Barry Gifford, David Lynch and Wild at Heart
One of the featured events at Columbia College Chicago’s annual Story Week (March 16 – 21) was a reading and discussion with novelist and screenwriter Barry Gifford, who, among numerous other books, is the author of Wild at Heart. In 1990, David Lynch adapted this novel for the screen and turned it into one of the most strange and brilliant films of the last thirty years. While I was listening to the conversation between Gifford and Joe Meno, a novelist and professor at Columbia College, along with Columbia film professor Michael Caplan, I started to feel nostalgic and sad and wondered what the hell was wrong with me.
It took me a while to figure out why I was having this response to Gifford’s talk about his writing career, especially his discussion of the experience of making Wild at Heart into a film. “It was a miracle,” he said at one point. “Everything came together so well. You can’t expect that. Especially because 90% of the books optioned are never made into films.”
One thing I eventually realized is that Wild at Heart debuted at Cannes at the tail-end of my freshman year in college. This was more than half my life ago, food for thought, whether I liked it or not. The film went on to win the Palme d’Or (the biggest prize at what is probably the most prestigious of all annual international film festivals). It then made its U.S. debut in mid-August of that same year. I don’t think I saw it until the following summer, 1991, when it was on VHS (twenty-three years ago – no DVDs or Blu-rays yet, and certainly no widely available digital files – this being the dawn of the Internet age.) I remember my father saying that he and my mother had watched Wild at Heart. He added, “It’s a little too mature for you.” With that kind of endorsement, I don’t think I waited very long to get a hold of a copy. I also don't think I’ve seen it more than once or twice, but there are so many striking visual images, so many strange characters and scenes in this film – that I can still recall at least a dozen of them with almost no effort.
To be able to do this twenty-three years after my first (and maybe only) viewing…frankly, I don’t think there are more than a handful of films, certainly not ones that I’ve seen just once or twice, about which I could say this. Yet, it makes sense. David Lynch was a visual artist with an art-school background before he became a well-known director, and his artist’s eye is everywhere in evidence in his films.
Something else that struck me – Wild at Heart was such a tremendous critical success, and probably put Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, and Willem Dafoe firmly on the List of Great Actors, but within a couple of years of its triumph at Cannes and in short order with U.S. critics and art-house audiences, Lynch was struggling to acquire funding to make more feature-length films. When I heard Barry Gifford talking about this yesterday, I had a predictable reaction: No way. How can that possibly be true?
In the next moment, however, I thought, Yes, of course. Isn’t that what so often happens, unless you’re George Lucas or Steven Spielberg? Wild at Heart came out of the same fertile era in Lynch’s career as Twin Peaks, but that show’s groundbreaking genius wasn’t really appreciated on more than a niche basis until after it had been canceled. It lasted only two seasons, and in 1992, Lynch made Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, but that film wasn’t a financial success either, and it was another five years before he was able to get the funding to make a new feature film, which was Lost Highway, his second big-screen collaboration with Barry Gifford.
Something else that struck me when I was thinking about Gifford’s talk – how the actual act of creating a work of art, be it a novel, a film, a painting, or a symphony – is mundane in its particulars. You sit your backside in the chair and you do the work until it’s done.
But then the finished product, if things go as you, the creator, hope, becomes something greater than the sum of its parts (a tired maxim, maybe, but still the right one for these circumstances.) The work becomes something powerfully enchanting to the people who spend the time and money required to bring it into their lives. Wild at Heart is magical, on both a literal and metaphorical level (some of its tropes are those of a fairytale – it has a good witch and a bad witch, à la The Wizard of Oz.) And hearing Barry Gifford talk with Joe Meno and Michael Caplan about his great book and the great movie that it became, was inordinately affecting – maybe it’s because we’re at the end of a long, exceedingly cold and gray winter and I’m ready to get misty over almost anything?
No, I hope not. Part of it is because I’m a writer too, and I think often, sometimes obsessively, about the uncertainty of the writing life, and the similar vagaries of fortune and the marketplace that face filmmakers, musicians, painters, actors, dancers – you do the best work you can, which is sometimes at the expense of many other things that need your unmitigated attention – family, friendships, paying jobs, pets, your health, housework, etc. You do the best work you can, but when it’s finally delivered to the world, you have little control over how it’s received. And so when things align in the way that they did for Gifford and Lynch with Wild at Heart, it really does seem a miracle.
It keys me up each time I think about this, and what it meant and probably continues to mean to these two big thinkers. They are likely still feeling some of the effects of Wild at Heart’s spectacularness, and wanting to feel them again with another collaboration. I want them to too, and soon.
Postscript: something else Barry Gifford said yesterday that I keep returning to: he quoted Lynch’s description of Wild at Heart after they first talked about why Lynch wanted to make Gifford’s book into a film. “I want to make this movie immediately,” Lynch said. “It’s a love story. A real one that takes place against the backdrop of a violent world.” Now that's a memorable tagline.