The Fred meeting Mystery Man scene (above) was part of the trailer that piqued my interest to see the film in 1997. That scene remains possibly my favourite scene from any film ever. Seriously twisted - mind-bending stuff!
I first saw Lost Highway around November 1997. I keep my movie tickets, but the Kino cinema in those days did not have the film title printed on them and I hadn't yet set up the film database I have now. This film left me in an altered state of consciousness; I left the cinema that Friday evening in a daze and it took me quite some time to come out of it. Some would argue that I'm still in it. Who am I to argue? Film will never be the same for me.
I spent many hours discussing the film with my significant other, as we tried to unlock the mysteries of what we had just seen. I had signed up an internet account six months earlier, and that weekend was the one when I really discovered what the internet was about. I spent most of it on Yahoo (remember, this was pre-Google) searching for answers. By Sunday afternoon, I was pretty confident that my understanding was in the approximate ball-court of Lynch's intention. It would take a second viewing to confirm it, though this was two years later at a screening at The Astor.
Lost Highway was my first exposure to Lynch. After seeing it, I hired on video (how quickly technology is moving; this was pre-DVD) every earlier film he'd made, as well as all 30 or so hours of Twin Peaks episodes(the first two seasons being my favourite TV series of all time). Lynch is, in my opinion, without equal, and remains my favourite director. His work is rare, if not outright unique, among commercially released cinema in its abstraction and its artistry. I consider virtually every piece of his work (with the possible exception of Dune) at least brilliant, and many as masterpieces. Other favourites include Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
I mentioned in my Year in Review how during 2006 I became a committee member of Melbourne Cinémathèque. During the year I volunteered for the task of printing 100 copies of each week's film annotations as they appear on Senses of Cinema, for distribution at the screenings. When Lost Highway came up, there were no reviews appearing at Senses of Cinema, so I volunteered to write an article. The result was my first serious film review. Serious in the sense that it was of a considerable length (over 2,000 words) and that it had an public audience of serious Melbourne cinephiles. The following was that review as distributed on the evening of October 4. Also screening on the night was the great Lynch classic, Eraserhead.
Prod Co: CIBY 2000, Asymmetrical Productions Prod: Deepak Nayar, Tom Sternberg, Mary Sweeney Dir: David Lynch Scr: David Lynch, Barry Gifford Phot: Peter Deming Ed: Mary Sweeney Mus: Angelo Badalamenti Sound: David Lynch, Sasumu Tokunow Prod Des: Patricia Norris
Cast: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia, Gary Busey
Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a man with an identity crisis. He may or may not be who he appears to be and may have committed a terrible crime. David Lynch describes him as “a kind of a regular guy. He’s smart and he could be someone in trouble – a lot of trouble”1 and “lost in confusion and darkness, where fear is in the driver’s seat”.2 Thus begins the dark, mysterious journey of
Lost Highway is perhaps Lynch’s most ambitious and least understood films, and a favourite among many of the fans of his work. Its mysteries are so dark and seemingly impenetrable, that even if you don’t understand them (and due to the use of various devices3, no-one can understand them fully), you can thoroughly enjoy the experience of not understanding. The mysteries linger long after the credits have finished rolling, an essential part of the experience.
The film’s genesis was simply the evocative two words of the title4 that were used in a novel called Night People by Barry Gifford. The words intrigued Lynch who developed some initial ideas that were further developed with Gifford as co-writer. Their previous collaborations include Hotel Room, a short TV series (directed by Lynch, written by Gifford) and Wild at Heart (written and directed by Lynch, based on Gifford’s novel).
Lost Highway contains many secrets – secrets that both Lynch and Gifford are reluctant to divulge. According to Gifford, “things happen in this film that are not – and should not be – easily explained”5. Lynch has always been hard to pin down about specifics of his films. He wants viewers to make their own interpretations and has been variously quoted as saying: “I don’t like to talk about things too much because, unless you’re a poet, when you talk about it, a big thing becomes smaller”6, “a mystery is like a magnet. Whenever there is something that’s unknown, it has a pull to it… when you only see a part, it’s even stronger than seeing the whole”7 and “If things get too specific, the dream stops.”8
Even the two writers have different interpretations of the film and did not discuss in detail the meaning. Says Lynch:
“Barry may have his idea of what the film means and I may have my own idea, and they may be two different things. And yet, we worked together on the same film. The beauty of a film that is more abstract is everybody has a different take… When you are spoon-fed a film, more people instantly know what it is. I love things that leave room to dream and are open to various interpretations. It's a beautiful thing. It doesn't do any good for Barry to say 'This is what it means.' Film is what it means. If Barry or anyone else could capture what the film is in words, then that's poetry.”9
Lost Highway opens to the imposing sound of Deranged by David Bowie. Car headlights illuminate road lines passing at breakneck speed in the night, as if in flight. A frenetic mood is immediately established10. Cut to Fred quietly at home, drawing painfully on a cigarette. Every breath is an effort. A sense of numbness pervades – this is not a man in control.
