Film Quarterly, Spring, 1998
Lost Highway


Director: David Lynch. Producers: Deepak Nayar, Tom Sternberg, Mary
Sweeney. Cinematographer: Peter Deming. Editor: Mary Sweeney. Music:
Angelo Badalamenti. October Films.


The ever quotable pop artist and underground filmmaker Andy Warhol reportedly
stated that films are "better talked about than seen." With his latest film
adventure, Lost Highway, David Lynch has given audiences a complex and
perplexing Story to ponder and some astonishingly brilliant images to enjoy. Yet
the majority of critical responses to Lynch's new horror noir have denounced the
film's narrative as being interesting but impenetrably chaotic at best, and some
have even gone as far as to call the film unwatchable. Even the cinephiles who
have recognized the significant aesthetic achievements of Lynch's film have
announced that he is unconcerned with narrative logic in Lost Highway. Perhaps
part of this critical response is due to a reluctance to embrace the robust
eroticism and taste for violence displayed in Lynch's works. Lynch has ventured
beyond linear film narratives and left incredulous critics and puzzled onlookers
muttering that either his picture is obscure by accident or that he is engaged in
some frivolous form of cinematic gamesmanship. Some reviewers have
expressed their opinions in a tone of righteous indignation and used the
supposed "mess" of this film to exact some type of petty revenge upon those
who acclaimed Lynch upon the triumph of Blue Velvet.

Lost Highway may be destined to baffle devotees of traditional narrative forms in
cinema, but should filmgoers be discharged from recognizing the structure and
formal mastery of Lynch's film? Although many have suggested that Lynch has
gone too far in yielding free reign to his eccentric set of visual obsessions, the
film is contained within a formally rigorous and well-defined thematic structure.
The difficulties with Lost Highway lie with the movie's unremitting dream-like
images and Lynch's uncompromising determination to sustain an eternal sense
of mystery and wonder throughout the film. He has designed a film with an open
architecture in which equally plausible interpretations of the film can be
constructed, and which enables the audience to use its imagination to fill in the
blanks. The strategy of posing open questions is reminiscent of Antonioni in films
like L'Avventura. A large part of what has confounded spectators in Lynch's
enterprise is how to distinguish between scenes that reflect the characters'
fantasies, and those that belong to the narrative "reality." Lost Highway is a film
that would appear to have a complete disregard for differences in ontological
levels. Only a recognition that its visual language communicates a descent
deeper and deeper into madness can reveal Lost Highway's intricate conceptual
meaning. Lynch has given notice that his film takes its structure from the circular
form of the Mobius strip, and herein lies the constraint against which he weaves
his thematic concerns.

Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is living a nightmare: his mind is racked by
suspicion, paranoia, and anxieties about the fidelity of his sensuous but
emotionally cold wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), a dark-haired sex kitten decked
out in Betty Page-styled fetish attire. Although Fred, a darkly handsome,
thirtyish alto saxman in a neo-bop jazz band, would appear on the surface to be
evenly matched with his mysterious and sexually powerful wife, he is incapable
of arousing in her any enthusiastic sexual response. Events quickly take a
sinister bend when the Madisons begin receiving unmarked videotapes on the
front steps of their ominously underdecorated modernist house. When the tapes
reveal that an intruder has invaded the Madisons' home and taped them while
they were asleep, the terrorized couple call for police help, which arrives in the
form of a comical detective duo who find no evidence of forced entry. Unsettled
by the violation of their private space, Fred falls into a twitchy, zombie-like state.
A third videotape arrives and he sits down to view it. He screams out in horror
when the picture reveals Fred looking into the camera's eye beside Renee's
savagely bloodied corpse. Although we see nothing of the crime on screen, Fred
is summarily sentenced to execution for his wife's murder, and swiftly ensconced
in a cell on death row. Isolated in a primitive 19th-century-styled prison cage,
Fred has no memory of what happened to Renee on the fatal night, and his mind
is shattered by excruciating headaches, unrelenting insomnia, and strange
hallucinations (all marvelously captured in the film's mesmerizing visual effects).

