Call of the Wild
by ELIZABETH GUMPORT
In the mid-19th century, the federal government turned the Everglades over to Florida on the condition that the wetlands would be drained. Sugar cane fields and rice paddies replaced swamp. Frequent floods threatened the crops, so in the 1940s, the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project built canals and levees that made possible further agricultural and urban development. Water from the Everglades was diverted to the cities of South Florida, which grew rapidly during the postwar period.
In the late 1890s, fewer than 1,000 people lived in Dade County; in 1960, over a million; in 2008, over 2 million. This figure includes residents of Coconut Grove, a wealthy Miami neighborhood and home to the Ransom Everglades School. The school has its origins in the all-boys boarding academy established in 1903 by Paul C. Ransom, who stated that his students were those who “believe they are put in the world not so much for what they can get out of it as for what they can put into it.” In the 1970s, the Ransom School merged with the Everglades School for Girls. The school has a sailing team, and offers courses in motor boating, canoeing, and boat building. Tuition is currently over $20,000 a year. Wild Things was filmed on its high school campus, which sits on the shore of Biscayne Bay.
The premise of the John McNaughton’s movie is this: good-looking things are good to look at. Wild Things begins in a theater: Blue Bay High School’s auditorium, where Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards in a stomach-baring baby tee; later, during a key seduction sequence, she wears jellies) looks with hunger at the man at the podium.
This is Sam Lombardo, the school’s beloved guidance counselor, a role that required Matt Dillon to wear his hair teased, gelled, and parted down the middle. Also on stage are two Blue Bay police officers (Kevin Bacon and Mimi from Rent), whom Dillon has invited to speak to the students about “sex crimes.” Behind them is a mural: blue sky, tangled vegetation. It is the kind of painting you used to see in museum dioramas, the backdrop to a scene of animal savagery: lion on gazelle, dinosaur on smaller dinosaur, wild creatures displayed for the edification of civilized ones. This is the working class, blue collar on show for blue blood, man on display for woman. “You’re a hired hand,” Kelly’s mom (Theresa Russell) snaps at Matt Dillon, after she fails to tempt him back into her bed.
In Wild Things, everything that could be a penis metaphor is. When Blue Bay’s principal brags about catching a barracuda, Dillon tells him the fish is poisonous. “It’ll kill you,” he says. “I could say that about most of the girls you date,” the principal responds. After both Denise Richards and her mom – wearing leopard-print lingerie – flirt with Dillon the movie cuts to a shot of an alligator speeding through the waters of the Everglades.
Female sexuality is as deadly as a swamp, the vagina an amorphous abyss that absorbs corpses without a trace. McNaughton aligns the landscape of Florida, in all its tropical excess, with the female body: theirs is beauty that burgeons into violence. Men who fuck around with it run the risk of getting fucked.
Eaten away by the Everglades, Florida is a drowned state, the end of America, and thus the ideal setting for a story about the end of American manhood. This is the tip of the country; this is a peninsula that pokes feebly at the ocean, which feels nothing.
The original script had Matt Dillon and Kevin Bacon making out in the shower. In an interview, Dillon expressed relief that the scene was cut, despite Bacon’s enthusiasm. “Kevin’s a married man,” he said. “I’m wondering, why he was so eager to do the gay scene?”
Women are not just predators but predators who camouflage themselves as prey. They claim power by feigning powerlessness. When Denise Richards accuses Dillon of rape, the DA believes her immediately. Only Mimi has doubts: “she’s acting,” she says, studying the girl’s statement on tape. It emerges that Mimi is right – the whole thing is a scheme to get Sandra Van Ryan’s money – but the best actress of all turns out to be Suzie (Neve Campbell), who is ostensibly even more disenfranchised than Denise Richards. Denise, at least, has money; Neve has none.
I wouldn’t have guessed Suzie was a sailor, Mimi says at the end of the movie, as she watches Suzie’s dad hook his daughter’s battered boat up to a shiny new car. Neither did anyone else, which is why they are all dead.
Men are from one side of the police department, girls are from the other!
Neve Campbell triumphs because that is what happened in the 90s and because she alone recognizes how seductive the surface of things is, how powerful a hold it has over even the most ruthless con man. People want the world to be what it looks like, and so from what they see they extrapolate what they want. A tooth becomes a dead body, the profession of loyalty genuine loyalty.
Everyone in Wild Things thinks they are tricking everyone else: even though I am not what I appear to be, you are; I have true depth, while you are as shallow as a swimming pool. This is the prevailing belief, the philosophy that determines strategy, despite its obvious flaws. If you are going to play the fool, you better assume all the other fools are playing, too. Success depends not just on the clarity of your gaze but the consistency with which you hold it.
In life, such thoroughness is rewarded; in art, thoroughness is the reward, the source of the audience’s pleasure. This is what it means to have an aesthetic, to have style, and from its opening credits – the font, a slightly italicized sans serif, resembles spray paint, or the porous white concrete so prevalent in South Florida - to the end Wild Things has it. It is a masterful example of maintained perspective, a totally realized world. Every lush tree, tangled with vines, every part of Denise Richards’s body, every swimming pool and sailboat: all serve to convince us the characters are right. Good-looking things are so good to look at.
Like Basic Instinct, Wild Things is a story about and by men who feel like victims, but McNaughton’s film is better-humored and less of a revenge fantasy than Verhoeven’s. This is the difference between the early 90s and the late 90s, when whatever threat feminism posed seemed to have been neutralized – “be comfortable with your sexuality” having become synonymous with “maybe have a threesome” – and the recession was over.
Wild Things was released in 1998, the height of the dot-com boom. Pets.com, Kozmo.com, and Flooz.com were launched the same year. A few years earlier, the value of all crops in the Everglades Agricultural Area was given at $750 million. Only 50 percent of the original wetlands remain.
Greed, not lust, is the governing sin of the fin-de-siecle Florida. “You think any of these women are going to marry you?” Sandra Van Ryan asks Matt Dillon early in the movie. Later, in the golden light of late afternoon, we see him checking out a woman in front of the Sun Trust Bank. For literally everyone – by the end, only about two characters aren’t involved in the scam to steal Sandra Van Ryan’s money – the money is the motive.
Playa more like PLAYER!!!!
The swamp is for the poor, the sea for the rich. Only the wealthy can afford to see the places in America worth seeing. Even after the market for real estate in South Florida crashed, the average price of a home in Coconut Grove was $800,000. If you want beauty, you better be ready to pay.
Elizabeth Gumport is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Baltimore. She last wrote in these pages about Bruce Davidson.
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