by Armond White
From the opening scene of Wild at Heart, David Lynch crosses the line between art and obscenity. A white man beats a Black man to a literal pulp —blood oozes, bones crack, body crumples. Taken on Lynch’s neosurreal level, these aren’t anonymous men fighting. Their physical aspects are drastically symbolic, highly connotative, and their actions carry definitive meanings. This knock-down-and-drag-out is an epic battle of the races. Not only does the white man win; in Lynch’s view, he should win. The Black victim has no personality, little identity (besides wielding a knife and uttering the film’s first few cuss words), and his death is never mourned.
Some people want to call this art in the postmodern age, but no matter how inflated with esteem Lynch becomes, his art isn’t so great that it transcends political reading or vicious, regressive, conservative meaning. Wild at Heart is a road movie about Lula and Sailor (Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage; she of the gaping mouth, he of the annoying voice) on the run from Lula’s hysterical, controlling mother (Diane Ladd). The situation isn’t real — it’s taken from one of the more recurrent themes of movies for the past thirty years: dark-haired man and blonde speed toward their destiny.
Lynch adds contemporary quotients of violence and sex, making Lula a childlike nympho and Sailor an insular Elvis imitator. But instead of these traits signaling an all-too-human compulsion or neurosis, they lapse into cliche: Lynch can’t redeem them. Without the surprise of insistent banality where the mundane takes on such a distinctive bathos that the commonplace (and the laws of the universe) seem to be redefined. Lynch’s storytelling becomes literal. (Lynch returns too often to a conflagration visual motif — matches, arson, car crashes, heat —that reduces sensation to meaningless mannerism.)
In Wild at Heart, America’s white trash culture sets the terms through which Lynch sees the world. This can only be praised as insightful or inspired if one shares Lynch’s blinkered, regressive unconscious. Not only is it simplistic to depict the most virulent aspects of contemporary society at loose in the lower classes (that’s ready-made condescension), but the approach ignores the recent political reality (Where the Heart Is, Metropolitan) that recognizes even antisocial impulses in middle- and upper-class behavior.
Lynch’s white working-class identification masquerades as chic nostalgia for the conservative fifties-era inhibitions and repression. (Soon after Blue Velvet, a neophyte director such as Bob Balaban was able to copy this approach in Parents, his own fifties paranoia film about red meat.) The presumed timeliness of this view is disingenuous. If Lynch were an instinctive artist of this era (rather than a solipsistic expressionist), he would make movies about people trying to put the lid on their libidos instead of seeking to relieve themselves of inhibitions. Lula and Sailor are constantly on the offensive, lashing out at others, striking out for the road. They’re Lynch’s id monsters, representing aspects of social and political degeneracy that the current era connects with historical hypocrisy. In Lynch, the repressed is returning without irony just as Reagan returned repression as fact rather than neoconservative wish.
The conservative’s tendency to coddle and contain his subjectivity-shows in Lynch’s fondness for outrageous — rather than eccentric — actions. As Lula and Sailor wheel across the Southwest encountering gimpy prostitutes, odious mobsters, and porn stars, they’re haunted by images out of The Wizard of Oz. These threats from the subconscious (ruby slippers, good and wicked witches, crystal balls, etc.) infantilize their social guilt, make it toylike. Lula and Sailor arc trying to get back to the way things used to be; they envision a sentimental, family-centered. Boy Scout, pop-music America.
In Wild at Heart, Lynch adheres to the idea of camp (implying its seriousness) as a neocon answer to Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, which, even back in 1986, some of us thought was superior to Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Instead of Demme’s intelligent reconciliation with the diversity and instability of the world at large, Lynch retreats into the isolation of fantasy and erotic immaturity where adults are unclean, lecherous monsters. This sexual envy is localized in the way Lynch uses Sailor’s adoption of the Elvis Presley persona as a representation of youth’s superiority. He’s going back to an old idea of rebellion. But the Elvis Presley figure is no longer iconoclastic; it symbolizes, instead, a period of “safe” social progress —specifically just before the revolution of racial and sexual politics. The Presley figure, already domesticated into official Americana, allows yuppie conservatives to cling to a vestige of radicalism as an idea that yet is rooted to a status quo mind-set.
