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On David Lynch's 1997 'Lost Highway'

Nick Pinkerton

This week a little break from the usual mandate of this newsletter, which is dedicated to the esoteric; hopefully a foray into more familiar territory—written in a somewhat less baroque fashion—won’t be altogether unwelcome. In spring of 2019 I was commissioned by Kino Lorber to write liner notes for a Blu-ray release of David Lynch’s 1997 Lost Highway, a film that I hold in highest possible regard. The planned “extras” on the disc, including my essay and a commentary track by Tim Lucas, were eventually dropped from the release at Lynch’s request: the maître has some persnickety provisos when it comes to special features which are too strange to be taken personally, and was generally (unduly, in my opinion) hostile towards even the final, stripped-down Kino release. Given the pleasure that exploring Lynch’s body of work has given me through the years, he could have specifically called me a worthless cunt in public forums and I would have taken it with a grin, so whatever, no hard feelings, rock on. Nevertheless, as Mr. Lucas has some time back put his Lost Highway commentary track out into the world, I thought I might do the same with my essay on the film, which I hope may be of some interest. Any editorial interventions with the original text have been minimal, though I will note that Pedro Costa’s 2019 Vitalina Varela went some way towards convincing me that certain shades of pitch dark were not lost to digital cinematography. Thanks are due to Frank Tarzi and Andrew Gleason at Kino.

It begins where it ends, unsteadily straddling the double yellow dividing line on the open road at night, the world reduced to only what headlights can reveal, spelean blackness beyond. Though Lost Highway doesn’t travel far from the precincts of Los Angeles, it is in some way as much a road movie as writer/director David Lynch’s follow-up movie, the Midwest-traversing The Straight Story (1999). Crucial to the earlier film is the possibility of escape promised by the highway, a promise central to the mythology of the car-crazy America of Lynch’s boyhood, the lustrously chromed, tailfinned products of which play vital supporting roles in the movie: take the pivotal scene of lust-at-first-sight in which a young automobile mechanic at work is transfixed by a beautiful blonde stepping out of a sleek black 1960 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible. Cars mean sex; they also mean flight, freedom—the offer to “take a ride” recurs in the movie with both connotations, and others more ominous besides. And with mobility and autonomy comes the possibility of both self-determination and self-renewal—however bad things might get, you can always pick up and start again in another town, right?

Starting over is exactly what Lost Highway does, or represents an attempt to do, beginning as one film, then seemingly beginning anew as another. The first iteration of the movie is a slow-burn domestic drama involving a tense tenor saxophonist, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), and his wife, a buxom brunette named Renee (Patricia Arquette), living together in the Hollywood Hills. Straightaways it’s evident that there an unnamed trouble has burrowed its way into the heart of their household, whose residents are usually found in attitudes suggesting Edward Hopper at his most morose. They address one another in curt sentences and hushed tones, as though exceedingly cautious of waking up some sleeping monster, though when performing at a nightclub Fred’s demeanor changes completely, and he becomes an unloosed berserker, his horn-thrusting solo producing a stabbing whirr that’s like free jazz from a dental drill. When he calls home from the club and Renee doesn’t answer, though, his brow furrows with suspicion, and when he sees her talking to another man, his expression poses a clear question. It appears that Fred leaves his virility on-stage, for what we see of their physical intimacy is limited to a furtive encounter which ends with Renee patting her spouse on the back and reassuring him “It’s okay.” In this most automobile-oriented movie, this pair has stalled, and poor Fred has lost his sex drive.

The Madisons’ house, with its solid concrete walls and tall, narrow, arrowslit-like windows, has the aspect of a fortress, but proves as violable as the sacred bonds of marriage. Those windows allow little light in, and portions of the home are swallowed by some of the deepest patches of blackness in cinema—a depth of pure darkness that sometimes seems lost forever following the digital changeover. These inky pools spilling across the widescreen frame are palpable presences, pulsing with unspecified perils, perfect hiding places for the baleful forces that seem dead set on sowing discontent between the Madisons from the moment at the film’s beginning when Fred receives a cryptic message over their home intercom: “Dick Laurent is dead.” This is only the first of a series of indications that their bunker-like home isn’t so impenetrable. In an unsettling moment of something like property-based cuckoldry, a ghoulish figure at a crowded party (Robert Blake), seemingly unnoticed by the other guests in spite of his greasepaint pallor and shaved eyebrows, approaches Fred and tells him he’s in his home “Right now,” then proves this impossible assertion by answering Fred’s home phone when Fred calls it from a proffered cell, all while the little gremlin remains at the party in plain sight, there but not there.

