|Flesh & Blood Nr. Nine 1997|
|David Lynch`s latest movie is a bizarre
tour-de-force which may well be one of the only truly surrealistic
movies of the 1990`s. Brad Stevens considers how this movie, as with all
great cinema, can forge links with the viewer`s subconscious.
Discovering David Lynch`s Lost Highway
By Brad Stevens
"Evasiveness is all in the mind.
Truth is on many levels."
Bob Dylan in Renaldo And Clara (1978)
To the question "What is Cinema?", most modern directors would probably respond "Who cares?". Others may more boldly stress the importance of foregrounding this or that social problem. Perhaps cinema is something that only happened in the distant past, like Murnau shooting Nosferatu or Sam Fuller recording the liberation of a concentration camp at Falkenau.
For those with eyes to see, whose senses have not been dulled by repeated exposure to Major Motion Pictures which do little but confirm Louis Lumière`s claim that "The cinema is an invention without a future", David Lynch`s Lost Highway (1996) helpsus to understand the reaction of those viewers in 1896 who, upon being shown the film of a train arriving at a station, instinctively ran to the back of the theatre. For Lynch, alongside Abel Ferrara, still believes that the cinema is capable of anything, that, in the hands of a genius, its images can forge links with the subconscious direct enough to erase the distinction between artist and audience. The train may yettear through the screen and run us over.
"So what it`s about" I hear you ask, by which you mean "What`s the story?". But there is no story. Or rather there are several, with echos of Vertigo and Out Of The Past. Not, however, 'story' in the traditional sense, not a narrative that proceeds from beginning to end via a middle, but 'story' as used by Bunuel in L`Age D`Or, a film periodically interrrupted by passages of dialogue which could have been taken directly from any Hollywood romance.
An unconventional approch for an American film (though Lost Highway was actually made with French money), but one intimately connected with the way we all live. Or rather dream. For dreams proceed in much the same way, with narratives that suddenly shift in new directions, sometimes becoming a second narrative that has only an associative connection with the first. If we thik over the dream upon waking, we may protest "That was illogical. It made no sense at all." But our subconscious minds had no difficulty in seeing the sense, indeed were not even aware of a problem. As Lynch has said, "Some things, strangely, are not so easy to understand, but when things in films are not so understandable, people become worried. And yet they are in some way understandable."
Like a dream, Lost Highway is capable of analysis, though not the easy Freudian reading that Blue Velvet so confidently demands. By being less specific (Lynch: "If things get too specific, the dream stops."), the director provides us with an all-encompassing critique of U.S.-ideology.Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) told us mor about child abuse within the family than any number of serious dramas - witness the psychological perception of the dinner-table scene, in which the rootsof abuse are revealed beneath the 'normal' routines of an American household, with Leland Palmer denying the reality of his abusing laura by entertaining paranoid fantasies ("Did you get this from your lover?"), claiming that his desire is reciprocated ("How do you know what she likes?"), and disowning his feelings of being unclean by projecting them onto his daughter ("There`s dirt way under this fingernail.")
Fire Walk With Me begins with an extended prologue in which the wider thematic implications are considered - the child abuser is seen as existing at the inevitable end of a long line of male archetypes, initiated by the figure of the adventure hero (the FBI men played by Chris Isaak and Kyle MacLachlan), and realted to the Western, with ist emphasis on travel and the expansion of America, always in the name of the settled community. The process reaches its end in the ironic concept of the mobile home, the expansionist impulse gradually fading to leave us with Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton), the trailer park owner who declares "I`ve really gone places ... I just wanna stay where I am". The rest of the film strands us inside the head of Laura Palmer, who retreats from the fantasy of an idyllic small twon to the reality of her father`s monstrous nature.
If one accepts that the various genres emerged in order to mediate ideological contradictions, then it should be clear that this mediation can only take place as long as the genres remain discrete - the small town comedy or melodrama, for example, exists to examine contradictions within the proposal "The American small town is the best of all possible worlds", just as the Western exists to examine contradictions within the proposal "Small town life is stultifying, and masculinity can only be affirmed in the flight from civilization into the West", and if general consent could be assumed for either proposal, both genres would cease to exist.
This function is clearly a reactionary one, but only insofar as the genres do not interact - Mickey Rooney can no more defend a stagecoach against marauding Indians than the Lone Ranger can court Judy Garland. On more significant levels of achievement, genres tend to merge, often providing radical insights.What would happen to The Western Hero if he were to be relocated in the infernal city of film noir? The assertion of agency, previously defined as magnificent, would be revealed as psychotic, and The Hero may display a hitherto unknown tendency to turn into The Monster of the horror film. Let`s call him Travis Bickle. And the Film Taxi Driver.
Lynch has claimed that "I don`t like pictures that are one genre only; so this is a combination of things. Horror. Thriller. But basically it`s a mystery.", and the opening page of the Lost Highway screenplay describes it as "A 21st Century Noir Horror Film".
When Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), the film`s monster/hero, retreats into a fantasy similar to that of Leland Palmer`s, the film retreats with him. Lynch has, in the past, been fond of a structure which positions the ostensible hero and villain as mirror images: in the Elephant Man (1980), another Fred, Treves (Anthony Hopkins), ponders on the fact that he and Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones), the exploiter of John Merrick, are "very much alike"; in Blue Velvet (1986), Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) tells Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Machlachlan) "you`re like me"; and in Wild at Heart (1990), the vicious beating which Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) metes out during the opening sequence reveals him to be capable of the same kind of cruelty as his dark reflection, Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe).
