Monday, July 9, 2012

Lost Highway (1997)

Bear with me folks, this is gonna be a long one…

Lost Highway is my favorite movie, full disclosure. I’d been wanting to do this for a while but I also realize that this is a film that has been discussed, dissected and overanalyzed to death ever since it’s release so I had been debating on whether or not to even bother. At the same time, I’d like to think that anyone who writes these damned things has written about their all time favorite in one way or another. Fandom calls I guess. This isn’t going to be some essay about what my interpretation of the film is, who or what I think the Mystery Man is or represents or anything like that because that’s played out and you’ve probably read/heard all the theories before anyway, some that might make sense, or some that may even be more confusing than the film itself (they exist), so let’s just say that the film is open to interpretation and leave it at that. Plus if you ask me, watching a film like this for the sole purpose of picking it apart, constantly searching for “meanings” is watching it for all the wrong reasons. But that’s just me. Lost Highway is a film that never fails to give me a nice nostalgic feeling whenever I watch it. When the film was released in 1997 the promotion for it was seemingly everywhere, and the title “Lost Highway” intrigued me. I would always catch the trailers for it on TV and to say the least what I saw caught my attention. The previews really didn’t give me any indication as to what exactly the film was about, but it looked exciting. Plus I remember the film being mentioned a lot during MTV news briefs due to the bands on the soundtrack (remember this was 1997, MTV still played music videos). When the film hit Pay Per View the trailers were all over the TV again so just had to check it out. Now obviously it didn’t become my favorite film on first viewing, but to say the least I was a bit dumbfounded. Dumbfounded, but blown away. You see this tired line all the time all the time in reviews but fuck it, I really had never seen anything like it, and I seriously hadn’t been that reeled in by a film since my first viewing of Psycho. With each viewing I found even more things to appreciate and not only did it eventually become my favorite film, David Lynch subsequently became one of my favorite filmmakers.

This isn’t the kind of film that you can crank out a brief plot synopsis for as to be honest there really isn’t a “plot”, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. I really don’t like just explaining events that happen in the film, yet at the same time you kind of have to when discussing a film like Lost Highway if by chance someone who’s never seen the film happens to stumble onto this site. Jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Rene (Patricia Arquette) receive a strange package on their doorstep, a videotape in an unmarked envelope featuring footage which appears to have been shot right outside their house. They receive another, longer videotape soon after, starting out with the same footage, only to move inside the house eventually landing in their bedroom showing the two in bed sleeping. The morning after attending a party where Fred has a strange encounter with a “Mystery Man” (Robert Blake), Fred finds a third tape, which he watches alone, and to his shock it features him murdering Rene in the bedroom and butchering her limbs off. Although he has no memory of murdering Rene, he is tried and convicted of the murder, and sent to death row. After suffering a violent fit of sorts in his cell, Fred inexplicable morphs into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young mechanic. Upon discovering that this young man in Fred’s cell is defiantly not Fred Madison, the police have no choice other than to let him go, and he is released to his parents. It’s then we get acquainted with Pete and his world, and are introduced to characters such as the charismatic, powerful mobster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), who is also known to the police as Dick Laurent, (who happened to be pronounced dead to Fred over his intercom during the opening of the film) and Mr. Eddy’s mistress Alice (also played by Arquette). Pete and Alice begin an intense romance, and what follows is even weirder than what came before if you can believe it.

Going any further than that would be a major disservice to anyone who has yet to see the film. Lost Highway is the kind of film you completely immerse yourself in. Every possible aspect of it, be it the characters, the imagery, the music, every little thing works to suck you right into this surreal, nightmarish world Lynch creates, complete with seedy characters, Mystery Men, doppelgangers and multiple identities, and if you’re willing to come along for the ride, perfect, but if not that’s completely understandable. Obviously this isn’t a film for everybody, as Lynch in general is an acquired taste, and Lost Highway continues to be a polarizing film. Judging from a good number of the negative reviews I’ve read of the film over the years, what seems to have frustrated people the most was, amongst other things the abrupt switch in narratives, going from Fred to Pete. Along with Fred‘s first encounter with the Mystery Man, it was Fred‘s morphing into Pete when I realized that nothing was off limits in this film, anything could happen, and Lynch had me hooked. Like I said above, the previews didn’t exactly give me any clues as to what to expect, so on my first viewing I had no pre conceived notions about anything. This film completely yanks you out of your comfort zone in terms of storytelling. I had never seen a film go about telling a story (some may say lack of one) in the manner in which Lost Highway did, and I can honestly say I was never frustrated by the narrative, as I was too busy being entranced by the happenings on the screen. When the focus turns to Pete, Lynch enhances the intrigue, and the film plays out like an existential mystery only we’re not sure what exactly the mystery is. Whether it’s Pete’s relationship with Mr. Eddy or his dangerous romance with Alice, the events that play out during this portion of the film and the characters involved couldn’t get anymore compelling, plus you have to keep Fred in the back of your mind as well. All the while Lynch throws us even more curveballs to perplex us and keep us on our toes, such as (but not limited too) the secret of what exactly happened to Pete the night Fred turned into him, and his parents refusal to tell him, the police referring to Mr. Eddy as Laurent, and the photo of both Rene and Alice together, not to mention wondering what connection, if any, does Fred have to Pete, Alice to Rene, Mr. Eddy/Laurent to Rene, the Mystery Man to everyone. Yeah, it defies all plausible logic, but that’s a major part of why I found the film, and still do find it to be so exhilarating is the fact that Lynch somehow finds a way to keep pulling fast ones on us, especially during the second and third acts. Wherever it was going I didn’t care, but I wanted to go there.

