Lost in the Movies: Lost Highway

Lost Highway

Several minutes into Lost Highway, I had to get up for a drink of water. I fidgeted. I decided I'd rather watch the disc on my TV than on my computer, where the chair is somewhat uncomfortable; but then I moved back to the computer so I could sit closer to the screen. I took off my glasses and put my contacts back in. With all I'd heard about Lost Highway's difficulty I didn't want to shortchange the film. Perhaps I should watch it another night, when I'm less restless, more in the mood? Instead, I cued it up to the beginning and started over. Funny - I had no clue that my stops, starts, and restarts would eventually be mirrored in the movie itself. Which, incidentally, I ended up really, really liking.

OK, a word of warning. Spoilers, read no further, blah blah blah. I could say that's not the point, because it's not about the story, and indeed Lost Highway doesn't even really have a story, which is all sort of true. But there are surprises and perhaps the ominous sense of dread which builds through the film's first, uh, movement (to call it an act doesn't feel right) would be dissipated if you went in knowing too much. Anyway, I warmed up to the film and began to sink into its atmosphere once I reached the point where I'd left off again...which, not coincidentally, was just before the first appearance of the Mystery Man. My God, how does David Lynch do it? Two seconds of Bob peering through the grating, the creature behind Winkie's, that terrifying Pinnochio in Fire Walk With Me (which was apparently so frightening that I blocked it out and forgot to mention in it my initial review)...and now this little man with the flabby face, perfectly white skin, bright red lips, and dead shark eyes. These spectres from the periphery of our consciousness always turn up nonchalantly, precisely where you would never expect to see them. The Mystery Man strolls calmly into a hip swinger party, tells Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) that he's met him before, at his house...in fact he's there right now. He hands Fred a phone and then speaks to him. On the other end of the line. (Incidentally, I didn't realize until the end credits that this man is played by Robert Blake - a fact that only makes him creepier...)

Having recently noted that Blue Velvet was more Freud than Jung, it's worth continuing that Lost Highway is Jung all the way. I haven't read much Jungian theory (though his autobiography is one of my favorite books) but what I mean to suggest is that there's depth here. Emotions aren't mere covers for naked drives and impulses; rather, behavior and image are surface ripples in a deep well of feeling. In Blue Velvet there is a chilling sense of emptiness lingering on the screen - a spiritual void which the cheerful dialogue and even Frank's violence can only paper over. This nihilism is reinforced by the restraint of the largely classical direction, along with the spareness of the storytelling. Like much of Lynch's later work (Fire Walk With Me seems to be a turning point in his career), Lost Highway plunges into the collective unconscious, dredging up fearful associations which go far beyond sexual masochism and frenetic violence into realms for which, as I previously noted, behavior is only a manifestation of something primal and inexplicable. The editing and camerawork are languid, immersive and the scenes follow one another in the pattern of a winding serpent: you sense that they are all connected but you're lost in each turn and can't quite remember what came just before or figure out where you're going next. Appropriately, both structure and style in Lost Highway feel much looser than in Blue Velvet. Suddenly, possibilities are limitless.

Fred Madison is arrested for murder (we don't see the crime except in flashes), and in prison he has a sort of seizure, accompanied by a vision of the Mystery Man in an exploding cabin. Then Fred's head seems to split open, as if a giant, blood-red tumor is breaking through his skull, and suddenly when the guards look in he's no longer Fred at all; he's Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). Or at least, somebody is Pete Dayton, and that somebody is in the cell Fred used to inhabit. Pete is sent home with his parents and from here on, the police are a minor presence, an occasional reminder that the first and second parts of the movie are connected. As such, they are both literally and metaphorically policing the movie, keeping an eye on its structure. But mostly, the film proceeds is if none of the first scenes had taken place within the same plotline. Pete goes out with friends, has sex with his girlfriend, floats - as if in a dream - through the kind of semi-urban 50s playground Lynch loves to fetishize.