Fred is by this point on the brink of breakdown, having been taunted with a series of anonymous videotapes that first show the outside of their house; then the inside, including the sleeping homeowners. The last tape returns to the bedroom, this time picking up Fred crouched, feral, over Renee’s butchered corpse. As Fred watches it, the news it delivers—that he has killed his wife—seems to come as a surprise, but his bafflement doesn’t keep the police from throwing him in a dungeon-like holding cell for her murder. This point, with the wheels of punishment set in motion, might be the end of a traditional crime thriller, but in Lost Highway it’s a moment for the movie to shed its chrysalis and take wing. Fred Madison, the forty-something man maddened by sneaking suspicions that he’s being stepped out on, now simply steps out of his own life—turns overnight into a man two decades his junior, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who wakes in fright in the cell with a nasty gouge on his temple and no more clue than we or his jailers have as to what has happened.

Stupefied but unable to hold Pete in lieu of the disappeared Fred, the authorities release him back into the wild, and in at least a few respects this existence is an upgrade from Fred’s—where Fred had stalled out, Pete is cruising along. A 24-year-old resident of Van Nuys, Dayton lives with his parents, works at a garage, and spends his idle hours partying to clubby Smashing Pumpkins songs and sportfucking around the San Fernando Valley. He’s free of the adult anxieties that plagued Fred—but soon new complications start cropping up, different but in some respects the same. Pete is a sort of pet mechanic to a local wiseguy, Mister Eddy (Robert Loggia), a bad cat possessed of a sinister rasp and a very big gun, as one savagely pistol-whipped tailgater finds out the hard way. (In Lynch’s road movie, etiquette at the wheel is a life-and-death matter.) But then one day everything changes when Mister Eddy’s girlfriend comes to the garage and steps out of a 1960 Cadillac…

The scene is shot subjectively, as seen through Pete’s eyes, presented as a sensorially overwhelming experience: Doo-wop acolyte Lou Reed’s muscular, guitar-forward cover of The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment,” a tune of the same vintage as the car, fills the soundtrack, while the desired object’s saunter out towards the street is agonizingly, achingly drawn out in slow-motion and made still the more unreal through the introduction of a slight strobing effect, as though something is short-circuiting in Pete’s mind—which indeed might be the case. What he’s seeing seems to exhume a buried memory from within him, and it does in us, too, for the girl is Arquette, again, in this year’s model a platinum blonde, now named Alice. And we’re through the looking glass.

What follows from here is distinctly noir—an illicit affair between sucker Pete and seductress Alice that opens into a criminal plot, this one involving knocking over an adult film impresario for his cash. Unconcerned with the official film industry of the city where it lays its scene, Lost Highway focuses on that industry’s warped-mirror double with its own star system, the XXX underground. (A gruff line reading by Loggia that exemplifies the film’s off-speed comic relief: “Ya like porno? Give ya a boner?”) Lynch has lived in L.A. since 1970, when he left behind Philadelphia, the former home base where he’d studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. For his first feature, 1977’s Eraserhead, Lynch shot his interiors in abandoned stables on the grounds of the AFI Conservatory, to the first graduating class of which he belonged, and his exteriors in various run-down localities around downtown Los Angeles. The result, however, could hardly be called an “L.A. movie,” taking place as it does in a nightmare landscape whose location is unspecified, though it was inspired by the air of threatening postindustrial rot that had so impressed and depressed Lynch during his time in the City of Brotherly Love. Lost Highway, then, was Lynch’s first explicit cinematic exploration of his longtime home, and, followed by Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006), both set in the same city and involving the picture business, inaugurated a Los Angeles trilogy of sorts.   

