“When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.” – Tennessee Williams
“I know it isn’t true, I know it isn’t true. Love is just a lie made to make you blue …” – “Love Hurts”
In Wild Seed, young, tough, but sensitive Michael Parks is so uncomfortable about receiving a confession of love, that you are not only moved by his varied reactions, you are captivated by them. What is he going to do about this heartfelt admission? Does he feel the same love for the young one who utters it? This is the adoration from a lost little 17-year-old child-woman who looks more like she’s 13 – is she too young? Too inexperienced? Too pure? He’s been a drifter his whole life, a Wellman-esque Wild Boy of the Road, a beatific Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty traveler – gorgeous, soulful, damaged, charming – how many others have fallen for this leather-clad outcast? Surely countless – he’s as beautiful as James Dean – but he’s tied himself to no one for a reason.
Born into a family of paternal incarceration (dad in prison) and maternal death (mother fell out of a peach tree, already a poetic exit), he’s survived hard and alone and needing no one. He figures he won’t amount to much, so why drag any kind of normal, square life into the picture? And a normal girl? (Only, she’s not so normal as she seems). It’s scared to be loved and to love in return – it’ll tie you down. And then what happens? Either they leave you or you leave them. Why take that chance? Forget it. Stick to hopping trains, leading a transient life of theft and drinking and maybe a few friends, maybe one girl or guy who will be with you in a sweet way on a beautiful, most likely boozy night, and then you just shove right along. No strings.
In Brian J. Hutton’s Wild Seed (written by Ike Jones, the first African-American graduate of the UCLA Film School and the first African-American to work as a producer on a major motion picture – look him up – he’s fascinating), you see this free-wheeling complexity when Fargo (Parks) has already been on the road with 17-year-old Daphne (Celia Kaye). She’s an innocent who leaves her adopted family in New York after she learns about her biological father in Los Angeles. A real father? She must find him. Letters written by her deceased mother move her, they haunt her – she wants to be wanted by her real daddy – so she takes to the road, dangerously. She’s going to make it to the West Coast sunshine no matter how long a trip that will be, no matter how much a greenhorn she is. But she starts learning about life quickly. Chiefly, that older men offering their cars are not all that nice, as she is nearly raped when a seemingly average fella picks her up while hitchhiking. That’s a swift, rough lesson for any girl (and one not uncommon, even if not hitching rides), and Daphne (nickname “Daffy”) lets it sink in. This isn’t going to be so easy. When she meets the moody, mysterious Fargo (about 20 or so – Parks was 26 when the picture came out) she wonders about this cool cat’s intentions. Is he going to hustle her? We wonder too. She’s so wide-eyed and vulnerable though – how could he? He cannot be as scummy as those other men out there.
He’s not. We’ll learn that he’s known familial heartbreak too. He’s haunted by it, in fact. And so, while eating much-needed sustenance in a diner in the middle of their trip (he’s been helping her hop trains and, at one point, they’re even arrested. He convinces the officer she’s his wife), she blurts out, “I love you!” Whoa. Hold on. But before that genuine outburst, she asks, eyes downcast: “Have you loved many women?” Fargo is perturbed, tells her to keep eating (they need to eat). But she persists. She yearns for him to stop calling her “sister”; her name is Daphne (she’s no kid and, looking at Fargo, she sure as hell doesn’t want to be his sister). He says, “I know,” irritated. She counters, “I hate you!” He then says, without emotion, “I know.” He tells her to eat again, or, as he threatens: “I’ll stick it down your craw.” And so she says, finally, “I love you.” He eats faster, nervously and replies with near-contempt, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” She protests that she’s old enough at 17. (Is she?) He answers, curiously, “You’re old enough but you ain’t big enough.”
You ain’t big enough – she’s not, physically, almost, and not big enough in terms of how she views the world, a world that only until recently has been very small to her. In another scene you might feel sorry for the concerned, lovelorn teenager, and you do to a certain extent, but watching Parks’ simultaneous exasperation and discomfort – this is where the power and poignancy of the scene comes from. Him. It says much more about his own damaged life than her potential rejection. She asks him what he’s going to do with himself, she tells him how other people have nice houses and children – she’s a worried teen who doesn’t believe people can just keep moving their whole lives. They get old. They have to stop at some point. She then ups the ante with the question so many do not want to answer: “Do you love me?” And with that, Fargo angrily smacks down a roll with a loud thud, grabs some napkins from the dispenser and tells her to talk to herself all day long. He does not want to hear this shit. He storms out. And we feel sorry for him. This big-eyed teenager is sitting there confessing her unvarnished love and we feel badly for Michael Parks.
