Thursday, October 10, 2013

Funny How Secrets Travel: Revisiting David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) Conclusion.

A crucial component of the cinema's magic is that it allows us to identity with other people to the point that we almost become them, if only for a brief interval in the dark.  The people that we become in the cinema are frequently younger and better looking than ourselves, or exist in a spectrum of possibilities which are far more expansive than our own.  Our surrogates in the cinema succeed more grandly and suffer more poetically than we do - their lives afford them opportunities for intense emotions that remain fresh and undiluted by the passage of time.  They emerge fully formed all in an instant, and vanish as quickly, their lives enclosed in the elegant order of finite stories; unlike us, they can elude the determinism of past events, and live in an exalted present unsullied by an indeterminate future.  In the same way that Rear Window reminds us that the cinema is fundamentally about watching other people, Lost Highway reminds us that it is also about becoming other people - if only for as long we can forget ourselves in the dark.

This, at any rate, is what appears to happen to Fred Madison, after he has been jailed and convicted for the murder of Renee.  Following a protracted transformation involving intense light, electricity, churning fog, and - most intriguingly - what looks like a POV shot of a bullet ripping through his brain, Fred is replaced in his cell by a much younger man.  At this point, Lost Highway effectively inserts us about twenty minutes into a entirely different film - a teenage wasteland coming of age noir thriller - populated by apparently different characters.  As we are introduced to Pete Dayton, we have to play catch-up on the parts we have missed.  This, however, is not too difficult - whereas Fred's movie is abstract and surreal, Pete's is more conventionally filmic in logic - and we know the conventions of this world intimately.  As soon as Robert Loggia's Mr Eddy arrives at the garage where Pete works, we know instantly who the character is and what function he will serve.    The music tells us before we even see him, and even if the soundtrack wasn't sufficient, Mr Eddy's opening dialogue brazenly announces that he is a violent gangster.  This comic obviousness is part of the pleasure of the character, and Robert Loggia's performance is one of the great pleasures of watching Lost Highway.  Some people have called Mr Eddy a poor man's Frank Booth, but this is missing the point.  Mr Eddy is Frank Booth shorn of all particularity, refined down to an archetype, to an instantly readable cinematic shorthand.  Loggia's performance is thus as red-blooded, unsubtle, and sumptuous as a juicy steak - every line and every gesture oozes alpha-male oiliness and implicit/explicit menace.  (The apogee of Mr Eddy's passive aggression comes in his phone-call to Pete: "I just wanted to jump on to tell you I'm really glad you're doing okay."  The tailgating sequence, of course, is also the stuff of legend - as funny if not more so than anything in Tarantino.)  Similarly, when Renee inevitably re-emerges as Mr Eddy's blonde mistress Alice Wakefield - in a beautifully rhapsodic slo-mo sequence scored by Lou Reed's cover of the Drifters' This Magic Moment - our knowledge of noir conventions prevents us from completely surrendering to the moment.

As the second section of Lost Highway morphs effectively into a different type of movie, the style is conspicuously altered.  While the first part relied almost exclusively on Lynch's own low frequency industrial dreadscapes, the soundtrack now becomes more prominent and eclectic, sampling a temporally diffuse melange of styles, with a particular stress on musicians who were then emblems of youthful disaffection and alienation: Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan, and Marilyn Manson.  (Echoing the movie's theme of "a world where time is dangerously out of control", both Reed and Manson perform songs that evoke the late 50s/early 60s.)  If the Fred Madison section feels like a claustrophobic nightmare, then Pete's story assumes, at least initially, the character of a twilight dream, a giddy reverie, thrilling with the freedom of cars, motorcycles, and youthful sexual ardour.  The editing rhythm changes, from scenes which are very discrete in the first section to scenes that flow into one another, carried along by mood and music.  A beautiful example of this dreamy, free-flowing style is the lengthy sequence where Alice seduces Pete and and their affair gathers pace in a series of motels; Lynch runs all this together as a montage, bookended by gorgeous magic hour aerial shots of LA and the desert, and scored by Barry Adamson's Hollywood Sunset.