The factors that make Lost Highway particularly and peculiarly Los Angelino are many, though some of them not immediately evident to one not versed in the seamy side of the city’s history, the tabloid mythology and whispered rumors set down in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon books. One crucial element is casting—while surely selecting actors for their appropriateness to their parts, Lynch also assembled an ensemble rich with paparazzi associations. Take for instance Getty, the great-grandson of J. Paul, founder of Getty Oil, art collector, and one of the world’s richest men, and the son of John Paul Getty III, the “Golden Hippie” whose kidnapping in Rome in 1973 set off a media feeding frenzy—reportedly Lynch cast the young actor after seeing his picture in a magazine with no knowledge of his peculiar pedigree, but the choice couldn’t have been more fortuitous. As for the surname of his character, “Dayton,” it is tempting to suspect that Lynch was inspired by one of the handful of films to which he has extensively made reference in his work through the years, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)—the city is the hometown of William Holden’s character, Joe Gillis, a former reporter for the Dayton Daily News turned failed screenwriter and gigolo to the faded stars. If so, this wouldn’t be the only oblique reference to Holden in the film: When Pete and Alice attempt to hold up that porn impresario, Andy (Michael Massee), Pete, after a scuffle, accidentally sends him flying forehead-first into a glass coffee table, a more baroque and grotesque version of Holden’s own much-recounted, much-exaggerated, and very gossip-friendly death, a drunken headfirst tumble into a teak bedside table.

In Lost Highway, Lynch has assembled his own collection of “waxworks”—Gillis’s derisive term for the silent film luminaries who assemble at the card parties thrown by his host and benefactor, Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond. There’s Loggia, a veteran whose credits stretched back to the mid-1950s, who had starred opposite Holden in S.O.B. (1981), Blake Edwards’ sour show business satire. As the boss at the garage where Pete works we have Richard Pryor, a troubled once-in-a-generation stand-up talent and screen star essentially disappeared from the industry after being laid low by multiple sclerosis, while Gary Busey, here playing Pete’s dad, had problems with substance abuse no less public than Pryor’s. Natasha Gregson Wagner, in the part of Pete’s girlfriend, Sheila, hadn’t made comparable headlines, but came from a household haunted by tragedy—she’s the stepdaughter of actor Robert Wagner and daughter of actress Natalie Wood, who drowned while on a boating trip off Catalina Island on Wagner’s yacht, Splendour, the circumstances of her death to this day shrouded in controversy. And then we have to talk about Robert Blake.

A child star who’d joined the ranks of the Little Rascals in the final years of the Our Gang shorts, as an adult Blake’s best-known accomplishments included playing a lead role in Richard Brooks’s In Cold Blood (1967) and playing the title part in the ABC TV series Baretta (1975-78), though he’d been little in-demand in the years before Lynch called on him to play his so-called “Mystery Man.” The call preceded Blake’s entanglement in a real-life mystery which achieved him a very new and different kind of fame. On May 4, 2001, Blake’s wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, was shot in the head while sitting in her husband’s car, and he was subsequently investigated and put on trial for the murder—a crime for which he would be acquitted, if never exonerated in the public eye.

While the casting of Blake as a kind of L.A. Nosferatu took on an eerie prescience in light of the trial, this was all still some years off while Lost Highway was in the making—though another celebrity murder case in Los Angeles County did leave an indelible impression on the movie. Some years later, in his catechism-like volume Catching the Big Fish, Lynch would write of the influence that the most recent Trial of the Century, People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson, had on the incipient idea for what would become his film. “What struck me about O.J. Simpson was that he was able to smile and laugh,” Lynch writes. “He was able to go golfing with seemingly few problems about the whole thing. I wondered how, if a person did those 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 the fact that nothing can stay hidden forever.”

A film that, in its structure, takes after a mind divided, Lost Highway is, appropriately, a film of reflections and doubles—not only Fred/Pete and Renee/Alice, but also the double identity of Mr. Eddy, who also goes, we learn, by the sobriquet “Dick Laurent.” (This leaves the Mystery Man a very-odd-man-out figure; when a dying Eddy gurgles “You and me, mister, we can sure out-ugly them sumbitches,” the expression of fraternity might be directed to either him or Fred.) Lynch has always had an interest in role-playing, dress-up, and general imposture—think of Frank Booth’s “well-dressed man” alter-ego in Blue Velvet (1986) or Laura Palmer/“Maddy” Ferguson in Twin Peaks (1990-91)—but this, his first Hollywood film, is a veritable hall of mirrors.

