Lost Highway's Bloody Blues

Lost Highway
Directed by David Lynch. Written by David Lynch and Barry Gifford. Starring Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Loggia, Robert Blake, Gary Busey, Richard Pryor, and Jack Nance. Opens Friday, Feb. 28, at the Embarcadero Center in S.F. and the California in Berkeley.

Color Schemes
By Gregg Rickman

David Lynch is a painter, and while most viewers of his new movie, Lost Highway, will puzzle over its literally looped plot, a look at the film as film can reveal a lot more than that exercise. Lynch is drawn, as ever, to photographing color and texture, these subjects often discovered merging into or emerging out of a velvety black darkness. Thus the red cigarette tip that introduces us to Lost Highway's protagonist, jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman). It's midnight in his soul: He dwells in darkness in a morbid stupor with his redheaded wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). Fred's a walking dead man long before he's consigned to a prison of rust and scabby paint on metal and light fixtures that slide out of focus, like everything else in his life.

The world of garage mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), an alter self of Fred's who dominates the movie's second movement, is by contrast Southern California bright, a sunlight that's good to sit and recover in after unaccountably finding oneself, as Pete has, in Fred's prison cell. That sunlight reveals a multicolored world: the bluish gouge in Pete's forehead, a plastic wading pool, a little white dog, and eventually the bright-red sign over the garage where Pete works. As his portion of the movie continues, however, Pete finds himself sliding away from the sunlight, away from the garage, his biker parents, and his brunette girlfriend, and into a perpetual night, guided into it by the bright blondness of a new girlfriend. She too is played by Arquette, a clear sign we've moved into the realm of doubles and doppelgangers Lynch made his own in previous works.

Many viewers will wonder if Fred Madison is indeed responsible for the grotesque crime for which he is condemned. Lynch likes to keep his tales ambiguous, but to this viewer it seems likely that Fred is, in one psychic state or another, guilty. But critiques of Lynch's work for its oft-extreme violence seem peculiarly off the point; Lynch is patently more interested in the mental dislocation that allows such violence than the acts themselves. Unlike filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, who add violence to their films like cooks shaking pepper into soup, Lynch is more devilish, tucking wince-inducing peppercorns into an ominous piece of meat. In interviews Lynch calls Lost Highway a film about “psychogenic fugue,” and indeed it seems of a piece with Lynch's exploration of extreme personality disorders in his earlier work — specifically the dissociative states inspired by Twin Peaks' possessive spirit, Bob. Possession states are one way of denying responsibility for one's actions, and Lynch's characters have more reason than most to be amnesiac.

Even before he meets the candy-colored clown called the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who holds down the job of demonic spirit in this film, Fred Madison already seems as entranced as one of Bob's victims. The sustained scenes of mounting menace amid blond wood furniture and burnished black saxophones that make up Lost Highway's first 40 minutes — an oppressive world made even more so by a dense and layered sound design — unnervingly convey Fred's existential unease. As with others of Lynch's characters, particularly those in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Fred Madison eventually comes unstuck in time, and Pete, the kid he morphs into, bears the stigmata of Fred's passage in the huge bruise on his forehead. Given that Lynch has long refused to acknowledge the unity of body, mind, and spirit taken for granted by most of us as essential to mental health, it figures that Lynch again and again symbolizes that dethroned unity with images of battered, crushed, and decapitated heads. He's done it before, in films going back to Eraserhead, and he does so here.

A film of compelling interest down to its perhaps too-open ending, Lost Highway seems a little off only in some midfilm displays of comic ferocity by Robert Loggia; they seem like crowd-pleasers, and this is not a crowd-pleasing film. Otherwise, it's as uncompromising as anything Lynch has made. In handling and in theme Lynch has picked up exactly where he left off with the masterful Fire Walk With Me five years ago. That Lost Highway seems to be getting a fairly good critical reception, as opposed to the excoriation heaped on Fire Walk With Me, is a function less of critical enlightenment than the fact that Lynch has been absent from the screen for several years, and novelty-hungry reviewers aren't tired of him, as they were in 1992. (The rave reviews Blue Velvet, the first real Lynch film most critics had ever seen, got in 1986 can in part be attributed to the same factor.) To this viewer, Lost Highway's major shortcoming lies in its relatively unthreatening status as, in part, only an intellectual puzzle — albeit a mighty perturbing one. You'll need to see it a couple of times to really figure it out. The best episodes of Twin Peaks, and Fire Walk With Me as well, by contrast, terrify with their excruciating depiction of psychosis as the result of childhood sexual abuse. The most affecting portion of Lost Highway is instead the depiction of a strained, threatened marriage in its first third — superbly done, to be sure, but hardly so disturbing. Its disorienting narrative aside, Lost Highway will be enjoyed by many, the sex and violence of its last third venturing into the cartoonish realm of Wild at Heart, Lynch's first collaboration with Lost Highway co-scenarist Barry Gifford. (At one point, Arquette tells Getty of a violent sexual encounter; besides being the one scene that suggests Wild at Heart's endlessly digressive stories-within-stories, her enthusiasm for her tale guarantees that it will also be the one that feminists may most fairly object to.) [page]