Suddenly, in Lost Highway's Kafkaesque center sequence, a prison guard
discovers a bewildered and bruised stranger in Fred Madison's cell. A brief
investigation by prison authorities determines the identity of the stranger: Pete
Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who lives in Van Nuys with his parents, and has
absolutely no recollection of how he mysteriously materialized to replace Fred
Madison in prison. Pete is enthusiastically welcomed back to normal life and his
job at Arnie's auto garage. Delighted with Pete's return, Mr. Eddy (Robert
Loggia), a notorious gangster prone to comically capricious outbursts of violence,
provides Pete with work on his vintage luxury motor cars. When Mr. Eddy brings
in his 50s model Cadillac for a routine tune-up, Pete fatally falls for Alice
Wakefield (also Patricia Arquette), Mr. Eddy's seductively carnivorous platinum
blonde bombshell, and they embark on a furtive and--for Pete at least--obsessive
affair. When the menacing Mr. Eddy's suspicions are aroused, Alice's risky and
hastily devised plan of escape takes full advantage of Pete's obsession. She
manipulates him into a classic film noir plot--reminiscent of Double Indemnity and
Body Heat--to rob one of Mr. Eddy's associates in the pornographic underworld.
As the plot unfolds and inevitably spirals down into disaster, Pete is horrified
when he discovers that the object of his desire is an unscrupulously mercenary
and debauched queen of porn.

As the film progresses, Pete descends deeper into darkness and confusion. At
an isolated desert cabin the lovers await the arrival of one of Alice's
acquaintances who is to help them escape. But at this point the two tracks of
the narrative intersect. Fred Madison reemerges from Pete, and the Mystery Man
(Robert Blake)--a kind of dark angel of vengeance--urges him to kill Mr. Eddy.
Flames engulf the cabin--or do they?

It should be acknowledged straightaway that Lost Highway is, by design,
extremely resistant to reduction into a definitive narrative account; by the film's
end, it is evident that Lynch has intentionally withheld the answers to questions
inevitably provoked by the narrative's elusive and elliptical plot. It is virtually
impossible to reconstruct a definitive and rational account of what happens in
Lost Highway.

According to the majority of its detractors, what happens in the film's prison
sequence is that Fred is transformed (think "Metamorphosis") into Pete Dayton
via some type of supernatural intervention. Throughout the second half of the film,
Pete's parents and girlfriend, Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner), allude
cryptically to the mysterious and ominous circumstances of the fateful night that
something strange happened to Pete. Although Pete has no recollection of that
night, we repeatedly see Pete's parents and Sheila in front of the Dayton's house
under a threatening evening sky, crying out to avert some impending catastrophic
event. Lost Highway features several visual images that give some weight to a
metamorphosis thesis. After all, for the most part, the film proceeds as if the
central narrative has shifted from Fred's "story" to Pete's "story." While Fred
agonizes in his prison cell, images of lightning flashes and horrific distortion fill
the screen with overtones of extraworldly visitation. Nevertheless, the idea that
Fred is literally morphed into a man with a new identity obscures more than it
clarifies the subject of Lost Highway.

Lynch has publicly called his film a "psychogenic fugue," a term that in this
context refers to a mental state in which a person is delusional although
seemingly fully aware, a state from which he emerges with no memory of his
actions. It also involves losing oneself and taking on an entirely new identity.
Most of what occurs during the second movement of Lost Highway can be best
understood as an elaborate journey into the hallucinations of such a state. The
early sequences of the film demonstrate that Fred's consciousness is disturbed
by suspicion, paranioa, and nightmares. He also has a pronounced tendency to
daydream. This is made most evident when he tells the police detectives, "I like
to remember things my own way.... How I remembered them. Not necessarily
the way they happened." Fred's tenuous grip on reality is undermined by his
voluntary flights into fantasy.

Lynch provides few signals that equal degrees of reality should not be attributed
to all the actions of the film. By contrast, in Bunuel's Belle dejour the viewer is
given cues, like the jingling of bells on the sound track, to distinguish fantasy
from reality. The most persuasive evidence for an interpretation of Lost Highway
as a subjective film understood primarily as Fred's hallucination occurs during the
prison sequences. During his time in jail, Fred is plagued by unrelenting
insomnia. Hints of his delusional state of mind can be gleaned from the sound of
seagulls on the sound track as he slumps in the prison exercise yard
overwhelmed by a combination of excruciating headaches and exhaustion.
Hallucinations also occur in his prison cell: Fred sees the flames of an exploding
desert cabin run backwards--an image that occurs again at the end of the film
when Fred "returns" to replace Pete. However, the key image that provides
evidence for the hallucination thesis is a distorted close up of Fred's face shaking
violently back and forth before he screams out in horror. This image occurs twice:
in prison before we are introduced to Pete, and just prior to the film's conclusion.
The flashes of lightning and out-of-focus visuals are all evidence that Fred's mind
is spinning wildly out of control. Between the parentheses, Fred creates a
parallel universe in his mind that takes on a will of its own.

