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David Lynch gives filmgoers all they can handle

This article was originally published on May 27th, 1990.

CANNES, France -- The jury at this year's Cannes Film Festival celebrated David Lynch's new film, "Wild at Heart," with its highest award, the Palme d'Or, an honor that has gone in the past to Rossellini, Coppola, Kurosawa and Bergman. Does this place Lynch in the pantheon of great directors - and does it certify his artistic achievement at the very moment when the TV soap opera "Twin Peaks" is proving his popular appeal?

I think not. I think both successes are symptomatic of a despair among moviegoers and TV watchers, a loathing of trash that runs so deep it has turned inward against itself. Sick at their hearts of the "entertainment" they have grown addicted to, and fearsome of trying anything new, Lynch's audiences have embraced his work because he reflects their feelings - he hates the movies, too.

"Wild at Heart" is a cinematic act of self-mutilation, a film that mocks itself. Show-biz executives have a cynical shorthand formula for commercial success: "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." Lynch's work is exclusively concerned with these three elements, but in an angry, self-hating way; he shoves our nose in it. We want sex? He'll give us undreamed-of perversity. We want drugs? Dennis Hopper, in "Blue Velvet," will inhale a substance so forbidden that no one has even been able to figure out what it is. We want rock 'n' roll? The Nicolas Cage character in "Wild at Heart" talks and walks like Elvis, and even sings two of his songs.

If Lynch were merely providing us with these commodities, he would merely be an exploitation filmmaker. But he is not a minor talent; he is a gifted director with a strong sense of style. If he allowed himself a more positive vision - if he dared to believe in people - he could be a great film artist. But he is infected with self-doubt and cynicism, and he believes the worst of his audiences, so he makes films inspired by his despair.

In form, "Wild at Heart" is a road picture, about two young people on the run. Played by Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, they are fleeing from hired killers who have been set on Cage's trail by Dern's mother (Diane Ladd). Their big Detroit convertible sails across the desolate American plains, past truck stops and rusting gas stations, and violence follows them.

Lynch tells this story with his customary hyperbole. Everything is taken past satire to extreme distortion - which is supposed to be funny, or at least make people laugh. The movie opens with a black man being savagely beaten to death by Cage, who, after he splashes the man's brains against a concrete wall, lights a cigarette and glowers up at the camera. The audience at Cannes laughed. Why? Not because it was funny. Perhaps because they, and Lynch, could congratulate each other that they spotted the cinematic cliche - that they knew Lynch was taking the edge off the violence by letting us in on the gag.

The structure of "Wild at Heart" proceeds from gothic melodrama. There is a horrible murder by burning, which is constantly flashed back to, and a deadly secret, which must be kept hidden, and then there is the episodic structure of the road movie, which includes bizarre characters encountered along the way.

The adventures of the young couple are punctuated by extreme violence. In one "Wild at Heart" scene, the brain case of a killer (Willem Dafoe) is blasted into the sky by a shotgun, and plops back to earth in front of the camera. In another, a clerk loses his hand in a bloody shootout, and we see him and a friend crawling on the floor, covered with blood, assuring each other that doctors can "sew these things back on in a minute" - but they are too late, because then we see a dog happily trotting out the door with the hand in its mouth.

Some of these images may not make it to U.S. screens if the Motion Picture Association of America has its way. The Lynch film has been threatened with an X rating, and now that it has won the Palme d'Or, the MPAA ratings board is caught between a rock and a hard place. If ever there was a film that the A - for adults only - rating is needed for, it's "Wild at Heart." (But that's the subject for a different article.)

When "Wild at Heart" played at Cannes, these sensational moments were greeted with laughter, cheers and booing in about equal proportions. They're obviously intended as rabble-rousing moments; no director since Alfred Hitchcock has been more obsessed than Lynch with inspiring and controlling audience emotion. Sitting in the audience, I wanted to cheer, I wanted to be exhilarated, I wanted to enjoy the movie with its energy and its bright visual images, but I could not. Underneath the flash, it was simply too sad; to applaud it would be like cheering a drunken clown while knowing he really was an alcoholic.

The dominant feeling I took with me from "Wild at Heart" was despair. David Lynch is a gifted filmmaker, who, for one reason or another, has backed himself into a corner of satirical self-mockery, and feels trapped there. He may tell himself that his movies are commentaries on popular culture, but actually they are pop culture - there is no ironic distance, no personal angle, just the willingness to go over the top and give the mob even more of what it wants.

At the press conference after the screening, actress Diane Ladd, who is Laura Dern's mother, was asked how she felt about her daughter's many and protracted scenes of sex and violence. She murmured the usual things about letting one's daughter go her own way, and then she added, looking at Lynch, "besides . . . you don't second-guess Michelangelo."

But that is precisely the trouble. Someone should. Everyone, including Lynch himself now, apparently accepts the myth that he is a great artist of the cinema, and the applause has stilled his ability to criticize his own work.

Apart from its other dubious qualities, "Wild at Heart" is too long, slow-moving and soporific (in between the moments of sensation). And it is certainly not original. At the risk of inviting scorn from Lynch's critical admirers, I would like to point out that the entire style - visual, editing and narrative - of "Wild at Heart" has been inspired by such Russ Meyer films as "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!," "Super Vixens," "Cherry, Harry and Raquel" and, yes, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," for which I wrote the screenplay. Russ Meyer invented the cinema of David Lynch 25 years ago, and did it sincerely and cheerfully, with robust good humor, not with Lynch's sneaky stylistic apologies.

The criticism of art is a curious thing, and its practitioners almost always hail the copy as the original. Critics who are probably not even familiar with Russ Meyer now find Lynch's "Wild at Heart" original, when it is actually reactionary. The parallels between Meyer's work and "Wild at Heart" are so many and so obvious that you'd imagine they'd be hard to miss. But Lynch comes wreathed in the victor's garlands from Cannes, and so of course this must be art, and no one observes that Michelangelo has no clothes.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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