It's like a Mulholland Drive in reverse: starting with the dark reality, and transforming into a lighter-than-air, yet wistfully poignant, reverie. Patricia Arquette plays both Fred's and Pete's lover; first as an innocent victim, then as a femme fatale. Is Fred merely justifying his original, psychopathic behavior by reimagining his wife as a manipulative slut and himself as a naive teenager? Roger Ebert calls the movie an "empty, stylistic facade" - arguing that it has no inner meaning. If we're talking about the plot mechanics, I'm not so sure, but if we're talking about the effect than I'm positive Ebert missed the boat (he got on eventually, saying that Mulholland Drive made him forgive all of Lynch's past efforts, "even Lost Highway!" I wonder if he went back and really did see the movies in a new light, or if he has confused Lynch's awakening with his own.)

Lost Highway could of course be read as an exercise in meaningless postmodernism. Certainly, the Mystery Man, with his camcorder in hand, could be (along with the aforementioned police) an agent of the narrative, the one who gooses the story along from beginning to end. I can't manage this sort of analysis at the moment, but I'm sure there are dense, theoretical readings of Lynch's film out there, telling us where signifier and signified cross wires or some such. If Lost Highway is postmodernist, it's a rare kind of postmodernism which uses free-form, associative technique to connect to something deeper - it doesn't just feed on itself, devouring anything genuine and deep that's popped up before it has time to sink in. After its own fashion, Lost Highway is addressing something beyond its own stylistic antecedents and narrative structure. Lynch's scenes of teenage lust aren't winking references to early teen pulp, they're excavations of the madly beating heart behind drive-in movies and dirty magazines. The use of noir devices isn't a short-cut trick to evoke a certain reaction (or worse, provoke a distanced analysis), it's an expansion and deepening of the source material. Lynch may reuse old styles and cliches and images but instead of recycling them he purifies them and retrieves the essence.

Sorry if I'm writing in abstractions, but it's hard to pin anything down with this movie. It just works (or at least it did for me) and once you get into its flow, you're swept along. In Wild at Heart, Lynch's flourishes felt like affectations - here they connect. I'm not sure why or how, but they do. As we look out the window at the cars pulling off into the blackness of a desert night, a wrinkly hand snakes along the curtain. We pull back slowly, knowing what we'll see, dreading it, but hanging on because something in us needs to see it. And sure enough, it's the grotesque little man cringing in the corner. Lynch's camera is a scalpel, picking away at the unconscious mind and retrieving bloody little tumors, which quiver a bit in the open air before withering away - yet their impression lingers.


Tony Dayoub said...

Hey MovieMan0283,

You might be interested in my own take on "Lost Highway":


Also, in your fifth paragraph you misspoke... Rosanna Arquette should read Patricia Arquette.

Good post.

James Hansen said...

Interesting post. I haven't seen this in a few years and certainly should go back and see it again now that it has a nice DVD. I liked it when I initially saw it, but it never did as much for me as some of Lynch's other works.

Zizek discusses the film a lot in "Pervert's Guide to Cinema" and his book on it is equally fascinating. If you wanna go a bit crazy about the film, it's worth a read. Many of the things you said made me think back to what he was saying about it...of course, I remember nothing clearly, but, again, it's worth a look.

Joel Bocko said...

I saw a documentary version of "Pervert's Guide to Cinema" but haven't read the book (or is "Pervert's Guide to Cinema" the movie? I think I only say one part of it.

James Hansen said...

Sorry for being confusing...I went back and read that and it, indeed, was totally unclear. I was remembering that Zizek talked about "Lost Highway" in "The Perverts Guide..." (the movie, it's just a movie, I think) and that he also has a book on "Lost Highway" (I think it's just called 'David Lynch's Lost Highway' or something...) where he talks about the film in much greater detail. Both are worthwhile, although there is certainly more in the book to digest, which, of course, makes it more fun.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks James I will check it out, though already my pile of unread books is stacked high. And the local library hasn't even gotten hold of Everything is Cinema yet (did you read that? What did you think?)

James Hansen said...

Didn't read it yet...probably won't get to as I am about to start writing my thesis which will be about all I read until Christmas.

Joel Bocko said...

This film definitely struck me as one that postmodernists would adore (though then again I'm not sure Zizek definies himself as such. Of course, how many postmodernists would actually 'fess up to being one? Kind of like all the people criticizing hipsters themselves bear a remarkable visual resemblance to...hipsters. But I digress.)

Good luck with your thesis.

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