Playing no small part in the proceedings is that tool of reproduction, and therefore doubling, the camera, here an instrument of malevolence and menace, as when late in the film the Mystery Man reappears wielding a camcorder like a shoulder-mounted weapon. Fred, we’ve learned earlier, always avoids the unblinking stare of the lens. As he tells the detectives—another couple!—who come to investigate those mysterious videotapes: “I like to remember things my own way… How I remember them, not exactly how they happen.” Of course, Fred the forgetful has good reason to shy away from the troubling record of the real attested to by photographs, and it will be the sight of a photo that seems to shake loose some repressed knowledge in Pete, a photo depicting both Renee and Alice together. This is during Pete and Alice’s clumsy robbery, presided over by Alice’s massive “double,” or double of the double, her image in a 16mm porno loop, enthusiastically responding to being fucked from behind by a middle-aged man whose identity is unclear.

These scenes bring to the fore two driving forces in Lost Highway: the rankling male fears of both masculine rivalry and female mutability, an implacable anxiety that the desired other may not be what she seems, may harbor fantasies that have nothing to do with you. The robbery comes not long after Pete’s flashback-fantasy envisioning of Alice recounting her first meeting with Mister Eddy, a mini-movie-within-the-movie during which she strips at gunpoint and offers herself up to him, at first in fear, then in apparent eager docility.

Some of the same fears also animate that stylistically and thematically coherent group of postwar American thrillers, the classic film noir. Lynch isn’t what you’d call a cinephile director, but he makes up for the narrowness of his frame of cinematic reference with the depths of his affinity and engagement—the likely inspiration for the Mystery Man in Herk Harvey’s independently-produced cult chiller Carnival of Souls (1962), for instance, has been much discussed. As to Lost Highway’s free use of noir tropes and images—the borrowing of the burning beach house from the end of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), for example—the role of Lynch’s co-screenwriter, the novelist Barry Gifford, should not be underestimated.

Gifford, whose novel of the same name Lynch had previously adapted into his Wild at Heart (1990), is the founder of the Berkeley-based publishing house Black Lizard, whose immaculately curated pulp fiction reprints were responsible in the 1980s for reigniting interest in authors including Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Lionel White, all of them working in the hardboiled fiction line which was the literary analog to cinematic noir. Gifford would’ve known full well, then, that chauffeurs and mechanics are classic blue-collar fall guys in noir, and that the garage, a business that facilitates otherwise unlikely interclass encounters between working-class mechanics and their middle-and-upper-class employers, has been a vital noir setting—one or the other feature in Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1953), and Richard Quine’s Drive a Crooked Road (1954), to cite a few examples. (Later music videos by Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen would turn the trope into hetero camp.) And, as in much of noir, class is an important component of the sexual anxiety that Lost Highway simply writhes with. Another is intergenerational jealousy, of the sort that might have driven the 46-year-old Simpson to slaughter Ron Goldman, the 25-year-old man who had been spending time with his estranged wife, or might have exacerbated tensions between Blake and the rather younger Bakley. “Fucker gets more pussy than a toilet seat,” gripes one of the two veteran flatfoots tasked with following Pete after he’s sprung from jail, finding themselves essentially trailing him between assignations, and in this gripe we can hear the eternal complaint of the sexual Have Nots, left to watch the Haves take their pleasure.