The distressed look on Bill Pullman’s face during the first shot of the film (and pretty much in scene he’s in) says it all about Fred. Fred is a man on the edge it seems. Highly suspicious of Rene being unfaithful, he distrusts her, yet he is desperate not to lose her. Rene’s hold on Fred is obvious, yet equally obvious is her boredom. Their conversation is strained and awkward, both would seemingly rather be anywhere else but where they are. Arquette is enticing in the role of Rene, and it’s easy to see why she holds such power over Fred, but it’s as Alice where Arquette really shines. Lynch shoots her like Hitchcock would one of his famous leading blondes, and much like a Hitchcock blonde, Alice is mysterious, seductive, dangerous, in essence the ultimate femme fatale. The same effect she has on Pete is felt by the viewer, as Arquette just radiates lust and sexuality. You really can’t blame Pete for wanting to follow her everywhere, no matter the cost. From the leather jacket to the sideburns, you can practically smell the cool emitting from Balthazar Getty, who gives Pete the quintessential “bad boy” aesthetic, while at the same time being a tad bit reserved. Robert Loggia was no stranger to tough guy characters by the time Lost Highway was made, as he’s just so damn good at playing them. As Mr. Eddy, (or Dick Laurent) he has the ability to come off as incredibly threatening and charming at the same time. Case in point being the scene were he calls Pete “wanting to know if he’s doing OK”, pure intimidation, and of course there’s the infamous tailgating scene which will have anyone who’s ever wanted to do that to a tailgater applaud. Whenever he’s on screen, he owns it, pure presence. Then of course, there’s Robert Blake as the Mystery Man. Those reading this who’ve seen the film will no doubt notice that in my little events description above I left Fred’s encounter with the Mystery Man at the party as vague as possible. Reason being is that I feel it’s a scene that really cannot be done justice but just describing it. You really need to see it first hand, as it’s an incredibly eerie moment, pure Lynch. It would have been so easy to make that role campy what with the pale white face makeup and all but Blake plays it totally straight and kills it (no pun intended). The party scene has now become iconic, and you’ll think twice the next time somebody asks you “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”, but my favorite Mystery Man moment in the film comes after Mr. Eddy asks Pete if he’s ok and hands the Mystery Man the phone and he proceeds to educate Pete on what happens to men condemned to die in the far east. Absolutely bone chilling delivery, and just like the party scene, it comes out of left field, even for a film like this.

Lynch perfectly paced the film, deliberately if you ask me, so that it fit’s the personality of it’s characters and their situations. Even with the very first shot Lynch immediately sets up an overwhelming sense of impending doom with the cryptic statement “Dick Laurent is dead” and the following 40 minutes or so are steeped in dread and paranoia. During the scenes with Fred and Rene, time seems to stand completely still, it’s as if Lynch was forcing the audience to feel the stagnation that has consumed Fred and Rene’s life. One particularly telling moment is when they are telling the police about the videos they keep receiving, even when their not talking directly to each other they seem as distant as possible, the dialogue is almost alien. Their house seems cold and unwelcoming, as Lynch almost makes the house it’s own personality of sorts, one that is slowly draining Fred of all life, little by little. The moments after Fred and Rene return home from the party where Fred first meets the Mystery Man are dreadfully unsettling as Lynch heightens the tension and makes it seem as if Fred is slowly disappearing into the darkness of the house, like it’s finally devouring him. As the film moves foreword, the shifts in tone are radical, going from the drawn out lives of Fred and Rene to the faster paced, devil may care lives of Pete, Alice and Mr. Eddy. Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford described Lost Highway as a “21st-century noir horror film”, and it’s this half of the film where the noir elements kick in. There’s murder, deception, forbidden romance, hell even a plot device involving snuff porno, and this goes back to what I was saying above about getting being fully invested in the film even though you might have given up on trying to follow the story. For Pete, Lynch created a world is sexy and exciting, so much so you can’t help but want to go along, much like the character of Pete in a way. He might not completely understand where his relationship with Alice will take him, or why Alice choose him, but he’s in it for the long haul anyway, knowing full well of the danger. It’s part of the fun. No matter who the film is focused on, Lynch is always flexing his artistic muscle. From the expert use of slow motion, the perfectly placed close up’s (especially when the Mystery Man is involved) to the trippy use of colors and the gorgeous looking scenes in the desert, the visuals on display in Lost Highway are sure to make most filmmakers jealous. The love scene between Alice in Pete in the sand is just heavenly looking and a prime example of Lynch‘s ability to create a mood with lighting alone. There are moments that veer into music video territory highlighting Lynch’s genius use of color where it’ll appear as if your screen is hallucinating, such as Fred’s transformation and the final moments of the film. No Lynch film would be complete without shots of the road at night, plus I’ve always loved the scene taking place in the “Lost Highway Hotel”, the perfect name and the perfect location for a place where characters such as these would hide out for illicit activity, totally fit’s the whole vibe of film.