That’s how fantastic Parks was as an actor – he’s so layered, he’s hiding so much inner pain, but with such tricky subtlety – that we know he’s not being cruel to her, we even know that she can see he’s not simply being nasty. He’s shoving away words that have hurt him in life. And he is shoving away words that he knows have hurt her in life too. As the song so explicitly states (not written by, but sung best by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris – I can imagine Michael Parks, beautifully, singing that one too): “Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and marks…”
Wild Seed was the remarkable Michael Parks’ first big-screen starring role (shot after this one, Bus Riley’s Back in Town would be released the same year), and he is absolutely, from start to finish, riveting. Gorgeous, soulful, contemplative, mysterious, and with a hushed, distinct voice and delivery (that aged so wonderfully in character roles), this is where you see, not only Hollywood executives and viewers falling in love with him (and the powers that be, stupidly, fell out of love), but future filmmakers as well. Exquisitely and expressionistically shot in black and white by the great Conrad Hall (this was Hall’s first feature as a cinematographer), you also feel Hall’s love for Parks. The camera holds on the young actor’s face, casting shadows to highlight his eyes, or showcase his silhouette, even his hands holding a cigarette have a lyricism – Hall understood the power of this man’s face and the intrigue of his bearing.
So, that face, angled and lit with such poetic beauty, imbues this rather simple story with a special force. Parks carries this along – this tale of two lost souls attempting to create family by either finding the one that left, or starting one anew – and betters everyone around him. Even Daphne’s adopted family who show up later in the picture prove to be somewhat lost (and tender-hearted) when viewed through Parks’ eyes. They seek a union with a daughter they do love but didn’t initially think they would love as much as their own and they’ve been deceiving Daphne with a story to spare her feelings. Her father’s coupling with her mother was something Fargo might have encountered on the road – quick and fun, something to move on from. Fargo, however, sees all kinds of dysfunction in these ties – not out of his own selfishness but because life… he doesn’t know what his rambling life will be. He just knows, he doesn’t want to go it alone anymore. And neither does Daphne. Is it possible to not be tied down to life and remain in love? Who knows?
And with that, Fargo faces off Daphne’s true blood father with: “You wish we’d all … blow away.” Yes. He understands how men and women just want to walk away and forget their lovers, forget their own children. Fargo understands it in himself. And, so, he beats up the dad, his own rage against his father boiling over mixed with his love for Daphne. It might hurt later, but he does in fact, feel connected to Daphne, now without anger towards her or exasperation.
When Fargo beats her father – it’s an intense moment for a few reasons – and it made me think of many aspects to Parks and the characters he so excelled at, and how within those characters the idea of love, help, drifting and family often emerged, sometimes at the same time. Two of Parks’ roles came to mind: his counter-culture, life changer in “Then Came Bronson,” and his recurring old so-and-so Earl McGraw written especially for him by Quentin Tarantino, who so revered the actor (as did Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith). Parks worked beautifully with Tarantino and while re-watching Kill Bill: Volume I I thought of his Wild Seed character, Fargo. I imagined him years later, married or separated or who knows what with Daphne, now living in El Paso, walking into that chapel with “Son number one,” Edgar (Parks’ real life son – James Parks). Leaning over a woman who has just lost the family she was trying so desperately to create – the blood splattered bride – McGraw says, “You can tell she was pregnant.” He then looks at her face: “A man had to be a mad dog to shoot a goddamn good-looking gal like that in the head. Look at her. Hay-colored hair. Big eyes. She’s a little blood-splattered angel.”
What a strangely moving moment. Thanks to Parks. He’s tough as hell, but loving, gently shocked. This is a hard-ass man, but I saw the young Fargo lurking within that guy, the one so afraid of life and family biting you in the ass, that one must run from it. It will. It does. It did. But he’ll be alright. Fargo, Edgar, Parks … that wild seed isn’t going to blow away.