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.

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