Thursday, May 10, 2018

Theory Thursday: "Wild At Heart" is Overrated

Laura Dern
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Cannes Film Festival starts this week.
Theory: Wild at Heart is overrated.

There's something great about this time of year. It's almost summer and the Cannes Film Festival is upon us. To be frank, its the one film festival that is fascinating because it incorporates movies from around the world. I don't know a lot about it, but the fact that few countries have a guaranteed lock on winning any given year is exciting. Seeing as I don't know most of the eligible filmmakers, it makes it all the more interesting. So it raises questions as to what is considered great world cinema, even for American film. As much as I want to know what's going on in Sweden, Russia, or even Zimbabwe, it's fun to know that American films with an artsy bent have the chance to be taken as seriously. It's generally why I wish I had time to watch all of the Palme d'Or winners. Instead, I have to assess what makes them great based on what few I have.

Which makes this entry hard, because I think that outright saying "This is the best" is hard. Sure, there's Marty, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, and even Pulp Fiction to consider. But if I can be totally honest, there is one film that baffles me just a little - and not always in the intended way. Director David Lynch won the Palme d'Or for Wild At Heart. Considering how bizarre last year's Twin Peaks: The Return was, it's not hard to see where he's coming from. His films have always been antsy to push the envelope and make you uncomfortable and confused. However, Wild at Heart has always been a weird movie for me for one reason: it's a little too familiar to what he'd done before.

Okay, so you go to David Lynch movies for the David Lynch experience. I get that. I love that, and it's totally rewarding to watch films like Blue Velvet or Lost Highway and see an artist who wants to challenge you. Even watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in context is somewhat uncomfortable. He loves to prod you, but Wild At Heart is sometimes too much of that. It wants to be a surreal urban fairy tale with Nicolas Cage back when films like Vampire's Kiss seemed like larks instead of the bar he set. To its credit, the film is weird. However, I think that it was also the sign that he was running out of a pastiche that he had defined with Blue Velvet: the seedy underbelly of 1950's wholesomeness. It's hard not to notice with Laura Dern's Marilyn Monroe-esque appearance or Cage's snakeskin jacket. It's all laid on so thick that it becomes a farcical cartoon on purpose. It's also so sexual, deranged, and out there. I guess in the early 90's it was more bizarre, but it also wasn't exactly new.

I think that it's tough to call any Lynch film totally bad, but Wild At Heart was one that had more style than substance. It wanted to throw in Wizard of Oz motifs in order to make its delusions seem greater. This is an artist who has pushed boundaries for most of his career going back to his early shorts about men getting sick. Another thing that is striking is that this was pre-Twin Peaks, so he had yet to fully embrace the Lynchian qualities of his work. If you watch carefully, everything before Wild At Heart had more of a grounded and familiar sense to it. Even Eraserhead's otherworldly plot devices weren't as cryptic as films like Inland Empire. No, Twin Peaks taught Lynch that his best technique lied in a dreamscape where nothing and everything made sense at the same time. He gave you images to ponder over, even creating an hour-long dedication to the formation of a supernatural villain named Bob in the The Return. Later Lynch is more fascinating, and I think it would've suffered gladly had Twin Peaks never happened.

To me, Wild At Heart was that straining point because it was artifice meant to provoke something stranger. It was violence juxtaposed against sex and innocence in a way that even Lynch had done before. Sure, he did it better than most - but what really gave him the edge here besides making an artsy film about rebels? I don't know much about how Cannes work, but I think it's at best a bold moment in their history and one that elevated a second-tier Lynch film to a greater status than it deserves. Everything is well executed here, but there's also a sense that Lynch is getting tired of doing American subversion. He wants to make a story that pushes further into constructs and challenges him as a filmmaker. At worst, this is a farewell to his days of making "conventional" movies, as much as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and even Dune could be called that.

I don't hate this movie, but I do sincerely believe that it is among Lynch's less interesting works. Even Dune, a film that I don't like, is weird and gives me an idea of an absurdist genius being at odds with a studio. Every one of his films has something compelling underneath its surface if you let it overwhelm your senses. I just think that Wild At Heart has the least interesting ones and I mostly judge it against Lynch's other and often superior work. In that regards it's a bit of an overrated movie. Beyond that however, I would make a good argument that maybe it was a weak year for the Palme d'Or and that's how Lynch got in there. Either that, or stylized violence and satire was more of the rage. Even then, Blue Velvet was more of a prototype for the Quentin Tarantino phenomenon and I feel makes this film look weaker.

I wish that I had more familiarity with Cannes so that I could write a more thorough opinion about what each award means and what value it actually has. Since I do not, I can merely judge the winners and hold them as works of art. It's why I am a little critical of Wild At Heart. I don't really think it's Lynch's best, and I do think that it's all a bit too surface level and exhausted to ever be as great as people make it out to be. I think Twin Peaks was the greatest thing that happened to Lynch because I feel it gave him a new life. This was his old one starting to turn sour, and it's hard for me to differentiate that fact because, in some way, I find it also to be among his least memorable works. 

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