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Lost Highway

Directed by David Lynch

‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveller...’ Lost Highway, David Lynch’s first film in five years, concerns itself with doppelgangers, doubles, divided selves - either one consciousness estranged from itself in two different bodies in two different places, or two consciousnesses trapped together in the same body in the same place - and, through memory loss and recovered memory, explores the fragility of individual identity and the possibility of multiple personalities, and the unreliability of external reality and the possibility of alternative realities. The road not taken, the lost highway, is a lost version of ourselves, a lost narrative, which we can only inhabit through fantasy, through breaking ourselves in two. But if we remain unitary, taking only one road, we will be haunted anyway by the missed opportunity, the lost possibility. All this in a movie which is itself split into two separate but interconnected parts, and is also circular in its construction - its ending is also its beginning - providing an example of Nietzschean eternal recurrence.




The film unfolds slowly but steadily, in the best noir tradition. The first story, in screen time, is about Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a tortured jazz saxophonist who suspects that his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is having an affair, and who suddenly finds himself accused of her murder, after videotapes of the interior of their home start arriving on their doorstep. The other story concerns a young garage mechanic, Peter Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who mysteriously replaces Fred in his prison cell and who, on his release, is drawn into a web of corruption by a femme fatale named Alice (Arquette again), who in embarking on an affair with him is cheating on her gangster boyfriend, Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia). Mr Eddy also has another persona, that of Dick Lamont. When Pete takes over from Fred in the cell (wasn’t ‘celves’ a Joycean pun from Finnegans Wake, another work of art whose ending is its beginning?), the film changes from an ominous Hitchcockian psycho-thriller to a semi-parodic gruesome gangster pic, but the three main characters from one part are mirrored by three characters from the other part, who may or may not be the same person. This assembly is completed by the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), a sinister, Mephistophelian figure in whiteface and crimson lipstick, gifted with divine (or devilish?) omnipresence and omniscience. He is the only one of the four who is fully conscious that he is participating in both stories, and fully aware of his ability to bilocate. Significantly, it is he who controls and manipulates the video camera that has recorded Renee’s death, making him perhaps a directorial double within the film for Lynch the film director outside the film. Lynch is credited as sound designer, and image, sound and music work together to assault the senses and disrupt audience expectation. As Marina Warner wrote in her excellent article on the movie in Sight and Sound:

"...sound effects that have been dubbed in later and have no explicable grounding in the action, move in and out of the scenes, in and around the audience, coming and going in a dazzling aural equivalent of the prying and ubiquitous camera. Lynch’s way of foregrounding his soundtrack calls attention to his film-making presence; significantly, it creates a faceless but insistent double who is masterminding the audience response. The conspicuous camera-work and flaring noise of Lost
Highway don’t enhance the story in a traditional thriller manner, but interrupt and disturb its flow, compelling the audience to see how film can take possession of your mind and estrange you from yourself, just as the characters in Lost Highway are estranged from themselves."

Lynch has gone so far as to describe Lost Highway as a ‘21st century noir horror film’, and it is one of his more unlikely achievements to restore suspense to a genre whose tried and trusted tricks no longer elicit the required response because we have all grown over-familiar with and tired of them, if only by taking that genre down the road of surrealism. The fact that Mr Eddy is a porn racketeer both echoes and extends Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep.
One of the critical commonplaces about Lynch is that he presents a surface of normality which he then proceeds to peel back, uncovering a heaving, seething underbelly which was hitherto hidden. But a more interesting way of looking at his films is to see any two versions of reality given as mirror symmetrical images of each other. Thus, in Blue Velvet, Sandy’s jilted boyfriend behaves exactly like a younger Frank Booth. This strategy reaches its apogee with Lost Highway. It is also as great an examination of the conventions of film itself as Twin Peaks was of the conventions of the television series. By inviting the viewer to answer the question: ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’, Lynch coerced an audience into entering his vast dream landscape. Thus, every scene, every image and incident, was both full and empty. It could mean something, or everything and anything, or nothing. It could be significant for the ‘plot’, or not. But if you missed any of part of it, you might miss the key to the whole. This is the Hitchcockian McGuffin raised to the nth degree, the red herring repeated ad infinitum. But the people who stopped watching once it was revealed who killed Laura Palmer had missed the point completely. Those scenes, images and incidents weren’t only significant if they helped us to solve a crime, puzzle out a riddle, unravel a mystery. They were significant in themselves, regardless of their relation to the whole. Or as significant or insignificant as you wanted to make them. Marina Warner again:

"Lost Highway is telling a story about the expresses disquiet, distrust, even repudiation. Lynch may not be strongly invested in sincerity as a quality, but this latest movie certainly mounts an attack on film narrative’s mendacity, showing deep alarm at its hallucinatory
powers of creating alternative realities. Simultaneously, it also calls into question film’s capacities to document and record: everything filmed is fabrication, but that fabrication has the disturbing power to supplant reality".

Yet, to write like this about Lynch’s work is to fall into the trap of playing an interpretative game which, while he may like the fact that we have been conned (or conned ourselves) into playing it, he also probably laughs at because, clever man that he is, he realises its futility. If truth could be discovered through analysis, we wouldn’t need art. But if truth could be discovered through art, we wouldn’t need analysis. The truth isn’t out there. It’s in here. The greatest compliment anyone could pay to the work of a director like Lynch is to say nothing about it. Then it would have achieved its objective of embodying a truth which cannot be articulated in any other way, thus rendering any interpretation not only superfluous, but farcical.
The death on August 2nd last of another great American original, William S. Burroughs, called to mind some of the praise he has had lavished on him over the years from other writers. ‘The greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift.’ (Jack Kerouac) ‘The only living American novelist who may conceivably be possessed by genius.’ (Norman Mailer) ‘True genius and first mythographer of the mid-20th century, William Burroughs is the lineal successor to James Joyce.’ (J G Ballard) ‘The only living American writer of whom one can say with confidence he will be read with the same shock of terror and pleasure in a hundred years’ time, or read at all, in fact, should there be anybody left to read.’ (Angela Carter) Similarly, one suspects that in a hundred years’ time, when all the second-hand, second-rate copyists who now inhabit Hollywood are long dead and gone and forgotten, it is Lynch who film-makers and film lovers will look back to and revere, as we now look back to and revere certain originators and innovators of the cinema, like Eisenstein or Bunuel. At a time when expensive script-writing courses give one the formulae for coming up with a successful film, and instruct one in a film’s essential emotional curves, it’s good to have a maverick visionary like Lynch around to parody and subvert mainstream narrative techniques.
As defining of the ‘90s, in a pre-millennium tension sort of way, as Blue Velvet was of the ‘80s, in a post-modern sort of way, and as darkly dream-like and mysteriously menacing as Eraserhead was in the ‘70s, Lost Highway is a movie nobody who cares about where cinema is going can afford to miss. Me, I’m going back to see it again as soon as I can. Lynch has taken, ‘the road less travelled by/And that has made all the difference.’

First published in Film Ireland









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