Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Lost Highway

Lost Highway marks a critical turning point in David Lynch's oevure, moving towards an even more abstract narrative structure than he used in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. FWWM, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive all tell very similar stories, chronicling their protagonists' acceptance fo death. In FWWM, we see a clear delineation between reality and other worlds, Laura quite literally walks througha picture, out of our world and into the alternate reality of the black lodge.

Lost Highway features less overt weirdness than FWWM, the film that sees Lynch engage in his most purely abstract filmmaking since Eraserhead. You could watch most scenes from Lost Highway and get the impression that this is a fairly normal movie. However, the narrative is a radical departure from what he'd done before. Lynch's movies always took place in a slightly askew universe, but usually proceeded through a fairly standard narrative structure. Lost Highway throws out traditional ideas of narrative by placing the film entirely within the mind of the protagonist. In Mulholland Drive, the finaly forty or so minutes of the film seem to exist in an objective reality, even if we're still experiencing Diane's perception, it's her direct perception of real events, rather than a fantasy construction.

In Lost Highway, everything in the film is a subjective experience, seen through the lens of Fred's mind as he's being electrocuted. The critical line in the film is when the Mystery Man says that "In the East, the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they're sent to a place where they can't escape, never knowing when an executioner will step up behind them and fire a bullet into the back of their head." So, the entre film we're watching is waiting for the bullet, with Fred constructing elaborate scenarios to escape from death, only to find that he can keep running, but death will always catch up.

When the film starts, we're watching a fairly close approximation of his actual life. He's married to Renee, but is deeply suspicious of her. The film has a very deliberate pace at the beginning, and in a few spots is a little bit too slow. However, I do love the scene where he's playing the sax, the strobing lights and wildness of his playing set up the fact that his mental state is a little bit off. The performance scenes in Lynch films are almost always a highlight, and this one is strong even though it doesn't have the emotional pull of Club Silencio or Dorothy singing "Blue Velvet."

This first chunk of scenes sets up that Fred and Renee are rather distant from each other, barely speaking and not engaging emotionally with each other at all. Things start to pick up when the videotapes turn up. Fred says that he doesn't like videotapes because he prefers to remember things how he remembers them, not how they actually were. This pretty accurately sums up the film itself, rather than admit the reality of what he's done, he constructs an elaborate fantasy scenario to distance himself from the horror of what he did. The videotapes are like messages from his conscious, real memories breaking into the fantasy world, and understandably he's freaked out by the videos, because they're puncturing his reality.

His suspicions come to the fore during the party scene. Here, he sees Alice being outgoing and jovial, as opposed to her somber demeanor when she's alone with him. On top of this, Fred encounters the Mystery Man. I love the phone call bit as a cool concept, but it also further elucidates the film's overall plot. The Mystery Man is representative of evil, of sin. So, if the Mystery Man is already in his house, it would imply that he's already committed an act of evil. Considering that the Mystery Man is with him when he commits murder at the end of the film, we can assume that he's sort of an embodiment of evil, who urges people on to do bad things.

Lynch has said that his film takes place in the same universe as Twin Peaks, and that would put the Mystery Man in a similar place as BOB, the entity that possesses Leland and forces him to kill his own daughter. BOB can be thought of either as a supernatural entity, or as the capacity that all men have for evil. So, Leland's own innate problems manifest themselves in this BOB persona. Similarly, the Mystery Man works either as an actual supernatural entity or as a manifestation of Fred's jealousy, urging him to do bad things. He is the evil that men do.

The party brings Fred in touch with his guilt and the reality of what he did. Both the discussion with the Mystery Man and the subsequent discussion with Renee on the way home, in which he tries to find out more about how she met Andy see him getting close to the mindset he was in when he killed her. So, shortly after they get back he wanders into the shadows, and moves closer to reality.

If there is one sequence that takes place in an objective reality, it would be the stuff at the police station where Fred is interrogated and experiences migraines in his cell. You could even argue that the entire film to this point is reality, but I think the Mystery Man and the videotapes would discount that theory. Considering the Mystery Man is the one holding the surveillance camera at the end of the film, the discovery of the videotapes is like a broadcast from his subconscious, disrupting the fantasy world.

