Lost Highway's Bloody Blues

"Fred hates video cameras," Renee tells them.
"I like to remember things my own way," Fred reluctantly says.
"How's that?"
"The way I remember them," Fred says, "not the way it happened."

Pretty soon, it gets hard to tell which is closer to "the way it happened" -- Fred's memory or the videos. Suffice it to say that Fred gets locked up for a crime that seems to exist only on tape: We never see the act or its aftermath directly. His mental condition deteriorates in jail -- to the point that one morning he wakes up and he's someone else.

Without any clear internal explanation, Fred Madison transforms into, or is replaced by, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young auto mechanic from Van Nuys. For the rest of the movie, Lynch drops lots of hints about just what the hell is going on while refusing to allow one consistent explanation. Pete seems to be part of a new story, but then -- like the spiders Pete sees crawling all over his bedroom in one scene -- little bits of Fred's world begin to infest Pete's reality. A gangster named Mr. Eddie (Robert Loggia, once again delivering in a choice role) may be Dick Laurent; Alice, Mr. Eddie's girlfriend, looks exactly like a blond Renee, and indeed both parts are played by Patricia Arquette.

And then the story gets more complicated, even more full of inconsistencies.
In terms of Hollywood narrative values, Lost Highway makes Blue Velvet and even Wild at Heart look positively conventional. And it lacks the air of sensational expose that formed Blue Velvet's subtext. It might be possible to come up with a class-based analysis -- Fred is a professional, Pete's working-class -- but it's hard to imagine anything more beside the point. Lost Highway is like a long dream story: Characters have two faces or names or both; some seem to have no existence for long stretches, while others are in two places at once; people who are supposed to be dead turn up alive; random moments are inexplicably charged with awe or terror. The interweaving of repeated images, words, and events is almost as rich as in Blue Velvet, but not nearly as neat.

If you equate Van Nuys with hell -- an amusing, probably defensible notion -- then Lost Highway could be seen as a retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: a musician descends into the land of the dead to try to reclaim his lover. I can see several likelier ways to read the film, none of them conclusive or wholly satisfying. To detail them now would only prejudice and limit your viewing of it. (And I'd have to give away virtually every surprise.) But this is Lynch's purest investigation into nothing less than the fabric of reality, experience, and identity.

It's also his furthest-out film since Eraserhead and his best since Blue Velvet. It is filled with constant reminders of his other work, stylistically and otherwise. There are bits of Twin Peaks (Mystery Man's come-on to Fred is similar to Bob's seduction of Leland Palmer), Fire Walk With Me (Fred's passage into some other world resembles the picture/dream scene), Wild at Heart (the sudden outbursts of violence), and Blue Velvet (all over the place). It also evokes the wonderful 1995 Japanese film The Mystery of Rampo (in which a mystery writer finds reality and the plot of one of his books merging), itself heavily influenced by Lynch. The only other outside film Lost Highway draws on is Adrian Lyne's atypical Jacob's Ladder, which detailed a similar sort of psychological-existential unease.

Lynch's longtime composer, Angelo Badalamenti, is on board again, with an assist from Brit acolyte Barry Adamson. ("Something Wicked This Way Comes," off Adamson's Oedipus Schmoedipus album, which accompanies the party scene, is a bizarre, uncredited instrumental version of the Classics IV hit "Spooky.") And it's nice to see another Lynch regular, the late Jack Nance, in one last brief role -- not to mention getting to see Richard Pryor's mug on-screen, however momentarily.

Lost Highway really does represent a return to form for Lynch. It may appear as inchoate as Wild at Heart, but I think the seeming disorder is built into its essentially unanswerable concerns. Like, say, the last 10 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it simultaneously challenges us to "figure out" its puzzle and makes any clean solution impossible. Also like 2001, it took me two viewings to pick up half of what was going on, and it's a film better absorbed and experienced than analyzed.

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