“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”—Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (via langer)
I am voluntarily spending most of tomorrow slaughtering 25 chickens and 15 guinea fowl. Expect a super-awesome and possibly somewhat traumatized post in the near future reflecting on confronting the realities of meat eating.
Yesterday I was thinking about this song and how, you know, it’s not as danceable as the original, but if you fantasize about JT being backed by she-werewolves (What’s the proper name for them? I don’t follow these things.) and she-zombies using exhumed bones and teeth as percussion while he sings at a slightly higher pitch slurs his words in a heartbreak-and-hot-toddy-induced stupor, then this is pretty cool, and you start to wonder why it isn’t going to be on that indie-tastic New Moon soundtrack, but it’s probably because Stephanie Meyer wants nothing to do with an artist whose name, if you neglect the “u,” reads indecently (Groper? I’m in a chastity pact with ‘er!)
And then I remembered that it isn’t by Grouper but that other Portland-based atmospheric female musician—the one who likes to sing in French. Don’t you hate when that happens?
The recent hubbub over Tarantino got me thinking about David Lynch, in particular Wild at Heart (1990). The two are similar directors, known for shocking audiences and stirring-up controversy, and I often can’t help but compare them while watching their films. David Foster Wallace (that posthumous internet celebrity) keenly summed it up, “It seems to me fair to say that the commercial Hollywood phenomenon that is Mr. Quentin Tarantino would not exist without David Lynch as a touchstone…. In a way, what Tarantino’s done with the French New Wave and with Lynch is what Pat Boone did with Little Richard and Fats Domino: he’s found (rather ingeniously) a way to take what is ragged and distinctive and menacing about their work and homogenize it, churn it until it’s smooth and cool and hygienic enough for mass consumption.”
This is always the feeling I get - if not quite so well articulated - while watching one director or the other. Both use graphic violence, allusions to other films, and dark humor, but to different effect. With Tarantino, allusions are seamless - they blend into the film in such a way that their prior existence elsewhere is almost unnoticeable - and violence is jarring, but not uprooting. In Wild at Heart, however, Lynch’s Wizard of Oz allusions are so overt they’re disorienting - they become absurd in their juxtapositions. The violence has a similar uncanniness; it feels otherworldly and carries the irrationality of trauma that provokes someone to try and build a story, to find a way of somehow comprehending things. Or, as DFW put it, “Tarantino is interested in watching somebody’s ear getting cut off; David Lynch is interested in the ear.”
In the same way as a severed ear leads us into and out of Lynch’s earlier Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart also uses moments of violence to map out the course of its narrative. The violence becomes a driving force, a ghost haunting the characters’ actions. It’s this difference - between the seamless and the incongruous - that perhaps most distinguishes the directors from one another. Whereas Tarantino’s films are like the grafting of one human’s flesh onto another, Lynch’s are like grafting the skin of a dog onto a lizard.
Bizarreness abounds in Wild at Heart, which follows the adventures of Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern), young lovers trying to keep one step ahead of Lula’s mama’s plot to kill Sailor. Marietta (Diane Ladd), the ruthless mother, has her first attempt thwarted in the ridiculously gory opening scene that lands Sailor in prison. Once he is released, he and Lula know the only way they can be together is by leaving town. On their journey they meet a slew of oddballs and witness frightening scenes. Scattered throughout are the aforementioned references to the Wizard of Oz, including a desperate clicking of red heels, a man suggesting Toto is a sort of Platonic form for dogs, and a giant bubble containing the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) descending from rainbow skies to teach Sailor a valuable lesson.
When the film came out, Roger Ebert dismissed all of this as childish parody, but I think there’s more to it than that. Sailor and Lula are indeed parodies: they speed down the highway in their convertible, have fiery sex in motels, and thrash about to speed metal, the whole time reciting phrases such as, “Cheez Louise! Baby, you’re really somethin’!” It’s clear they are performing wildness; they are doing all the things that fit common perceptions of what wild is. Lynch is tongue-in-cheek about this, most notably when Sailor is released from the sartorial perdition that is prison and Lula hands him his beloved snakeskin jacket. The ecstatic Sailor says, “Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom?” Lula responds, ” About fifty thousand times.” And we believe her, because Sailor later uses the same line on a man who mocks him at a club. Lynch is showing how these tropes are tired, how they have been repeated again and again to a point where they are emptied of outrageousness.
It’s all very funny but not provocative in itself, so Lynch doesn’t just leave it at that. He toys with you: Oh, so you think this is what wild is? You think this is what it’s like to “live on the fringe,” to be “shocking” and “outside the norm”? Well, then, how about this: a woman smearing crimson lipstick over her entire face and neck - her visage an impossibly sunburned apparition floating between teased blond hair and a pale silk nightgown - and then promptly puking into a pristine porcelain toilet? Or what about a nearly toothless man grinning maniacally through the pantyhose distorting his face, who also impulsively joined in on a pornographic film with these obese naked women dancing with scarves like a deranged I Dream of Jeannie tribute over here? A cousin who dresses as Santa Claus year-round and thinks everything is a conspiracy led by aliens wearing black gloves? How’s all that for eccentricity? These are images we have (likely) never seen before, and their sheer foreignness unsettles us.
What Lynch gives us is monsters - they shock and frighten by virtue of being bizarre amalgamations, Frankensteinian lizard-dog creations. But not only this. As Jacques Derrida pointed out, “The monster is also that which appears for the first time and, consequently, is not yet recognized…. Simply, it shows itself [elle se montre] - that is what the word monster means - it shows itself in something that is not yet shown and that therefore looks like a hallucination, it strikes the eye, it frightens precisely because no anticipation had prepared one to identify this figure.” The monster shows itself, it shocks, and we immediately seek a way to tame it, to make it less frightening and make it our own. So the shock soon wears off, comprehensibility and familiarity take hold, and the entity is no longer monstrous but commonplace; it can no longer show itself for the first time. The pseudo-sunburned woman, the menacing man, and the delusional cousin eventually become just as banal as the snakeskin jacket.
Lynch has said he’s interested in audiences’ desensitization to violence, and it’s interesting to consider this alongside the idea of monstrosity. One could argue that Wild at Heart is meant to jerk us out of our torpor, to revitalize the shock of violence. But it seems desensitization, in general, isn’t so much the problem. Monsters will be tamed - they can’t stay monstrous. Perhaps of greater interest, and what Wild at Heart allows for, is finding a way to make the viewer aware of the mechanisms by which violence shocks but then doesn’t, to make us wonder what should shock and why.
Thus, it seems Wild at Heart reveals just how complicated it can be for cinema itself to challenge the mechanisms of desensitization. Film is a medium of visual pleasure after all, a medium that often presents us with extreme violence we might not otherwise see - and yet, at the same time, have arguably grown desensitized to precisely from its constant presentation. We are left to consider how film can work towards some sort of rearrangement of desires, how it can play with the pleasure of voyeurism in such a way that we are provoked to analyze what appears before us. Lynch confounds us in our inability to decide if what we’re seeing is pleasurable or not. We are left questioning how the images work on us - and if this strategy can even work when a large number of people will simply be repulsed and walk out of the theater or turn off the dvd player?
Is this what makes Tarantino valuable then - has he found a way to do the same thing and make it “appealing”? Or is it that impossible: the whole idea being that it can’t be appealing? Both versions of Frankentein’s monster, the reassembled human and the inter-species concoction, startle us, but perhaps the consequences of that astonishment are very different.
Anna P. currently lives in Portland, OR and pays her rent by making smoothies. She tumbls here.
I used to share a bedroom with the girl who wrote this brilliant thing.