This is a review of Lost Highway, the David Lynch film made in 1997. It was a film that defied narrative structure and any semblance of a pat cinematic experience bound together by a satisfactory ending. It was about a murder, but it wasn’t really. It was about a Mystery Man who acted like Lucifer to Goethe, only Lucifer was actually a part of the main character, Fred Madison, who was actually Pete Dayton, married to Renee, who actually turned out to be Alice Wakefield. The protagonist played the saxophone and lived in an expensively modern-looking house. The protagonist then turned out to be a talented car mechanic with ties to a gangster called Mr. Eddy who was actually a guy named Dick Laurent. Dick Laurent loved Alice Wakefield, or at least lusted after her, forcing her to strip at gunpoint and become his mistress. Pete Dayton also loved Alice Wakefield. Alice Wakefield didn’t love any of them, or at least wouldn’t be possessed by any of them. The plot was labyrinthine to say the least.
Lost Highway was shot over 84 days and came as inspiration to David Lynch as he drove home after completing filming of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The first line in the movie, “Dick Laurent is dead,” was something Lynch actually randomly heard in his home. Why is Dick Laurent dead when Lynch didn’t even know a Dick Laurent? The metaphysics of murdering a non-existent victim became the crux that drove this mind-fuck forward. Lost Highway is mystery as existential crisis, a psychological profile that starts in the third person and devolves into a mad first-person dash. Fred Madison hates cameras, but discovers his identity through videotape footage that arrives daily, exposing a murder driven by jealousy.
Madness and love are intricately intertwined in the film. Pete Dayton kills Andy (Alice’s friend) so he can steal his money and run away with Alice. When the gravity of his actions hits, he notices Alice Wakefield getting drilled in an adult film that plays on a huge projector in the background, porn acting as fantasy gone awry. Is Alice Wakefield a victim or villain? But it’s hard to answer when there’s a movie playing within the movie that’s already split itself out as another segment of that movie.
The titular highway connects disparate moments. Actually, it sunders them apart with frenetic headlights unable to maintain their focus. David Bowie chants a haunting, “I’m Deranged,” which could be the theme of the entire film, or a parable for the fractured state of the modern psyche. “Funny how secrets travel,” Bowie sings, like a game of telephone where the carriers have ruptured ear canals and a whisper on one side comes out as a cacophonously deafening burst of undefined noise on the other. There are no secrets, but revelations may be multifaceted, or as in this case, schizophrenic. Fred Madison likes to “remember things my own way… not necessarily the way they happened.”
Did Fred Madison recreate his past in his mind? Or was he trying to justify his whole life through the avatar of Pete Dayton, almost like a videogame, only more real? Is he actually at the electric chair and experiencing a series of remorseful delusions, as marked by the interspersed bursts of light in his face that seem electromagnetic? It’s a vomiting of ideas, a mobius strip with no discernible ending or beginning point except for the statement, “Dick Laurent is…”
But if only the cerebral connected the threads, none of it would work. Only an illogical madness, a crazy love, could bind the pieces together. There is no question that someone (Fred/Pete) loved someone else (Renee/Alice) and committed something horrific to express that love. The ontological detective work that follows is not just a masturbatory exercise in making things weird as possible, which would come across as contrived, even gimmicky. Instead, it’s dissecting the subconscious impulses of desire, the depths of rage to which that said desire can push even the most ordinary of men.
When Fred is being punched in the face by the policemen, he begs them to tell him that he didn’t actually kill his wife, the regret and guilt dripping in his voice. When Pete talks to the Mystery Man for the second time, he is at home, terrified at the prospect of getting caught. “We’ve met before,” the Mystery Man says. Vestiges of a structure are hinted at, like when Pete Dayton is fixing a car and hears Fred’s saxophone playing on the radio. It’s interesting to note that in the credits, Alice and Renee are billed as two separate characters even though they’re both played by Patricia Arquette.
In the final scene, police cars are chasing after Fred and he starts morphing again, his face mutating into something that resembles the Elephant Man, the character about whom Lynch made an earlier film. Lynch has said Lost Highway takes place in the same universe as his TV series Twin Peaks and the tailgating scene (which will be catharsis for anyone who’s been tailgated and honked at) takes place on Mulholland Drive, the location and name of his stab at Hollywood dreams. All his movies blend together in painful seams that are almost impossible to explicate. Reality has crumbled and Fred is always on the run.
For a man who specializes in cinematizing nightmares, David Lynch’s background seems scarily ordinary. He grew up in suburbia with caring parents, and though he did move around, he enjoyed meeting new students at the new schools. He was a Boy Scout who reached the rank of an Eagle Scout and even attended John F, Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. He developed his passion for art but was unhappy attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He found his home at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. One of the interesting facts about Lynch is he likes placing bugs in his paintings once he’s set his paint. The random accidents of insects smearing the canvas with their winged paint and thoracic titillations brought an authenticity and random ugliness that made the images beautiful in his eyes.
There’s a lot of random ugliness in Lynch’s films, especially Lost Highway. With a villain even creepier than Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, the movie has a desiccating effect on the mind. It’s not there to entertain or please. Lost Highway exists as a conduit into the complexities of storytelling. Surf the web and there are fifty interpretations for what happened, fifty views of the exact same film. It’s hard to tell if the story could have been told as effectively in any other medium. Divorced of the moody soundtrack composed by Angelo Badalamenti and the visual canvas filmed by director of photography Peter Deming in the pornographic trappings of exposed sensuality, Lost Highway could be misconstrued as a confusing mess. The close-up shots that consume huge chunks of the opening get uncomfortably vis-a-vis, lingering, tarrying on inevitabilities and discomfiting skin pores. The boundary between auteur and upstart is thin, as is the line between being genuinely provocative and pompous spectacle. That’s a delineation that the viewer has to make because the best reviewers could provide would be an outlined interpretation of what they just saw on the screen, hypothesizing whether the Mystery Man really was simultaneously at Fred’s home and standing next to him at the party.
Then again, this is not a review. Lost Highway is not a film. All of this is a dark memory that never happened. Dick Laurent is dead.
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