To celebrate TIFF’s ongoing Bangkok Dangerous: The Cinema Of Nicolas Cage series, Alan Jones has resurrected his retrospective of the actor’s work entitled The Nic Cage Project. In this edition, Jones analyzes David Lynch’s violent road trip Wild at Heart – playing tonight at the Lightbox.
The opening scene of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart provides an effective template for the rest of the film and – it could be said – for the following two decades of his career. It opens with jazz music, a pan across the ceiling of an opulent casino, and the title card “Cape Fear: Somewhere Near the Border of North and South Carolina.” Sailor (Nicolas Cage) walks into frame, kisses Lula (Laura Dern), and then they both walk down a large set of stairs to leave. Another man calls Sailor’s name and they engage in a terse exchange of dialogue. The man accuses Sailor of trying fuck Lula’s mother in the toilet. The man pulls a knife, the jazz stops and is replaced by heavy metal. Sailor smashes the man’s head against a wooden railing and then throws him down the stairs and smashes his head against the marble floor, spilling blood everywhere. The jazz returns. Sailor, covered in blood, lights a cigarette and points a threatening finger at Marietta, Lula’s mother.
Within this two minute scene, the audience witnesses Lynch’s nostalgia for the iconography of 1950s Americana, as well as his penchant to punctuate that nostalgia with deeply unpleasant depictions of violence. The extravagant image of an early 19th Century casino, the lack of a specific location, and Laura Dern’s hair all suggest an America that no longer exists (with “Cape Fear” possibly acting as a reference to the 1962 film of that name – a noir-esque thriller dealing with rape and sexual predation in a unusually frank manner). This is a technique Lynch will return to many times – the superficial image of the morally upright Production Code era America problematized by moments of violence and sexual depravity.
In Wild at Heart, the iconography at play is that of American road movies – empty desert roads, gas stations manned by genial African-Americans, and an episodic look at the eccentric characters they run into along the way. But the other icon used is that of Elvis Presley. Sailor is a character inspired by Elvis, and Nic Cage lip-syncs not one, but two Presley songs in the film (because it’s awesome, and because Lynch loves moments where characters sing 50s pop songs for no logical reason). In a recent online chat with fans at Empire, Cage had this to say about the role:
Wild At Heart was more my “Andy Warhol performance” than my Elvis performance, and what I mean by that is that – and I have to go back to a book by Stanislavsky called “An Actor Prepares” here – where he put forth the rule that you must never imitate anybody while acting, which I understand, but rules are made to be broken. And I wanted to put this to the test. So I thought about Andy Warhol, and how he in his art would take pop icons and make poster art pieces with these famous faces. Having also been a believer in art synthesis – in other words, what you can do in one form, you can do in another – I was excited by the idea of breaking Stanislavsky’s rule and give an Andy Warhol performance by overlaying Elvis’s aura on the film Wild At Heart.
As it turns out, this interpretation of Sailor is perfect. In one of the most oft-quoted lines of the film, Sailor, referring to the unique snake skin jacket he wears throughout the film, asks Lula “Did I ever tell you that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?” He talks and acts with the swagger of a distinctly American individual, yet that individual is an icon of another era. Sailor’s individuality and personal freedom realizes itself not through originality, but through pastiche. Further problematizing his supposedly rebellious spirit is his longing to settle down with Lula and make a family, a surprisingly conformist attitude for someone like Sailor.
Wild at Heart is a film that attempts to explore the problems of social individuality and conformity. In his previous feature, he explored the characteristics of small town America, and pushed inward through cracks to find rampant sexual repression and misogyny hidden within the facade of a peaceful conservative community. In Wild at Heart, Lynch explores the Hollywood-created mythology of the romantic outsider and reveals that in certain ways, Sailor is just like everyone else.