Lynch has fallen markedly from being an avant-garde artist. His “daring” vision was consumed by the mass audience too easily for it to have posed much challenge. Blue Velvet can now be seen as an evocation of the era’s self-consciousness, which is why postmodernists love it so. It made obvious the psychological dysfunctions that people learned to live with during an era of personal political isolation. It wasn’t a movie about solving crimes or ridding the world of evil but about accommodating evil by learning to ignore it. At the end of that picture, Laura Dern’s vision of robins and happiness — a consciously manufactured placebo — coincided with the confirmation of Republican-era fantasy.
Because of Lynch’s stunningly contrived obviousness in Blue Velvet (it was a good picture, no more than that), the mainstream (including Woody Allen, no less) could recognize and eventually appropriate his vision with no trouble. His spring 1990 television series “Twin Peaks” continued the postmodern putsch by further domesticating social problems. It was the perfect I V show for a society well aware of chaos and decay yet seeking some emotional distance from such perceptions — which is exactly what Lynch’s facetious art allowed them to do.
Wild at Heart congratulates that sophisticated insensitivity by overdoing delirium and using excesses of violence and sex to entertain decadent tastes. It’s tempting to suggest that the perceived anomaly of an arty TV show like “Twin Peaks” actually, in fact, wound up subverting Lynch himself, but that’s true only in part. Actually, his most comprehensible work scrupulously avoids being transgressive or truly radical. And just as Something Wild explored society’s infrastructure better than Blue Velvet, one can sec a superior example of Wild at Heart‘s generational conflict in Brian De Palma’s 1978 masterpiece, The Fury.
De Palma’s control of genre stereotypes and thriller-teen-flick kinetics enabled him to make comment on the effect of pop mythology while spinning a tale about the adult world (government authority) attempting to co-opt the sexual energy (innocence, righteousness) of youth. The measure of Lynch’s failing can be taken by the triviality and meaninglessness of the pop references throughout Wild at Heart. It’s a postmodern world Lula and Sailor inhabit, all right — decentered and disgustingly fake.
Meaningful art gives a sense of the artist’s ideas and facts of life being at stake. David Lynch isn’t an artist who makes that happen, but Public Enemy certainly does —almost regularly, most of all in their “Fight the Power” theme song for Do the Right Thing, where the denunciation of Elvis Presley drew a line through American popular culture. “Fight the Power” was the single work of art in the past ten years to demand that the public (and other artists) declare themselves for a progressive view of culture or a traditionalist, politically conservative view. Lynch’s paean to fifties values in Wild at Heart shows exactly where his heart is: deep in the darkness of a lily-white paranoid America.
Undeniably there is a psychological connection between the scarcity of Black people in Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” worldview and the matter-of- fact racial killing that opens Wild at Heart. His vision coheres around the self-centeredness (and racism) that signifies bad art. To excuse Lynch on the basis of his “profundity” is to be as blind to the intricacies of popular art, and its social function, as the blissfully ignorant Lula and Sailor. When Godard took his trio of young lovers and crooks on the road in Band of Outsiders (1964), he didn’t divorce them from the political world: Godard made a great movie by facing contemporary politics head-on. For Lynch to use art as a sinecure — displacing and suppressing politics — indicates shallowness or dishonesty. It certainly limits the value of his work and makes his complex strategies offensive in the most ordinary way.
Some people like Lynch’s moralistic method of exposing the dirty, sexual secrets of his characters, but that’s not much of an approach these days; corruption and insensitivity no longer misrepresent themselves in the Oliver North/Donald Trump era. But I think the sex in Lynch’s movies is as much a dead giveaway as the racism. His exposes aren’t enlightening, merely uptight. Anyone who gets as out of joint over sex as Lynch isn’t a seer but a prude.
City Sun, August 22-28, 1990