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Lost Highway

Representing the Unbelievable

There have for a long time been films of two halves: Hitchcock made a couple of them, Vertigo and Psycho. In the late sixties, Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance could be seen as another, and Michelangelo Antonioni with L’avventura and The Passenger found ways to extricate us from the film’s leading characters. In the former Anna goes missing from the film; in the latter, David Locke changes his identity. Around the time of Lost Highway, Gregg Araki and Robert Rodriguez were gender-bending their films Nowhere and From Dusk Till Dawn. The latter for example started out as a lam movie and turned into a vampire flick

Where does David Lynch’s Lost Highway fall into all of this? A story of a jealous sax player living in the Hollywood Hills who suspects his wife of having an affair turns into apparently another film altogether when Fred Madison is locked up for seemingly killingly his wife, but one day the warden looks into the cell and sees another man there altogether. The young man Pete Dayton Balthazar Getty) is released, and we follow his story as he starts an affair with a gangster’s girlfriend. What confuses things is that the girlfriend is played by the same actress as Fred’s wife (Patricia Arquette), a character talked about in the first section would seem to be the gangster in the second, and Pete gets headaches that indicate his unconscious is remembering past events, or he has been possessed by Fred’s spirit.

Lynch generates a maddening narrative, refusing categorical links and instead pointing up thematic parallels that help us disentangle the story but can’t allow us to resolve it. Fred is the husband whose wife would seem to be having an affair; Pete is the young man having that affair and now the gangster Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia) is the man suspicious. In the first section we are at one remove from Renee’s apparent infidelities; in the second we are at the centre of Alice and Pete’s sexual encounters. It is as though in the second section Fred could be imagining through his feverish jealousy what his wife was actually doing, or projecting onto Pete and becoming the stud he is not. Quite early in the film after Fred and Renee have sex, she pats him on the back after a disappointing performance; Pete manages to keep two women sexually satisfied: Renee and also his regular girlfriend.

Cinema often predicates character as a means by which to carry the viewer’s thoughts and feeling from one scene to the next, but Hitchcock showed quite brilliantly in Psycho that this wasn’t necessary. We could be desperate to see Marion getting away with the cash, but equally determined to see Norman Bates tidy up after him when Marion is killed. Lynch pushes this aapproach much further, and into the irrational. Marina Warner invokes in an essay in Sight and Sound the links between the film and voodoo beliefs. “Lost Highway similarly shifts its characters away from the humanist and Freudian unitary ego, safely mapped on a unique genetic blueprint and enriched with a lifetime of exclusive personal experiences. Instead Lynch and Gifford play here with a model of personality that far more closely resembles the beliefs of spirit religions as practised in Haiti, or elsewhere, among the Buissi people of the Southern Congo.” Yet she also sees the film mathematically: “The film is made like a Moebius strip, with only one surface but two edges: the narrative goes round and round meeting itself, but the several stories it tells run parallel and never join up.”

It might indeed be this combination of the irrational and the logical that generates the film’s terrible tension, a disturbance not too unlike the chaos inside Fred and Pete’s head, exemplified in the use of David Bowie’s ‘Deranged’ at the beginnining and the end of the film, and the shot shortly before the film”s conclusion of Fred/Pete’s head morphing from one to the other. Here the shot contains the nervous exhaustion familiar from a Bacon painting like ‘Study for a Portrait, 1952’. Lynch’s film doesn’t make sense, it makes sense. It doesn’t arrive at a rational conclusion, but expects one to work with irrational senses. Escaping from the conventions is one way of doing this, yet Lynch also has plenty others too.

Lynch is a great director of sound and image and we mean this is in very specific ways. In the first section of the film Lynch makes great use of sound that the human voices fits into rather than the other way round. Usually dialogue is normalized by occupying the soundscape naturally, yet Lynch manages to denaturalize it. When Fred asks Renee what she is going to do since she won’t be listening to him at the club, she says she will stay in and read. There is a properly underlying menace here generated out of a soundscape that means any word dropped into it carries the terrible density of the malevolent. This isn’t merely the violent or the abusive; it is closer to a problem of evil as a force. By pushing the dialogue into a forcefield of the silent, Lynch achieves a menace whose representation can only capture an aspect of the unfathommably dark. Fred isn’t simply the jealous husband looking for answers, he is the man of uncontrollable impulses that would seem to result not long after in Renee’s body mutilated in death. If Fred really cannot remember, it is because Lynch might wonder if certain acts are beyond human: that the mind cannot easily except the evil of which it is capable. The deed can be done but only as a rage of impulses; not as an act of ready consciousness.

Visually, this is captured too in scenes where Fred comes out of the drakness of Lynch’s lighting, and into frames that always seem more painterly than cinematic if we define one of the differences between the two that usually a painting merely has to represent the figure in a moment in space and time, cinema a mise en scene characters pass through. Lynch frames Fred and Rennee as though they are framed in their apartment rather than living in it, evident in the shot where Renee comes into the sitting room in her dressing gown with a tape in an envelope. The shot is framed to suggest a woman with reasons to be frightened rather than someone wondering what has come through the mail. In the narratively similar Hidden, Michael Haneke keeps things much more naturalistic. Each film is equally, formally, precise, but Haneke still wants to give the impression of a living milieu; Lynch a painterly space.

This is part of what we could call Lynch’s unbelievability, a very different thing from implausibility. The latter suggests a failure of artistic imagination, the former a very special kind of success. Hitchcock and Antonioni in rather different ways still wanted the plausible: that our rational coordinates would still be in place. Lynch wants our senses to be muddled so that we can feel the film through but can’t quite think it through. This is pretty close to Lynch’s claim in Lynch on Lynch: “Mystery is good, confusion is bad, and there’s a big difference between the two.” When near the end of Lost Highway Pete says to Alice that he wants her, and she replies that “you will never have me”, the film allows for a noir trope to slip into a metaphysical proposition. By then dissolving Alice into Renee, and Renee into Alice, by having Pete and Fred dissolving into each other, the characterisational becomes irrelevant next to the propositional: are we people or feeling states? If we cannot make sense of the story in Lost Highway as we can in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, that is not a failure of narrative (the implausible), but the accessing of an unconscious that wants to find states and moods (the unbelievable) over the relaying of a story. By having two stories that don’t add up, Lynch suggests the possibilities in the combination of the conscious and unconscious mind colliding. Paul Schrader once proposed that he wanted to make films that would acknowledge drram states but struggled to do so partly because the audience was watching his films wide awake. Lynch’s genius resides in cracking this problem by somehow putting us into a state where dreaming and being awake are no longer such clear categories of perception.

©Tony McKibbin