Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Weird on Top: A Discussion of David Lynch

by Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob DiCristino
Week Three: Lost Highway

Note: This conversation will spoil Lost Highway.

Rob: Welcome back to Weird on Top, your biweekly David Lynch bonanza. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Alejandra: And I’m Alejandra Gonzalez.

Rob: This week, we’re looking at Lost Highway, Lynch’s 1997 neo-noir co-written with Wild at Heart novelist Barry Gifford. Lost Highway is...complicated. It stars Bill Pullman as Fred Madison, a night club saxophonist who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). One day, Fred receives a strange message on his intercom: “Dick Laurent is dead.” Fred doesn’t know Dick Laurent or why he died, and things get even stranger when he and Renee begin receiving grainy footage of their home on unmarked VHS tapes. This triggers a series of bizarre dreams, including one in which Fred sees his wife as The Mystery Man (the unfortunately-in-this-movie Robert Blake), a pale, semi-human being whose harassment culminates in a video of Fred killing and eating Renee. Fred is then sent to prison for her murder.

Lost Highway is ALSO about Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young auto mechanic who wakes up in Fred’s cell with no memory of how he got there. Having zero clue who he is or any logical reason to hold him, the prison releases Pete into the custody of his parents (Gary Busey and Lucy Butler) and girlfriend (Natasha Gregson Wagner). He soon returns to work (for Arnie, awesomely and randomly played by Richard Pryor) and attracts the attention of local gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). Mr. Eddy admires Pete’s skill with a wrench, and Pete admires Mr. Eddy’s mistress, Alice Wakefield (also Arquette). Wrapped up in a dangerous affair and hoping to score enough cash to escape Mr. Eddy’s grasp, Pete and Alice hatch a scheme to rob local party boy Andy (Michael Massee) and skip town. It does not go well.

Ale, since your boy Trent Reznor produced Lost Highway’s soundtrack, I have no choice but to let you begin with your thoughts on the film.
Alejandra: So, the soundtrack is absolutely my favorite part of Lost Highway and absolutely has nothing (everything) to do with the fact that Trent Reznor was involved, but I always save the best for last. I actually wanted to start by confessing that I was actually dreading having to revisit Lost Highway, and even more so having to write about it. Not because I don’t really love it, but because I am incredibly intimidated by it since it’s one of Lynch’s films that I like the most but identify with and understand the least. How do I justify that, especially when we’re talking about one of the most theorized and analyzed filmmakers I can think of? The more and more I tried to come up with something smart to say about this movie to prove that I understood it, the less I cared about understanding it and began to care about appreciating it and letting it take me wherever the hell it wanted. Only then was I able to develop a more streamlined set of thoughts about it.

So, Lost Highway — a cold, abysmal nightmare that has been unanimously deemed a rough draft to Lynch’s magnum opus, Mulholland Drive. Lost Highway gets a lot of mixed criticism, often being judged for being frigid and lacking humanity of any sort. All of the characters are pretty unlikeable, and I do agree that when being compared to Mulholland Drive, it lacks the melancholic, yearning kind of emptiness that the latter achieves and just feels pretty hollow. In the same vein, I think that’s what draws me to it so much. I think it captures the feeling of nothingness and resentment that comes with being so dissatisfied in life and in one’s relationships extremely well. I’ll expand shortly, but first I want to know how you feel about Lost Highway.

Rob: I think we’re pretty close on this one. I’ll just be honest here and say that Lost Highway is a tough sit. We talked about Eraserhead being a headache and something we appreciate more than we actually like, and (for me) Lost Highway probably fits more into that category than anything else in Lynch’s catalog. It’s angry and claustrophobic; it it has a ‘90s energy that hasn’t aged all that well. This makes sense, like you said: As the lore goes, Lynch was frustrated in his personal and professional relationships and anxious to make a statement after the critical dismissal of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (his last theatrical release). He’s at a pivot point in his career, and he’s searching for something. That comes across loud and clear. I mean, I like the movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s absolutely a journey into the soul of a man at an emotional crossroads. He’s on his back foot, and it shows.

That being said, Lost Highway sports some incredible performances, most notably from Patricia Arquette in her double role. She’s an absolutely captivating femme fatale, sexy and severe enough to sell the mystery/noir tone, but accessible and human enough to empathize with in the more chaotic moments. You can really tell how game she is to work with Lynch and how much ownership she’s willing to take over such a bizarre and challenging story. Pullman and Getty are solid, and there’s a weirdy-normal Gary Busey performance, to boot! It’s so satisfying to see big-name actors play bit parts just because they want to act for David Lynch.
Alejandra: I really agree with everything you said about the performances. I’m always pretty amazed at how well some actors can perform in Lynch’s stuff considering that so many times they’re being asked to play more than one person/versions of a person. I think the doppelganger thing is most notable in Mulholland Drive, but I especially love it here and as executed by Kyle Maclachlan in Twin Peaks: The Return. I’m actually glad you brought up the performances because I feel that the smaller pieces of Lost Highway’s make up are what make it so great. I think if we’re judging the film’s technical qualities, it is one of Lynch’s best in terms of how it looks and sounds. For instance, I love everything about Fred and Rene’s house. How minimally furnished it is really speaks to the fact that this is not to be mistaken for a home. This space is empty and barren, much like the discontented life Fred leads and like his relationship to Rene. I also don’t know what this means, but it reminded me a lot of Dorothy’s apartment in Blue Velvet, down to the exact color of the walls. Am I reaching?

Rob: Not at all. It’s definitely a pretty consistent Lynch motif, but I didn’t even pick up on this similarity with Blue Velvet until you showed me. It’s pretty remarkable.

