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COMMENTARY : Why the Critics Have Lynch's Head in a Noose : Movies: Their rejection of 'Wild at Heart,' a Cannes winner, has all the sound and fury of a comeuppance.

September 20, 1990|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Instead of being wild at heart, it's empty at heart.

--The Washington Post

You may enjoy 'Wild at Heart.' But an hour later you'll wonder why . . . It's David Lynch Lite.

--The Boston Globe

"Wild at Heart" reveals a master of movie style on his way to becoming a mannerist.

--Time magazine One comes out of the theater feeling as if the mind had begun to melt.

--The New York Times

The Backlash, that curious natural phenomenon that occurs somewhat less frequently than the aurora borealis and is considerably less pretty to watch, is upon us. The viciousness of the pans David Lynch's macabre road movie "Wild at Heart" has received indicate that something more than a "bad" movie is the motivating force here. The film's trashing, coming just three months after it won the Palme D'Or at Cannes, has all the furious force of a comeuppance. So, for that matter, does the recent snub of "Twin Peaks" at the Emmys.

Why the Lynch mob?

I'm not blind to the film's faults: It doesn't really have the haunting suggestiveness of "Blue Velvet," it crams too many crazies into too little story, the last half-hour runs out of steam, and a few set pieces are uncomfortably close to David Lynch shtick.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to sanction the film's spirited, wholesale dismissal, particularly since the dismissals come from critics (and audiences) who exulted over "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks." After all, it's not as if the sensibility at work in "Wild at Heart" has nothing in common with those films. And it diverges from them in ways that make sense both for the film and for Lynch's expansion as an artist.

Can it be that Lynch, having broken out of his "Blue Velvet" cult status to the mass-audience TV success of "Twin Peaks," is being pasted for becoming a household name? Hell hath no fury like a critic whose cult icon has gone public.

Hollywood isn't so chock-a-block with genius that we can afford to trounce Lynch for attempting to extend the boundaries of his artistry, particularly at a time when on-the-edge filmmakers are bucking a conservative juggernaut in popular culture. Even if the film is counted a failure--a verdict I reject--it should still be obvious that a failure from Lynch is far more interesting than the bland successes of most studio hands. Blind praise can be as deleterious for an artist as blanket dismissal--if he bothers to listen to his critics. But there are plenty of reasons to praise with open eyes what Lynch has accomplished in "Wild at Heart."

Far from being a sweeping of oddments from Lynch's left-over pile, "Wild at Heart" reverses many of the strategies set up in "Blue Velvet." Where that film was infernally dark and enclosed and trance-like, "Wild at Heart" is recklessly agitated, lit up, on the move. Lynch started out as a painter and sculptor. In plastic terms, "Blue Velvet" is representational and static, while "Wild at Heart" is action painting.

Where "Blue Velvet" centered on a single demon, Dennis Hopper's Frank, "Wild at Heart" proffers an entire grab-bag. The Kyle MacLachlan character in "Blue Velvet" followed the filament of his own sexuality into pitch-black terrain; it was a profoundly inward journey. Nicolas Cage's Sailor in "Wild at Heart" has a profoundly extroverted sexuality--that's why his Elvis mimicry is so viciously apt. And, unlike "Blue Velvet," the rigors the hero must undergo are there to test his love for his woman, Laura Dern's Lula. The film's emotional core--the love between Sailor and Lula--is both more ardent and more sentimental than anything in "Blue Velvet."

It could be that this sentimentality, this hankering for the fairy-tale complacencies of true love, is part of what is putting people off to "Wild at Heart." At the end of "Blue Velvet," many in the audience refused to accept its peachy-keen idealism as anything but a put on. But Lynch doesn't have a taste for satire. The twinkly small-town bliss of "Blue Velvet"'s final moments is no joke. Quite the opposite, it represents what Lynch wants the world to be--all mowed lawns and elm trees and chirping birds. The horror in his movies issues from the fact that the world isn't like that. It's a child-like revulsion, of course, but some of our best fantasists have been children at heart (as well as wild at heart.) In the arts, sophistication isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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