January 09, 2008
The Rest is Up to You: Wild at Heart
If Blue Velvet was about the similarities between romantic love without sexuality and fetishistic love without identity--the search for balance from both leading to a violent collision--then David Lynch's next film, Wild at Heart, seems to further internalize that struggle by applying it to an exploration of non-directional passion and youthful infatuation. Through its careful consideration of maddening guitar riffs and exploding matches, the film points to a yearning for identity that will burn no matter where it is applied, and in doing so questions the validity of the romance between Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern). As is his usual practice, Lynch deliberately avoids any definitive explanation of his craft on Wild at Heart's DVD documentaries, and he takes a similar stance on his cast, speaking of them in only the broadest, most obvious terms: "Elvis became a key to Nic--Nic is more than that for sure, but that was a key element." A small, almost negligible example of Lynch's trust for his actors can be found in a contemporary making-of clip, as he gives Cage a simple direction of timing and finishes it off with, "...and then the rest is up to you, man." So it is--in exploring Sailor Ripley, Cage turns in a performance that becomes a self-examination and criticism of his own obsessions.
As ne'er-do-well Sailor, the influence of Elvis Presley on Cage is finally, completely, obviously unavoidable. He speaks in that familiar drawl and shoots karate moves at the air, given an introduction almost identical to that of Elvis' character in Jailhouse Rock, Vince Everett: killing a man in the heat of the moment and convicted of manslaughter. It strikes me as significant that Everett's two acts of violence in Jailhouse Rock should involve physical representations of music (punching his manslaughter victim against a jukebox; smashing his guitar to frighten a customer who is interrupting his performance at a nightclub), because they emphasize that Everett/Presley is at his most brazenly energetic when music is involved--a passion that eventually brings him fame and love. Cage seems to recognize this, and through the double-edged inspiration from Presley that defines character and actor, he establishes Sailor as a man suffering from the opposite problem; a man who feels too much looking for somewhere to pour his feelings, living in the shadow of an icon. It's an idea that dictates the manslaughter that sends Sailor to the pokey at the opening of the film: we are told that Sailor loves Lula, but you can't see that love when he brutally beats hired killer Bobby Lee Lemon (Gregg Dandridge) to death as she screams his name, terrified--nor when he points a blood-stained finger at Lula's mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd).
Sailor's attempt to locate his passion, his identity, is further exemplified by his painfully obvious attempts to convince others of his complexity. Once he is released from prison, he begins to recite a rehearsed mantra about his snakeskin jacket (the property of Cage, written into the script at his request) and how it "represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom." He says this again after a punk at the local nightclub makes the mistake of grinding against Lula during a strobe-lit dance sequence, which ends abruptly when Sailor silences the room with a wave of his hand. Beginning with this Fonzie-like act, you're never quite sure how much of Sailor/Cage is a put-on. He now delivers the Elvis accent in a sweaty growl, offering this guy the option to apologize and walk away but already burning with a resolution to kick his ass. Once the punk insults the jacket, you know that it's over; it's almost a relief when he smacks the guy down with minimal incident, as we're already kind of scared to learn what else this man is capable of when his fragile self-image is questioned. But then comes his rendition of "Love Me," an even stickier moment in which Sailor/Cage attempts to emulate Presley down to every little vocal quirk--later in the film, while traveling through New Orleans, he will recite the first verse with precisely the same inflection. Just what is his self-image? Does he see Lula as an extension of it? Is there really anything to Sailor himself?
Like Eraserhead's Henry Spencer or Blue Velvet's Jeffrey Beaumont, Sailor is the closest approximation to the viewer in Lynch's world, thrown into a bizarre realm of the subconscious only to find that he himself is not as normal as he once thought--his superficial adulation consumes him in such a way that he attempts to pawn himself off as detached and superior. When Lula tells a story about her schizophrenic cousin Dell (Crispin Glover, of course), Sailor/Cage stares directly at us through the fourth wall, as if quietly looking for sympathy from somewhere outside of this weird world; note that Sailor's own stories (a weird, bawdy sex tale; the sad fate of his parents) attempt to throw him into a role of blamelessness. This nonplussed façade is a cornerstone of Cage's performance, a sometimes-conscious avoidance tactic that attempts to anything that could associate Sailor with his frightening surroundings through New Orleans and Big Tuna: his latent rage (after several short-fused bursts of anger, Sailor's accusatory finger at Marietta is revealed to be a carefully considered, slow-burn "don't fuck with me"), his uncertainty (a sex scene between Sailor and Lula is interrupted by a brief, contemplative pause between thrusts) and his fear (his wonderfully frantic, impossibly athletic dance number at Lula's frenzied behest--after searching the car radio for a broadcast that doesn't involve murder or rape). He belongs here, but he's trying so hard to deny it. Dern's response to Cage is an interesting one--a victim of incest, Lula seems slightly more aware of what the world is capable of (being the one to declare that the world is "wild at heart and weird on top"), but attempts to imitate his suave indifference while exposing her faults more readily, particularly when her man is involved. Does she believe that Sailor is her messiah, or is she humoring him?
