By Donald Lyons
HE MUST BE A REAL estate agent, says dark-haired Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette) as she and her husband Fred (Bill Pullman) watch a tape left at the door of their spare modernist house on a street in what could be a Los Angeles canyon. The black-and-white, handheld footage shows the house's exterior. But "he"-the unknown maker of the tape - is not exactly real, though he is an agent of sorts. The filmer is also an observer; the Madisons' house, as Renee will have occasion to inform the police, is "near the observatory."
The Madisons receive three such tapes: in the second, a camera prowls the house's interior; in the third, it discovers Renee's bloodied corpse. This last tape fragment is intercut with present-tense, color footage of Fred discovering the corpse. Who shot what? Who slew whom? What time is it?
This occurs in the first movement of David Lynch's "Lost Highway," a film he wrote with Barry Gifford, author of the novel Lynch's "Wild at Heart" was based on. It is photographed by Peter Deming and scored by Angelo Badalamenti, with a good deal of additional music by the likes of David Bowie ("I'm Deranged"), Trent Reznor ("Various Ominous Drones," "The Perfect Drug," "Driving Theme"), and Marilyn Manson ("Apple of Sodom").
Lost Highway is a grimly playful collage of pictures that toy with time and space and sex and death. We are not to forget that Lynch went to the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and is a painter to this day; he is also a lyricist and co-composer, with Badalamenti, of a work called "Industrial Symphony No. l." This is a painter's movie; it loves to place face in space. The heads of Fred and Renee are carefully photographed against or in corners of monochrome walls and rooms. Details of faces-above all, the woman's shiny red lips-are rapturously given the whole screen as they utter urgent words into black phones. Place is important, too: horizontal shots situating the house on its street; overhead shots to give an architect's bird's-eye view. The exact locale is left abstract, unlike the Milan of La Notte or the Rome of L'Eclisse-films that are evoked by Lost Highway; it is, though, obviously an abstract of L.A.-Lynch's first film about this noir grid.
And into this affectless, barely animated space intrude both the mystery videomaker and the personal drama of the Madisons. He's a jazz saxophonist at the Luna Lounge and he seems to want her to come along to watch him blow and she seems not to want to come. After the second video, they summon two semi-comic cops, who return after the third to arrest Fred for murder. Renee had moved in louche and lurid circles where Fred was uncomfortable; at a party we'd seen, Fred had encountered a wizard, a Magister Ludi, a powdered and sadistic toyer with space and time called Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who had alerted Fred to his - Fred's - metaphysical danger. Mystery Man is a variant on such Lynch personae as Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell's characters in Blue Velvet, and the Wicked Witch, the Good Witch, and Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart. Like them, he is the unsettling voice of another dimension, a principle of uncertainty; he imposes an existential vertigo, a slippage of self, upon the hero.
By some metamorphic wizardry, the Fred Madison occupying a cell on Death Row suddenly becomes/is replaced by studly young garage mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty, looking like a thinner and dryer Charlie Sheen). Just prior to our meeting Pete, he has been involved in some dark deed (perhaps the murder of Renee?) that has upset his half-biker, half-Beaver suburban parents; we've gone from canyon to Valley, and get another overhead establishing shot of the real estate. Pete's way with car engines has endeared him to suave but explosive gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia); Mr. Eddy, under another name, was spoken of as dead in the earlier story. Mr. Eddy, though, has a luscious, blonde moll, Alice Wakefield (also Patricia Arquette - and maybe also Renee Madison). Sooner than you can say "femme fatale = forbidden fruit," the steamy youngsters, spied on by jealous cops, are in a motel room ("Take my clothes off," Alice insists). Later, her cherry-ripe lips in tight, tight closeup beg him on the phone to come to another rendezvous. She soon concocts a scheme to rob a porn kingpin of enough cash for them-just two crazy kids-to hit the road heading somewhere, anywhere. (The porn kingpin was the earlier story's party-giver.) A lot, unsurprisingly, goes wrong.
The first story toyed with noir tropes of sucker-accused-probably-wrongly-of-wife/lover-murder; it recalled the universe of Phantom Lady and The Big Clock and The Blue Dahlia and Pitfall. In part two we're in tabu-moll country, the Out of the Past terrain Tarantino reploughed in another spirit altogether in Pulp Fiction. And the ribboned nighttime macadam we speed down from time to time is ultimately a homage to Detour. The film's climactic confrontations resemble a vast nocturnal magic trick worked less for wonder than for chilled awe; the properties wielded by the reappeared Mystery Man include an exploding shack, a female duality, a male duality, cops and cars.
Lost Highway can be read as a celebration of benign wizardry, as a guided detour through the underworld of dislocation and up toward a moonlit sort of sense. It can be seen as a Dante-esque descent into otherness and doubleness with a reintegration into oneness and innocence at the close. But it somehow doesn't feel like an affirming work. As usual in later Lynch, the hottest frissons, the darkest thrills come for the male hero when he is involved with a sexual Id. The highway that is really lost here is the highway of reason, of closure, of coherence, of the Ego. And the Id takes in Lynch the form of woman, duplicitous, delicious, double, dangerous. Renee the victim and Alice the vamp are perhaps identical narratively, but more importantly the same player occupies the same sequential space and grabs the same guts. Desire is red and desire is death and desire is woman. There is, inescapably, a fear of, a distance from woman here. And there is a loathing of self, too: the peeping video artist, complete with self-bilocating technical trickery, has (at least initially) the aspect of a cosmeticized and malignant dwarf.
Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and the "Twin Peaks" pilot stayed in touch with a possible narrative reality, although more or less strongly suggesting a lethal and autonomous underlife festering beneath sweet surfaces. Here Lynch shuffles ontological levels; it's as if some capricious madman in control of PRC, the 1940s Poverty Row outfit that managed to produce Detour, ordered a switch in story in midproduction, then released everything that had been shot, with a quickie, tacked-on, make-sense ending. The Mystery Man is Lynch.
What yanks Lost Highway back from the shoulder of pathology onto the highway of art is its cool control, its postmodern distance, its tinny ironies. These are evident in the sleek architecture of Deming's images and in the masterful musical rhythms. Lynch has always had perfect pop pitch: "A candy-colored clown they call the Sandman" in Blue Velvet; the Elvis anthems in Wild at Heart. Here, just to hear Lou Reed's voice kissing the blurred highway with "This Magic Moment" is to laugh, to intuit possibilities of joy not allowed for in the film's nightmare logic.
Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty are finely stoic as the put-upon guys; Robert Loggia as a stickler for road etiquette and Robert Blake as a filmmaker are splendid Lynch grotesques; Patricia Arquette brings an amused wit to her voluptuous self-display in an all-out performance that should, but probably won't, get her awards. The whole alluring, baffling film is a sensuous marvel. Like Cronenberg's Crash and Jarmusch's Dead Man, it shows an eccentric, pioneering sensibility conquering new and savage territory for his art.
Donald Lyons is the author of Independent Visions (Ballantine).
Back to the Lost Highway articles page.