Monday, August 10, 2015

The Films of David Lynch: Lost Highway

Lost Highway (1997)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch & Barry Gifford.
Starring: Bill Pullman (Fred Madison), Patricia Arquette (Renee Madison / Alice Wakefield), Balthazar Getty (Pete Dayton), Robert Loggia (Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent), Robert Blake (The Mystery Man), Gary Busey (Bill Dayton, Pete's father), Lucy Butler (Candace Dayton, Pete's mother), Michael Massee (Andy), Richard Pryor (Arnie), Natasha Gregson Wagner (Sheila), John Roselius (Al), Louis Eppolito (Ed), Jack Nance (Phil, a mechanic), Scott Coffey (Teddy), Al Garrett (Carl), Giovanni Ribisi (Steve "V"), Henry Rollins (Guard Henry), Michael Shamus Wiles (Guard Mike).

I have seen Lost Highway at least three times now – twice back when it first came out as I tried to figure out what happened (and mainly, failing), and then just recently, after many years away from it. I believe that Lost Highway was the first Lynch film I had ever seen – I was 16 at the time, and was still in the early years of what would become my cinematic obsession, and also I was a big Roger Ebert fan. Ebert hated Lynch (at least until the film after this one), so I hadn’t gotten around to Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Eraserhead, etc. I did get around to them after Lost Highway though – which was a film I didn’t understand when I was 16 but was fascinated by just the same. After all these years, I return to Lost Highway and find that I understand and like it a little bit more than I did back in 1997. Not enough to say it’s a great film – or even a very good one – but it’s pure Lynch madness, so I’ll take it.

The plot of Lost Highway centers on Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a saxophone player in L.A., married to the beautiful Renee (Patricia Arquette). The pair starts to get strange videotapes dropped off at their house – that are of their house, both inside and out. The film also opens with a strange message delivered to Fred over the apartment’s intercom system. And at a party, Fred meets The Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who tells him that he is both in front of him, and at Fred’s house right now. When Fred doesn’t believe him, The Mystery Man gives him his cell phone, and Fred calls his own house, and is indeed talking to the same man. Weird. Fred starts to believe that Renee is cheating on him – and when she winds up murdered, he covered in her blood, he is arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to death. This is where things go from weird to batshit insane though – as one day, the jailers come to check on Fred in his cell, and instead finds Pete (Balthazar Getty) in his cell, and Fred gone. They cannot keep Pete in jail – he didn’t do anything after all – so he’s released. And back in the world he starts to meet some of the strange people Fred did – the Mystery Man for example, as well as Alice Wakefield (Arquette again), who may or may not be Renee. And then there is gangster/porn king My Eddy (Robert Loggia) – who draws him into his world. Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford (who wrote the book Wild at Heart was based on), keep right on twisting things until the strange finale.

Even by Lynch’s standard, Lost Highway is strange, and makes little logical sense. It makes Mulholland Drive look east to follow by comparison, if only because in Mulholland Drive there is at least some sort of consistency to the plot that drags you along with it, and allows you to make connections to other things in the movie, even if I have yet to hear a theory that ties together everything in Mulholland Drive – and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to anyway. Lost Highway is a movie that requires some huge leaps in logic, and even then doesn’t make much sense. In his very negative review, Ebert “Does any scene in the movie have a point?” Lost Highway'' plays like a director's idea book, in which isolated scenes and notions are jotted down for possible future use. Instead of massaging them into a finished screenplay, Lynch and collaborator Barry Gifford seem to have filmed the notes.” – and that, to be fair, kind of seems like it was at least partially true. Lynch has often talked about how movies for him start with a few images, a scene or two, and then built out from there. He has also said he didn’t realize until after he finished Lost Highway, that it was really about his reaction to the O.J. Simpson case. Admittedly, that sounds strange – but it makes at least some sort of logical sense – since the only reading I can possibly come up for Lost Highway is that it is about a man who murders his wife, and feels so bad about it, he constructs an entirely different reality where he didn’t murder her – and starts to believe it himself.

That, at least, explains some of what happens in Lost Highway, but certainly not all of it. I have a feeling that somewhere on the internet, if I felt like spending hours of my time, I could read elaborate theories that tie everything up in the film – but I’m interested in that. Not really anyway – just like I’m not interested in doing that for Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire either. Those three films really do make up a loose trilogy for Lynch – about identities, reality and fantasy, and the entertainment industry. Much of Lynch’s previous work was set in small towns where he found the same perversity as in big cities. In these three films, he takes things to the extreme by examining L.A. – and finding things even worse.

Like all of Lynch films, Lost Highway both looks and sounds incredible. Lynch is working in noir here, and sets almost all of the film at night – meaning we have his darkest film visually to date. There are individual set pieces in the film that work brilliantly – as they serve to deepen the mystery. The performances hit the right notes to keep things mysterious throughout. From beginning to end, you wonder just how Lynch is going to pull this altogether, how he’s going to make sense of it, where it’s all going. The answer really is nowhere. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a movie called Lost Highway ends up nowhere. But there is so much here that is deeply twisted and wonderful, that I want it mean something – anything. I want there to be more here than there is. I liked Lost Highway more this time than I did as a teenager. Back then, I expected Lynch to have a point – to be headed somewhere with all of this, and got frustrated when I couldn’t figure it out. This time through, I knew it was headed nowhere –and could simply enjoy the ride. It doesn’t make the film into a great movie – or even a very good one. It certainly doesn’t help matters very much that Lost Highway is the darkest, most somber of all of Lynch’s films – without a trace of humor in the film (even Fire Walk with Me had a few moments – there are none here). But it held my interest. Like many thrillers it screws up the ending – most of the time thrillers screw it up in the end when they come with a lame explanation for everything that happened. Lost Highway screws it up by having no explanation at all. Well, at least that’s an original way to screw up.

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