The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we delve into the strange world of David Lynch’s mind, attempting to make sense of things along the way.
It is 1995. Three years have passed since the critical and commercial “failure” of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Within that time period, Lynch and his Twin Peaks partner Mark Frost were trying their hands in the TV space multiple times. Some of those attempts were moderately successful, such as the documentary series American Chronicles which ran for 13 episodes and the HBO mini-series Hotel Room which ran for 3 episodes, while other attempts proved less fruitful, like their comedy show On the Air which was canceled after 3 episodes. Either way, none of these were on the same level of success that Twin Peaks had in its…er, peak, and Lynch finally decided to take another stab at feature filmmaking.
Now Lynch had always been a fan of author Barry Gifford’s work ever since reading and adapting Wild At Heart, and like Wild At Heart, it was Gifford’s writing that inspired Lynch’s next cinematic venture, albeit in a different sort of way. Lost Highway was a film that was literally constructed out of a love for the title. While reading Gifford’s novel Night People, Lynch read the phrase “lost highway” and told Gifford that it would make a great title for a film. The two co-wrote a script together, and two years after that, things spiraled out of control to create 1997’s bizarre Lost Highway, a story that I’ve heard many different interpretations of all over the internet. Among these many explanations, I’ve heard words like time travel, body-switching, memory-swapping, parallel realities, and interdimensional beings pop up repeatedly. And while I can certainly see where they’re coming from, I also think each of these theories are completely, totally wrong.
Like most of David Lynch’s films, Lost Highway makes more sense when you accept it as the product of the subconscious. How do these strange plot points symbolically tie together with this character’s interests and desires. What kind of desires and interests do these characters seem to embody? And where does reality end and dream begin? We’ll find the answers to all these questions and more as we take a journey down the Lost Highway.
“I like to remember things my own way […] How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”
The above quote may very well be the key to understanding Lost Highway and I didn’t even realize it until years later.
When I first saw Lost Highway, it was at a time when I was first getting into Lynch’s filmography. I knew I liked it, but I had no idea what to make of its bizarre, paradoxical, non-linear plotting. Taken literally, Lost Highway was a film about time travel, body-switching, memory-swapping, parallel realities, interdimensional beings, and the like; all of which is told through a confusingly non-linear structure where each scene seems to contradict the other. Upon rewatching the film very recently, now more aware of how Lynch’s stories generally work, everything suddenly “clicked” for me, and Lost Highway revealed itself to be something darker and more psychologically unnerving than I had previously perceived it to be.
The film introduces us to our main characters, only to dispose of them at around the 45 minute mark for some new ones. First, we meet Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette), an upper-class married couple with no children and a large, cavernous house where all the walls are sound-proof. This is because Fred is a saxophone player at a jazz club and needs to practice his music without disturbing the entire house. What this clearly displays, however, is an eerie disconnect in his relationship with Renee.
Fred and Renee are unhappy together, but hardly ever externalize their feelings. Their few moments of soft, loving gestures are soft-spoken and brief. The rest of their time is spent in their eerily quiet house hardly ever communicating outside of sentences that are never over five words long. When they have sex, Fred wears a look of intense boredom and misery, while Renee simply goes through the motions, patting Fred’s back afterwards like a pet who just learned to urinate on the newspaper instead of the carpet.
Their closed, shut-off life is disturbed when they receive mysterious video tapes at their doorsteps, showing footage of their house being filmed by an unknown cameraman (believe it or not, this film pre-dates Michael Haneke’s Cache). They get a couple more tapes, each one more disturbing than the last. One has footage of the two asleep in their beds. The final one shows Fred screaming maniacally as he sits beside the dismembered corpse of his own wife. Now in prison, Fred constantly denies murdering his own wife, but everyone, especially the cops, ignores his pleas. Now Fred is in death row, sentenced to the electric chair, and left to ponder what really brought about the death of his wife.
What happens instead, is where the movie derails into the fantastical and manages to lose most audiences as a result. Fred witnesses a vision of a burning cabin, starts to suffer from intense seizures, and then finally… Well, it’s hard to really explain what exactly happened at that time.
