The advent of David Lynch's Twin Peaks on American TV in 1990 caused a flurry of activity amongst writers and producers – each trying to outdo the other with the most offbeat and surreal program imaginable.
However, as Twin Peaks waned in the ratings, the public's taste for zaniness turned to the New Age flavour of Northern Exposure rather than Gothic horror. Consequently, on Australian TV, several post-Peaks ventures (like Wes Craven's remarkable series Nightmare Cafe) came and went quietly, very late at night. Or, as is the case with Wild Palms, they ended up on video.
Made for American television in four episodes, this 190 minute video version takes its publicity angle from the magic words "Oliver Stone presents..." But Stone is not the driving creative force behind the project. Nor are the four directors – including such luminaries as Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, 1995), Keith Gordon (Mother Night, 1996) and Phil Joanou (Heaven's Prisoners, 1996). As with Twin Peaks, the carefully pre-planned style of the entire package overrides the individual voices of these normally hyper-flamboyant filmmakers.
The real artist behind this one is writer Bruce Wagner, who scripted Paul Bartel's underrated Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). Wild Palms is an adaptation of Wagner's sophisticated graphic novel of the same title that ran in the swank magazine Details.
Wagner makes no secret of his hip credentials: in the first twenty minutes, this video drops references to Raymond Chandler, Bob Dylan, Sirk's melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954), the artist Robert Longo, the psychological theories of Bruno Bettelheim, and even works in a personal cameo by the 'father of cyberspace', William Gibson.
Set in a loosely futuristic Los Angeles of 2007, Wild Palms mixes the caustic social comedy of Steve Martin's L.A. Story (1991) with Lynch-style intimations of the dark side. It especially recalls the deliriously paranoid, conspiracy theory plots of novelist Philip K. Dick, with its whirlpool of warring underground sects and labyrinthine family-tree revelations. Not to mention the latest developments in virtual reality (or symbiotics, as it's called here) technology, which inexorably transport the private, recurring nightmares of Harry (James Belushi) into a dangerous and treacherous public sphere.
With a wonderful cast (including Dana Delaney, Kim Cattrall, Brad Dourif and Angie Dickinson) and a suitably eerie synthesized score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Wild Palms is a real event worth seeking out.
MORE Bigelow: Point Break
MORE Gordon: The Singing Detective
MORE Joanou: Fallen Angels
© Adrian Martin May 1993