“Findin’ out the meanin’ of life and all is fine, far as it goes, but dead’s dead, you know what I mean?”Barry Gifford doesn’t mince words. Wild at Heart – The Story of Sailor and Lula (1990) is a novel written by an author who is also a prize-winning poet, which partially explains his ability to pack 44 chapters into 156 pages, and also goes some way towards explaining the impressionistic, imagistic style he employs. Each chapter is a short, punchy vignette in which Sailor and Lula outline their philosophy on life while striving to stay one step ahead of the law and the potential killer Lula’s mama has set on their trail. A seamless blend of ’40s hard-boiled brevity and the on-the-road Beat of the ’50s, Wild at Heart comes on like some deranged, addled offspring of Horace McCoy and Jack Kerouac as he struggles to draw breath in the steamy, sultry atmosphere of a William Faulkner short story. On his release from prison after serving a term for manslaughter, Sailor Ripley breaks parole and takes to the road with Lula Pace Fortune in order to escape the oppressive grasp of Lula’s disproving mother, Marietta. The plot doesn’t get any more convoluted than that; what sustains the narrative is the colourful cast of characters the couple encounter on their flight west towards California. By turns bizarre, grotesque and lethal, the collection of misfits only serves to confirm Lula’s heartfelt conviction that the world is indeed ‘wild at heart and weird on top.’ Imbued with Southern gentility and decorum, Gifford’s style has been described by critic Patrick Beach as ‘chicken-fried noir’ and – as per the rules of hard-boiled fiction – a happy ending is never on the cards for the star-crossed lovers. “Safe?” exclaims Marietta’s friend, Dal. “Safe? Ain’t that a stitch. Ain’t nobody nowhere never been safe a second of their life.” The frisson generated by a blend of uncertain direction and inevitable danger crackles from the back seat of Lula’s white ’75 Bonneville convertible. A distraught Lula can force Sailor to dump a crazy hitchhiker when the kid gets a little too weird for her liking, but she remains all too aware of the overwhelming forces – not least of which is Fate – ranged against the pair.
Sailor stroked Lula’s head.A collaboration between Barry Gifford and David Lynch must have seemed an unlikely prospect after the publication of Gifford’s collection of ‘film impressions’, The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1988), in which Gifford refers to Lynch’s critically acclaimed Blue Velvet (1986) as “One cut above a snuff film.” Collaborate they did, however, and while Lynch applied his trademark visual hyperbole to the project, the movie remains faithful in tone and narrative to Gifford’s novel. However, Lynch infected the dream-like innocence of the tale with nightmarish overtones. The recurring motif is that of a perverse vision of The Wizard of Oz. It appears – and with Lynch no one can ever be really sure – that the director was offering his own inimitable version of how the American Dream has evolved into a nightmare. Elvis Presley – the ultimate poor-boy-made-good – is reincarnated in the poses Nic Cage strikes, his cornpone philosophy, and Cage even sings a couple of classic Elvis tunes. Wild at Heart, asserts Richard Scheib, is ‘a ’50s rock ‘n’ roll movie gone to hell’. That runs counter to Catherine Texier’s claim, in the New York Times Book Review, that “Gifford’s characters inhabit a surreal world that is both hilarious and sad ... naively sentimental yet tough as nails.” Lynch sustains Gifford’s vision of the ‘naively sentimental’ through Sailor and Lula’s unbreakable devotion to one another, but also exaggerates the surreal, investing the minor characters with a menace and threat that goes far beyond that imagined by the author. The result is a movie that evolves from a road trip into a head-trip, a hallucinatory experience in which the worst possible imaginable consequences are only a fairy-tale reference away. Lynch, however, has rarely been in such command of his material and his authority is transmitted to the screen by a superb ensemble cast that includes Harry Dean Stanton, Willem Dafoe, Isabella Rossellini, Crispin Glover and Diane Ladd. Critics and fans remain divided over the merits of Wild at Heart (the movie did secure the Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival) but one thing is certain – Wild at Heart redefined the road movie genre, pushing the parameters so far as to ensure that even the neo-realism of Oliver Stone’s notorious Natural Born Killers struggled to match its swaggering bravado. As Lula herself would say: “Dreams ain’t no odder than real life … Sometimes not by half.”– Michael McGowan
“It ain’t gonna be forever, peanut.”
Lula closed her eyes.
“I know, Sailor. Nothin’ is.”