One may take Pete to be an idealized alter-ego imagined by Fred, an alter-ego who not only delivers him from the desolation of his jail cell but from his sense of sexual inferiority, turning the cuck to a cocksman and returning him his youthful virility—an interpretation that makes some solid sense, but hardly solves every one of the insoluble dilemmas put forward by Lost Highway. Bouncing between Sheila and Alice, Pete seems at first to be living an ideal fantasy of male sexual mastery and female sexual availability, and given Lynch’s “fugue” explanation, we may ask if what we’re witnessing is the actual tomcatting of a real young, good-looking guy, or just a movie projected against the walls of Fred’s fried mind, a past-his-prime dude’s dream of a bygone, inexhaustible desire and desirability. (Which would then make Alice’s striptease a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie…) Whatever the case, a palimpsest of Fred slowly begins to bleed through the rewrite that is Pete, a process completed when Pete, too, is sexually vanquished. At the end of a sweetly ethereal, headlight-bathed lovemaking idyll on the sand with Alice, scored to This Mortal Coil’s “Song of the Siren”—a song that had obsessed Lynch as far back as Blue Velvet, which he’d hoped to use it in but couldn’t afford the asking price for—she responds to his whimper of “I want you” with a hard, final “You’ll never have me.”

This will be the coup-de-grace, the end of Pete Dayton, replaced now in the story by the man he’d once replaced, Fred Madison. No more Magic Moments or dream pop deliverance on the soundtrack, only stinging strings from composer Angelo Badalamenti, the martial crunch and stentorian declamations of German industrial metal band Rammstein, and the flogging electronics of Trent Reznor’s “Driver Down.” (Where Lynch’s films often seem out-of-time, Lost Highway is, sonically at least, distinctly a product of the ’90s.) The promise of starting anew has proved false; what remains is only more bloodshed and pedal-to-the-metal on the “open” road, now revealed as an ouroboros circuit, a closed loop. For alongside the all-American optimism in the promise of new beginnings set forth by the highway, there runs another, parallel national cultural tradition, less touted as officially defining the American character, but no less old and perhaps more profound, a tradition of artworks, both folk and pop, that understand on a marrow-deep level that you just can’t win.

The title Lost Highway was plucked by Lynch from the pages of one of Gifford’s books, the 1992 short story collection Night People, but its provenance is much older, stretching back at least to a canonical country song that expresses a plaintive view of life on the road, beginning “I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost/ For a life of sin I have paid the cost/ When I pass by all the people say/ Just another guy on the lost highway.” That “Lost Highway” was written by Leon Payne, an itinerant blind Texan singer-songwriter who purportedly wrote it while broke and waiting to hitch a ride on the shoulder of the road, and it was made famous in 1949 by Hank Williams, Sr., who died less than four years later while rolling along on tour, croaking in the backseat of his shiny baby blue Cadillac en route to a New Year’s Day concert in Canton, Ohio. Lost Highway picks up on that bitter high lonesome note that you could find in the plaint of country music made before it was largely made over into the affirmative soundtrack of patriotic triumphalism. It’s a note that you can find, too, in Sunset Boulevard or the Hollywood Babylon books, with their reminders that stars, too, get old and die, and often don’t die pretty. And you can find it in the film noir tradition, as exemplified in another film that opens with the image of an unfurling ribbon of highway, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), whose hitchhiker protagonist Tom Neal’s voice-over complaint, triggered by the sound of a familiar song with unwelcome associations, might very well describe the predicament of Fred Madison/Pete Dayton: 

“Did you ever want to cut away a piece of your memory, or blot it out? You can’t, you know. No matter how hard you try. You can change the scenery but sooner or later you’ll get a whiff of perfume or somebody will say a certain phrase or maybe hum something and you’re licked again.”

Pete, too, finds himself persecuted by music. While working at the garage, the frantic sound of Fred’s sax solo comes wailing out over the radio; its noise causing him what appears to be existential anguish, and he inveighs on his co-worker—Lynch regular Jack Nance, in his final role—to turn it off, much as the flustered Neal petitions a diner counterman for relief in Detour. This moment may be taken as a breach in Fred’s psychic self-protection, one more leak in what will eventually become a dam burst, dumping Fred back into the narrative he’d fled. When he does return he will grimly, dutifully close the circle, delivering the message with which Lost Highway began—“Dick Laurent is dead”—before taking to the road with the police in hot pursuit. The highway still unfurls endlessly ahead, but any delusion of deliverance is now gone. There is no escape, only a road to nowhere. We end where we began, back speeding along that wavering double yellow, accelerating faster and faster, getting no further away from a self that can never, ever be outrun.


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