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.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Funny How Secrets Travel: Revisiting David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) Part 1 of 2.

"Coop, tell me, the idea for all this really came from a dream?"

There are, needless to say, many ways to approach a David Lynch film - particularly the more complex and illusive works characteristic of the director's late period.  For some viewers, a Lynch movie is an intricate but essentially solvable puzzle of dream-logic; however initially baffling, every mystery can nevertheless be unlocked and unraveled and made sense of.  In the aftermath of Mulholland Dr. (2001), a popular view emerged that beneath all the shifting flux of identities and narratives, all the bizarre interludes and intimations of peripheral supernatural conspiracy, Lynch's late movies are really just straight stories - logically coherent,  traditionally linear and realistic narratives which have been artfully jumbled up and hidden amid the dreams and fantasies of their protagonists.  As with the inverted chronology of Memento, but requiring somewhat greater mental heavy-lifting, the straight story can be reverse-engineered from the Lynchian dream-world in which it has been embedded.  Strangely, the view that Lynch's films are to be interpreted and ultimately explained has been absorbed into the arsenal of many a Lynch detractor - more than once I have encountered the assertion that Lynch and his admirers are engaged in a conspiracy of obscurantism and snobbery, a put-on designed to leave the rubes who "don't get it" out in the cold.

The contrary perspective is most succinctly expressed by the British critic Paul Taylor: Lynch's work is "to be experienced rather than explained."  On this viewpoint, Lynch films are not intellectual jigsaw puzzles which must be painstakingly re-assembled until they assume a logically coherent form; rather they are abstract, emotional, and atmospheric creations that take us to specific worlds and give us a specific type of experience.  We may be tantalized by the idea of a key that will render all explicable and coherent, but ultimately the experience remains paramount, and defies any final logical closure.  There is much to be said for this viewpoint, particularly when one considers what we know of Lynch's creative process.  One of the most striking aspects of the first season of Twin Peaks is the way which Lynch presents Dale Cooper not merely as an unorthodox detective, but almost an inversion of all the traditional values of detective fiction.  The detective is a hero of the western analytical mind and the scientific epoch; he or she is above all else a logician who uses inductive reasoning to impose order on a world subject to the disruptive acts of the criminal and the madman.  In contrast, Dale Cooper is a kind of non-western shamanic detective.  His methodology explicitly rejects logical and causal relationships as they are conventionally understood, cultivating instead a receptiveness to dreams, intuitions, and meaningful coincidence; to patterns, in short, which follow after an ordering principle not of the rational daylight mind.  It's impossible not to read Cooper's occult police work as a autobiographical reflection of Lynch's creative process as an artist.  Lynch's brain is like a TV antennae that receives ideas as ineffable and fully-formed as sitcoms beamed from the Fourth Dimension.  The idea for the Red Room dream sequence in episode 3 of Twin Peaks - one of the most iconic moments in television history, and the basis of a subsequent mythology - came to him in such an intuitive flash after touching the side of a hot car which had been out in the sun:  "I was leaning against a car - the front of me was leaning against this very warm car.  My hands were on the roof and the metal was very hot.  The Red Room scene leapt into my mind.  "Little Mike" was there, and he was speaking backwards....for the rest of the night, I thought only about the Red Room."  "Dick Laurent is dead" - the cryptical intercom message which bookends Lost Highway started life as a message Lynch actually heard over the intercom of his own home, with no sign of a speaker when he went to investigate.  One of the detectives in Lost Highway observes that "there's no such thing as a bad coincidence", a handy truism for shamanic sleuths and intuitive artists - but more on that later.

Nevertheless, to view films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. simply as ineffable and impenetrable dreams to which we can only submit ourselves doesn't quite do justice to the specific experience these films offer us, no more than the idea of Lynch as a wholly passive conduit to the ideas that bubble up from his subconscious does him justice as an artist.  Dreams wouldn't be dreams if we could understand them, but they also wouldn't be dreams unless they were so fashioned as to feel a hell of a lot like we could understand them, if we only made the right connection, or concentrated our attention on the right detail in the background, or only remembered the revelatory part that tied the whole thing together the next day.  The dream, like the world, tantalizes us with the suggestion of an order and coherence which are only a few missing pieces away from our grasp; but the final and complete order eludes us as one explanation works perfectly in one direction, but falls apart in another.  These, at any rate, are the kinds of vertiginous ruminations that result from trying to trace a narrative thru-line or continuous logic through Lost Highway's weird arabesques of time, space, and identity.  These types of effects on the viewer are not accidental, and require very careful construction on the part of the director; though we may be skeptical of any one interpretation satisfying every detail, this essay will explore the pleasurable delirium of trying to understand Lost Highway, and tease out the often subtle and ingenious ways which Lynch creates this narrative impossible object.


