wild palms

Going to a go-go: Wild Palms' good vibrations

By Scott Woods (with Phil Dellio)
june '96

There's all sorts of talk these days about how weird television is getting as the century comes to a close, and the recent ballyhoo surrounding Millenium would suggest that the medium is undergoing if not a revolutionary shift in mass consciousness (paranoia is in), then certainly a transformation in style. As someone who has yet to watch a single episode of X-Files, I can't say for sure where--or even if--Wild Palms (the 1993 ABC miniseries, created by Bruce Wagner) fits into the recent spate of prime time eereality and crackpot conspiracy. If David Lynch's Twin Peaks can be likened to Elvis in that (to paraphrase Peter Guralnick) "the world was not prepared for it," then Wild Palms can, and indeed should, be considered the Beatles in that it was (to paraphrase Greil Marcus) "at its best, the best." In other words, Twin Peaks may have opened the door to TV surrealism (really, it's been there all along, Lynch just brought it to the surface), but Wild Palms struck an even truer chord, adding more passion and (literally in this case) musicality to the original explosion. (Interestingly, Lynch is fixated on '50s domesticity and 'normality,' while Wagner's vision explodes like a potent tablet of LSD.)

The analogy falls apart, of course, on a cultural level: Twin Peaks was a certifiable television classic--the first phenomenon of the new phenomena. The bizarre saga of Laura Palmer may have lost both its audience and its direction as the weeks passed on, but that in itself became part of the phenomenon--it created its own backlash. Wild Palms, on the other hand, was a mass failure: despite Oliver Stone's name on the credits as Executive Producer and a frenzied publicity campaign, almost no one I know watched it; a few people tried but didn't make it to the end of the first episode. As one friend put it, "all that stuff about rhinos--it looked pretty silly to me." I predict that within a few years Wild Palms will be hailed as the great work of art that it is, and become a hugely popular cult item. If you missed the series on television, you'd be wise to track down a copy on video--not for the latter reason, but for the former. (You might want to supplement your viewing with The Wild Palms Reader, which is probably difficult to find but well worth the search as a host of writers and artists--from Bruce Sterling to Spain Rodriguez to E. Howard Hunt to Lemmy of Motorhead--tie up some of the mini-series' loose ends, and typically add all sorts of new twists and mysteries.)

Set in Los Angeles in the year 2007, Wagner's creation is as notable for what it leaves out as for what it puts in. This is not a Los Angeles populated by people in shiny silver space suits or the war-torn rags of Blade Runner. Instead, the world bears an unsettling resmblance to the one we live in now; if anything, it takes us back a few decades, as most of the inhabitants listen to the Beach Boys and drive sleek '60s replicas (if one of the things you enjoy about watching older films are the trippy-looking automobiles of yesteryear, Palms is a feast for the eyes).

Broken down in the simplest terms, the story centres around two warring factions, the 'Fathers' and the 'Friends.' The Fathers are led by Senator Anton Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), who also owns Channel 3, a technologically dazzling propaganda factory. Kreutzer's ultimate goal is to invade the dreams of the entire population through virtual reality; in the words of his mistress, Paige Katz, "the Senator wants to kick-start himself into the cosmos." The Friends are an underground organization determined to keep their knowledge of the new technology out of the Senator's hands, and as things heat up they pledge to destroy the Senator and his network altogether. Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi), a lawyer hired by Senator Kreutzer, is the confused, well-meaning wildcard, the man in possession (though he doesn't know it) of the much sought-after Go-chip, the missing link in the Senator's bid to be immortal, "like Jesus."

