Lost Highway

(David Lynch, USA, 1997)


A Bigger Thing

Let me confess something straight off the bat: I’m a sucker for almost any film about twins, doubles, doppelgängers or clones. The possibilities unleashed by these cinematic variations on multiple identity can enliven for me even the most boring of formula movies. In 1996, for instance, there was a pretty underwhelming Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle called
Maximum Risk. It started with Van Damme in the middle of a hair raising car chase through narrow French streets. Then suddenly, after some bloody action, he lies dead and over him looms … another Jean-Claude Van Damme! It rapidly transpires that these two characters are twins who just never knew of each other’s existence. 


And then I remember a much bolder example in a more daring little genre film – a horror-thriller, starring the great James Spader and directed by the ever-intriguing Rowdy Herrington, called Jack’s Back (1988). This one starts with handsome James being brutally murdered in the street at night. And then it cuts to that most over-used of modern clichés – the shot of the hero sitting in bed in a cold sweat … yes, it was all just a dream! But, but, but: James hears a noise. He goes to his window. There’s a commotion out in the street: ambulances, police sirens. He whacks on a coat, goes down to investigate, breaks through a cordon, lifts the sheet off the body of a fresh corpse and sees – himself! It’s a freak-out of monumental proportions.


I take an avant-garde relish in this type of occurrence in popular cinema. The idea that a character in an otherwise normal, rational movie can suddenly be doubled or multiplied – that there can be these kinds of intensely irrational, magical appearances and disappearances happening – is an idea which excites me no end. I call it an avant-garde idea perhaps because I see it largely in avant-garde films: experimental fiction films like those of Raúl Ruiz, where anything up to eight different actors are used to play a single character, without any explanation for the havoc this causes us as viewers. Or remember Luis Buñuel’s classic That Obscure Object of Desire (1978), which keeps cutting between two different actresses playing the lead role – with no one inside the story ever commenting on this disconcerting fact.


Some people may assume that it is only in such avant-garde or surrealist/oddball movies that you find this kind of up-front play with shifting around, or pulling apart characters and actors, as well as the makeshift fictional identities they form with their bodies and voices.


But my love for this kind of playing around comes just as much from a certain strain in popular culture. Cartoons, for instance: like the Tex Avery masterpiece in which you see a character miraculously pop up throughout the story in the most unlikely times and places and, when at the end somebody else asks, ‘How did you do that?’, suddenly the screen is filled with multiple clones of the hero, and they all chant in mass unison: ‘There was twenty of us!’. And then you’ve got the bolder, popular horror-thriller films, forerunners to Jack’s Back like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or certain Brian De Palma films, where you follow one character and their story for a little while until – whammo! – that character is suddenly killed off and we are away on another narrative tangent, with a completely different character. The trick happens again in Wes Craven’s horror film Scream  (1996): a very avant-garde title, that.


What I really love in movies that play these kinds of games is the sweet, delirious feelings of transformation, of perpetual loss and rebirth, that they stir within me. It’s as if what is normally so weighty, so rigid, so fixed in movies and in life – namely, our personal identities, our selves, our egos – in these crazy films, suddenly all that solidity is dissolved, tossed in the air. It is a liberating feeling. And the feeling reminds me of the words of that fine, liberationist philosopher Norman O. Brown, who said succinctly in the 1960s: ‘The solution to the problem of identity is – get lost!’


Well, you and whatever blessed identity you entertain can certainly get lost on Lost Highway by David Lynch. This is a major cultural event of 1997 – right up there with Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), in my book. Frankly, I didn’t expect Lynch’s film to be this good. Like a lot of moviegoers, I have mixed feelings about Lynch. Some of his films, like Blue Velvet, I only grudgingly admire; and the more recent ones, Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, have been his wonkiest. But I was a big Twin Peaks fan, and Lost Highway is closer to Twin Peaks than any of his other movies. There might even be a trace of The X-Files in Lost Highway, too. But Lost Highway is way, way out there – unquestionably one of the most boldly experimental works of popular cinema in the 1990s.