David Lynch's career followed an unusual trajectory.  He started out with Eraserhead in the realm of sheer abstraction and surrealism, and followed this by pursuing a type of heightened or atmospherically charged realism with movies like The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet.  It would be courageous to accuse any David Lynch film of being straight-up realism, but there is nevertheless nothing in films like Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart that represents an outright challenge to the consensus reality which most of us exist in.  (Twin Peaks also follows a gradually morphing tonal trajectory in its brief lifespan, beginning firmly in Lynchian heightened realism territory, gradually becoming more surreal as the first season progressed, and finally ending up - after the show had spun somewhat out of the control of its creators - as a weird sci-fi/horror/soap opera/noir mash-up.)  By '97, Lynch's work was moving into one of its lower ebbs in terms of fashion and critical reception.  The moment where Twin Peaks had placed his signature style at the summit of a global popular zeitgeist had been as brief as it was in hindsight unlikely.  Wild At Heart, in many respects, had been too prescient; coming a few years before Tarantino, many critics just didn't have a vocabulary to process the film's jarring tonal shifts between parody and sincerity, graphic violence and sentimentality.  Fire Walk with Me, coming on the back of the network's near total bungling of one of television's most inspired first acts, fared even worse with critics.  When Lost Highway was released in '97, it met with a mixed and often lukewarm critical response, and added to a (in my opinion erroneous) consensus that Lynch was in an ill-focused and creatively torpid phase.  Interestingly for a film whose ending loops (in some contested sense) back to its beginning, Lost Highway's first section also conspicuously loops back to Lynch's creative beginnings - to the abstract architectural horrors, creeping industrial unease, and pent-up male panic of Eraserhead.  By combining the abstract surrealism of his debut with the more fleshed-out narrative aspects of his more realist-leaning middle pictures, Lynch had created the uniquely confounding, unsettling, and seductive dream world that his movies would continue to occupy into the current century.

Haunted Hollywood: Nathanael West's Day of the Locust and Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon.

Although nobody realized it at the time, Lost Highway was the beginning of a great trilogy of thematically-related pictures which might prove to be the high water mark of Lynch's career, and a high-light of American cinema in recent decades.  Taken together,  Highway, Mulholland Dr, and Inland Empire represent an achievement of considerable consistency, daring, and cumulative effect.  All three films are set primarily around Los Angeles and Hollywood, but they strive to create a uniquely dystopian vision of L.A.'s sprawling topography and Hollywood's flickering dreams and sinister peripheries.  The city becomes a place where people truly lose themselves, wandering into dissociative fugue states and the fragmented plot-lines of overlapping movies that seem to be running simultaneously in different parts of the city; behind all this loom the movies themselves, here represented as a mysterious and often malign technology or magic that blurs reality and fractures time, that frees people with weightless fantasies and imprisons them in records of their past inequities, for, behind the movies again are stories of adultery, jealousy, and thwarted sexual obsession, things that cannot be escaped and always turn back upon themselves.  Over the course of these films, Lynch experiments with a particular type of fractured narrative polyphony, where a basic core story of sexual obsession is retold in different forms or variations, and in which the same characters assume different personae and roles.  Barry Gifford, Lynch's co-writer on Lost Highway, described the film as "Double Indemnity meets Orpheus and Eurydice."  The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is the story of a man - a musician like Fred Madison - who loses his beloved twice, first to death, and secondly because he looks back too soon, and thus forsakes the condition on which he was allowed to spirit her safely out of the Underworld.  (In terms of film mythology, the obvious echo is Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, losing a blonde and then a brunette incarnation of the same idealized woman.)  Lost Highway, similarly, is the story of man who tries to possess a woman two times, first as her nearly middle aged husband, and secondly as a virile young lover, with both attempts ending in failure.  As Mulholland Dr. follows a similar trajectory, albeit in reverse, the most common interpretation of both movies has been to see one variation as the reality of the situation, the underlying straight story, and the other as a delusional wish-fulfillment, a attempt by the protagonist to escape into a fantasy woven from the fabric of movies which ultiamtely collapses upon itself.  This interpretation is extremely persuasive, and yet in both cases I felt as though it was almost 100% correct - but somehow not entirely satisfactory.  Let's look first at the plot of Lost Highway as it is presented to us in the film.

"We've Met Before, Haven't We?"