The two parallel stories of Lost Highway are two manifestations of one essential
story: a man obsessed with possessing the wrong woman. Although Fred and
Pete are played by different actors and have distinct identities, they can be
understood as representing the same self. Lynch's casting of the same actress
in the roles of both Renee Madison and Alice Wakefield adds further credence to
the notion that Lost Highway contains two mythic representations of the same
couple. In Fred's tormented mind, Alice embodies his obsession with the now
dead (and maybe murdered by him) Renee. (The use of one actress in twin roles
recalls Bunuel's playful use of two actresses for the role of the tormenting
Conchita in That Obscure Object of Desire, or, perhaps, Hitchcock's use of Kim
Novak as one woman impersonating another in Vertigo.) Fred's hallucination is
partly an escape into fantasy and partly a terrifying ride into a nightmare beyond
his will. By envisioning Pete's story, Fred creates a new incarnation of the object
of his obsession, but in the end his hallucinated encounter with a seductive and
compliant temptress is no less catastrophic than his earlier attempts to control
the remote and withheld body and soul of his wife.

The structure of Lost Highway is modeled on the form of the Mobius strip: a strip
twisted 180 degrees and then looped by connecting the opposing ends. In the
first image of Lost Highway we are speeding down the center of a desolate
two-lane flattop along the dashed canary-yellow center line; we hear the industrial
beat and the haunting baritone of David Bowie's "I'm Deranged" flowing over the
credits on the sound track. This image opens and closes the film. It forms a
frame, provides symmetry, and evokes both the closing of a circle and a sense of
the infinite (as if this dream or nightmare could go on forever). The circular
structure also enables Lynch to construct a world where conventional notions of
time are obliterated. In the film's first scene, a disheveled-looking Fred is at home
and roused into action when he hears a voice giving an enigmatic and unnerving
message over the intercom: "Dick Laurent is dead." When he goes to the
window, the speaker has vanished. In the closing scene of the film it is Fred
outside his own-house who delivers the same message: "Dick Laurent is dead."
In the end, we find out who Dick Laurent is and the two parallel stories are linked
together, but many of the film's mysteries remain.

Despite the accusation that the film is chaos, or that Lynch is unconcerned with
narrative logic, Lost Highway is contained within what Sontag terms (in
Bergman's "Persona": Styles of Radical Will [New York: Anchor Books, 1991], p.
135) a theme-and-variation narrative. Instead of a conventional story, chronology
or plot line, a theme-and-variation form of narration is nonlinear and uses the
subject material as a thematic resource to develop variations on the central
theme of the film: here, mirroring. The theme, which implies both duplication and
opposition, manifests itself on many levels. The primary example of mirroring is
captured in Arquette's characterization of two sides of the same woman: Renee
(who appears passive and elusive) and Alice (who determines the action). On the
superficial level of appearances, Arquette's Renee has dark hair and favors long
dark silhouettes, while Arquette's Alice is a bleached blonde with a taste for
revealing necklines and short skirts. However, they are the same in that each
evokes a luxurious sense of carnal potency--one withheld, the other flaunted--and
each wears fetishist-friendly platform high heels. The theme-and-variation
narrative form enables Lynch to use devices of duplication, opposition, repetition,
deviation, and inversion. Arquette's characters have opposing temperaments:
Renee is quiet, removed, and cool; Alice is white-hot. The notion of duplication is
explored when both Renee and Alice appear in the same photograph; of
repetition when Alice and Renee repeat the same dialogue, and when the film's
Mystery Man repeats dialogue in the two separate parallel stories of the movie.

Variations on the mirroring theme are worked throughout the film. Early on we
see Fred fervently playing his saxophone, and later Pete listens to the same
piece of music over the radio as he works on a car at Arnie's garage. However,
Pete's reaction constitutes the emotional inverse of Fred's sensibility: in a fit of
annoyance, as if he was subconsciously disturbed by the music's manic
intensity, he shuts the radio off. Lynch also employs doubling when characters
are introduced in pairs at various points of the film: the odd pair of police
detectives, the two prison guards, and the two surveillance cops who follow Pete
after his release from prison. Several of Lost Highway's key images--like the
two-lane highway, shots of long corridors, the exploding cabin shown in reverse,
the frantic scene in front of the Dayton home--are also repeated, emphasizing the
film's self-referential character and clear intention to pursue a theme-and-variation
form of narration. Together, the complex combination of the circular structure and
elliptical story line invites repeated journeys along the twisted strip of the film's
narrative in search of its closely guarded secrets.