The exact nature of the reality of the prison scenes is irrelevant. What is clear is that the fantasy world is breaking down and Fred is moving closer and closer to death. He's sentenced to the electric chair, seemingly with no way out. However, in his migraine haze, he peers up into the light and moves into another world.

What struck me on this viewing was the similarity between this and the Costa Mesa stuff in The Sopranos. Tony also constructs a fantasy world for himself, in which he can live a new life, but that world gradually breaks down, returning him to his real life. Both work use the bright circle of light as a transition betweeen worlds, the lamp in LH and the helicopter searchlight in The Sopranos.

The transition sequence between Fred's story and Pete's is interesting. Pete seems to be literally plucked from his world and moved into the cell. This would imply that Fred had constructed this fantasy persona before, and now he becomes him. However, it could also be read as Fred trying to build up some kind of justification for why Pete is in the cell. Even in this mental realm, certain rules of cause and effect must be obeyed.

Pete is a fictional construction that Fred uses to escape from all the problems he accrued in his adult life. Trapped in a loveless marriage and plagued by jealousy and guilt, he decides to revert to his teenage years and escape all that. The life he builds for himself is interesting, in some respects, Pete is a failure, he's 24, but still lives with his parents. The way I read it, Fred was lonely and decided to construct an identity where he had people who were looking out for him and caring about him. So, this guy who seemed connected with only one person, his wife, builds a world where he's got friends coming over to visit him, parents who look out for him, and a girlfriend who's deeply in love with him.

So, this world seems to be completely removed from who he was before, that is until he encounters Alice, a different version of Renee. Lynch loves to do the blonde hair/dark hair contrast, it turns up in nearly every thing he's done. Alice is an interesting construction because she's simultaneously everything that Fred wanted Renee to be and everything he didn't want her to be. Alice is passionate about Pete, their sex is a major contrast to the pained groping of Fred and Renee. As Pete, Fred is able to recapture the fire he once had, another reason why he chose this younger persona for his reinvention. Clearly there's a fantasy element to this, since both Alice and Sheila are desperate to spend time with him. As the policeman says "This fucker gets more pussy than a toilet seat."

The first time I saw the introduction of Alice, where she walks into the car, backed by Lou Reed's cover of "This Magic Moment," I felt it didn't quite work. The punk or alternative covers of 50s pop songs frequently come across as cheesy, and it's odd that Lynch would choose to use an updated version of a 50s pop song when he's usually interested in contrasting the sordid world of his films with sappy 50s pop songs. But, watching it this time I liked it more. The way he films it makes you see Alice through the eyes of someone who's completely drawn to her. Patricia Arquette's certainly attractive here, but the way it's shot pushes it beyond just the surface.

That scene actually gets to one of the key issues with the film, the idea of male possessiveness. When Pete sees Alice, he views her as an object, a point of view that's Fred's fatal flaw. In creating Alice, Fred flips the dynamic of his actual relationship with her, splitting himself into two people. I already covered Pete, who Fred actually identifies with. However, with Mr. Eddy, we see someone who represents the other side of Fred, all his bad traits.

Considering he murdered his wife, Fred clearly has some anger issues, and in the driving sequence, we see that Eddy has a similarly short fuse. Eddy also has jealousy issues, he's the old guy, who apparently does not satisfy his wife sexually. Fred has all these problems, so he makes his problems into his enemy and constructs a fantasy persona for himself.

However, the very presence of Alice represents a break in the fantasy persona. What started as a total break is gradually returning to the reality of Fred Madison's life. This is accelerated with one of the most striking sequences in the film, Alice's strip at gunpoint. Considering this sequence is seen through Fred's own perception, it's clear that even though he killed her because she was fooling around, on some level he's also turned on by it. That's why he'd construct this elaborate scenario.

The scene simultaneously exonerates Alice and revels in her betrayal. He can justify her adultery by saying that she only did it so save herself, she had no choice, but at the same time, he eroticizes the scenario. It's the Madonna/whore idea, and that's Fred's ultimate downfall. It's likely that what drove him to actually kill her was not so much the actual fooling around, but the fact that he liked to think of her in that way, as an object.

