Weird on Top
Kristi Mitsuda on Wild at Heart

Growing up on an island devoid of film culture circumscribed my early viewing habits. So, to be honest, I didn’t develop a wholehearted sense of worship around watching movies “the way they were meant to be seen” until I made my way to New York in my mid-twenties. I was raised in Hawaii, where an endless summer of big-budget blockbusters junk up the screens year-round, and you’re lucky to catch the occasional pop indie at the single art house down the street from the university. My cinephilia sprung not from breathless viewings swathed in the womb-like darkness of the theater but, first, in a high school classroom and, foremost, from offerings at the local Blockbuster (its opening in such a small market ushered along the quick death of the beloved corner video store, denying me even the satisfaction of renting independently). Checking out Jules and Jim for the first time, I distinctly remember the clerk warning, “You know it has subtitles, right?”

In film school at a college in California (Los Angeles, no less), I started to get a real education. But so limited was my scope that, even at this point I didn’t differentiate between the experience of seeing a film on video or the big screen. Still, seeing David Lynch’s Wild at Heart for the first time in the university’s auditorium (equipped with surround sound and a massive, wide screen) blew me away; something—it couldn’t have had near the same impact had I seen it on TV—started dawning on me. Luckily, an attempted viewing had been aborted a few years prior when I encountered it on cable; an avid fan of Twin Peaks, my high school self wasn’t quite prepared for hardcore Lynch yet, and the sight of Marietta (Diane Ladd, in a fearlessly brilliant performance) smearing red lipstick over her entire face terrified me sufficiently enough to turn the channel.

Skip ahead to New York a few years later. Unable to shake its sway over me, and not having seen it since, I decided to write a graduate paper based in part on Wild at Heart. Numerous small-scale sittings in a condensed period of time followed, and then another (this time on my laptop) before I began this essay. First impressions are fierce; only upon a replay could I begin to grasp Wild at Heart separate from my sensorial responses to Lynch’s visual and aural atmospheres (amplified, of course, by the theatrical setting of my initial viewing). Exhilarated by its strange blend of the beautiful and lurid, innocent and corrupt, and overwhelmed by the intricacies of seemingly self-consciously convoluted storytelling—what with Mr. Reindeer and those gold coins, crazy Big Tuna characters, and Wizard of Oz and Elvis references galore—I realized I’d almost missed the lovely simplicity of it beneath Lynch’s surrealist-poetic embroidery.

A single viewing is hardly enough to afford the spectator adequate mental headroom to grapple with this director’s evocatively embellished concerns anyway (see the IFC Center’s box office sign declaring the consumer’s tenth ticket purchased to Inland Empire free) and, though a positive, isolated experience with a movie takes on a magical aspect, the rewind capability of the home video (and now digital) era allows you to develop a different relationship with a film, one that simultaneously diminishes and intensifies awe; like getting to know better the person with whom you’re falling in love, the semblance of perfection may fall away but, in return, a more intimate and inflected understanding develops.

Wild at Heart used to exist preserved in amber in my mind—an outrageous abstraction of a road trip—from which it’s subsequently been freed. An introductory encounter has you psychically juggling Marietta’s formidable hysteria as she attempts to keep Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) apart, alongside various shady dealings spread amongst a distracting and engaging cast of Lynchian characters. But with access to plumb its secrets ad infinitum, I watched another film unravel, one completely unlike my memory’s first draft of it. Knowing the broad strokes, going back to it again allows you to deconstruct that automatic attraction, encourages your attention to wander and linger on the details missed. A Lynch piece serves as perfect study in this case since the director often stymies plot in order to focus attention elsewhere; his emphasis on the affective properties of cinema over logistical explanations guides us to find meaning in expressive gestures and stylistics that activate some gut-level recognition. A second look unshrouds the mystery of its spell even as it fosters newfound reverence—you find yourself attuned more perceptively to its frequencies and free to revel in its distinct vibrations.

You notice after multiple viewings of Wild at Heart, for example, how Lynch signals the passionate love between Lula and Sailor with numerous close-ups of fire (a favored motif), the former’s sexual enjoyment by an outstretched hand, and a gamut of emotions ranging from longing to despair in her characteristic pose, back arched, one arm going up to rest a hand on her head. Instances which seem digressive at first, such as the extended anecdotes Sailor and Lula tell one another (the most memorable being, perhaps, Crispin Glover’s Cousin Dell episode), become essential, as a way of experiencing the small, happy moments—as they tell each other stories, confess various details of their past—which make up the couple’s (and any couple’s) time together. You take deeper satisfaction in how much pleasure the two themselves take in one another—how happily they groove to the music playing in their top-down convertible as the windshield wipers clear away the drizzle coming down—and realize these diversions form the bulk and core of the film.

Wild at Heart is, for all its confounding detours, simply this: a gorgeous love story set in a hyperbolically fucked-up world. As I was watching it again, one scene struck me: Lula, driving, switches radio stations, increasingly appalled as each one reports news more horrific than the last (a woman shoots and kills her three children, a man has sex with a corpse . . .), as Lynch alternates quick cuts of her hand on the dial with reaction shots. She finally pulls over to the side of the road, hops out of the car, screams, “I can’t take no more of this radio. I’ve never heard of so much shit in all my life. Sailor Ripley, you get me some music on that radio this instant!” Sailor flips through the channels and finds one with the hard rock they’d danced to earlier in a club. He jumps out of the car and joins Lula, and they dance in strange rhythms with aggressive movements, unleashing their disgust. As the camera pulls back, the music blends with and then gives way to Richard Strauss’s Im Abendrot, which crescendos over a long shot of the lovers as they stop dancing and embrace, literally singled out by the film’s twilight lighting. The camera tilts slightly upwards to edge the car out of the frame, rendering Lula and Sailor alone in the universe, two tiny figures in a grassy field. Lynch conveys in rapturous cinematic shorthand that love is all in a world that’s “wild at heart and weird on top.” Repeated viewings let you break the whole down into its parts, as you’re able to delve more deeply into it and yet keep an analytical distance, a forced consideration of its artistry.

As I was initially bombarded by its bizarreness, and perhaps just befuddled—not expecting the selection of so commonplace a subject from Lynch—Wild at Heart perhaps only truly crystallized for me as a great modern romance upon this latest screening; the ardor Lula and Sailor (as so uninhibitedly and joyously played by Dern and Cage) clearly feel for one another, so comfortably in-sync together, shapes a rare visual description of authentic passion. True, contrasted with more recent Lynch releases—Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire, in particular—this hellish fairy tale seems spectacularly straightforward, even lucid. And though I haven’t yet had occasion to revisit the other works with similar amounts of intensity and frequency brought to bear, even a second examination of, say, Mulholland Drive—mesmerizingly impenetrable at first glance—affords significant clarification. Lynch famously dodges attempts at gleaning authorial intent, and while his refusal to interfere in our interpretive processes occasionally comes off as more willful obfuscation in line with the movies themselves, repeated screenings reveal the director to be far more specific in his aims. Few filmmakers, in fact, so obviously and vitally reward and encourage multiple viewings of a single work.