Saturday, December 24, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #36: LOST HIGHWAY
This is a difficult movie for me to write about – not just for the obvious reason that it’s a difficult movie to logically explain, but also because my first feature-length script was a (failed) attempt to re-create the tone of dread in this film. LOST HIGHWAY got under my skin in a way that very few films do. It’s a thinking person’s horror film, technically brilliant and intellectually challenging. At first I couldn’t easily explain why it made such a strong impression on me, so I resorted to mimicry instead. All these years later, I still haven’t made that first script work the way I want it to, and I remain spellbound by LOST HIGHWAY.
In an extended interview with Chris Rodley, David Lynch says that neither he nor his co-writer Barry Gifford thought much about “meaning” when they were writing LOST HIGHWAY. What Lynch wanted was to be true to a “feeling.” The feeling originated with the simple phrase “lost highway” (used in one of Gifford’s novels) and with an extended sequence that came to the filmmaker on his last night of shooting TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. (Lynch has said that he sometimes “receives” ideas the way a shortwave receiver picks up radio waves.) This is how he describes it:
It was like the first third of the picture, maybe, minus some scenes we had in the final script. A couple are living in a house and a videotape is delivered. When they look at it, it’s of the front of their house. They don’t think anything of it and then they get another one, and this one is going through the living room, and watching them asleep in bed. This thing I had went all the way up to the fist hitting Fred in the police station – to suddenly being in another place and not knowing how you got there or what is wrong.
A few years ago, I sat down to watch LOST HIGHWAY with my future wife. She made it through most of this extended sequence without saying a word – clearly hypnotized by the deliberately slow pacing and unsettling silence (except on the low end, with Trent Reznor’s bass-heavy drones unhinging the subconscious mind like the first few seconds of a powerful earthquake). The sequence perfectly illustrates Lynch’s ability to create an atmosphere of dread. With shadows and whispers, he draws the viewer in. I found myself turning up the volume on the movie… the way Father Karras does when he’s listening for the voice of the devil in THE EXORCIST. More recently, THE SIXTH SENSE and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY have used the same scare tactic. In LOST HIGHWAY, this gimmick is more than a simple setup for a jump scare. What Lynch’s carefully crafted dreamscape does is amplify the overall sense of mystery.
The bare-bones plot alone generates questions. In the first scene, Fred Madison receives a message that “Dick Lurant is dead.” We are left to wonder: Who is Dick Lurant? How did he die? Did Fred know him? And who delivered the message? This is the first round of questions in what seems like a straightforward murder mystery. Next, we meet Fred’s wife Renee, who is beautiful and aloof. Anyone who has any familiarity with a basic film noir plot must be asking themselves: Did she have something to do with the murder? Is she having an affair? Can she be trusted? Lynch doesn’t need his characters to ask any of these questions. He trusts the audience to ask them, based on what the characters don’t say. The director explains:
To me, a mystery is like a magnet. Wherever there is something that’s unknown, it has a pull to it. If you were in a room and there was an open doorway, and stairs going down and the light just fell away, you’d be very tempted to go down there. When you only see a part, it’s even stronger than seeing the whole. The whole might have logic, but out of its context, the fragment takes on a tremendous value of abstraction. It can become an obsession.
The videotapes escalate the mystery. We want to know who is stalking them and why. The first time I saw the movie, I thought of the novel RED DRAGON, in which a serial killer videotapes his prey before murdering them in their own beds. In that story, the police eventually establish that the killer does this so he can re-live the murders over and over again. The actions in LOST HIGHWAY are even more unsettling, because they suggest a different motive. The killer (or killers) want Fred and Renee to see the tapes. They tapes are intended to create fear. The police, in LOST HIGHWAY, offer no other thoughts or consolation, and David Lynch continues to torment us with his own video just as surely as his red dragon is tormenting Fred.
The first moment of relief (though it’s a very mild relief) comes when Fred remembers a dream he had the night before. In his dream, he saw his wife but didn’t recognize her as his wife. “It wasn’t you,” he tells her, “It looked like you, but it wasn’t.” This reinforces the viewer’s probable perception of Renee as an icy femme fatale… maybe even a schizophrenic… or, for viewers more inclined toward horror than film noir, a pod person. Lynch is deepening the mystery, forcing us to ask what is real in the world that Lynch has drawn us into. At this point, we – by association with Fred – are completely at the mercy of the unknown. We sense that we are vulnerable. Because we don’t have any clues about what we might be vulnerable to, we are defenseless. That is the “feeling” of the first act of LOST HIGHWAY.
The plot turns on a party sequence, in which Fred meets Renee’s enigmatic sleazy friend Andy (and prompting us to wonder,How do they know each other?) and a Mystery Man (Herk Harvey’s pasty-faced ghoul as played by the eminently creepy film noir actor Robert Blake) who introduces himself with a haunting pronouncement: “We’ve met before.” As with the rest of the film, what makes this scene so disturbing isn’t what’s said, but what’s felt. Fred tries to laugh off his nervousness. Surely, he would remember a face like this – pale, wide-eyed, sardonically smiling, Peter Lorre on meth. “Where is it that you think we met?” Fred asks. The Mystery Man answers: “At your house… You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I’m not invited.” To prove his point, he performs a kind of magic trick, allowing Fred to talk to his “other self” on the phone. When Fred recoils in horror, the Mystery Man laughs maniacally – the sound reverberating endlessly as if in an echo chamber. At this point, my wife got so creeped out that she left the room, never to return. Probably, the mysteries seemed insurmountable to her. There was simply too many overwhelming questions: Was the Mystery Man a vampire? A demon? Some kind of inhuman monster that could manipulate or travel through time? Or just a messenger, delivering the truth of a reality much worse than anything a straightforward horror movie could conjure?
