Monday, August 10, 2009

Lost Highway (1997) A Film by David Lynch

Identity has always been a thematic undercurrent in David Lynch's career, either its displacement (Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet), its confusion (the titular character in The Elephant Man), or its realization and fulfillment (Kyle MacLachlan in Dune). Not until Lost Highway however was this subtext explored so acutely and abstractly, and it stands as the preface of what has become the style of his late career (also including Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and the myriad of video works he has dished out), which has moved even further towards enigmatic, moebius strip narratives. Lost Highway is a vastly underrated psycho-thriller, dense in its construction and immensely rewarding with its aesthetic choices.

The narrative is split into two parts that are ostensibly unrelated. In the first, Lynch presents a slow, tense study of martial dissolution set in an ultramodern, box-like flat in the suburbs. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is an emotionally severe, constipated free-form Jazz saxophonist who approaches an intercom in his household one day and hears an unidentified voice saying "Dick Laurent is dead". This is the first in a series of bizarre interruptions into Fred's supposedly stable life. His relationship with his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is claustrophobic, unromantic, and bitter, evidenced by his silently hostile disposition when asking her if she'd go to the club for his show that night, and the passionless sex that ensues later. The two begin receiving cryptic videotapes on their doorstep, which Renee initially writes off as simply Real Estate videos until subsequent tapes reveal the camera entering their household and eventually observing the couple in their sleep. At a party held by a man Fred is suspicious of for his involvement with Renee, Fred is approached by a clown-like character (Robert Blake) vaguely titled "The Mystery Man" in the production notes. He informs Fred of his presence in his home at that very moment, ordering him to call the house for assurance. The day after, Fred once again receives a videotape, this time detailing him viciously slaughtering his wife, which comes as the abrupt finality of the initial half of the film.

Fred is placed on death row, where he undergoes severe mental suffering before eventually his physical state is swapped for that of a young mechanic named Pete Dayton, a curiosity that baffles the guards and triggers the release of Pete. The film then takes the form of a noir thriller, showing Pete with a troubling connection to the local mob lord, Mr. Eddy. The roots of their relationship are unclear, but his negative impact on Pete's life is without question. Mr. Eddy has a moll, Alice Wakefield - significantly also portrayed by Patricia Arquette, only this time with wavy blond hair rather than straitjacket brown - who, after seducing Pete in hyper-generic femme fatale fashion, reveals herself to be longing for freedom from her expansive seedy ties. Pete becomes entangled in a string of potentially threatening situations, both serious and minor, involving Mr. Eddy, his own neglected girlfriend, Alice, and the components of her pornographic double life.

The stories eventually connect themselves, and in doing so, present the possibility of there never being a separate character from Fred in the first place. Lost Highway is ultimately a brooding psychological puzzle inspired by the phenomenon of psychogenic fugue, an incredibly rare occurrence that involves the subconscious creation of an entirely distinct personality following a traumatic incident as a means of escape. Inevitably though, the strain of reality gradually imposes itself on this fantasy world, explaining the reappearance of Patricia Arquette (an extremely sensual reminder of Fred's heavy guilt), the man at the party with links to his wife's hidden personality (likely the explanation for Fred's murder in the first place), and the Mystery Man. In this sense, Lost Highway's separate halves are split, to a degree, into the literal and the metaphorical. Pete's story is largely Fred's creation, and so to are characters such as The Mystery Man, the most salient embodiment of evil in the film, who appears whenever a shift in personality, reality, or identity is on the verge. He also is closely related to the lost highway (a symbol itself that stands as a metamorphic entity) and hides out at a shadowy cabin in Death Valley which is always introduced by one of the most compelling images of the film: a protracted reversal of the fiery explosion of the cabin.

There's also a great amount in the film about the recorded image and its relation to reality. It becomes clear that Robert Blake's character is supposedly the person behind the video tape conundrum, but this is only what it seems on the surface. If The Mystery Man is an extension of Fred himself, the tapes are actually his own transmissions from the subconscious, if you will. This premise is reminiscent of Cache, although Lynch's film is not interested in the employment of personal and political history as in Haneke's, instead using video strictly as a piece of mental hardware. The same voyeuristic shots that track with Fred through the dark corridors of his own living space arrive on the videotapes as grainy black and white footage, asserting itself as the evil recesses of his mind that he prefers not to venture into. It is no surprise that he says himself when asked by the police if he owns a video camera, "I like to remember things my own way...Not necessarily the way they happened." This is underlined by the new reality for himself he thus creates.

As much as this cursory exegesis does for the film on a narrative level, there's still a wealth of complexity at the core of Lost Highway that is best left unexplained. In fact, Lynch strongly advises against the interpretive process, preferring for the "room to dream" to be left intact. What's most important in the film is its uniquely spooky mood. Lynch's use of sight and sound in the film is so in sync, so complimentary, that it creates an experience of almost physical as well as emotional involvement, with the body tightening and relaxing during scenes of simmering tension and brief comic pauses, respectively. It is this distinctly cinematic atmosphere that takes full emphasis, dwarfing the sometimes vague and mannered dialogue. Nonetheless, each line spoken in the film rings with latent meaning, or at least for the purpose of stylistic heightening, as in one scene when the fiercely sarcastic Mr. Eddy calls Pete and repeats to him with a resilient sneer on his face: "I'm really glad to know you're doin' ok." (Robert Loggia's caricatured yet exhilarating performance is one of the finest in the film). Because of these menacingly original qualities, Lost Highway deserves more than the label of "pretentious" that is all too often slapped upon it, for it is a riveting, mesmerizing transitional piece for Lynch.

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