I'd need at least another 1,000 words of your time to do Wild Palms' multilevelled story any justice at all, but like any great viewing experience, the series has much more to offer than a good--albeit confusing in spots--plot. (I refrain from using the word 'cinematic' instead of 'viewing,' though it wouldn't be a misuse. While the program does have the sweep and epic grandeur of a motion picture, part of its charm is in its made-for-TV-ness. In fact, when watching the video release of Wild Palms, I found it a bit disconcerting, as certain scenes weren't followed by a station break.) There are scores of memorable characters and performances (even the missteps in this respect are interesting), gorgeously streamlined photography, frightening special effects, plenty of violence (often psychological) which is hard to watch and even harder to ignore, dialogue that can only properly be described as poetry (forget all the stuffy associations you may have with that word--the script is a hoot), an overall hellish vision of the non-world we already sort-of inhabit (and certainly seem headed towards), and a wonderful rock and roll soundtrack.

It is with the latter that I thought it most appropriate to go in depth here, so I asked Phil Dellio to join me in reviewing a few of Wild Palms' more significant musical moments.

By Scott Woods and Phil Dellio

The Supremes
"Love Child"
It's midway into the second night, and thus far pop music has only lurked around the edges of Wild Palms: snatches of the Zombies and Lou Christie, people trading offhanded quotes from the Beatles and Bob Dylan, two middle-aged housewives dancing to Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford's "I Need Your Loving" while their husbands huddle in the foreground and plot corporate strategy. "Love Child"'s appearance is the first indication that something more adventurous might start to take shape. After Harry discovers the Wild Palms symbol on his hand--he screams out to Grace as the Wyckoff children, in sinister Village Of the Damned/Diane Arbus formation, watch silently--there's a cut to Senator Kreutzer lounging around poolside, absorbed in a holographic image of three Japanese women lip-synching the Supremes song. The women are stunning, done up vintage Supremes-style in sequined gowns and luxuriant bouffants, and they're shot like go-go dancers in an old Laugh-In party scene, all sectional body shots and subliminal jigsaw editing. The Supremes have never looked or sounded more erotic; they make great holograms, which (a good joke whether intentional or not) is kind of what the Supremes were anyway. That "Love Child" was actually an autobiographical tale of poverty and deprivation--a girl-group protest song--only makes the displacement all the more powerful. (P.D.)

The 5th Dimension
"Wedding Bell Blues"

"I'm gonna put the tape on now," Kreutzer whispers to Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall) as he starts to seduce her--"Do you mind?" Publically and privately, Senator Kreutzer is impotent without images. So up comes the 5th Dimension on the soundtrack, accompanied by another dancing hologram to help the Senator along. The use of "Wedding Bell Blues" is not incidental, as it's a song that expresses something of the exasperation felt by Paige--ecstatic and bittersweet coming from Marilyn McCoo, closer to revulsion in Paige's case. But it's not enough, it's still not happening for Kreutzer, so he breaks out the Mimezine--he needs as much help as he can get. Paige storms out, leaving the Senator and his hologram to conduct their affairs in private. (P.D.)

The Animals
"House of the Rising Sun"

The rescue of Chickie Levitt, and also the rescue of "House of the Rising Sun": no matter how many thousands of times you've heard it--the song was all but dead for me before Wild Palms--all the urgency and foreboding that you first heard as a kid is here restored full force. As far as Chickie goes, I'd be lying if I said I fully understood why it's so important for the Friends to get him away from the Fathers and down to the beach so he can die; by this point, the story has more or less been lost to me and I'm just enjoying the all-around weirdness. The Fathers think Chickie has the Go-chip, it's really in Japan with Ushio, unless Ushio has secretly implanted it in Harry's hand, in which case why was Harry dreaming about rhinos all along?...Well, I'm sure it can all be logically mapped out on paper. In any event, the song combines with a whirlwind barrage of falling bodies (I love the shot of Stitch getting machine-gunned down as the rescue van starts to pull away) and Mimizine-induced cathedrals to make it seem as if the fate of the entire world hinges on getting Chickie to the beach. It's like an apocalyptic, guerrilla-style reprise of Midnight Cowboy's last few minutes. (P.D.)

