Tuesday, January 23, 2007

David Lynch's Lost Highway

Some readers will know that Lost Highway is my all-time favourite film. I don't know if any other film can top it for me. That's not to say that an even more brilliant film cannot be made. But some kinds of magic can happen only once. Perhaps.

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.

Lost Highway (1997 USA 135 mins)

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.

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 Lost Highway, there is a suspicion of infidelity.

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.”11 Lost Highway is like a work of abstract or surrealist art. There are various layers of reality, fantasy and abstraction that are not immediately differentiated. The film switches effortlessly and inexplicably between alternate realities, between hyper-realism and mundane, and musically between the beautiful compositions of Angelo Badalamenti, coarse industrial sounds and the heavy metal music of Rammstein.

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, Alice’s first meeting Mister Eddy, the Death Valley desert sex scene (which was truly sublime). “You will never have me”, says Alice. And the story unravels into a sense of lost control. There is a bizarre fleeting reference to the Wizard of Oz – events whirl past as from within Dorothy’s Kansas tornado.

Casting was brilliant in Lost Highway. For Pullman, it was perhaps the performance of his career. Usually playing everyman roles, he splendidly depicted a man confused and in crisis. Arquette was perfect for the role – sassy and just a little bit nutty. Robert Blake (Mystery Man), asked by Lynch to just be himself, was creepy, enigmatic and added an unexpected sense of menace. Lynch cryptically described his role as “a hair of an abstraction.”13

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 [Lost Highway],” he said, “because David Lynch has got to remember that happening and not want a damn thing to do with me. But paradoxically, I think, my berserk meanness or junkyard dog, ferocious, rabid attitude made me for what David had in mind for Mr. Eddy.”14

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 Lost Highway with many people over the years – most people liked it a lot, but hardly anyone understood it. There are some critical keys to understanding the main mystery of Lost Highway. First I want to present some of those keys, and then I will give my take on what those keys reveal. I do, however, recommend that you only read ahead once you have seen Lost Highway, and allowed yourself quite some time to digest it.

The keys:

  1. Fred says to the detective: “I like to remember things my own way”. This gives an insight into Fred’s mind.
  2. Just prior to the identity swap, Fred has a vision of Pete on the front lawn where something distressing was happening.
  3. In Andy’s house, Pete sees a photo of Renee and Alice together. Later, only Renee is there. This is perhaps the biggest clue.
  4. Pete has flashbacks that include the crime scene.
  5. 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 Hollywood movie. For example:

  • Mr. Eddy's car gets smashed up but with no visible damage
  • Alice’s instructions to Pete to rob Andy
  • 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.

4 Mulholland Drive was similarly inspired by the two words that make up the title. Incidentally, the tailgating scene with Mr. Eddy in Lost Highway took place on Mulholland Drive.

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 Twin Peaks. None of these imitators come close to the sublime and non-self-conscious achievements of Lynch.

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


marty said...

Great review Paul. Lynch is one of my fave directors as well. I remember seeing Eraserhead at the old Valhalla Cinema in Melbourne and it blew me away. Years later, I was at the Cannes Film Festival where I attended the first screening of Mulholland Drive, not knowing what the film would be about and it just floored me. I remember the buzz around Cannes by people who saw it and just raving about it. I am very much looking forward to his new film, Inland Empire, which I heard is amazing and just as enigmatic and mesmerising as Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Actually, I heard it was even more bizarre. Dendy picked up Inland Empire so we should see it here by mid-year. I may see Lost Highway tonight as I haven't seen it for a while.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comments, Marty. By the time I had a taste for the films Valhalla screened, it had closed.

I like Mulholland Dr. very much, and I found it at least as cryptic as Lost Highway. I think Lynch was developing themes he explored in Lost Highway.

I have direct word from Dendy films that Inland Empire will get a May release, but that date is rubbery. I've been avoiding reading any reviews of it, but have caught both negative and positive comments. Some don't like the quality of the hand-held digital camera ("looks like you're looking through four screen doors"). Others have been saying that it's brilliant and after four screenings, one still doesn't know what it's about.

Yes, I've heard it's his most bizarre yet. I can only wait in anticipation.

Marina said...

Excellent review. Lynch is also one of my favourites and though I don't always understand his work, I love the fact that watching even his old material is always like jumping into something new and fresh.

I'm not sure if you've seen this yet but "The Evening Class" has posted a Q&A with Lynch at http://theeveningclass.blogspot.com/2007/01/inland-empirethe-san-rafael-film.html

I found it particularly interesting. You may enjoy it too.

And BTW, I wouldn't dismiss "Dune" so quickly. I actually love that movie...but then, I think I'm a bit biased too...

Paul Martin said...

Thanks Marina, yes I've seen the post on The Evening Class, but not read it. I've flagged it as something to read once I've seen the film, which is being released here later in the year.

I don't dismiss Dune, but found it a bit ordinary. From memory, I think Lynch wasn't happy with this film himself as he felt compromised with the producers to get it made. I'll have to look up my Lynch resources for confirmation.