Lost Highway is obsessed with the idea of the double. Besides the more obvious doublings of characters and events (as well as the extensive use of mirrors), there are two detectives, two prison guards, two bodyguards, two bedrooms, two dogs (one of them is barking so insistently that it must be the star of Lynch`s cartoon strip The Angriest Dog In The World), two saxophones, two Fords and two Room 26s, as well as Robert Blake`s 'Mystery Man', who has the ability to be in two places at the same time. But the doppelganger motif here actually stems from a single character. Fred, rather than being paralleled with some kind of secret sharer, actually murders his wife, presumably because he suspects her of infidelity. Unable to live with what he has done, he escapes into another identity and makes an attempt, completely incoherent on the 'plot' level, to justify (while denying) his actions by revealing that his interpretation of the evidence of his wife`s infidelity was actually correct. Tellingly, when one of the detectives asks why he hates video cameras, Fred replies "I like to remember things my own way...not necessarily the way they happened".
This fantasy involves a traditionally Lynchian structure, for Fred not only imagines his transformation into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), but also provides Pete with a mirror image, Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia), who recalls Frank Booth, Pete`s function as Fred`s ideal younger version of himself, however, leads to some striking differences. For one thing, Pete is lacking in the explicity virginal quality of the young men (usually played by Kyle MacLachlan) in Lynch`s previous films; indeed, while Jeffrey Beaumont admits that he "hasn`t been in pussy heaven", Pete is described as getting "more pussy than a toilet seat". In escaping from an intolerable reality, Fred creates an alter-ego possessed of the virility which he feels he has lost (and of which the obsession with his wife`s supposed infidelities is a sure indicator). Yet Fred is transformed not only into Pete, but into Mr Eddy as well - it is, after all, Mr Eddy who is cuckolded by Patricia Arquette`s character, and the connection is made explicit at the climax of the flashback to Alice (Arquette)`s first meeting with Mr Eddy, which ends with Alice reaching out to touch Mr Eddy`s face, followed by a shot of her touching Pete`s face in the present. Lynch even return his fantasy to its source, for Mr Eddy, like Frank Booth ("It`s Daddy"), is also a father figure, and Pete eventually kills him in order to possess The Mother (who, like all good mothers, is obliged to tell her son "you`ll never have me").
What is particularly fascinating is that this structure is explicitly defined as a neurotic fantasy belonging to a character witin the fiction, rather than simply a product of the artist`s unconsciuos, thus allowing a radical critique of both the construction of masculinity within our culture, and the narratives which reinforce it. This gradual clarification of the structure`s meaning in Lynch`s oeuvre is accompanied, interestingly enough, by the disappearance of humor, used in much of the middle-period work - running from Blue Velvet to the final episode of Twin Peaks - as a way of softening the darker elements (look, for example, at the way we are asked to laugh at Laura Dern`s 'robins' speech in Blue Velvet, or Nicolas Cage`s songs in Wild at Heart). This tendency to sweeten the pill undoubtedly contributed to the director`s brief popularity with audiences and critics. However, humor in Fire Walk With Me is confined solely to opening section, the entire Laura Palmer story being represented without a rupture of the gruelling tone (though a description of various scenes left on the cutting-room floor published in Video Watchdog 16 suggests that this decision was made late in the editing). And Lost Highway is almost completely humourless (with the exception of the 'tailgating' scene).
So Lynch doesn`t make us laugh anymore. On the other hand (as Francois Truffaut once remarked on the reception of Chaplin`s later films), his critics make me laugh. The stupidity of the American reviewers` reaction to Fire Walk With Me can only be explained by their being mentally retarded. Do they really know any better? As I write, Lost Highway has not yet opened in the U.S. (I saw it in Paris), but its chances of escaping a similar (anti) critical drubbing seem virtually non-existent. Basically, reviewers resent being made to work.
To a slightly lesser extent, this is also true of general audiences, and Lost Highway appears to have deliberately positioned itself as a 'problematic' work. The casting of Bill Pullman, fresh from the success of Independence Day, seems to convey the message "This film is unreadable in terms of your expectations". It belongs to a maverick tradition which, in America, is best represented by such figures as Orson Welles, Sam Peckinpah, Albert Lewin, Michael Cimino, John Cassavetes, Elaine May, William Richert, Monte Hellman, S. Lee Pogostin, Charles Eastman, Dennis Hopper and James William Guercio (some of whom have made only a single film). It can, perhaps, be seen as the final part of a trilogy with Jess Franco`s Venus In Furs (1968) and James B. Harris` Some Call It Loving (1973), films centering on jazz musicians who withdraw into isolated world of neurotic sexual fantasy. But ours is not a cine-literate culture. How many people will understand that Richard Pryor has been cast in Lost Highway as a tribute to his role in Some Call It Loving? And am I just imagining that the shots of Renee Madison`s dismembered body refer back to the shots of the dismembered mannequin in Fernand Leger`s The Girl With The Prefabricated Heart - segment of Dreams That Money Can Buy (1946), an excerpt from which was presented by Lynch in a 1987 Area documentary on The Surrealists?
So Lost Highway`s prospects seem hopeless. It may find an appreciative audience on video, though any attempt to pan and scan Lynch`s widescreen compositions, which use the empty spaces of Panavision to convey a palpable sense of unease, will be ruinous. Perhaps this should be the last 'lost' film, best seen via a mysterious TV station which one has unexpectedly tuned into, or a videocassette discovered in a yellow envelope with no return address on the stairs leading up to your front door.
NOTE. All David Lynch quotations are taken from an interview conducted by Chris Rodley, published in Sight and Sound July 1996, and Rodley`s on-set report in BBC2`s Moving Pictures, broadcast April 2nd. Some Call It Loving is available in the U.K. from MPV under the title Dream Castle.