There are two starkly opposed ways of describing what happens in this movie, in its plot, and I believe that many of the reviews of Lost Highway are pretty much going to disqualify themselves, from the word go, depending on which route they take. On the one hand, you could just describe what there is to be seen on, and heard from, the screen – describing these things neutrally, which is how the film itself presents them, in a quiet, eerie, uncanny tone. Lost Highway starts out as the story of Fred (Bill Pullman), a haunted character, married to the blank and enigmatic Renee (Patricia Arquette). Their sparse apartment has the strangest, shiftiest spatial layout since the Star Ship Enterprise hit a time-warp continuum. At any rate, Fred is haunted by videotapes anonymously deposited at his door that show the inside of this flat, then he and his wife in bed and, finally, evidence of a horrifying murder committed by Fred himself. So Fred goes to jail, and waits to be executed. One morning in his cell, a cop looks in and finds that Fred is not there – in his place is a much younger man, Pete (Balthazar Getty). There is some shock and surprise registered at this strange fact, but no solid explanation will ever be forthcoming.


The substitution of Pete for Fred is only the start of an incredible series of narrative games in Lost Highway . Renee appears to be reborn as another woman – her twin, Alice – in a whole other story that branches off and develops around young Pete. There’s a very scary character called Mystery Man (Robert Blake). His introduction comes in a great scene where he marches up to Fred and tells him that he (Mystery Man) is right now sitting back in his (Fred’s) apartment. When Fred disbelieves this fancy, Mystery Man shoves a mobile phone at him and barks: ‘Well, call me.’ And sure enough, Mystery Man’s twin is on the other end of the line. (Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of the film spins out another intriguing possibility: that Mystery man and Renee are in fact the same character, thus four people in one – since we never see them in the same frame together, and one usually enters the frame after the other exits.) And then there’s the entire, strange shape of the plot, which eventually twists around itself, coming right back to the originary moment where a tinny voice speaks the mysterious words through an intercom: ‘Dick Laurent is dead’.


There’s much more to the plot and the world of Lost Highway than I am giving away. But at this point, it is more important to ask: what’s the wrong way of taking this plot? Naturally, we need go no further than the press kit handed out to reviewers in search of a quick line. In this document – which has greatly influenced the press coverage of the movie, as is often the case – it is suggested to us that the film is an ‘investigation into parallel identity crises’ (whatever that means) and, even more specifically, ‘the story of a killer who suffers from acute schizophrenia’, where ‘the point of view of the film is that of the different personalities of the killer himself’. (As a direct result of this kit, in at least three different venues, TV, magazine and newspaper, I have spotted psychotherapists being interviewed for their opinion on Lost Highway‘s ‘depiction of schizophrenia’ – not to mention the state of Lynch’s own sanity.)


This may all seem rather ridiculous as a fix on the film – it seemed pretty ridiculous to me, at first – but I would not want to completely discount or discard such notions, either. Lynch himself, in a marvellous interview published with the script of the film (Lost Highway, Faber and Faber, 1997), never endorses this literal interpretation. But it is at least clear that, for him, the film is about some kind of process of mental disturbance and crack-up, an imaginary escape from some unbearable reality. For him, quite simply, it is about ‘unfortunate things that happen to people’ – that’s putting it mildly – and especially ‘a thinking man in trouble’.


In Michel Chion’s excellent David Lynch (BFI, 1995), emphasis is placed on Lynch’s very particular artistic process, how he dreams up his scripts, images and sounds. He quite literally dreams, or at least daydreams, them through a process of meditation, letting things swim up from his unconscious to his conscious mind. Then he starts to work with his material, at every level, until everything feels right, fits right. Lynch may be the most intuitive and least intellectual of filmmakers – which is important to remember, since he is so often derided as a postmodern intellectual trickster, taunting us with enigmas and unreadable symbols. In the interview already mentioned, Lynch says that with his co-writer, novelist Barry Gifford, ‘we never talked about meaning or anything. We seemed to be in sync on where we were going, so a lot was left unsaid. We talked, but that can be dangerous. If things get too specific, the dream stops’.