This dreamy respite cannot sustain itself for long, however.  The circumstances of Pete's actually getting to Fred's prison cell hover in the background as something unspeakable which neither his parents or girlfriend Sheila are prepared to share with him.  (Although we assume the involvement of the Mystery Man, Lynch leaves this aspect of the story opaque to the last.)  In the same way that Fred hears a faint echo of Song to the Siren's brief moment of sexual bliss, Pete is upset by hearing Fred's paranoid and edgy sax soloing on the radio in the garage.  The Mystery Man reappears, and confirms the viewers' suspicion that Pete has been Fred all along, granted some kind of respite, but still in the firing-ling for his crime:   "In the East, the far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they're sent to a place where they can't escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them, and fire a bullet in the back of their head."  (I've often wondered if Lynch was drawing on some specific source for this.  It reminds me a little of the myths surrounding Hassan-i Sabbah's artificial mountaintop paradises, but I suspect it is an invention of the director.)  By the time we get to Andy's house, the separateness of Pete's story from Fred's is completely unraveling.  Alice and Renee's identities have begun to overlap around the encounter with Andy ( "It was a long time ago....we met at this place called Mokes.  We became friends.  He told me about a job....")  Pete himself is starting to become increasingly paranoid and jealous regarding Alice, just like Fred was with Renee - in his second sex scene with Sheila, the close-up of Pete looking down and away from Sheila echoes the earlier shot of Fred's panic and despair with Renee.  In Andy's house, Pete discovers the picture of Alice, Renee, Andy, and Mr Eddy/Dick Laurent, and his mind begins to further unravel.  We witness another of Lost Highway's temporal/spatial displacements: when he goes upstairs to look for the bathroom, Pete finds himself instead in the corridor of the Lost Highway Hotel (which we have yet to encounter.)  Stepping into room 26 (where Renee will later have sex with Mr Eddy/Dick Laurent) Pete sees a bad trip phantasmagoria of a mocking Alice having sex with an indistinct figure.  Between this, the pornography projected downstairs, and Alice's abrupt transformation into the classic noir femme fatale, the male anxiety and sexual panic of the first section has been fully restored.  Alice has been transformed from an object of idealized femininity to a figure of alarming sexual potency and amorality; a temptress who both makes a man of, and emasculates Pete.

The significance of the Mystery Man's desert cabin remains puzzling, but it's clear precursor is the beach house in the brilliantly unnerving conclusion to Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955):

The initial two sections of Lost Highway culminate in a parallel fashion.  In the first part, Fred and Renee drive back to the Madison house, and the murder of Renee follows.  In the second, Pete and Alice drive to Mystery Man's cabin in Death Valley, and the murder of Dick Laurent follows.  Outside the cabin, Pete and Alice have sex, illuminated by the headlights of Andy's car:

This is a subtle echo of the pornography being projected in Andy's house in the previous scene.  In a sense, Pete's lovemaking with Alice in this scene is an attempt to nullify the effects of the pornography, to place what he perceives as its degraded sexuality on an etherealized and spiritual plane.  As the movie loses itself for a moment in a rapture of incandescent bodies, it appears as though he might be successful.  However, after he repeats "I want you" a couple of times, Alice breaks away, and says "You'll never have me" with flat finality, before strolling off like a faery queen back to the Otherworld.  Emasculated and bereft, Pete becomes Fred once more, and Lost Highway enters its confusing final leg.  Under the guidance of the Mystery Man, Fred (wearing Pete's clothes, and behaving at this point like little more than an automaton) drives to the Lost Highway Hotel, where Dick Laurent and Renee are having sex.  After giving Laurent a tender kiss, Renee puts on the dress Alice was wearing when she first propositioned Pete at the garage, and drives away.  Fred beats up Laurent, bundles him into the trunk of his Mercedes (perhaps adding a degree of irony to Mr Eddy's earlier antipathy to tailgating) and drives out to the desert.  Meanwhile, the two detective pairs are united at the crime scene in Andy's place.  They find the picture (which no longer contains Alice) and identify Renee Madison, with Al observing "There's no such thing as a bad coincidence", as though this whole mess was something that old fashioned police work could neatly resolve.  The viewer may be more skeptical, or at sea, at this point.  Out in the desert, Fred slashes Dick Laurent's throat with a knife from the MM.  When Laurent esquires why the rough-handling, the MM produces another of his accusatory technologies: a portable television, showing grainy video footage of a deeply seedy gathering at Andy's place.  Laurent and Renee make out, apparently stimulated by a snuff porno being projected on the wall (which always reminds me a little of the opening of Get Carter).  Seemingly resigned to his fate, Laurent utters suitably enigmatic parting words: "You and me, mister, we can really out-ugly them sumbitches, can't we?"  It's not clear whether this line is addressed to the MM or Fred Madison.  Then, followed whispered and inaudible instructions from the MM, Fred drives back to his house and and returns full circle, leaving the "Dick Laurent is dead" message on the intercom.  Fleeing the police into the desert and into the night, Fred begins to transform again and the movies ends.