Lost Highway's greatest success is that it deftly subsumes its experiments in
structure and form under the aesthetics of hallucination and the iconography of
horror. The primary attraction of a Lynch film' lies in his virtuosity as a visualist
and his ability to conjure up moods with disturbingly visceral impact. Although
Lost Highway starts out looking like the "real" world, it quickly becomes a
"constructed" world: an extravagant phantasmagoria with twilight-zone
metaphysics. The structure, form, and visuals all conspire to construct a
self-contained allegorical nightmare where the sense of time is eviscerated.

The first clear indication that we are within some kind of alternate universe is the
appearance of the Mystery Man. When a mysterious stranger with a mask-like
face and pancake-white makeup approaches Fred during a festive party, all the
background sounds magically recede away. The Mystery Man claims that he is
presently at the Madisons' house and challenges Fred to call him there right
now. Confused by the absurdity of the claim, Fred reluctantly dials his own
number ... to find the Mystery Man's voice answering at the other end of the line.
Frightened, bewildered, and angry over yet another invasion of his private space,
Fred asks for an explanation, but the Mystery Man only lets out a Vincent
Price-style cackle and walks away.

The establishment of a constructed world permits Lynch and cinematographer
Peter Deming to develop the film's aesthetics of hallucination. One of the film's
most visually effective scenes occurs when slow-motion photography captures
the electricity and longing in the initial gaze between Pete and Alice Wakefield.
The mythic mood of the image derives part of its considerable emotional power
from the perfect congruence between sight and sound. The slow burn of
Arquette's sultry blonde bombshell is heightened by the languid sound of roaring
electric guitars. Perhaps the aesthetic highpoint of Lost Highway is the love
scene in the desert. When Pete and Alice begin their impromptu sexual
encounter in the middle of a windswept desert night, their incandescent naked
bodies are brightly illuminated by automobile headlights, creating a mood of
intoxicating ecstasy and reverie. In the desert, the windblown golden sand and
Arquette's radiant hair and torso explain Pete's total surrender to her
overpowering sexual energy. The emotional mood shifts from dream to nightmare
with disorienting suddenness when the headlights dissolve into darkness and the
music's floating lyricism creeps into a brooding drone of synthesizers.
Throughout the film, Lynch keeps the emotional tone of the movie within a
dream-like register, and he changes keys between images that appear idyllic and
icons of the horror genre.

Lost Highway is a decidedly dark work. In the majority of the film's interior
scenes, Lynch favors murky shading and low lighting to elicit the fear of the
unknown: long, dark corridors used in a variety of ways to evoke feelings of
disorientation: a hallway where Fred is completely swallowed by darkness. Later
in the film, Pete's walk along a corridor is accompanied by flashes of lightening
and special effects that are the standard fair of the horror genre; his walk down a
hallway to find the bathroom is a frightening hallucination: lightning flashes
illuminate numbered doors, one of which Pete opens to find a woman, apparently
Alice, taunting him. Pulsating music and red filters add to the disorienting effect.
The images fittingly project Pete's turmoil in the moments just after discovering
the profoundly sordid elements of Alice's life.

Lost Highway's labyrinthine construction enables Lynch to subordinate traditional
cinematic concerns with dialogue and plot to a visual language that
communicates moods and emotions. Although the dialogue in the film is spare,
the drama of a man driven mad by his obsession with the woman he loves has an
extraordinary emotional vividness. Lost Highway is a mystery, a fable, an
allegorical nightmare. Although it can in some moments resemble our notion of
reality, Lynch has basically jettisoned the tyranny of logic to take the viewer on
an enigmatic journey beyond the limits of reason and reality--down some lost
highway. Despite denunciations of the movie as irredeemably chaotic, it
actually--with its haunting circularity and endless narrative loop--adheres to a
disciplined aesthetic formality. Like Eraserhead, the film evokes the interior world
of one man's bad dream, the mystery and confusion of a consciousness afflicted
by obsession, suspicion, and passion.

Eric Bryant Rhodes is a freelance writer whose interests include photography
and the history of European cinema.