Lynch found his answer in the reality of 1995 America. In his book Catching the Big Fish, the writer/director points to the most likely inspiration for the second and third acts of LOST HIGHWAY:
At the time that Barry Gifford and I were writing the script for Lost Highway, I was sort of obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial. Barry and I never talked about it this way, but I think the film is somehow related to that… What struck me about O.J. Simpson was that he was able to smile and laugh. He was able to go golfing later with seemingly very few problems about the whole thing. I wondered how, if a person did these deeds, he could go on living. And we found this great psychology term – “psychogenic fugue” – describing an event where the mind tricks itself to escape some horror. So, in a way, Lost Highway is about that. And also the fact that nothing can stay hidden forever.
In the second act of LOST HIGHWAY, Fred Madison seems to physically and psychically transform into a different person – a younger man named Pete Dayton. One way of interpreting this illogical story twist is to view LOST HIGHWAY as a narrative coming from inside O.J. Simpson’s head. Or Michael Peterson’s head. Or even (as fate would have it), Robert Blake’s head. All three of these men were accused of murdering their wives. At present, all three of them have been cleared of murder charges. Not one of them has ever confessed to murder… perhaps not even to themselves. I wouldn't be the first to suggest that, like Fred Madison, they prefer to “remember things my own way.” Many a commentator has noted that it’s difficult to convict someone who genuinely, thoroughly – to the very core of their being – believes that they are innocent. And many of those same commentators, using terms like “fugue state,” argue that it is entirely possible for a person to be a killer and not know it. The greatest horror in LOST HIGHWAY – as in everyday life – exists in the mind.
Since he is obviously the “wrong man,” Pete is set free... just like O.J. With a guilt-free conscience (ostensibly due to amnesia), he returns to his own life. But almost immediately, his life becomes mixed up with Fred Madison’s mystery. As Lynch says, “Nothing can stay hidden forever.” Pete gets involved with a hot-bodied blonde named Alice who looks exactly like Renee Madison, as well as a hot-headed porn producer named Mr. Eddie who is later identified as “Dick Lurant.” Even Renee’s friend Andy turns up again. Alice asks Pete to murder him, so that they can run away together. Pete, taking a DETOUR from THE WRONG MAN to DOUBLE INDEMNITY and KISS ME DEADLY, never seems to have a choice. On some subconscious level, he knows that Alice is Renee, that she’s “damaged goods." He also knows that he himself is a killer, though he feigns shock after doing the deed. And he knows how this story – told a thousand times in a thousand Hollywood movies and sordid true crime narratives – ends. So do we (the movie geek half of the audience, at least).
Act 3 is the journey into endless night, a Freudian plunge into a predestined universe. Déjà vu means that Fred has been here before and will be here again – a helpless victim of cruel fate. The end (which shows him violently morphing into a new “self”) is his beginning, and the implication is that he may never be able to to escape the cycle of violence and denial, no matter how many times he is (literally or figuratively) reincarnated. The “lost highway” is his purgatory, and that’s the concept that makes this a true horror film to me.
Toward the end of LOST HIGHWAY, the Mystery Man offers the closest thing we have to a coherent explanation of Lynch’s metaphysical mystery. “In the Far East,” he tells Fred, “when a person is sentenced to death, they’re sent to a place where they can’t escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them and fire a bullet in the back of their head.” Embedded in this explanation is the most profound question that the film poses to its audience: Is this what life must like for someone who completely denies responsibility for their own actions? Reflecting on the O.J. Simpson case (and the Michael Peterson case and the Robert Blake case), my mind wanders even further into the everyday darkness: What is the “reality” of a world where more and more of these kind of people run free among us?
Lynch’s focus, of course, is not on this world. I once glibly called LOST HIGHWAY the Limbo of David Lynch’s Divine Comedy, noting similarities to the inferno of TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME and the paradiso of MULHOLLAND DRIVE. I don’t mean to draw out a Christian subtext in these films, only a mythological one. The focus of each story is not on dogma, but on love - in all of its incarnations, good and bad. On some levels the "Divine Comedy" theory is still a reductive theory (as is any clean-cut theory of Lynch's movies), but I think it suggests an appropriate level of philosophical thought. In my mind, the dreamscapes in these three films are definitely “of a piece.” It’s worth noting that Lynch served as sound designer on the trilogy; his only other films on which he performed this function were ERASERHEAD and INLAND EMPIRE. Mary Sweeney edited all three films (her only other collaboration with Lynch being THE STRAIGHT STORY) and Angelo Badalamenti composed the scores for each of them. I can’t believe that the filmmaker wasn’t, on some subconscious level, aware of a subtle progression from Laura Palmer’s fiery private hell, through the purgatory of Fred Madison / Pete Dayton, into the transcendent light shared by Rita and Betty Elms / Diane Selwyn at the end of MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Which must have left him with an overwhelming question: What comes next?
Labels: David Lynch