I'm also biased. For example, I think Fire Walk With Me was absolutely brilliant, though it was not well received at the time. People expected it to be a continuum of the TV show rather than a dark Lynch masterpiece. And then The Straight Story was so straight, yet had many of Lynch's distinct trademarks that made it very interesting (it had a G-classification, Australia's lowest possible rating).

Noel Tanti said...

that episode you mentioned, the one involving mr blake at the cocktail party, is possibly the scariest moment ever... just remembering about it makes my skin crawl...

as i had mentioned earlier, even though i like lost highway, i would still go for wild at heart, eraserhead or the straight story as my favourite lynch movie... simply because i love the manner he portrays romance and this aspect is secondary in lost highway...

your observations are very interesting... have you ever considered the possiblity of fred never actually leaving the house in the first place?... i haven't seen the film in ages but i remember getting this impression...

ps: there are actually two marilyn manson songs in the soundtrack, apple of sodom and i put a spell on you... i am not sure whether the two of them were employed in the film...

Paul Martin said...

Noel, Wild at Heart follows close behind the others I mentioned as my favourites. 'Favourites' is sort of meaningless for me, though, because most of Lynch's films are my favourites.

Wild at Heart was a stunning love story, almost parodying the archetypal Hollywood road romance, but infusing some really twisted scenarios (like Sailor getting beat up in the street) and the ultra-violent armed robbery. This was the film in which I decided I liked Nicholas Cage as an actor. Though, it really depends on who's directing him. He's also been terrific with Scorsese in Bringing Out The Dead, but then he's been in some real trashy films (8mm, Con-Air, etc).

I find it hard to define what it is I like about Lynch's work so much. I think it's partially the abstraction, partially the black humour, the intelligence of the director and his trust in the intelligence of his audience... actually there's so many other subtle things, like the long takes, the weird characters, interesting camera angles, his timeless-retro hyper-style, his choice of music, and so on.

Your suggestion about Fred not having left the house is possible (anything is possible in Lost Highway), but I don't believe so. I'm wondering what gives you that impression. That chapter of the film I take somewhat on face value (except for Mystery Man, who no-one else appears to see). When Fred and Renee return from that party, the lights in the house are going wild, but I think that's also in Fred's head.

I just had a listen to Apple of Sodom from the soundtrack (one of my all-time favourite soundtracks), and I think that track may have been used in flashback for Alice when she's stripping in front of Mr. Eddy. And I Put A Spell On You was used when Manson was appearing with Alice in the porn movie being projected onto the screen in the background.

Marina said...

I remember Lynch saying something about "Dune" as well but I still really enjoy it. It may have something to do with my love of the book as well...

Luke Corbin said...

Good read Paul.

Lynch is an incredibly original and fascinating director. Although at times I find myself frustrated by his work, I can only respect the tenderness with which he treats cinema.

Lynch, in my opinion, is the closest thing to an American film-maker 'as a painter.' He is the Hollywood Picasso, whose art is abstract and yet simple; defying definition.

I especially appreciated your brief analysis on the narrative of Lost Highway. The sense of an underlying 'bare' narrative is always present in his films, but is open to so much interpretation. I feel like in Lost Highway we see little to nothing of the real story inspiring the piece.

Instead we see vignettes, images, and culminations of other art forms that paint a larger picture, thus dwarfing the narrative completely. Lynch seems to say, 'ignore narrative', yet there is so much character and 'pseudo-story' involved in his films that the exact opposite seems entirely plausible also!

I could yak about him all night - I am still grappling with Mulholland Drive for an essay coming up. Lynch is not my favourite director, but he is very exciting, and I don't blame you for your strong claims of respect!

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comments, Luke. I forget the details exactly, but I read an interview with Lynch some years after Lost Highway was made in which he had come to believe that the film was about O.J. Simpson. He'd seen another film made around the same time that had similar themes, and it occurred to him that he may have been subconsciously referencing that case that was heavily in the media at the time. Lynch said something like "how could a guy do something like that (brutal murder), and then just go on playing golf like nothing had happened?".

And you're right, we see nothing of the story inspiring the piece. Many films are like that, not just obscure stories like Lynch's. George Orwell is famous for using allegories in his writing, which were thinly veiled political critiques. Or Miller's The Crucible (which I read at school).

Cinema Autopsy said...

That's a great article Paul!

I was obsessed with Lynch throughout my undergraduate years while studying Cinema Studies under the guidance of Barbara Creed (as well as others). Creed introduced my to psychoanalytic theory and feminist film theory and I found that both methodologies were perfect for exploring Lynch's cinema. I remember being so insanely excited when Lost Highway came out. I will never forget when I first saw the preview and I still get a shiver down my spine every time I hear Bowie's "I'm Deranged".

I ended up writing a lengthy article on Lost Highway that year and it is still the one piece of writing that I am most proud of. If you are interested I've posted a copy of my article over on my website.


Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comments and the link to your article, Thomas. I love Deranged also, but the whole soundtrack is great and I like to play it now and then.

FWIW, this piece is probably the one of mind that I'm most pleased with, especially that it was distributed on the night for the Melbourne Cinémathèque screening of the film.