Needless to say, when the prison guards check Fred’s cell the next morning, they’re surprised to find no Fred in there. Instead, a younger, noticeably different man is inside where Fred once was. His name is Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty, which by the way, is an awesome name), an auto-mechanic in either his late teens or his early twenties who still lives with his parents and is completely, totally innocent. Pete doesn’t remember how he got in the cell, has no idea why he’s in there, and thus, is set free. Pete then continues on with his life, fixing cars, having sex with his girlfriend Sheila, and hanging out with his friends. But soon, disturbing parallels begin to unfold between Pete’s life and what happened to Fred. Most notably when a blonde vixen named Alice, who also happens to be played by Patricia Arquette, begins to seduce him.
It’s easy to see why some viewers would mistake Lost Highway for a science-fiction story. David Lynch is never one to explain the strange phenomena that occurs in his films, and what occurs in Lost Highway is very outlandish, regardless of its explanation. Only one thing is made explicitly clear: Pete and Fred are simultaneously the “same person” and two completely different entities. Despite not remembering how he got into prison, Pete has flashes of Fred’s old memories. When a radio begins to play some of Fred’s saxophone music, he experiences headaches. When he sees a photo of Fred’s wife Renee (who suspiciously looks a lot like Alice), he experiences nosebleeds and begins to hallucinate. The only question remaining is whether or not Fred has experienced both a physical and psychological transformation with Pete, or if something more sinister is at play.
Spoiler Alert: Lost Highway isn’t that kind of film, and even if it was, solving the “puzzle” is the least important aspect of it.
So here’s how I personally view Lost Highway: Much like Mulholland Dr., the film is easier to understand when you recognize which point in the film we segue from reality to fantasy. Also like Mulholland Dr., that transitioning point is made rather clearly, yet happens to be misinterpreted by most audiences due to Lynch’s lack of explicit exposition. In Lost Highway, reality ends when Fred is in his cell, witnessing a vision of the burning cabin, while the fantasy begins with the discovery of Pete in that same cell.
This is what we know: Fred doesn’t believe he murdered Renee. He’s in constant denial, and for a while, the audience has a hard time believing it as well since we were never able to witness it first hand (even though we know for a fact that he was the one who did it–video evidence and whatnot). But it no longer matters whether he’s guilty or innocent. Fred is serving his time now in solitary confinement, meaning all he has left before receiving death by electric chair are his thoughts. And so, unable to escape, Fred constructs a fantasy in which he receives a second chance at life. As Pete, he can live as an innocent man once more, and forget about whatever sins led him to prison.
It is also through this fabricated life as Pete that he’s able to have a second chance at a loving relationship with his wife. Thus, he creates Alice, who is the spitting image of Renee save for hair color. Their relationship is reinvigorated, their sex no longer joyless, and on top of it all, their love is totally forbidden. In this reality, Fred’s bubbling undercurrent of frustration is externalized by the creation of Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), an old, foul-mouthed gangster that Pete knows and occasionally works for, who also happens to be in a relationship with Alice. He’s the only thing standing in the way between Pete and Alice’s happiness.
The two eventually escape from Mr. Eddy’s presence, but even that is not enough. In one of the film’s key scenes, Pete and Alice make love outside the same cabin that Fred saw in his cell before “transforming”, and before their intercourse reaches its climax, Alice whispers “You’ll never have me” right into Pete’s ear before coldly walking away into the cabin. It isn’t enough to simply run away from and ignore the source of Pete and Fred’s sexual frustration. It must be purged from existing as a whole.
It is at that moment that the fantasy begins to break apart, with Pete reverting back to Fred. Even though we’re still in the dream, reality slowly bleeds in as Fred finally realizes that he can’t escape into fantasy and begins to accept the truth. In doing so, he drives off to the Lost Highway Hotel, where we learn of the actions leading up to the opening of the film. Fred sees that gangster Dick Laurent (also Robert Loggia) has been having sex and producing pornos with his wife Renee, and decides to enact vengeance on him. He “assists” in his murder (it is technically the Mystery Man who kills Dick Laurent, but we’ll get to why that’s complicated later), and then finds himself on the run from the cops. And as he’s driving away, bright light flashes on and off as Fred experiences uncontrollable spasms while riding away. And while it’s never shown on screen, it’s safe to assume that the fantasy ended the way it did because Fred finally accepted the consequences for his actions: the electric chair.
Yet even when I first saw the film and that wasn’t my interpretation of Lost Highway‘s events, I still rather enjoyed it, and that’s because no matter what is truly going on with Fred, Pete, Alice, and Renee, this is still one of Lynch’s most mesmerizing displays of his two favorite themes: Double lives, and the delicate, tenuous relationship between dreams and reality.