This leads into the phone call sequence with the mystery man and Mr. Eddy. This features the essential "Far East" speech, which basically explains the film. I love the end of the scene where Mr. Eddy says "Pete... I just wanted to jump on and tell you I'm really glad you're doin' okay." It's simultaneously hilarious and menacing.

The objectification continues with the sequence at Andy's house. This is where the film starts to get really good. It's unclear who Andy is in reality, if he's a big porn mogul, or if he's just a guy who Renee was attracted to. That's irrelevant in the overall scheme of things. What Fred does is turn her ambiguous relationship with Andy into this elaborate porn ring.

The porn film loops are quite different from the videos we saw earlier. The videos are clearly shot by the mystery man, on the security camera he's carrying with him. They're as close as we get to objective reality. The porn videos are most likely a construction of Fred's mind. They're omnipresent in his mental world because they're the best evidence of what drove him to kill her. He was always imagining these scenarios and their intrusion in the fantasy world is another indicator that it's about to collapse. Pete seems unphased by their presence, but the very nature of the videos, their extreme sordidness would indicate that they're Fred's ultimate nightmare.

And yet, at the same time he imagines Mr. Eddy, the side of himself that killed her, turned on by the videos, and watching them with Alice. This again ties into his conflict about his feelings, on one level he hates her for making them, but part of him wants to revel in it, and use her sexual exploration as part of their relationship. It's notable that Mr. Eddy and Alice at the video screening are much more passionate than Fred and Renee in their bedroom. That scene can also be read as Fred's ultimate fear, that Renee loves making these videos and having sex with other men, while she won't give him any passion. So, Eddy is another fantasy figure, once again Fred gets to be in sexual control of Alice rather than being pathetically unequipped to please her.

After the business at Andy's house we get my favorite scene in the film, the sex in the headlights. This scene pushes the visuals to an extreme, I love how the characters are virtually white silhouettes against the black background. They move in slow motion, abstracted, to the incredible sounds of This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren." I hadn't noticed it before, but the song appears briefly earlier in the film when Fred is first having sex with Renee. So, its presence would indicate the collapse of the fantasy world, once again we get the light motif, the same transition that brought us Pete sends him away, and brings Fred back. It was the rebuilding of the house that allowed Fred to escape himself, but now back at its site, in the presence of the Mystery Man, his guilt, his true self returns.

Alice says "You'll never have me," which is literally true, since she's dead, but also plays on Fred's insecurities. Even though they were married, they weren't connected, he can make these fantasies, but he'll never have the same passion that she had with Andy or Eddy/Laurant. Of course, he can only imagine that passion, so in a sense what she's saying is that the real her will never live up to the mental image of the woman he created. This is an especially apt comment in light of the fact that Alice is an entirely fictional construction.

From here the film takes off into the sort of abstraction that Lynch excels at. I love the idea of the Lost Highway hotel, a stopover for Fred on the journey through his subconscious. Here he sees more distorted images of Renee, and ultimately finds Mr. Eddy. Aided by the Mystery Man, he drags Eddy out into the desert. At this point, Fred has basically accepted his guilt. If we're to take the Mystery Man as a physical embodiment of that guilt, the fact that he's working with him would indicate that he's moved beyond trying to come to terms with the murder and instead is embracing his identity as a killer.

If we're to read Eddy as Fred's own jealous side, then murdering him would seem to lay to rest the trauma surrounding Renee's death. He confronts him with the porn images on the TV, then kills him. The basic point is that Fred has accepted the truth, the fantasy world is crumbling and falling into chaos.

This is partially manifested in the cleanup scenes at Andy's house. Previously we had two seperate sets of cops for Pete and Fred. Now, they're working together, and where once we had two women in the photo, there's now only one. The entire Pete identity has collapsed, and Fred has come to terms with the fact that it was only one woman all along, a further breakdown of the fantasy.

