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“In my mind, it’s so much fun to have something that has clues and is mysterious — something that is understood intuitively rather than just being spoonfed to you. That’s the beauty of cinema, and it’s hardly ever even tried. These days, most films are pretty easily understood, and so people’s minds stop working.”–David Lynch
DIRECTED BY: David Lynch
FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake,
PLOT: Fred is a free jazz saxophonist who finds that mysterious videotapes are being dropped off on his doorstep. After an encounter with a ghostly pale man at a party, he blacks out finds himself accused of the murder of his wife. In prison Fred begins having headaches, and then one day he disappears and a completely different man—a young mechanic—is discovered in his death row cell.
- The screenplay to Lost Highway was co-written by Barry Gifford, who also wrote the novel “Wild at Heart” that Lynch adapted into a film in 1990.
- Lost Highway received two “thumbs down” ratings from Siskel & Ebert’s “At the Movies” syndicated movie review program. Lynch insisted the movie poster be rewritten to highlight the critics’ dual pans, describing the bad ratings as “two good reasons to go and see Lost Highway.”
- The film cost about 15 million dollars to make but grossed less than 4 million at the U.S. box office.
- Lost Highway boasts a number of cameo roles, including rockers Henry Rollins as a guard and Marilyn Manson as a porn actor, John Waters mainstay Mink Stole in a voiceover, and Richard Prior as one of Pete’s co-workers.
- This film marks the last onscreen appearance of Jack Nance, who appeared in all of Lynch’s films until his death in 1996.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Robert Blake’s “Mystery Man,” an eyebrow-free, perpetually grinning pasty-faced ghoul who likes to crash L.A. cocktail parties and whose idea of small talk is to call himself on his cell phone to deliver obscure metaphysical portents of doom.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine you’re on a desert highway. It’s long past midnight and you can’t see anything but the onrushing yellow traffic lines a few feet in front of the car’s headlights. David Bowie is crooning “funny how secrets travel” from the stereo. David Lynch is at the wheel, he’s jittery from drinking too much coffee, and neither you nor he has no idea where you’re going. Strap yourself in. It’s going to be a wild ride.
Original trailer for Lost Highway
COMMENTS: Made five years after the divisive mixed blessing that was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway marks the beginning of the final phase of David Lynch’s career. It kicks off an unofficial trilogy of thematically related movies that continued with his triumphantly dreamy Mulholland Drive (2001) and ended up in the baffling narrative warrens of Inland Empire (2006). Since Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch’s films had been set mostly in ironically wholesome suburbs. There they delved into the deviance buried beneath the facade of middle class respectability; sexual slavery occurring under the noses of the citizens of idyllic Lumbertown like cannibalistic beetles under the lawns, small town homecoming queens with secrets revolving around drugs, prostitution and incest. In Lost Highway and after, Lynch is still concerned with exposing the rotteness of the id and the soul’s foul attraction to beautiful evils, but now he explores the theme through an examination of the malleability of identity. The last three films change the locus of action from middle America to Los Angeles, home of the dream industry, and all of them involve people changing from one persona into another in vain attempts to flee from their own sorrows and crimes. This personality shift happens most explicitly in Lost Highway, when jazz saxophonist Fred Madison literally and painfully morphs into auto mechanic Pete Dayton from inside his death row cell.
One thing that remains constant between the different stages of Lynch’s career is his sensuality. The director began his career as a painter (and more recently has fancied himself a musician), and as much as anything it’s Lynch’s eye and ear for visual and sonic detail that raises him above his cinematic imitators. Lynch’s movies are always lush-looking, bathed in bold colors, with clean compositions from which details pop out. Fred and Renee live in a stark, modernistic home with plain walls and curved lamps and abstract furniture. It’s cold, like their marriage, and Lynch lights rooms so that they are full of shadows which sometimes engulf the characters. The couple’s dialogue reflects the space: it’s clipped and functional, devoid of warmth. When they travel outside this sealed container, to go to a party, the world takes on chaotic hues: bikini babes and shirtless men before a pool that glows with unnatural blue light, and Renee is suddenly animated, laughing and flirting—with another man, an oily, pencil-mustached fellow with a plunging neckline that shows off his gold chains. The character’s behavior mirrors their physical environment, or vice versa; psychology and physicality are integrated. Lynch’s trademark red curtains, behind which reside Secrets, make their appearance here, in Fred’s dream, marking the passage from reality to psyche.