Fred and Renee transforming into entirely two different people might be the most literal example of Lynch’s characters leading double lives, but there are more dualities at play in Lost Highway. One interpretation I liked was Slavoj Žižek’s insight on the film as a battle between the banality of upper-class life and the dangerousness of lower-to-middle class life embroiled with crime, as discussed in this video (skip to 2:05). Another duality is the blonde/brunette division between Renee and Alice, but that’s to be discussed for a later Retrospective installment, when we visit Mulholland Dr.
Ultimately, what grabs my attention the most (and this is something that Žižek brings up as well, albeit briefly) is, of course, how Fred’s double life is related to his subconscious desires, and more importantly, how his imagination conjures up a cinematic story. The fantasy that Fred constructs for his Pete character is one that’s steeped in the tropes and conventions of film noir. He perceives his struggle through the lens of storytelling: His wife now plays the part of a damsel in distress, a forbidden lover, and a femme fatale all at once; Fred reinvents himself as a brooding antihero embroiled in a seedy underworld of crime, sex, and murder; his sexual frustration is externalized to the role of a gangster fiend; and the ultimate “prize” is the freedom to be sexually fulfilled by Alice/Renee–and even that is something that never comes about in the long run.
In Fred’s attempts to escape from reality, he realizes that fantasy (particularly, a cinematic fantasy) has the capacity to reveal truths about our nature more than reality ever could, despite its being a fabrication. This is best exemplified by the Mystery Man character (Robert Blake), who totes a video camera around and is revealed to be the one who sent the mysterious tapes from the film’s firstact. Even though Lynch has never been one to explain his films, Gifford, his co-writer for Lost Highway, did offer up a meaning behind this famously creepy character in an interview in the now-canceled Cinefantastique magazine, describing him as “the first visible manifestation of Fred’s madness” and “a product of [his] imagination”.
This brings us back to the above quote. When the police are at Fred’s house to investigate how the Mystery Man broke into his house, Renee gives an aside about how Fred “hates video cameras”. Asking him why, Fred responds with “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” And in a later scene, when the Mystery Man is directly pointing his camera at Fred, and he recoils and runs off in fear. Interesting that cameras are what represent truth when it is the world of cinema that Fred decides to lose himself in.
In a way, most of Lynch’s films have always been about fantasy, art or some other equivalent thereof wringing out truths of our human nature. The journeys to the seedy underbellies of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the play that John Merrick experiences in The Elephant Man revealing to him that he is an equal human being worth living on this earth, the pulpy, sleazy iconography of Wild At Heart exposing the modern romantic American Dream, and the Cold War, post-baby-boomer allusions scattered throughout Eraserhead‘s nightmare world. Hell, even Dune features a scene in which Paul Atreides musters up the strength to defeat his enemies by drinking from the Water of Life and going into a deep slumber.
What Lost Highway does is tie that theme directly to film noir, and cinema in general, revealing how the tropes and archetypes of the genre and the medium are interlinked with human truths like guilt, sexual frustration, love, heroism, etc. I guess that technically means it fulfills the requirements of “neo-noir” in that case, but Lost Highway‘s melding of elements from other genres like science-fiction, fantasy, psychological thrillers, and more make it beyond subversive and downright ahead of its time. And Lost Highway is only the first movie of Lynch’s to incorporate the cinematic language into his stories. Lost Highway could be seen as the “patient zero” that would later influence his final two films, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, which commentate on the world of cinema, Hollywood, and storytelling as a whole.
But those will have to wait. Because while Lost Highway has been reevaluated today as a misunderstood, ahead-of-its-time, neo-noir gem, the audiences of 1997 didn’t see it as such. The film only made around $3 million at the box office (five times less than its $15 million budget) and received mixed responses from critics. The only success to come out of Lost Highway was the soundtrack, which featured David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins, and original music from Trent Reznor and long-time Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, and was a hit with the Gen X crowd.
But outside of that, Lost Highway was widely regarded as yet another disappointment, out of a whole string of them that began with the dwindling ratings of Twin Peaks and its cinematic counterpart Fire Walk With Me, then carried over to his later television attempts. Of course, as we’ve learned from the likes of Dune, it takes more than a string of disappointments to stop David Lynch. And Lynch decided to really surprise audiences with something he hadn’t done before: A G-rated family film based on a true story and distributed by Walt Disney Studios.
Next time: The Straight Story.
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