The dream stops: what a telling, suggestive, resonant phrase! Lost Highway is much more than a film about dreams. apparitions or hallucinations; rather, it is a dream-like film, or more strongly, a dream-film. Saying this, I am aware that many of my favourite movies – from Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) and Buñuel’s classics to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man  (1995) – can fit this bill of the dream-film. Sometimes, it can be a lazy description, a meaningless tag like Surrealist or Magic Realist that really doesn’t tell us very much, other than that there are weird, crazy, illogical things going on in the movie. But Lynch’s films are authentically and deeply dream-like.


Maybe this doesn’t have so much to do with the surface content of his films. Much of the content in Lost Highway wades around, as a friend of mine put it, in Lynch’s familiar, shallow pool. There’s the spooky femme fatale, the hip-swinging teenagers in leather, the bumbling cops, the probably gay villain, and the noir-prototype hero stumbling through the mists of his own semi-consciousness. And there are the usual low jokes from Lynch the irrepressible showman: scenes of jokey violence meted out by Robert Loggia as ‘Mr Eddy’, prurient and silly gags about promiscuous sex.


There are the slightly corny, cliché, B movie signs of things mad and supernatural going on: subjective shots shifting in and out of focus, special transformation effects possibly derived from that fascinating little pre-X Files, philosophical mystery-thriller, Jacob’s Ladder (1990). But these familiar, more or less entertaining elements, are not the heart of the film. It was the British critic Raymond Durgnat who once suggested (in an essay on Blue Velvet in the 1988 Film Yearbook, edited by James Parks) that Lynch ‘dreams his films first, and plots them after … The plot is just a pretext for a dream’. And he added: ‘Lynch knows the secrets of poetic alchemy’. Lynch himself repeatedly refers to Lost Highway as an abstract film, and he stresses that what matters to him is not the characters and their identities, but the exact properties of specific movements, gestures and sounds. And there is no Lynch film more finely controlled and tuned than Lost Highway. From the first, empty apartment shots with their low soundtrack hum, the film is a quite dark and unnerving audio-visual event for the viewer. And, like in Twin Peaks, Lynch’s poetic alchemy comes together from a weave of odd, uncanny motifs – little incidents and phenomena that are never strictly meaningful or symbolic.


In Twin Peaks, there were the flickering fluoro lights everywhere, and the strange, endless rondo of telephonic and radiophonic occurrences – phones ringing, calls re-routed, voices issuing from tinny speakers. It is not fanciful to suggest that a goodly number of the motifs in Lost Highway may have arisen from Lynch’s conscious or unconscious meditation on the O.J. Simpson case – murder of a spouse, frenzied road pursuit, and so on. (1)


But once you pass down through the thick undergrowth of these poetic motifs – if you can stay open and alive to their sensual, disturbing magic – there is something going on underneath the surfaces of Lynch’s best films. Like Twin Peaks once again, Lost Highway is a film that seems founded on some unspoken secret, some trembling topic at its hidden centre, some phantasm. To spell this phantasm out is, in a sense, impossible … and it might spoil the fun, or stop the dream. But you can circle the secret, in the way that the film circles it. In the case of Lost Highway, I’m not sure I have an intimate feeling yet of just what that deep, dark secret is – although I strongly sense that it is there. Chion suggests (for example) that the psychoanalytic key of Lynch’s work revolves around the presence in the maker’s life or psyche of a depressive mother.


Others speculate (not always kindly) that Lynch’s cinema rests upon a particularly vicious and violent misogynist fantasy – always with the violation, extreme injury or murder of a woman at its centre. In a brilliant article titled “Incomparable Bodies”, Nicole Brenez reads Lost Highway as a febrile phantasm whose primal, inaugural image – a man being executed in an electric chair for the murder of his wife – is presented to us only in its ‘catastrophic versions’, its displacement into three distinct registers: a story of the mundane life of a couple that leads to death (the first section of the film), then the fantasticated version of that same story decked out with every movie cliché of glamour and violence (Getty section), and finally, threaded throughout, a system of ‘electric sensations’ that translate the death experience: images and sounds that conjure heightened, stroboscopic or ecstatically musical states.


