Wild at Heart is one of David Lynch's less known films, despite winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes... you can't even get it on VHS anymore... but it is my favorite film of all time. I first saw it when I was a freshman at KU, with a gaggle of girlfriends from my dorm floor, many of whom will always be vibrant characters in my memory. As with many of David Lynch's works, it's a love story that depicts a cheesy smooth-surfaced 'real world' facade as nothing but a thin permeable layer to the pure weirdness that lies beneath... As Lula puts it, 'the whole world is wild and heart at weird on top...'

"The thing that is so great about Sailor and Lula is that it´s sooo sexy because of the love. And that´s the thing that´s so beautiful about David. Here´s this guy who´s so weird and does things that are so terrifying to the psyche. And yet there´s this purity in him and this belief in love that is almost cartoonlike and childlike."
Laura Dern

Only two of my other girlfriends managed to stay through it, and they found it to be terribly offensive and disturbing. I loved it... from the raging fire in the opening credits surging to Strauss to the hoaky Elvis-panavision screen at the end, I just loved it. The raw, twisted macabre humor surrounding death and dismemberment, the heart-pounding sex scenes, the world's sickening underbelly served up with a dash of kitsch, the idealized simplicity and brevity of true love; they all did something to me... When Lula's body betrays her in Bobby Peru's violent clutches it made my stomach lurch and I felt her self-loathing. Juana, Reggie and Dropshadow's ritualized sex-killing of poor Johnny Ferragut scared the shit out of me. Sailor and Powermad serenading Lula in the pit with 'Love Me' after they had been churning out speed metal was more embarrassing than any Potsy sappy love song. Jingle Dale with his aliens and sandwiches and the dog running off with the feed store clerk's hand made me die laughing... much to the shock of more than a couple of people in the audience as they rubber-necked to see who was laughing so hysterically. And the sex scenes... let's just say that Mr. Lynch is rather adept at portraying some very realistic intimacy, and accomplishes the most perfect screen presentation of a woman's orgasm that I've ever seen, hands-down. (For those of you who've seen the film, sorry I couldn't resist!)

"Sex is central to 'Wild at Heart' in the same way it was in Blue Velvet. Sex is a doorway to something so powerful and mystical, but movies usually depict it in a completely flat way. Being explicit doesn't tap into the mystical aspect of it either in fact, that usually kills it because people don't want to see sex so much as they want to experience the emotions that go along with it. These things are hard to convey in film because sex is such a mystery."
David Lynch
Essentially, this movie was the most disturbing thing I'd ever encountered, and ellicited a strong response in me that was unparallelled. I've always been able to get lost in films. This one was no different, right down to it's homage to one of my favorites, The Wizard of Oz. When I was a kid my mom loathed taking me to the movies because I'd cry hopelessly when they were over as I'd plod up the aisle. I never wanted them to end, I guess I've always been way too susceptible to fantasy. Wild at Heart was so disconcerting that it forced me to examine what aspects of Lynch's imagination offended me so and why... I was shocked to find that I saw humor in that graphic violence, such intrigue in that searing sexuality...

The movie is based on the book Sailor and Lula by Barry Gifford. Lynch wrote the screenplay. Another remarkable aspect of this film is the partnership between him and Badalamenti that is positively amazing. They put together a score that takes the edge off or intensifies immaculately wherever necessary. David Lynch is obviously a cinematic genius, whether you like his stuff or not. You simply can't deny the impact he's had on modern film.

Here are some of my favorite quotes...

'The way your mind works is god's own private mystery...'

Marietta Pace Fortune
'No tongue, my lipstick...' and 'Buffalo hunting? What the fuck does that mean buffalo huntin'?'

'Sail, sometimes, when we're makin' love, you just about send me right over than rainbow... I mean it, you pay attention. And baby, you got the sweetest cock, it's like it's talkin' to me when you're inside, like it's got a voice all its own...Oooh you just get right on me.' to which Sailor replies 'You really are dangerously cute, Peanut, I gotta admit it...'

Bobby Peru
'Just say fuck me, then I'll leave.'

'No, it's best to blow a hole from the back of the head, right... through... to the bridge of the nose... lots of irreparable brain damage.'

Wild At Heart is a fairy tale darker than anything the Brothers Grimm ever concocted. It takes place in a world where incest and murder are part of daily life, and most people you meet are probably outlaws or sickos of some description. David Lynch doesn't have any great love for the everyman, as evidenced by what befalls poor old Harry Dean Stanton. Until you've been through the fire, you haven't earned the right to trust.

Lula and Sailor survive balanced in the eye of the firestorm. They've come through Hell to find each other and they're the closest thing the story has to angels. They are tethered by the story's central mystery, and trying to escape their pasts and the things they know. Forgetting is their Garden of Eden and their Emerald City.

What they're running from is the specter of Lula's daddy and the fire that killed him. Sailor was the driver for the gang of thugs hired to arrange the arson. They were employed by Lula's crazy mother and Lula, on some level, has always known this. Watch carefully and you might get the impression that this retribution wasn't because Lula's mama is psychotic and evil (she is), but to avenge her baby. You might even conclude that Marietta is not taking for revenge for what Daddy's partner, Uncle Pooch, did, but what Daddy himself did.

What the lovers discover in trying to make their escape is that the evil they're running from is a disease that's infected the whole world. Beyond Marietta's attempts to silence Sailor, evil pursues them indirectly, taking the form of a fatal car crash or a bar fight.