The Beach Boys' "In My Room"
Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower"
as performed by Chap Starfall

Starfall, a cheesy, over-the-hill lounge act played with bug-eyed, crooning delight by Robert Morse--kind of Ian Dury goes to Vegas--is one of my favourite second-string Palms characters. It's entirely fitting that in his two finest performances, it is not actually him we're watching, but rather, his holographic image. The Beach Boys scene takes place in a nightclub in Kyoto, where Paige, Harry, Ushio (the Japanese guru of synthiotics, nemesis to the Senator) and his entourage have gathered, presumably to strike a deal on the Go-chip. As Ushio (an aging dignitary, played a little bit like Khigh Dhiegh's jovial Chinese Communist in The Manchurian Candidate) enters the scene, he peers over to Starfall crooning the most perfect of all Beach Boys' ballads, nods, cracks a big grin and says, "Ahhh--Brian Wilson. Terrific!" The song continues, but negotiations quickly break down and Ushio and crew leave the two Americans in the lurch--though not without rubbing some irony in the visitor's faces: "And now, in my room, that is where I must go. The Beach Boys sure had it right!" he giggles. True enough, Brian Wilson did have it right, for "in my room" is EXACTLY where the Senator (and Ushio too? here's where I get confused) would like the entire population to be, and via the technology in existence, he already has most of them there.

"All Along the Watchtower" follows what might be the series' most harrowing sequence, so the stately supperclub rendition of "there must be some way out of here" feels like a tonic; that is, until you realize that Mr. Karaoke just had his own fist stuffed down his throat a few moments ago. Still, it's hard not to concur with Tabba Schwartzkopf (Bebe Neuwirth) when she says of Chap, "I hate to admit it, but I like him SO much better since he died. That posthumous quality really gives me the shivers." In a way that Bob Dylan's version doesn't and Jimi Hendrix's only begins to, she might have added. (S.W.)

The Rolling Stones
"Gimmie Shelter"

This contains what might be the finest bit of photography in the series. It is the wedding of Kreutzer and his longtime mistress, Paige Katz, and as the guests watch and marvel over a holographic image of the newlyweds dancing (an "instant relive" of a step that took place only minutes ago), the camera glides over to Paige, attired in a long, red gown, alone, motionless, and utterly sickened at her betrayal (not just of Harry, but of herself), via her involvement with the Senator. Phil disagrees with me when I say there's some of Scorsese's touch in Wild Palms, but the only pop-in-the-movies moment I can think of that's as graceful and foreboding is when the camera descends upon Robert De Niro during "Sunshine Of Your Love" (in GoodFellas). (It should be noted that part of the beauty of this scene is that it comes out of another good--but entirely different--song, Irving Berlin's '30s depression number, "Let's Face the Music and Dance," performed by Starfall. The cut from one song to the other is as powerful aurally as it is visually.)

Oddly enough, "Gimmie Shelter" shows up later on the soundtrack (perhaps as a clever in-joke--instant relive all over again?), this time as accompaniment to a long shot of the wilderzone, more or less a black-market crack ghetto, where tragically addicted mime-heads like Tommy Laszlo (Ernie Hudson) get fixed up with small vials of reality-poisoning. The scene culminates in Tommy's vivid (recurring) hallucination of a cathedral tower with loud, ringing church bells that eventually smother the Stones' song. (S.W.)

The Rolling Stones
"No Expectations"

The exquisite slide playing that makes "No Expectations" one of the prettiest of Rolling Stones songs here serves as perfect accompaniment to Interrogation-by-Mimezine (following Death-by-Mimezine and Orgasm-by-Mimezine earlier in the film). The result is an inspired bit of druggy screen surrealism, as pleasurable in its way as the brainwashing scenes in The Manchurian Candidate or Mia Farrow's impregnation in Rosemary's Baby, encompassing both Wild Palm's funniest line ("Something's weird...", Harry's shrewd appraisal of the situation as his recently-dead wife cheerfully describes to him her annoying little flesh wound) and its single scariest image (Harry's long-dead father headbutting him in the pool). Harry emerges from it all as a simpering basket case--they took him to the station, they put him on the train, he's got no inclination to pass through there again. (P.D.)