All the terror about identity in Lost Highway definitely has something to do, in my mind, with an obscure, wretched anxiety attached to masculine sexuality – and all the crazed projections, paranoias and masochistic, apocalyptic visions that flow on from that anxiety. After all, the spookiest scene in the whole film is the initial, slow-motion sex scene between Fred/Pullman and Renee where, after he comes too soon, unable to control himself, she pats him coolly on the shoulder like a mother, whispering ‘That’s okay, that’s okay’. But we know what that means for this guy: nothing will ever again be okay. And the extremely disquieting pay-off from that moment comes for Fred/Getty much later, when he whispers into Renee’s ear as they make love in the desert ‘I want you’, and she replies as she dismounts him and strides off naked into the dark desert: ‘You’ll never have me.’


This, too, attracts the label of misogyny to Lynch and his work: the somewhat adolescent, essentially freaked-out apprehension of women’s sexual Otherness, never graspable, and always rather petrifying – but, as a (guy) viewer, I find Lynch’s cinematic embodiment of such primal, masculine, heterosexual terror compelling, haunting … even, in a weird way, touching.


Lynch does not like giving his films genre labels, and even the one he himself coined for Lost Highway – a ‘21st century noir horror film’, which has become its essential ad-line – he hastens to describe as a load of baloney. According to him, the one label that he can stand is mystery. He does not mean mystery in the banal sense of a detective story or whodunit – although he does sometimes launch off from these basic templates of mystery fiction, as in Twin Peaks. No, Lynch means mystery in a high-flown sense: the mystery of things, of appearances, of beings – the mystery of existence and of the phenomenal world. And, unlike a strictly generic mystery, Lynch’s aim is not to assuage mystery, to resolve all doubt, but rather to prolong a thick aura of mystery as far and as long as possible.


This brings us back, finally, to plot interpretation. It is easy, with Lost Highway, to fall into what I regard as the most boring, least fruitful question in the annals of film criticism and filmgoing. In a nutshell, this is the question – asked of just about any movie that has high poetic levels of mystery – ‘Is what we are seeing reality or fantasy?’ Variations on this hoary old question include: ‘Is what we see real or a dream?’ and ‘Is what we see reality or a character’s subjective hallucination?’ The problem here is the implication that such old, stickler questions can and should actually be answered in a quantifiable, rational way; the implication that it is just a matter of sorting out the constituent parts of a film, working out the logic that governs them, and then assigning the labels of fantasy or reality to each bit. Maybe it has something to do with our crummy education system, but it seems to me people are trained to ask such dumb-ass questions of mysterious films from Fellini’s Otto e mezzo and Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967) to David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991). And the questions function as deadly ways of taming or breaking the mystery of these films.


I don’t think it is a matter of simply declaring that all these movies of poetic mystery are dream-like, dream-films, and leaving it at that. Lost Highway certainly slides, in an indeterminate way, between many zones of fantasy and reality; and it plays in a spooky, excruciating way on the tension, the agony we feel being caught in the middle of this indeterminacy as viewers. We try to make sense of the things Lynch shows us – it is in our human nature to do this, after all – but then we find that the path back to rational, coherent narrative is indeed a lost highway. Too much of the road has dissolved or been broken up, forked off into multiple paths, just behind our backs, as we plunged forward with this most driven and compelling of films. And, hurtling forward in some strange mutating, indefinite state, like Fred/Pullman in the last shots of the movie, we have no choice but to follow Lynch when he says: ‘There are things that happen sometimes that open up a door and let you soar out and feel a bigger thing’.

© Adrian Martin March 1997

MORE Lynch: Mulholland Drive, Lumière and Company, The Straight Story, Inland Empire, Twin Peaks: The Return

See also: Outside / Twin Peaks (2015)

MORE memory complexes: The Blackout, Memento


1. In the course of a Salon interview on Mulholland Drive (2001), Lynch looked back on Lost Highway and told Andy Klein: "It’s O.J. Simpson, Andy. That’s what did it. Think about it: I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, but it must have been inspired by, subconsciously anyway, the O.J. Simpson trial. And how O.J. Simpson’s mind had to be tricked, so that he could go out and play golf, rather than commit suicide for the deed he did." back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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