Marietta is unsettlingly human, following a road paved with silver dollars that were only meant to buy back her daughter's love. A wicked witch only wicked for trying to bend evil's will to her own. Santos is the real Devil, pulling the strings of the lesser demons in New Orleans and the desert. Marietta only provides the idle hands.

In the end, they don't escape. Sailor goes to prison again.

The fairy tale only ends when Sailor is released. At the point of giving up, he finally knows the magic words, and he sings them. The world doesn't change, but he and Lula do. Instead of forgetting, they get to start over, knowing everything.

Wild at Heart is the first in a series of novels about Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune’s misadventures in the South. It’s a neo-noir that gained even more popularity after David Lynch’s 1990 film adaptation. This short novel is written in tight, vignette-like chapters, and there’s much to admire in the colorful, crisp prose.

However, Gifford switches from third person subjective narration in Chapter Two (“Wild at Heart”) to third person objective in Chapter Three (“Uncle Pooch”) and in doing so made a misstep that kicked me out of the novel, nearly for good. In Chapter Two, we spend a little time inside Lula’s head: “Society, such as it was, thought Lula, was certainly no worse off with Bob Ray Lemon eliminated from it.” (Gifford 5).

In the “Uncle Pooch” chapter, Lula tells Sailor about being raped by Pooch (a friend of her parents), and the scene would have come off much better if Gifford had continued with the third person subjective narration to give us some of her thoughts. But he stays out of her head. And to me, that felt like a cop-out on Gifford’s part and came across as if he didn’t really want to have to imagine what rape might be like from the standpoint of the victim. Consequently, her rape story felt like a cheap attempt to make her character more complex and sympathetic; I could imagine Gifford re-reading his first chapter and thinking, “Crap, she’s a bimbo! Gotta fix that!”

I don’t object to rape in fiction per se; it’s an all too common part of the human experience and omitting it would be unrealistic. I’ve used it in my own stories, but I have done my best to avoid using it as a cheap emotional push button or element of titillation. I was the same age as Lula when the book was published, and I am quite familiar with the breadth and depth of Southern rape culture. When I was 18, I realized that every girl and woman I knew well had been sexually assaulted in some way, usually before they were out of their teens. Not some of them; not most of them; all of them. None reported their assaults to the police or even their parents because it was never the “right” kind of rape. The women and girls I knew just quietly swallowed the trauma and continued with their lives. Because what else could they do?

So, it’s completely plausible that a family friend could rape Lula without report or consequence. It’s plausible that Lula would downplay the memory in order to live with it: “I mean he raped me and all, but I guess there’s all different kinds of rapes. I didn’t exactly want him to do it but I suppose once it started it didn’t seem all that terrible.” (Gifford 12)

But it’s not plausible that Lula would be okay with Sailor – who’s supposed to be a decent guy at his core – getting turned on by her rape story:

“So how’d he finally nail you? Right there in the kitchen?”

Lula put down her hairbrush and looked in at Sailor. He was lying there naked and he had an erection.

“Does my tellin’ you about this get you off?” she said. “Is that why you want to hear it?”

Sailor laughed. “I can’t help it happenin’, sweetheart. Did he do it more than once?” (Gifford 12)

At that point, I would have expected her to jam her hairbrush in Sailor’s eye socket or at least throw his sorry ass out of bed. And she doesn’t. She doesn’t even seem to get upset; her tears at the end of the chapter feel like a tacked-on afterthought rather than a genuinely poignant character moment.

Why doesn’t she get angry? What is she thinking staying with a guy who would get a hard-on when she reveals a traumatic personal story? This is where I really needed to be let in on some of her thoughts to find the scene believable and to feel that Gifford isn’t just using her rape as a combination of easy tragedy and titillation.

A few chapters in, Gifford ups the titillation in “The Difference” as Sailor regales Lula with his story of his first time making out with a girl, and she counters with her story of getting an abortion as a teenager (Gifford 24-25), and in the chapter after that, “Dixie Peach”, Sailor tells Lula of losing his virginity to a hooker in Mexico at 15 and then having anonymous sex with a girl at a party. Lula’s apparently titillated by his story (Gifford 29) and it seems the reader is supposed to be, too. The tone of these later chapters isn’t significantly different from the tone of “Uncle Pooch”; in the world of Sailor and Lula, most rape is merely a kind of unfortunate surprise sex: a little sad, yes, but also kinda hot. In a later chapter, Dalceda tells Lula’s mother about having sex with her partner Louis in his sleep:

“Last night I come into the bedroom and Louis is sleepin’, but he’s got this big ol’ hard-on. Well, big for Louis, anyway. So I climb over him and take it out of his pajama bottoms and stick it in me.”

“Dal!” Marietta squealed. “You’re lyin’!”

“How else am I gonna get him to do it?” (Gifford 118)

We never know what Louis thinks of the incident. But if the scene had involved a male character jovially relating that he got fed up and decided to just “stick it in” a sleeping female partner who had been refusing sex with him, that would seem like rape to most readers. As a reader and writer, I tire of the narrative that men are always glad for sex, consensual or not, and can’t be raped.

The ickiness of this aspect of Gifford’s storytelling might not have bothered me quite so much if I hadn’t recently read Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution. Saterstrom’s Southern gothic portrays far more instances of rape, but it’s treated as the kind of soul-crumbling, dehumanizing trauma that it is in real life. I wish that Gifford had handled his portrayal of rape with more deftness.


Works Cited

Gifford, Barry. Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. Print

Saterstrom, Selah. The Pink Institution: A Novel. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2004. Print.

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