What to make of it all?  As a narrative, we seem to left with something like a moebius strip, or even the impossible objects of M.C. Escher: something which can be comprehended by the eye, but which nevertheless cannot physically exist in the manner in which it is interpreted visually.  The most common theoretical explanation of Lost Highway is that most if not all of the movie takes place in Fred Madison's head.  Fred has murdered Renee and been convicted for the crime.  The trauma of the event has caused him to invent an innocent surrogate identity and alternative narrative for himself as Pete Dayton.  The Pete Dayton story as the wish-fulfilment fantasy of a guilty man makes a lot of sense.  As Pete, Fred becomes young, sexually energetic, and desirable; whereas Fred frets about Renee cheating on him, it is Pete who cheats on his adoring partner Sheila.  The fantasy gives him the opportunity to start fresh with Renee (as Alice), and by presenting Alice as a heartless femme fatale, provides a kind of justification for Fred's suspicions and eventual violence towards Renee.  In Lost Highway: Who is Dick Laurent?, the blogger italkyoubored presents a sophisticated version of this theory which has the considerable advantage of making sense of the final section of the film, the part that always bothered me most in the past.  According to this version, the first events in the real chronology of the story are those that take place in the Lost Highway Hotel.  Fred has learned that Renee is cheating on him with Dick Laurent, and follows them to the hotel.  After Renee leaves, Fred takes Laurent out to the desert and kills him.  This causes Fred to effectively lose his mind; he buries the knowledge of his crime deep in his subconscious.  So the first scene in the movie where Fred is alone in the house is the immediate aftermath of this killing.  The intercom message does come from himself, insofar as it is his faint, heavily repressed awareness of what he has done asserting itself.  Looping the Lost Highway Hotel events back to the beginning might seem to involve some creative interpretative footwork, but it at least accounts for two things: why Renee is alive again (not as Alice) at the end of the movie, and Pete's vision of the Lost Highway corridor upstairs in Andy's place.  On this understanding, as Pete's idealization of Alice crumbles, and Fred's fantasy unravels, his mind goes back to the primal scene where his idealization of Renee was first shattered in reality.  "Don't you want to ask me Why?" the hyper-vampish Alice asks in the vision, possibly referring to question of why Renee cheated on Fred.  (It could, however, also refer to Pete's naive and ardent later questioning of Alice at the cabin "Why?  Why did you choose me?")

Hence, we can see that on this theory, Fred's Pete Dayton/Mr Eddy fantasy provides a perfect justification for both his murders.  In the scene which the Mystery Man produces on the portable television, we see the ultimate projection of Fred's disgust with the adulterers.  Turned on by the bloodshed in the porno, their sexual desire is manifested as something animalistic, unrestrained, and evil in character.  Another interesting point is worth noting in the Lost Highway Hotel scene.  Italkyoubored  points out the similarities between Andy's car and the car Fred drives in the first half of the movie:

The significance of this may seem obscure, but it was only reading a summary elsewhere that I hit on something that I'd never paid any attention to while watching the movie.  When Renee leaves the Lost Highway, she drives away in Andy's car; Fred takes Laurent in the Mercedes.  So, in a sense, the story could be morphing back to the original chronology, with Renee driving away from a meeting with Laurent not in Andy's car but in her husband Fred's car - the car we have seen in the first half of the movie.  There are some other subtle visual cues which might suggest that both the Fred and Pete sections of the film are taking place in Fred's mind while in prison - the first his unreliable recollection of the events leading up to the murder, and the second a fantasy to escape from the consequences of what he has done.  During the first section of the film, we often notice Fred looking up with a peculiar expression, first at the skylight when one of the detectives is on the roof, and secondly when he is about to watch the video cassette in which Renee is murdered:

These shots seem to echo Fred in his prison cell where he is constantly looking up through the bars at a light up above:

Similarly, when Pete is first brought back home by his parents, we see him relaxing in the Dayton's back lawn on a recliner.  It's always been one of my favorite scenes in the film, for reasons that I could never quite articulate.  There is something ambiguous and mysterious about Pete's expression as he gets up and looks across into the neighbors' lawn.  The proportions of the Daytons' suburban lawn are not dissimilar to those of a prison cell (there's a ready-made metaphor if ever there was one), and Pete's stance on the recliner is comparable to Fred's on his prison bed earlier in the film:


(Italkyoubored also notes these points, and I've borrowed the screen-grabs from there.)  Some of Lynch's comments might also lend a degree of credence to this way of viewing Lost Highway.  Years later, the director realized that the real psychological spur to Lost Highway had been another great icon of 90s media culture: the OJ Simpson trial.  "What struck me about OJ Simpson was that he was able to smile and laugh.  He was able to go golfing with seemingly few problems about the whole thing.  I wondered how, if a person did those deeds, he could go on living.  And we found this great psychology term - 'psychogenic fugue' - describing an event where the mind tricks itself to escape some horror.  So, in a way, Lost Highway is about that.  And the fact that nothing can stay hidden forever."  Nevertheless, as persuasive overall as this theory is - and Lynch clearly envisioned it as at least a considerable part of the overall design - I've never been completely satisfied by it.  (It's worth noting that Lynch and Gifford only came across the term psychogenic fugue after the film had already gone into production, so Lynch seems to have latched on to it as an apt metaphor for what Lost Highway was about, rather than as a concept he was working off from the beginning.)  First of all, if the whole movie is reflected through Fred's unreliable subjectivity, then it is difficult to see how we can confidently separate what is real from what is fantasy.  We have to except that Fred already knows that his wife has had an affair and who Dick Laurent really is, but has suppressed this knowledge to such an extent that he is completely unaware of it on a day to day basis.  The whole episode of the video cassettes can't be real, because we have no way to account for them without resorting to pure speculation, so we have to regard them as examples of an objective consciousness rupturing Fred's subjective version of events.  (If the cassettes are invented, then the detectives Lou and Bob must also be, as they would have no reason otherwise to visit the Madison's.)  Since the Mystery Man must similarly be understood as an aspect of Fred's psyche rather than an external entity, then part or all of the scene at Andy's party must be illusory.  If, on the other hand, the prison sequences are the only part which is undiluted reality, it is worth noting that they are as anachronistic and unrealistic as anything in the film - Lynch's prison is as much a creation of old film noirs as Alice Wakefield's femme fatale.  The straight story interpretation, then, while extremely persuasive and elucidatory of many puzzling aspects of the film, nevertheless feels a little strained and precarious at times.  With so much that most be written off as subjective fantasy, some viewers have chosen instead to view the events in Lost Highway as happening for the most part literally as we see them -  albeit in a universe subject to very different physical laws and parameters than our own.

The Bardo Thodol: "Your life is a rehearsal - your performance is real".

In a scene in the second season of Twin Peaks, Cooper, Truman, and Hawk discuss a problem which seems germane to much of Lynch's later work: is Bob a real, autonomous, and external entity, or just a symbolic projection of the darkness that haunts man's soul?  Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Dr. all seem to posit this question in one form or another, in that they depict scenarios which might be satisfied by both an external/supernatural, or purely internal/psychological, explanation.  The psychological explanations work for the most part - but the supernatural component retains a certain eerie potency which cannot be entirely laid aside.  (Indeed, some of Lynch's intimations of the supernatural have such an eerie power that they are not things to be dwelt upon overlong when you are alone at night.)  Of the three, Twin Peaks would appear the least ambiguous in this regard - we cannot but take the animistic mythology of the White and Black Lodges as the literal reality of the TP universe.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that Lynch never makes this dichotomy between interior psychology and exterior paranormality too clear cut.  Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me strikes us as a film which is somehow both a paranormal horror film, and a depressingly real-world story of familial sex abuse and murder.  Bob can be seen as an external entity which nevertheless must be invited in by a preexisting darkness in Leland Palmer's soul - a thing which is thus intermediate between the interior and exterior worlds.  It may be that Lynch prefers to retain both explanations as potentially valid - that a great deal of the power of his work may derive from this unresolved ambiguity between what is only in the minds of his protagonists, and what exists in some sense in the world independent of them.  It is surely significant that according to Lynch's publicly expressed philosophical orientation, any perceived dichotomy between the internal and external worlds is ultimately illusory - all is one and all is conscious.