The door buzzer goes off, and a voice on the intercom: “Dick Laurant is dead”. This scene was based on a real-life event involving David Lynch, in the Hollywood Hills house depicted in the film (which is his sound studio). One morning he awoke to the door buzzer and those words came over the intercom. The front door is not readily visible, and Lynch had to go to the far side of the house but could see no-one.
Video tapes start arriving on the doorstep. The first shows the outside of the house. Fred’s wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette) says vacantly, “must be from a real estate agent”. “Maybe,” says Fred blandly. There’s a silent tension between the couple and a gloom intensified by long takes and visuals of long, dark hallways that appear to swallow people whole. Words are sparse and hang in the air like a thick, toxic fog – no marital bliss here.
Interestingly, Michael Haneke’s recent Hidden (Cache) – a very different film – pays homage to Lost Highway. In Haneke’s film, video tapes similarly arrive on the doorstep of the Laurants. In one scene, the door bell rings, but no-one is there. Like
The tapes become more sinister, and a morbid sense of unease grows, before the film takes a critical, mind-bending left turn. Something happens that completely defies logic. In prison, a warder says to the captain, “This is some spooky shit we’ve got here.” (The film is full of terrifically black humour and dialogue).
Lost Highway’s sub-title is “a twenty-first century noir horror film”. Lynch liked this description because the film crosses various genres: noir, horror, thriller and mystery, if not others. But mostly it’s a mystery. CIBY-2000’s marketing described the film as “a psychogenic fugue”, referring to an actual condition. This description appealed to Lynch, though he had no knowledge of that pathology when he made the film.
Lynch, started as an artist before accidentally falling into film. According to Lynch, “many of the things that you subconsciously use in painting, you use in film.”
Sound is an important component of a film for Lynch, who is highly involved in this aspect. “Half of the film is picture,” he has said, “the other half is sound. They've got to work together. I keep saying that there are ten sounds that will be correct and if you get one of them, you're there. But there are thousands that are incorrect, so you just have to keep on letting it talk to you and feel it. It's not an intellectual sort of thing.”12 The film has a killer soundtrack, which was produced (uncredited) by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. One track is by Marilyn Manson, who appears in the film as a porn star.
No-one does sex and violence like Lynch: the mutilation of a victim (glimpsed in flashes), the tailgating incident with Mr. Eddy, the death-by-coffee-table,
Casting was brilliant in Lost Highway. For
Robert Loggia missed out to Dennis Hopper in playing Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Loggia exploded at Lynch after waiting a long time to audition on a hot day without getting the opportunity to try out. “I thought there’s not a rat’s arse chance that I’m gonna be in [
During filming, the actors had trouble making sense of what Lost Highway was about. Lynch said little about the meaning of things and divulged only as much as an actor needed to know to play a particular part. Sometimes an explanation would be given one day, only to be confounded by contradictory information the following day.
Lynch has many trademark devices commonly used in his films. Some of these appear in Lost Highway:industrial sounds, very long takes, times of sparse dialogue, distorted reality, fire and smoke, the colour red, song or music as a small part of the story (Fred is a saxophone player), singers playing roles (Marilyn Manson, Henry Rollins), quirky characters and situations15, the supernatural , glimpses of unclear nightmarish images, lack of distinction between reality and dreams or imagination, unclear motives and outcomes, timeless retro style, revelations of the dark underside of seemingly normal situations, characters that lead dual lives, lack of easy explanations, and the use of actors outside their normal comfort zones.