Lost Highway breaks down into three distinct sections - the first concerning Fred Madison and his wife Renee, the second with Fred as Pete Dayton, Renee as Alice Wakefield, and the initially elusive "Dick Laurent" as gangster and porno producer Mr Eddy, followed by a much briefer coda which is probably the most confusing part of an already somewhat disorientating ride: Pete becomes Fred Madison again, Alice reverts back to Renee, and Dick Laurent/Mr Eddy is gruesomely dispatched in the desert - the event which apparently set the whole sequence of events in motion in the first place.  The first section has been justifiably regarded as the purest, the most quintessential, and some of the best cinema Lynch has ever produced.  Set almost entirely in one location - a town house owned and designed by Lynch - and focusing on just two characters (perhaps only really one in an important sense), the opening of Lost Highway is a sheer masterclass in the use of simple elements to create a stark, hypnotic, and all-enveloping sense of paranoia and impending violence.

We begin with the occupant of the house, Fred Madison, receiving the message "Dick Laurent is dead" over the intercom, with the impression given that the message is random and puzzling and doesn't mean anything to him.  Fred lives in the house with his brunette wife Renee.  In a series of carefully composed and slowly paced vignettes, Lynch actually tells us remarkably little about the couple.  (What are told, however, is to the point, and conveyed through tone, texture, and non-verbal performance.)  Fred is a saxophonist who plays in a nearby club.  We are made immediately aware that he is deeply anxious about his wife's fidelity and his own apparently diminishing libido.  When we see him performing in the club, he continues to play after the rest of the band has finished, with a kind of intensity that smacks of desperation and sexual panic - the overextended nature of his musical performance contrasts pointedly with the premature brevity of his sexual performance later with Renee.)  About Renee, we learn even less.  We don't know whether she works or not, whether she is a good person or not - we see her only through Fred's paranoid eyes.  Later, we have a sense that perhaps she has cultivated or fallen into some unsavory friendships in the past, but whether she is faithful to Fred or not, whether she is kind or duplicitous - we have only Fred's vantage point, and his perspective strikes us from the first as being unstable and very probably unreliable.

When Fred and Renee make love, Lynch shoots their bodies in a slowed down close-up that fills the screen with their uncomfortable intimacy; it makes their bodies appear like a vast, distant and cool landscape, suggesting the nighttime desert in which Pete and Alice will later make love, and Dick Laurent will be murdered.  In one of the film's many time displacements, Fred hears a faint echo of Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil, the song that will play over Pete and Alice's later tryst in the desert.  In the context of this scene, it appears like a memory, a faded ideal of the relationship in the past that Fred is desperately trying to regain; but, if the film's chronology is linear, then it is a faint memory of something that hasn't happened yet.  In the context of the film as a whole, it is reflective of the fact that Fred is eternally seeking a perfect sexual union with a women which eternally eludes him.  He will, it seems, always lose her, one way or another.  The lack of background information and context regarding Fred and Renee serves in one sense to position the viewer firmly in Fred's subjective and unreliable point of view.  On the other hand, of course, it's Lynch's style, his particular world.  The effect is dreamlike, naturally, but it also reminds me a great deal of painting.  Fred and Renee have the elusive nature and narrowly circumscribed repertoire of figures from a painting: a husband stricken with jealous anxiety, a mysterious wife; a chiaroscuro Los Angeles of a vintage indeterminate between the 40s, 50s, and final decade of the century; and lurking in the margins of the canvass, a white-faced nemesis, a figure as implacable as Medieval allegory stalking a poolside party:


At this point,  a series of video tapes begin to arrive on Fred and Renee's doorstep showing the exterior (and eventually interior) of the house.  I think I've observed on this blog before that video cassettes have an air of uncanny menace about them that the slim, shiny and prismatic dvd or blu-ray will never approximate.  Video cassettes were big, bulky, black plastic and inky black tape; a stickerless VHS always felt like there could be something recorded on it that you weren't meant to see.  Video smuggled the forbidden thrills of the porno theater into the hidden alcoves of the respectable home; in the form of the "video nasty" it threatened to warp the minds of middle-class children.  Camcorders allowed people to record the hallmarks of their public and hidden lives, but the camcorder image replaced memories with something which was objective and accurate, but washed-out, flat, and drained of all vivacity.  This concern is raised by Fred when the Madison's growing anxiety with the video cassettes ushers Lost Highway's first pair of hang-dog detectives into the picture.  "I like to remember things my own way.  How I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened."  Many viewers have seized on this line as one of the most crucial in the film.  (The sentiment was apparently Lynch's own, a fact which is interesting in the light his decision to shot much of Inland Empire on consumer-grade digital cameras, to the unmitigated horror of many purists.)  The apparent intrusions into the Madison's home take on a more graphic and alarming form in a scene which has become part of the legend surrounding the film - the introduction of Robert Blake's Mystery Man at Andy's party:

It's worth pointing out that when viewed for the first time, the opening section of Lost Highway is vastly more frightening than almost any horror film you could think of.  Repeat viewing and familiarity inevitably dilute something of the impact, but when first encountered, this scene is almost deliciously uncanny and hair-raising and weird.  Although the general outline of what's going to happen is clear from the outset (Fred will kill Renee or be framed for killing her) you don't really know how the film is going to get there - the arrival of the Mystery Man ups the ante on the question which is most troubling the viewer at this point: is Fred just going insane, or is something more sinister (and possibly supernatural) afoot?  The Mystery Man's unsettling display of bilocation is the film's first explicit gesture towards the supernatural, and the strict rules of engagement he alludes to (You invited me.  It is not my custom to go where I am not wanted) evokes the folklore of vampires and Faustian pacts.  It is interesting to note that the Mystery Man is associated throughout the film with the uncanny effects of recent technologies: mobile phones and answer machines, video cassettes, cameras, and portable televisions.  A writer whose identity eludes me at the moment once pointed out that there is a ghostly temporal/spatial paradox incurred by the standard answer machine message I'm not here right now.    In a sense, the Mystery Man is a spectre haunting the time-displacements incurred by contemporary technologies, and in so far as Fred Madison winds up leaving an intercom message to himself, it may be that he draws his victims into this paradoxical space-time.

"Your life is a rehearsal - your performance is real."

The scene is significant for a few reasons.  It establishes an association between Dick Laurent, who at this point might have been nothing more than a Lynchian non-sequitur, and the Mystery Man.  It properly introduces Andy, who, along the detectives Al and Ed, seems to remain more or less consistent between the Fred Madison and Pete Dayton sections of the film.  Two additional points are worth noting in the clip above.  The last three digits of Fred's home number are 666, reemphasizing the satanic undertones of the scene.  More interestingly, we see a small tattoo on Fred's hand as he dials the number - a symbol in musical notation called a fermata.  The presence of a fermata indicates that a note is to be sustained for a longer duration than its note value would otherwise indicate - recalling, to some extent, Fred's overextended saxophone solo in the club.  (In 1994, Nicholas Baker published a novel called The Fermata, which has some interesting, albeit slight and most likely coincidental resonances with Lost Highway.  It is the story of a young man who discovers he has the power to stop time - a power which he uses primarily to observe women in the nude.  Eventually unsatisfied by this voyeurism, he plucks up sufficient courage to embark upon a proper relationship.  However, as soon as the relationship is consummated, his time-manipulation powers are passed on his girlfriend, and she begins her own adventures.)  Whatever the significance, if any, of Fred's fermata tattoo, it is interesting to note that looking at one's hands is a traditional technique employed by lucid dreamers to determine whether they are in reality or a dream.

Weird Coincidenceville: Robert Blake, the veteran actor who plays the Mystery Man, was tried in 2004 for the murder of his second wife Bonnie Lee Bakley.  Bakley was a celebrity-obessesed scamster with a spectacularly chequered past encapsulating mail-order nude photography, a Lonely Hearts ad racket, and several busts including one in Little Rock, Arizona, for being in possession of five driver's licenses and seven social security cards each with different names.  Prior to her marriage to Blake, the only tangible fruit of her pursuit of celebrities had been a relationship with Marlon Brando's ill-fated son Christian, who in 1990 fatally shot his half-sister's boyfriend in Brando Senior's Mullholland Drive home.  In May of 2001, Blake took Bakley to dinner at a Studio City restaurant; after the meal she was shot in the head while waiting outside in the car.  (Seekers after spine-chills will no doubt recall the Mystery Man's speech to Pete in Lost Highway: "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.")  In the criminal trial,  Blake was found not guilty of killing Bakley (and of several other charges, including - it can't get any more pulp noir - soliciting a stuntman to murder her), but later found liable for her death in a civil case brought by Bakley's three eldest children.  The case remains unsolved.  Blake wasn't the only member of the movie's cast who had rolled down the lost highway for all it was worth in real life.  Ed, one of the duo of cops who visits Fred and Renee's home and eventually pursues Fred from the residence in the movie's conclusion, was played by Louis Eppolito.  Eppolito had been a detective in real life, one of the most decorated in the history of the New York police department, but in 2006, he and his partner Stephen Caracappa were convicted with labour racketeering, extortion, illegal gambling, obstruction of justice, and eight counts of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.  The head of the Lucchese crime family called Eppolito and Caracappa his "crystal ball."  So we have a skit worthy of The Crying of Lot 49: a crook playing a cop in real life playing a cop in the movies.  In 1946's Humoresque, a nine year-old Robert Blake played the younger version of John Garfield's character.  When Blake was having particular difficulty with a scene, Garfield took the child star aside and gave him some advice: "Robert, remember this for the rest of your life - your life is a rehearsal, your performance is real."  And so it goes in the Dream Factory.

Concluded shortly.