Viewing Lost Highway in relation to the Twin Peaks universe, the similarities need hardly be stressed.  The Mystery Man, like Bob, is an entity who draws out and seems to derive his power from the dark and submerged desires already present in his victims - It is not my custom to go where I am not invited.  Similarly, Fred's apparent assimilation into Pete Dayton is comparable to Bob's into Leland Palmer, in that Palmer and Pete contain both identities, but are only aware of one.   In fact, all the paranormal impossibilities of Lost Highway - identity assimilation and possession, spatio-temporal paradoxes - are viable aspects of Twin Peaks' other-dimensional physics.  Intriguingly, wikipedia and various other sources claim that Lynch later confessed that Lost Highway was set "in the same world as Twin Peaks" - but I haven't been able to find the original quotation anywhere, if it exists.  One idea intrigues me about Lost Highway, but it may be more of an interesting aside than anything which could sustain itself as an interpretation: that in some trans-temporal fashion, Fred and Pete swap their murders Strangers on a Train style.  Remember that in the first section, Fred is barely aware of Dick Laurent, and it is Andy who is clearly signposted as the object of his jealousy.  In the second section, Andy remains an insignificant figure to Pete, but it is really Dick Laurent/Mr Eddy that stands in the way of his relationship with Alice.  But Fred ultimately kills Dick Laurent/Mr Eddy, and Pete kills Andy.  It is almost as though the Mystery Man arranges their submerged wishes to come true, but in a way which is mutually catastrophic to both.  No such thing as a bad coincidence.

Long before I knew about Lynch's interest in Tibet and meditation, I always had a vague sense that Lost Highway was related in some sense to the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead.  (Apologies in advance for a knowledge of the Bardo which remains, despite intentions to the contrary, second-hand and imperfect.)  The word bardo means an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state.  In the context of the Bardo Thodol, it refers specifically to the state which is intermediate between death and rebirth.  During this period, the soul is separated from the body, and experiences a variety of both hallucinatory and visionary (in a true sense) experiences, which range from the highest apprehensions of reality which soul is capable ("the clear light of reality"), to terrifying encounters with demons and mirages which are derived from the desires and failings of the soul's previous existence.  It is through our attachment to the earthly things which we encounter in life that we are drawn into a cycle of rebirth and suffering - a cycle which is only broken when the soul is enlightened, and leaves off altogether the illusory attractions of the world to be re-absorbed into the light of pure and undifferentiated being.  The Bardo Thodol provides aid for the soul making its way through these perilous intermediate realms, and is designed to guide the soul towards the clear light, and away from negative karmic influences which will draw it back into unfruitful rebirths.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the "first is the moment of death.  The consciousness becomes aware of and excepts the fact that it has recently died, and it reflects upon its past life.  In the second bardo, it encounters frightening apparitions.  Without an understanding that these apparitions are unreal, the consciousness becomes confused, and depending upon its karma, may be drawn into a rebirth that impedes its liberation.  The third bardo is the transition into a new body."  Without applying this too crudely or schematically over Lost Highway, it can hardly be denied that Fred appears to be trapped in a cycle of rebirth, or repetition of the basic core story of his life in different variations - his desire to utterly possess Renee/Alice and its tragic consequences always drawing him back, to fail again and suffer again.  (The fermata tattoo might point obliquely to this - a note sustained beyond its natural duration.)   Note again that all Fred's transformations are accompanied by blinding light - the clear light of reality, or its best approximation, which the soul perceives at the moment of death - and that his constant looking up seems to refer to the light in his prison cell.  Note also that when Pete and Renee make love in the desert - the closest Fred/Pete comes in the film to true happiness - Lynch films their bodies so that they appear composed almost of pure light - which, if one excepts this Buddhist interpretation, might refer to an imperfect sense of the clear light of true being, refracted through Fred/Pete's earthly lust in its highest expression.

Whether this explanation is ultimately any more satisfying or final than the previous ones we have looked at, it at least provides a way in which certain aspects of the psychogenic fugue and supernatural perspectives could both be valid.  It seems odd in a sense that Lynch's absorption in Eastern philosophical tradition isn't more often invoked in the attempts to understand his films, or at least describe where they are coming from.  When offering viewers a tentative key to approaching Inland Empire, Lynch often quoted the following, from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:  "We are like the spider.  We weave our life and then move along it.  We are like the dreamer that dreams and then lives in the dream.  This is true for the entire universe."  Anyway, we've come to the end of this return trip down the Lost Highway.  Revisiting and rediscovering the movie has given me a sense of how those of us who grew up in the 90s - in an era of grainy, disturbing yet compulsive VHS cassettes that seemed to echo the unfamiliarity and anxiety of your own adolescent worlds - were fortunate to have somebody to take us on such singular trips.  There's nobody quite like Lynch today - or ever.  However one chooses to view Lost Highway, it seems inarguable that for Lynch, what must underlie all the movies and flickering illusions (which have proliferated to the point of fractalization in Inland Empire, as they have done in our own lives) and the straight stories of obsession and loss that underlie the movies, is always and only the perennial Dream Factory, the projector of consciousness itself.


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