Lost Highway also features Lynch’s most ambitious and commercial soundtrack: longtime composer Angelo Badalamenti gets the “original music” credit, but Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails composed much of the incidental music (credited as “Various Ominous Drones”) and David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Marilyn Manson all perform songs. Lynch, whose musical selections usually drift towards the melodic and ethereal, inserts angry rants from the industrial metal band Rammstein into tense hallucination scenes, and somehow makes the shredding sound Lynchian. As in Eraserhead, Lynch peppers the soundscape with disquieting industrial hums and drones; they show up quietly, almost subliminally, buzzing away in the background as Fred and Renee watch the mysterious videotape that has been dropped off on their doorstep, or providing a joyless serenade to an already awkward looking lovemaking session between the passionless couple.
Lynch uses these precise sonic and visual details, the sensual building blocks of dreams, to ground us in a sort of real world of physicality, when little in the narrative makes logical sense. In the first part of Lost Highway‘s story, jazzman Fred has quietly disturbing dreams that are not always clearly separated from his quietly disturbing realities. The appearance of the ghost-faced Mystery Man, who performs an impossible “trick” with a cell phone at a cocktail party, introduces the idea of doubles into the story, characters who can exist in more than one place at the same time and even talk to each other from these parallel realities. Soon enough, doubling manifests itself even more impossibly, as Fred mysteriously disappears from the story and Pete takes his place in his cell. Released from custody because he has no connection to the murder Fred has been accused of—at least, none that the police can see—the young mechanic goes on to live his regular life, as the viewer is thrust into an entirely new story. Things get strange for us even before they get strange for Pete when we notice that the femme fatale whose wiles are charming the youngster is played by Patricia Arquette, the same actress who portrayed Fred’s wife. Now she’s named Alice rather than Renee, she’s blond and not brunette, and now, instead of cheating on the male protagonist, she’s cheating on her gangster boyfriend with the substituted hero. Both women tell the same story about meeting a man—played by the same actor in both tales—who offers them about a job. Renee claims she can’t remember what the job was, but Alice tells the story in all its sleazy, degrading detail. The last half hour of the movie turns completely crazy in the best Lynchian tradition, throwing any notions that we might have had about developing parallelisms into utter confusion. Renee and Alice show up in the same photograph, then later one of them disappears from the picture. Fred and the Mystery Man and Renee all return. There are several new murders, and what looks like a snuff film. Buildings explode backwards. A character delivers a message to himself as the story loops backwards and collapses onto itself.
“I like to remember things my own way,” Pete tells two detectives early on in the film. “Not necessarily the way they happened.” The usual (and correct, as far as it goes) interpretation of Lost Highway is that one of its two stories is a delusional misremembering of the other. This, in fact, is exactly the storytelling tactic Lynch will take in Mulholland Drive, his next feature. Some viewers see the pleasure of the film in decoding the mystery this way, determining which parts of the story are “real” and which are “imaginary.” I can’t buy into that methodology, which strikes me as like taking a twilight walk in a magnificent gloomy forest and spending all your time trying to identify individual trees with a flashlight. The truth is that neither Fred nor Pete’s story is the “real” story; the impossible presence of the Mystery Man in each is proof enough of that. A better way is to understand Lynch’s method, I believe, is to imagine that both stories as fantastical projections of a third story, the “real” story, one whose precise details are untold and unknowable. Only the elements common to both stories—jealousy, guilt, denial, lust—comprise the “real” story.