Yet even as Lost Highway recapitulates much of Lynch's earlier work, it may also mark a new path for this major filmmaker, the Griffith or Hitchcock of our time, and I say this in full awareness of those men's problematic politics. Lynch will forever be disturbing on multiple levels to all people of goodwill with his insistence not just on the reality of evil, but on the unredeemable perversity of humanity and the harsh fate life metes out to both innocents and the insane. And he will continue to disturb everyone with his denial of the unity of body, mind, and spirit — of which this film's disorienting plot is just the most obvious marker.

The Wizard of Weird
By Andy Klein

In the two decades since Eraserhead, David Lynch has established himself as American cinema's premier surrealist, our own Wizard of Weird. Although his first two Hollywood projects — The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984) — had room only around the edges for the sort of spooky shit at which he excels, his personal style found its greatest synthesis with traditional narrative in Blue Velvet (1986), still his masterpiece.

After Blue Velvet, one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the decade, one might have expected Lynch to have an easier time getting his projects before the camera. But at least two scripts, Ronnie Rocket and One Saliva Bubble (not the world's most commercial title), have been on-again-off-again for years.

While Lynch and television seemed like an unlikely match, it was, of course, Twin Peaks that brought him by far his widest audience — if only for a year or so. Despite the show's quick decline and the popular failure of Hotel Room and On the Air (his two subsequent shows), Twin Peaks exerted an impact that outlasted its run: TP begat The X-Files and Northern Exposure, which respectively begat Millennium and Picket Fences, and on and on.

Both Wild at Heart (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) disappointed many of the Lynch faithful. The latter was unavoidably compromised by the problems of reassembling the TV cast; and, for all its wacko elements, the former felt like a potboiler: It had the director's trademark themes and stylistic flash, but it had as much unity as a vaudeville show. Sure, it was funny, it was intriguing; but, like his two other adaptations of pre-existing works, it was Lynch applying his particular style to a story that didn't seem to have sprung from his very soul the way Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks had.

Happily, in Lost Highway, Lynch's first feature in five years, the director seems to be tapping into his twisted subconscious more directly than he has in a decade. His most thoroughly surreal work since Eraserhead, this two-hour-plus fever dream is more of one piece than Fire Walk With Me and less desperate and jokey than Wild at Heart.

A plot synopsis of Lost Highway is particularly difficult because it's not really about plot — it barely has a plot. And it's tough to describe what makes the film such a riveting, baffling experience without giving away all the good parts. But here goes. The movie opens with the flare of a match, followed by headlights speeding down a nocturnal road, an image that is repeated several times. Without much fanfare, we meet Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a well-to-do sax player who lives in the Hollywood Hills (my guess) with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette with red hair). An anonymous message tells Fred someone named Dick Laurent is dead — unfortunately, Fred doesn't know who Dick Laurent is. And he barely cares, since he's more concerned with the possibility that his wife might be having an affair. But it's hard to know if he's a cuckold or a paranoid; he already seems to be in the grip of some sort of mental or spiritual derangement.

One day, the couple find a videocassette deposited on their doorstep. After a few seconds' footage of the front of their house, it fritzes out to static. The tape has some connection to a bizarre character, referred to in the credits only as Mystery Man. When Fred meets Mystery Man at a party, he recognizes him from an earlier hallucination or dream. Mystery Man looks like a diminutive Klaus Nomi impersonator or a refugee from Carnival of Souls: demonic, grinning, pasty-faced. (The actor was naggingly familiar, but I had to consult the press kit during the screening to see who it was; and he's so unrecognizable that, when I saw the name Robert Blake, I assumed it was some other Robert Blake. But, no — this is Baretta, looking totally different without his cockatoo.) He is ominously identified as “a friend of Dick Laurent,” though we still don't know who Dick Laurent is. Yet MM knows things about — and reveals things to — Fred that are impossible to know.

More tapes arrive, each starting the same way but progressing a little further. Two deadpan cops — one fat, one thin — show up to investigate. “Do you own a video camera?” they ask.

“Fred hates video cameras,” Renee tells them.
“Why?”
“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. [page]

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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