Lynch makes anything but stereotype films, yet uses many of the hackneyed devices of Hollywood, but in a distorted, stylised or exaggerated manner – sort of out-Hollywooding Hollywood. “The whole thing is the idea,” says Lynch, “and ideas are the best thing going.”16 “It's all just fantastic,” says Gifford. “It's sort of beyond black humor. Because we had this freedom of being in a fantasy world, more or less, we could do anything. If spaceships came down, which they practically did, it wouldn't be out of context, given where we're at. That's a tremendous structure; I don't know if everyone understood it once we sprang it on them.”17
There are many mysteries in Lost Highway:
- Is Renee having an affair?
- Are Fred and Pete the same person?
- Are Alice and Renee the same person?
- Did Fred actually leave prison?
- Who is the Mystery Man?
- How can he be in two places at the same time?
- Who made the video recordings? Was it the Mystery Man?
- How did Pete hurt himself?
- What happened ‘that night’?
- What is real? What is not?
If the film resonates with you, you’ll be asking questions long after the film ends. It is the ambiguity that Lynch’s films afford that makes them so enjoyable, and what makes his work truly unique. Lost Highway defies description – it defies the laws of logic and narrative – it can only be experienced. Or, as Lynch said, “They come out with a strange, fantastic feeling and they can carry that. It opens some little door or something that's magical and that's the power that film has.”18
This is mind-altering cinema – a true masterpiece and the work of a genius. Arquette has said, “You feel David in his movies. It’s another universe he takes you to… it’s like an alternate reality; it’s close enough to our own to be really disturbing.”19 And, says Lynch, “I keep hoping people will like abstractions, space to dream, consider things that don't necessarily add up.”20
THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS! I normally abhor spoilers but include them here as an exception to the rule. I have discussed
- Fred says to the detective: “I like to remember things my own way”. This gives an insight into Fred’s mind.
- Just prior to the identity swap, Fred has a vision of Pete on the front lawn where something distressing was happening.
- In Andy’s house, Pete sees a photo of Renee and Alice together. Later, only Renee is there. This is perhaps the biggest clue.
- Pete has flashbacks that include the crime scene.
- Two realities: at the start, Fred’s life is so mundane – this is reality. In Pete’s world, everything is fantasy – all the interactions are like a bad
Hollywoodmovie. For example:
- Mr. Eddy's car gets smashed up but with no visible damage
’s instructions to Pete to rob Andy Alice
- Andy’s death
- Fred’s sex life was mediocre and unsatisfying; Pete’s was pure fantasy. After sex, Renee gives Fred a consoling, but condescending pat on the back. “It’s OK,” says Renee but Fred retreats in silence. There’s nothing erotic in this relationship. Pete, on the other hand, “gets more pussy than a toilet seat”.
Gifford has said, “any kind of explanation is going to be inadequate, because a film is made to be seen.”21 However, there is a fairly straightforward answer to what happens to Fred. He never left prison. When we last see him in prison, he is ‘losing it’. Everything from this point on is fantasy. Pete is everything Fred would like to be: young, virile and desirable. But even in his deluded state, Fred can maintain the fantasy for only so long.
1 Interview with David Lynch on Lost Highway DVD
2 Chris Rodley, Lynch on Lynch, Revised ed. 2005, p.243
3 Some devices appear to have no particular meaning, red herrings perhaps. They are like the abstractions in our minds, the rantings that make no particular sense.
5 Rolling Stone magazine, March 6, 1997, as quoted at The City of Absurdity: David Lynch’s Lost Highway
6 Rodley, p.227
7 ibid, p.231
8 Quoted by Brad Stevens, Discovering David Lynch`s Lost Highway
9 Quoted by Frederick Szebin and Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique Volume 28, Number 10, April 1997, posted at LynchNet
10 Lynch has said that the opening sequence came to him when he heard this song.
11 Interview with David Lynch, Lost Highway DVD
12 Quoted at The City of Absurdity
13 Rodley, p.229
14 Interview with Robert Loggia, Lost Highway DVD
15 Lynch is the source of inspiration for a flood of TV and film quirkiness that seems to be proliferating since the mainstream success of
16 Interview with David Lynch on Lost Highway DVD
17 Quoted by Frederick Szebin and Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique Volume 28, Number 10, April 1997, posted at LynchNet
18 David Lynch Biography, IMDB
19 Interview with Patricia Arquette, Lost Highway DVD
20 Quoted at The City of Absurdity
21 Rodley, p215