To Lynch, describing these emotions, the psychological reality of his characters, are more important than detailing the precise events that spawn them. In fact, in Lost Highway he deliberately muddles the real life source of his protagonist’s psychic distress. What Lynch finds fascinating here is the portrait of a guilty mind denying reality, repressing it as best it can. One of the key images in Lost Highway is an unexplained sequence showing a cabin exploding into a burst of flame—shown in reverse. If Pullman’s character is trying to imagine himself out of a crime he committed, then his project is just as impossible as trying to reverse an explosion. The image of a fireball being stuffed back into the cabin is a perfect metaphor for this ridiculous project of post-hoc repression, of trying to turn chaos back into order. Once unleashed, the id cannot be returned to its prison.
Lynch, perhaps, realized that he had over-explicated the mythology of Twin Peaks in his previous effort, Fire Walk With Me. All that stuff about garmonbozia being pain and sorrow that manifests itself as creamed corn that’s eaten by the Man from Another Place who is actually the arm cut off by MIKE sounds kind of silly when you actually lay it out. With Lost Highway, Lynch returns to mystery and obfuscation. Lynch is always at his strongest when he’s opaque, and he is most appealing when it comes across that he is being honestly opaque even to himself. It’s the unknowability of the psyche, of his character’s minds and of his own mind, and by extension of ours, that is this macabre director’s strongest and most disquieting subject. There are things inside us, Lynch knows, which long to live in the shadows. We can catch sight of them from the corners of our eyes, but the more light we shine on them, the more they hide. Lynch’s mission is to show us that darkness, indirectly, through hints and riddles and glimpses.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘Lost Highway’ plays like a director’s idea book, in which isolated scenes and notions are jotted down for possible future use. Instead of massaging them into a finished screenplay, Lynch and collaborator Barry Gifford seem to have filmed the notes.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“…anyone who has ever been transfixed by [Lynch’s] brand of domesticated surrealism will instantly recognize the mood… Lynch, for the first time, seems to be using avant-garde tricks to pass off as ‘taboo’ what looks to the naked eye like mere routine sleaze. Lost Highway has scattered moments of Lynch’s poetry, but the film’s ultimate shock is that it isn’t shocking at all.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)
“…this beautifully structured (if rigorously nonhumanist) explosion of expressionist effects has a psychological coherence that goes well beyond logical story lines…”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
IMDB LINK: Lost Highway (1997)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
David Lynch – Lost Highway – The portal page to the Lost Highway archive at lynchnet.com includes links to the original pressbook, pictures, interviews, and more links
Dream Interpretation of the Film “Lost Highway” – A short but valuable guide to a Freudian interpretation of the film, supplemental reading from an undergraduate course in Freud and literature at the University of Washington
The City of Absurdity: Lost Highway Pictures – A 25-page annotated storyboard for the film
Lost Highway | Film | The New Cult Canon – Essay by Scott Tobias from the Onion A.V. Club’s impressive “new cult canon” series on Lost Highway
Lost Highway: Explained – A fan interpretation of the film, discussing it as mirroring the five stages of grief
Lost Highway Explained: A Web Site – A more elaborate fan interpretation, including supplemental information on Lynch
DVD INFO: Incredibly, despite the movie and David Lynch’s cult following, Lost Highway was not available on DVD—in Region 1, at least—until Universal obtained the rights in 2008 and issued a disappointing bare bones release (buy) containing only the movie and the trailer. Readers in other regions have much better video options available, but for now we in North America will have to accept this one while we wait for the digital upgrade (box set, anyone?) that seems inevitable given Lynch’s popularity.
UPDATE 6/28/2019: Kino Lorer released Lost Highway on Blu-ray in another bare-bones release. David Lynch himself invoked some controversy over this release; Kino responded that they tried to get him to participate in the release without success. You can read Indiewire’s account of the brouhaha at this link.
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “FredCN.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)