The little tics in Sailor/Cage's own self-crafted personality only accentuate when Sailor meets Willem Dafoe's sleazy Bobby Peru, who confronts him with a can't-miss plan to rob a local feed store after he sexually assaults Lula. As they discuss this over a round of drinks, listen to Sailor/Cage's voice as he pieces together that Lula has told Bobby that she's pregnant--slowly feeling the birth of a hangover, struggling to maintain his superficial demeanor. He has an inkling that this creep has done something to her, but he seems more concerned that he could not extract that information himself (she had to write it down for him); that his failure to do so will adversely affect his manhood in the eyes of others. Once the robbery is revealed to be a botched murder plot and Sailor is face-down in the dirt, the gentlemanly accent has completely disappeared, replaced by a frightened quiver that approaches Cage's own timid squeezebox from Peggy Sue Got Married.
Once Sailor is released from prison and retrieved by Lula five years later, Cage takes an interesting turn, slowly building his character up from his humble stance and back to his ivory tower of cool. At first gentle and smiling at the sight of his son Pace, he sees an opportunity to resuscitate his personality when his presence forces Lula to collapse into an emotional heap. Quickly determining that he must leave this situation with cinematic bravado to keep his image intact, Sailor/Cage does his best to separate himself from the situation--offering dispassionate, forget-me kisses to Lula and Pace (along with a quote from a Cisco Kid flick) and slowly walking off as if expecting the film to end here, in a Shane-like fashion. Lacking the heartbroken self-loathing of H. I. McDunnough's would-be departure in Raising Arizona, his demeanor brings into question how much he really loves Lula (or, at least, how much he thinks he loves her), so consumed with his symbols of individuality that he can't see anything else. But we continue on, following Sailor as he runs into a gang dressed similarly to the man he assaulted at the nightclub; he pulls a cigarette from the carton with his teeth, takes a long drag, and casually dismisses his assailants: "What d'you faggots want?" It seems phony, the moment that Sailor/Cage completely submits to his media-driven swagger--and it's immediately followed by the moment that the crowd beats the shit out of him.
A hallucinatory encounter with The Wizard of Oz's Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) humbles Sailor/Cage again, a voice-crack in his own claim that he is "wild at heart" repeating the mere hint of that scared little boy underneath. He staggers to his feet, apologizing and thanking his assailants as that familiar good ol' boy--but then, for a moment, he breaks free of those pretensions, screaming Lula's name to the heavens through his busted nose and making an uncharacteristically hasty exit to find her. With his ego deflated, he finally realizes that he does love Lula because she knows that there's more to him than what he projects, and she has forced him to understand it as well. Cage's subsequent rendition of "Love Me Tender" (Sailor's marriage proposal) is a beautifully imperfect scene, the most genuine moment of undying love in the whole picture--the performance of the song shaking uncomfortably between Elvis imitation and that other personality that we the audience never formally meet. But you eventually realize that this is how Cage has been playing Sailor the whole time, only now allowing Sailor to understand that the images that we try to impress upon others still speak volumes about ourselves. It would have been a cheat to abandon Elvis altogether, because the very fact of this scene demonstrates that "E" is still a big part of who he is. There's no changing who Sailor is, or what comprises his personality; the snakeskin jacket is intact, the pretensions are still there, but we can still sense the "eureka" moment of self-understanding. It somehow brings the plastic-fantastic musical Grease to mind and, if it had been an honest film, how it would have ended like Wild at Heart*: with a loving affirmation that you are who you are--a fucked-up alchemic blend of your idols, influences, and emotions.
* Seven years before Face/Off, the directly contradictive themes of Grease and Wild at Heart (including the treatment of nostalgia for the same approximate era) presented their own little rendition of Travolta versus Cage which, however indirectly, would similarly question the nature and structure of identity and subvert the knee-jerk concepts of "good" and "bad." Consider dark, deadly Sailor Ripley (Cage/Troy)--who finally realizes who he is in totality thanks to his girlfriend's love--and place him against the sanitized good guy Danny Zuko (Travolta/Archer), prepared to make superficial changes to his lifestyle but abandoning them when his girl appears willing to (more permanently) conform to his own comfortable parameters of reality with no questions asked.