Lynch.
The man’s work is eccentric at best, and fuckin’ nuts at its worst. My experience with him thus far has been limited (read: MULHOLLAND DRIVE and BLUE VELVET), but each film I’ve seen has left me both amused and confused.
In case you’ve never seen it, WILD AT HEART is the story of Lula and Sailor (Laura Dern and Nic Cage). The film opens at some high society party where Sailor beats a man to death in self-defense. He is sentenced to prison for manslaughter, and when he is released, Lula is waiting for him. Unbeknownst to both of them, Sailor’s would-be assailant was sent by Lula’s mother Marietta (Diane Ladd). Knowing how much her mother disapproves of the renewed relationship, Lula and Sailor head out on the road to California. Of course, mama Marietta isn’t going to take her daughter’s defiance lying down, and decides to dispatch a bounty hunter or two to bring her back.
In some ways, films like this make me believe that Nic Cage has come full-circle in his career. He started out fully off the handle, acting not only with his rubber face and crazy eyes, but with every part of his body working as hard and fast as it could. Whether that meant dancing, running, falling, fighting, or screwing – he would do it all as if his life depended on it. The thing is that when he was perfecting this technique, I was a bit too young to appreciate it. When I arrived at the Cage Party, he was doing a more subdued version while bumbling his way through PG comedies and pretending to be a Michael Bay action star. So when he started taking roles that required him to be a bit loony, fans like me thought he was off his nut. Turns out, it’s just him getting back to his roots…like when Prince stopped referring to himself as a squiggly symbol.
So when you take the classic Cage, and have Lynch let him off the leash, what you get is one twisted, twitchy, take-no-prisoners film. One with a lot of violence, a lot of sex, and a lot of oddity in between. I never would have got the full effect of this had I watched it on my own in the bright light of day. No, what I needed to get the full effect was to take my spot in a fairly packed cinema late on a Saturday, with much of the crowd primed for cult lunacy. We grinned, we guffawed, we laughed like crazy, and the film achieved its desired effect.
Instead of trying to understand the craziness, like I did when I watched my very first Lynch film, I just went with it and took it for a laugh. I didn’t question why Marietta’s face was covered in lipstick. I didn’t question why Cousin Dell liked to put roaches in his gitch. I didn’t question the reason for all the crazy Wizard of Oz references. Nor did I question Lula steering the pillow-talk conversation towards how Sailor reminds her of her father – though a friend of mine did. Mid-film. To much laughter from the crowd.
Oddly though, for all the laughs this film provides, there are also many moments that feel so very…icky. Take for instance a scene in the late-going when Lula is alone in her hotel room and Sailor is off taking care of the car. Johnny Peru – played with supreme slime by Willem Dafoe – comes knocking on her door, and suddenly everything seems to be taking a turn. If this stretch of the film is its crossing of the river to hell, then this would likely be the moment where we feel like the boatman is about to pitch us over the side. The moment continues on, with Peru sexually intimidating Lula down to a trembling mess – and right at the moment when we think he’s going to get really nasty, he laughs it off with a joke and leaves. It’s hard to articulate why, but that almost feels worse than the expected payoff.
What I’m left wondering, is how this film played to the unsuspecting crowds upon its release. I can only imagine how critics took it, and how an unsuspecting public must have reacted. Between the moments of squealing guitars, the high amount of sex and violence, there’s no way the public at large “got it”. Hell, we’re talking about a film that has the pure cheek to play a highly dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship and cast a real-life mother and daughter in the roles!
By this stage, I can only surmise that people must have been forewarned where all things Lynch are concerned. This is a man whose most accessible film by then was BLUE VELVET – which is still so. damned. weird. If patrons and critics went into the film wanting everything to fit into a box, they were in for a shock, and likely pissed off. However, if that particular type of crowd went in late on a Saturday night looking for cinematic rock & roll, the movie just played.
The question I’m left with is that of intent. Perhaps Lynch has always been out to amuse only himself, and he isn’t interested in colouring inside the lines. Or perhaps WILD AT HEART truly is twisted and sick, and it’s just been set into the right cult framing as time has passed. Whatever the answer, this much is clear to me – the strength of first time viewers of the film is in their numbers. Alone they will be angered into a confused before this film. Together though, they will laugh at this boogieman, and see that they have no reason to be afraid of its craziness.
One last thing – Did I mention that this post is a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?
I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for February (so far)…
Dave Voigt watched CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS
Allison the Nerd Vampire watched PRIMER
Dan Heaton is still watching these in bunches; I’ll highlight his take on THE RED SHOES
Courtney Small watched THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES
Bob “I am a rare and precious snowflake” Turnbull watched two films (again), SWING TIME and YANKEE DOODLE DANDY
Steve Honeywell watched THE 400 BLOWS
Max watched SIXTEEN CANDLES
James echoed my Lynch experience by watching BLUE VELVET
Jandy watched THE VIRGIN SPRING