Co-writer Barry Gifford deciphers Lynch's labyrinthine highway.
David Lynch has often been quoted describing ERASERHEAD as "a dream of dark and troubling things." Since that 1978 debut, he has gone on to adapt his dream-like sensibility to far more accessible narrative structures. No matter how arresting the imagery is in THE ELEPHANT MAN and DUNE, and no matter how weird things get in BLUE VELVET or TWIN PEAKS, the audience basically knows who's who and what's happening. In WILD AT HEART, Lynch even took a story, from a novel by Barry Gifford, and managed to graft on surreal images with- out ever quite losing the thread of the main narrative, the "story of Sailor and Lula" (as the book is subtitled).
LOST HIGHWAY, co-written by Gifford, seems to take a similar approach-at first- with Robert Blake's Mystery Man intruding upon the otherwise normal, if not altogether happy, life of Bill Pullman's Fred Madison. But when Madison, imprisoned for the murder of his wife, Rene, metamorphoses into a new character (Balthazare Getty) and then meets Alice, a blonde doppleganger of Rene (both played by Patricia Arquette), the story begins to spin beyond any kind of rational understanding on the part of viewers, who no longer know who's who or what's happening.
Lynch himself has no desire to enlighten viewers via interviews; he wants them to take their own meaning from what they see on screen. Gifford, on the other hand, is not so reluctant to discuss his intentions. So what is his explanation for the strange narrative?
The answer, of course, depends on the question, and the question that Lynch originally posed, as Gifford recalls, was: "What if one person woke up one day and was another person?" Gifford said, "We had to create a scenario to make that plausible. We discovered a clinical, psychological condition which fit our premise-a 'psychogenic fugue.' It's as if you decided to change your life and showed up with a different name and entirely created a new identity for yourself and really grew to believe you were this new person. There are different kinds of fugue states, and a psychogenic fugue takes place only in your own mind-you don't really go anywhere. It's a mental fugue, for lack of a better term. This was something I researched with a clinical psychiatrist at Stanford, so we had some basis in fact here. After we found that freedom, more or less it was just a matter of creating this surreal, fantastic world that Fred Madison lives in when he becomes Peter Dayton."
The fugue is a kind of escape that Madison ultimately cannot maintain, because unpleasant reality keeps impinging on it. "The basic thing I can tell you is that Fred Madison creates this counter world and goes into it, because the crime he has committed is so terrible that he can't face it," Gifford added. "This fugue state allows him to create a fantasy world, but within this fantasy world, the same problems occur. In other words, he's no better at maintaining this relationship, dealing with or controlling this woman, than he was in his real life. The woman isn't who he thinks she is, really, so all the so-called facts of his known life with Rene pop up again in Alice Wakefield."
In this interpretation, the appearance of the Mystery Man is the first hint of the psychotic break that Madison will eventually suffer. "He's a product of Fred's imagination, too," said Gifford. "I think the phone call scene at the party is pretty interesting. A lot of work went into it. It's supposed to be seamless; it's supposed to look easy and sound normal. But there's a lot that goes into writing this kind of thing. It's the first visible manifestation of Fred's madness. No one else can see the Mystery Man."
So, has the mystery (not to mention the Mystery Man) been explained away? Well, the film is consistent with this reading; however, it does not go out of its way to tip audiences off to this interpretation. For example, there is no obvious stylistic shift when Madison enters the fantasy world of Pete Dayton; if anything, the narrative and visual are more concrete-at least until the alternate reality starts to break down again. "If you read the screenplay, it's easier to see," said Gifford. "I suppose you could have gone into black and white-just as if, on the page, we could have gone to different type, like italics."
To grasp Gifford's take on the story requires, perhaps, a second viewing. "I agree, because there's so much menace the first time you see it," said the writer. "I don't know how you felt, and it's hard for me or David to talk about it, because when you live with a thing for so long-and David had to go through the post-production on it, which is monumental in his films, because of the care he takes with the soundtrack and every element of it-it's hard to be objective about it."
After an initial test screening with a handpicked, 50 person audience, 25 minutes were cut, bringing the running time down to 130 minutes. "Some people didn't quite understand things at first, especially in the longer version," said Gifford. "My youngest son, who's 21, got it all-he's amazing that way. Some people had some resistance, I think, just because they were trying to make sense out of it, but if you keep an open mind, the sense comes to you; you see what it is; and you can interpret it several ways."
Despite its willful resistance toward offering easy answers, LOST HIGHWAY is never less than entertaining. For those unable to make sense out of it, the film resembles a bad dream about mysterious forces manipulating a hapless protagonist. "I think the fear of being out of control is a very real one that most people do have," said Gifford. "Seeing a spirit or a presence or having-I don't want to sound clinical-a psychotic episode, seeing the Mystery Man, whom nobody else can see, and having conversations with him-this is all really an element of losing control. It's all right there, and it's not often that you would see it on the screen, especially in this way. There have been other examples of this thing, but never close to being filmed in this way."
Gifford concluded, "I think that LOST
HIGHWAY is really reflective of the time.
There's a big revolution in terms of the
demand on your brain; it looks like there'll be
no end to it-things are changing so fast it
seems like you can't keep up with it. I think,
for us, it exists as a metaphor. I don't want to
presume to speak for David in that sense, but
for me that's how it feels."
Copyright 1997 Frederick S. Clarke
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