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Sunday, 4 March 2012

I Misplaced It At The Movies: Desert Hearts and the art of the slow burn....

"I want you to dress and go.
No you don't, now do you?
Dont! I wouldn't know what to do!"

A hand touches a cheek...

A robe is taken off...

Wet kisses in the morning....

There are certain films that creep up on you, catch you off guard and alter your way of thinking and sometimes change your entire life around. Most of the special ones seem to occur at a certain point in your life; me personally, I'm thinking of Betty Blue, Withnail And I..., Blue Velvet , to name but few, all of which came out around 1986-87 and which I saw about a year or so later. And I would add to that list the 1985 film Desert Hearts which I saw sometime around 1987 on TV, in what was one of it's rare screenings on British television.
Desert Hearts is pretty much the dictionary definition of 'the slow burn'; a film whose natural beauty and simmering tensions seep into you unknowingly, until you find the film swimming around in your head for weeks after. The film is a low budget Indie affair, mercifully bereft of any Hollywood showboating, and loaded with characters who act and behave like, as Alex Cox pointed out in his Moviedrome introductions, real people doing things like real people, not like characters in a movie. Something Hollywood execs can't seem to get their heads round.
The film tells the story of Vivian, an unhappy English teacher who travels to late 1950s Nevada to arrange for a divorce from the loveless (and we imagine sexless) marriage she has found herself in. Dressed in constricting, dowdy school-ma'am-ish attire, she looks the very embodiment of suppressed existence. While killing time in Nevada, waiting for the divorce process to go through, she meets Cay, a tomboyish free spirit whose very brash and carefree ways somehow shock and attract her. Cay is the daughter of the ranch owner where Vivian is staying.
The two develop a friendship and one night after an engagement party, Cay attempts to kiss a clearly drunken Vivian. Acting repelled by Cay's actions, Vivian sobers up sharply and demands to be driven home. She moves out of the ranch-house and moves into a casino hotel. Next day, Cay arrives at the hotel and refuses to leave. Slowly, Vivian gives in to Cay's affections and they make love, beginning an intense and life altering affair.
This being small town America of 1959 though, the affair is not viewed positively by many people, and the reactions of others threatens to destabilize the relationship. When asked why a precocious free spirit like Cay would fall for an uptight, dowdy divorcee like Vivian, Cay remarks "She reached in and placed a string of lights around this heart of mine"....the key line of the film.
The film ends (and this isn't really a spoiler, so forgive me) with Vivian deciding to move away once the divorce proceedings are complete. At the train station Vivian asks Cay to travel with her to the next station so she can spend one last half hour with her....
And that's the ambiguous ending we are left with; Will Cay stay on the train the rest of the way, giving herself only to Vivian, or is Vivian merely testing Cay's feelings and devotion to her, or will Cay refuse to go any further than the next station and return to her small town life, setting Vivian free in every sense of the word?

Desert Hearts was the first full length movie directed by Donna Deitch, who has since gone on to carve a much respected career as a TV director, directing hundreds of TV shows, such as NYPD Blue and Murder One. Donna raised the money to make Desert Hearts over four years, with some help from the Independent Film community. When she turned the negative over to the distributors, her only demand was that the lengthy love scene be left unedited and unaltered. The scene, which is not in any way a 'sex' scene, is one of the most beautiful in modern cinema history, and comes as a sense of relief and release in a film simmering with overwrought Country & Western ballads, desert landscapes and pent up emotions. The central casting of Helen Shaver as Vivian and Patricia Charbonneau as Cay is also pitch perfect.
It was one of those films that got stacks of outstanding reviews, including many music magazines, yet never set the box-office alight. However, it has slowly built a very loyal and devoted cult following which seems to grow everytime someone sees the film for the first time.

As with the aforementioned Betty Blue, Desert Hearts also left it's mark on the artistic community; most obviously with The Field Mice who penned two songs in the film's honour; 'This Love Is Not Wrong' and, more blatantly, 'So Said Kay' (songwriter Bob Wratten changing the spelling of Cay's name) which contains whole lines of dialogue and scenarios for the lyrics:

"Where'd you learn to kiss that way?
I don't know from where that came
Don't wanna talk about it no more

Kay, you've got to let it go
I can not leave you alone
Honestly, I can not...

What d'you think you are doing?
What do you think you're doing?
Waiting, waiting for you

I want you to dress and go
No, you don't now, do you?
Don't...I wouldn't know what to do

A hand touches a cheek
A robe is taken off
Wet kisses in the morning

Of never seeing you again
I was scared to death
I was scared to death

Come with me, oh I can just
Picture me with your (self?....{sorry, I can never make this word out!!})
Send me a postcard when you get there

Ride with me to the next station
I wanna spend
Another half hour with you

She reached in and placed a string of lights
around this heart of mine
(So said Kay)"

Desert Hearts is one of my favourite films of all time. I try not to watch it too often though, as I like the smaller moments of the film to creep up and surprise me. The first time I saw it, it hung around in my head like concussion from a lover's first kiss. All these years later it still moves me because it's one of the few films which depicts love in a real human sense.

And it reached in and placed a string of lights around this heart of mine....


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