Old Films Flicker: Wild At Heart Via The Fugitive Kind
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One of the things I love about film as an art form is how easily it allows for homages. There's a fine line between a tasteful homage and completely ripping another film off; but when it's done right, it can be fabulous. Sometimes though, an homage can be so obscure few people other than the director will even notice it. When you've seen as many films I have, and I'm not even going to hint at the number, you tend to notice these little things more and more often. Recently I was watching Sidney Lumet's 1959 film The Fugitive Kind, which is based on a Tennessee Williams play and stars Marlon Brando, Joanne Woodward and Anna Magnani. From the very first scene of the film I was having flashes to David Lynch's 1990 Nicolas Cage/Laura Dern film Wild At Heart. Even though The Fugitive Kind was in black and white I could clearly see that Brando was wearing a snake-skin jacket and my mind immediately jumped to Cage's character in Wild At Heart, who at one point states, "This is a snake-skin jacket! And for me it's a symbol of my individuality, and my belief... in personal freedom." In the Williams play, Orpheus Descending, on which The Fugitive Kind Brando's character Val is described as wearing a snake-skin jacket, it's also his nickname. I'm not sure, however, if in the neo-pulp novel by Barry Gifford on which Wild At Heart is based Nicolas Cage's character Sailor is supposed to have the snake-skin jacket or no. Regardless, it's clear that the styling choice was done on purpose and much of Cage's performance in the film resembles Brando's Val. In doing some research about the connection between these two films I found this really remarkable quote from David Foster Wallace: The fact that Cage's performance in Wild at Heart strongly suggests either Brando doing an Elvis imitation or vice versa is not an accident, nor is the fact that both Wild at Heart and The Fugitive Kind use fire as a key image, nor is the fact that Sailor's beloved snake-skin jacket—"a symbol of my belief in freedom and individual choice"—is just like the snake-skin jacket Brando wore in The Fugitive Kind. The Fugitive Kind happens to be the film version of Tennessee Williams' little-known Orpheus Descending, a play which in 1960, enjoying a new vogue in the wake of Lumet's film adaptation, ran Off-Broadway in NYC and featured Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, Laura Dern's parents, who met and married while starring in this play. The extent to which David Lynch could expect a regular civilian viewer ofWild at Heart to know about any of these textual and organic connections is: 0; the extent to which he cares whether anybody apparently got it or not is apparently: also 0. (From "David Lynch Keeps His Head," A Supposedly Funny Thing I'll Never Do Again, 1997) I'd like to think that not only did Lynch fill his film with homages to Lumet's film, but that he secretly hoped others would notice. I know that a lot of people think Lynch does whatever he wants to do and doesn't care whether the audience understands what he was trying to do. But I disagree. I think Lynch was as much in awe of the power of cinema as I am and does homages like this to keep films he loves alive and to test the knowledge of his audiences. I think in a way, Lynch is like James Joyce. They both were so familiar with so much of the art that exists in their given fields that they delight in referencing what came before them, while at the same time, they pushed the boundaries of their respective fields in order to create something truly original.
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