Alejandra: Which leads me to what I am most excited to talk about — one of the best film soundtracks of all time, and a hill I am willing to die on. Imagining Trent and Lynch working on this together fills me with all the warmth that this movie is supposed to lack. I love that Lost Highway went with something more industrial leaning with its music, and I’m pretty sure it was just a product of the decade but it works unbelievably well. I’ve always described bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson to be cold and metallic sounding (I mean that in the best way), so it perfectly compliments how this movie feels. Funny enough, my favorite song on the soundtrack isn’t even a Nine Inch Nails song, and is actually the Smashing Pumpkins song. What’s yours?

Rob: While I’m not as high on this style of music as you are, I definitely agree that it suits and energizes Lost Highway in a unique way. I’m a pretty big fan of Manson’s “I Put a Spell On You” cover.

Alejandra: Also, This soundtrack is so different from the jazzy and ambiently dreamy sounds of Lynch’s previous work and it makes perfect sense. Everything he made before this was a nightmare wrapped up in a dream’s clothing— the whimsical sights of an immaculate small town that were much darker under the surface. Lost Highway never does that, and it is a total icy nightmare from the get go.
Rob: Speaking of which, let’s get into some Lynchian semiotics! As you said, Lost Highway is typically seen as a spiritual predecessor to Mulholland Drive, and I think it’s through that lens that we can find the root of what Lynch and Gifford are getting at. Like Mulholland, Lost Highway seems to use a bisected story structure to distinguish between who a person is (Pullman) and who they see themselves as or want to be (Getty). Unlike Diane in Mulholland, though, Fred seems to have some control — or at least awareness — of his changing identity. He tells a detective that he likes “to remember things [his] own way, not necessarily the way they happened,” and the shifts into and out of the “Pete” identity are a central part of the narrative. Lynch has said that Lost Highway was inspired in part by the O.J. Simpson murders, a situation in which a man kills two people and just goes on living, lying about it even to himself: “How does the mind protect itself from that knowledge and go on?”

Two other Mulholland Drive analogs are found in the characters and structure. Lynch often personifies Chaos or Fate with an idiosyncratic jester type (think The Man Behind Winky’s or The Man From Another Place), a character who guides the lead along their path to enlightenment or ruin. Here, we have one of his most effective examples: Robert Blake’s Mystery Man, a creature who seems to be alternately stalking and supporting Fred. The Mystery Man can be in two places at once, which (aside from being creepy as hell) seems to foreshadow the reveal of Fred being the one on the intercom saying “Dick Laurent is dead” to himself. There’s the structural curiosity. The term “Mobius strip” is thrown around a lot in discourse about Lost Highway, and it’s a fairly accurate description. Trouble is — and this is the thing I’ve already said I love most about Lynch’s work — the explanation is rarely the reward. Things don’t exactly coalesce into a logical structure at the end, so there’s still a ton open to interpretation.

Absolutely! I used to watch hours upon hours of videos trying to analyze Lynch’s work but it mainly frustrated me and tainted my experience watching his stuff. To me, Lost Highway is actually pretty straight forward when we strip it of...mostly everything. We talked about this with Blue Velvet! The movie is about a man so unfulfilled in his life and his relationship that it builds such an intense resentment which festers until he does something unspeakable. The second half of the film, where we are with Pete, is a dissociative fantasy of Fred’s and it reminds me even more of Blue Velvet in that way. The problems that Pete faces can be taken as Fred’s insecurities permeating his fantasies, as they are so deep rooted that they become inescapable.

Rob: With such complex and thoughtful storytelling, I’m left to wonder what it is about Lost Highway that I find so grating and unsatisfying. It’s a classic Lynch mind-fuck, for sure, but so are Fire Walk with Me and Mulholland Drive. That’s not what it is. I think it might be that — for all the dirty, dirty sex — there’s not a ton of love. It’s a movie about denial and paranoia made by someone who was clearly resentful and distrusting of his fellow humans at that point in his life. There’s a jarring coldness to the whole thing that makes me feel like I’m not wanted, that the movie is angry at me and I just have to sit and take it. And again, that’s not really a technical strike against Lost Highway. Lynch is working something out through his art, something very specific, and sometimes you have to be in the right headspace to connect with it.
Alejandra: I can really understand that. I honestly have a hard time even putting into words why I like this one so much and wonder if I even know why myself. I don’t typically like movies that are so cynical as this is, but for whatever reason I love the way Lost Highway feels. I think it’s interesting how sexy it is despite its enormous lack of intimacy, as you said. I also think it is wildly different from most of Lynch’s other stuff while also maintaining so many Lynchian trademarks and themes. I’ve decided that I could linger on it forever and I will probably never put my finger on why I love where Lost Highway takes me, but I would let it take me there again. And again. And Again.

Rob: I think that’s great! Some things are best left felt about rather than thought about. I’ll keep revisiting it, certainly, and maybe I’ll grow more attached to it as time goes on.

After a heavy first few weeks, we’re going to lighten things up next time with The Straight Story, Lynch’s Disney-produced, Oscar-nominated 1999 film. It stars Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, and The Great Harry Dean Stanton. It’s about a man and his tractor, and it’s a delight. Until next time, remember: This world is wild at heart…

Alejandra: And weird on top.


  1. Another excellent Lynch retrospective and I must say that you both, especially you Alejandra should check out the 1943 short "Meshes Of The Afternoon" which seems a real inspiration on Lost Highway and is 14 minutes well spent! :)

    1. This is great! Thanks for the suggestion. I can definitely see Lynch drawing inspiration.