Lost Highway not only exhibits Lynch’s great eye but also his ears. When I reviewed Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) a few months back I talked at length about the importance of music and sound in Lynch’s films and anybody who’s even seen just one of his film can attest that the music and sound is crucial to the whole, and with Lost Highway, Lynch proved once again that he’s an absolute master when it comes to perfectly matching image and sound. Lost Highway’s soundtrack is filled diverse artists such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, Marilyn Manson, This Mortal Coil, Rammstein, Nine Inch Nails, and so on. Even if your not a fan of any of these bands, it really shouldn’t matter, as the brilliant way Lynch utilizes the songs will make you forget about whether or not you like the artists. Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” immediately sets up a vibe during the opening credits with it’s pulsating tempo while the credits jump out and the yellow road lines speed past you. The song has a light, dreamy quality to it as well thanks to Bowie’s vocals which is a nice indicator of sorts of the mood of the film in certain places. Speaking of dreamy, when Lou Reed’s cover of “This Magic Moment” plays when we first meet Arquette as Alice is a magic moment indeed. Lynch presents the scene in beautiful slow motion, while the droning guitar effects Reed added to the track work hand in hand with Arquette’s undeniable sensuality, hypnotizing the audience as much as it does Pete seeing Alice for the first time. Equally hypnotizing but in a much more sinister way is the use of Marilyn Manson’s cover (a lot of covers on the soundtrack) of “I Put a Spell On You” while Alice recounts to Pete her first meeting with Mr. Eddy. It’s quite jarring, and when played at a high volume (which the film should always be played at) will put you in a quite the daze, watching Arquette strip at gunpoint with that song as a backdrop. Manson’s “Apple of Sodom” is also heard in the film, and Manson himself and bassist Twiggy Ramirez have (very) brief cameo’s in the film. Perhaps the best musical moment in the entire film is when Pete and Alice make love in the sand to This Mortal Coil’s “Song For the Siren”. If any song deserves the description of ethereal it’s this one, and if any scene in this film were to be called “otherworldly” this one stands head and shoulders above the competition. Combine all that with Angelo Badalamenti’s slick score, which only enhances the noir-ish atmosphere of the film. “Dub Driving” as it’s referred to on the soundtrack is a stand out piece. Revolving around a laid back bass line, I think it perfectly captures the seedy, mysterious world the film creates. Then theres the haunting drones that are peppered throughout the early parts of the film, making pretty much any scene with Fred even more unsettling.

Lost Highway was the first in what Lynch fans have come to call the “Los Angeles trilogy”, the others obviously being Mulholland Drive (2001) and the aforementioned Inland Empire (2006). With each film Lynch puts a different spin on the whole multiple/alternate personalities/realities or whatever you want to call it theme. There’s always debates among fans regarding which film Lynch perfected his idea’s, but all things considered, Lost Highway get’s my pick. It goes without saying that not everyone took or will take to Lost Highway the way I did. Siskel and Ebert gave the film two thumbs down, which Lynch famously and hilariously exploited by putting it on a poster for the film with the blurb “Two more great reasons to see Lost Highway!” Ebert actually went as far as to say the film was made in contempt for it’s audience. A bit harsh, wouldn’t you agree? Regardless, whether you like it or not you have to at least admit it’s originally and Lynch’s style and uncompromising artistry. Even people who hate the film have complimented it’s look, as they should. Have I figured out what Lost Highway is “really about”? No, and if you want to know the truth of it, I’m really not all that sure I want to either. Now I’m not going to bullshit you and say I’ve never thought about it, as I think that anybody who’s seen the film has, but to me, going too deep would ruin the films mystique for me. Just go with it, get lost in the universe it creates and the experience will be much more rewarding. I’ve seen this film countless times, it’s to the point where I could probably do a one man show reciting the entire script. It’s a film that I can put on anytime and I know no matter how many times I see it, it will never get old, and the same effect it had one my the first time I watched it is never lost. In fact spending all this time writing about it just made me want to watch it again, which I probably will. I can safely say that on the list of my top whatever number of favorite films, Lost Highway will always get top billing. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.  

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