We come full circle when Fred speaks into the intercom. This may be a tie in to the idea of the Far Eastern purgatory, that he will continue in this loop forever, another Fred Madison will hear this message and take the journey one more time, even as this one goes off to death. Either way, it's a nice bit of narrative symmetry leading us into the final scene.

Having accepted guilt for the murder of Renee, and possibly the murder of Andy and Eddy, Fred flees from the police. I'm not sure whether he killed Andy in real life, I would say it's unlikely. He is reluctant to engage with the moment where he actually killed Renee, but he dwells on the death of Eddy and Andy in the dream. So, I would think that's another example of the fantasy construction, this time he gets revenge not only on his wife, but also on the men that she was fooling around with.

And then he's off on the Lost Highway, fleeing the police. Throughout the film we've seen moments of intense light and heat that are used to signal major transitions. The final transition for everyone is death, and here at the end, death comes to Fred Madison. The lighting bolts as he's driving is the charge from the electric chair being pumped through him. He's created this elaborate fantasy scenarios throughout the film to avoid the truth, but now the police are catching up with him, he's got nowhere to go, for him the road has ended.

Lost Highway is an essential Lynch work, paving the way for a film that uses very similar structure and themes, but in a more cohesive, stylish way, and that's Mulholland Drive. Lost Highway is a tougher film to engage with because it's a dirtier film. MD has a sheen, so that even if you don't follow the plot you can enjoy the Hollywood glamour, humor and wacky characters.

Lost Highway is in some ways the least Lynchian of all his films. Most of his movies take place in a world that's slightly askew, usually thrown back towards the 50s. Lost Highway has some over the top characters, but other than the Mystery Man, no one who's weird in the way that the Log Lady or Frank Booth is. It's a much more modern, reality based film, despite taking place entirely in this guy's head.

This modernity actually makes it seem more dated in some ways than a lot of Lynch. Blue Velvet, TP or MD take place in a time warp that's part 50s, part present day, and that makes it timeless. Lost Highway is very tied to 1997, particularly in the soundtrack. This is the only Lynch film to make extensive use of contemporary recordings, I'm not sure if that was a studio choice or his own, but it gives things a different feeling than other Lynch movies. This certainly the most rock Lynch movie, and even though only a small bit of his music was used, the film does have the feel of a Trent Reznor song. I love the typical Angelo Badalamenti Lynch music, but it is good to mix things up. One of the flaws of MD is that it uses so many of Lynch's previous tricks, Lost Highway is much more groundbreaking for him.

In terms of music, besides the afforementioned brilliance of "Song to the Siren," I love the David Bowie track that bookends the film. It fits so well with the image of the lights on the road, and its return at the end creates another piece of symmetry to compliment the "Dick Laurant is dead" repetition. You get the sense that you could start the film again right there and things would still work. I also love the Rammstein tracks, their German vocals lending a bizarre grandeur to the proceedings.

If Lost Highway has a flaw, it's that the pacing is so deliberate the first half of the movie suffers a bit. It's necessary to lay out the themes, but watching it again, I found myself waiting for the cool stuff from the second half, there's not as much visceral entertainment in the first chunk of the film.

But that doesn't stop it from being a great film. This is such a thematically complex film, I love the fact that Lynch won't give a definitive interpretation. I feel like I got the film, but there are other, equally valid interpretations. The film gives you a basic design, and you're allowed to fill in the details for yourself. I'd consider this, Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland a thematic trilogy, and those three films are some of the richest, most complex films ever made. Lynch's subconscious motivated filmmaking creates consistently confounding and demanding narratives, where the film is just the start, the real fun comes afterwards, trying to turn the pieces into your own whole. I love this kind of filmmaking, it makes the typical three act narrative look positively boring, and with the exception of Miike, I can think of no one else who's doing movies that challenge you in this way. Watching the film again has made me even hungrier for Inland Empire, it's been too long since I've had some new Lynch to contemplate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice interpretation.
But I still having some questions in my mind:

-Where does Renee die? Cabin? At home?
-Why Mystery Man is friend of Dick/Eddy?
-Why police says that there are plenty of PETE's prints. Isn't that moment the real life?