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Cinematic Cliffs Notes - Lost Highway

Halfway through my film degree, I found myself working at a video store. This was pretty much a dream job for a cinephile who needed ready access to films as they were released, but, as any video store clerk can attest to, there are downsides. Case in point: my David Lynch moment. David Lynch, a personal hero of mine, was a pretty prominent contributor to my 'Staff Picks' shelf. Each staff member was afforded a cordoned off province within the kingdom that was Staffpicktopia (nobody but myself actually ever called it that), within which their favourite films were emblazoned with stickers that bore their names, thereby allowing patrons of Video Ezy Manly to dole out blame or praise to the employee responsible. 

My shelf was filled with Lynch, and one night, an attractive woman approached the counter and began talking film with me. By which I mean she began to talk through her credentials as a film academic, which pretty much stalled the queue altogether. Finally! A fellow thinker! Then, she pointed out all my Lynch selections, snorted derisively, and said 'you're into Lynch? Yeah. I went through a Lynch phase, too. Good to get that out of your system early'. She left, along with a good helping of my heart underfoot.

'Lynch phase'? David Lynch is a true auteur. To whittle down the severe majesty of his filmography to nothing but a 'phase' is doing him a grave disservice. I'll be delving into his body of work at various points over the coming months, but for now, I'd like to focus on one of his less loved works - the superb and misunderstood Lost Highway. Admittedly, Lost Highway is discernibly less accessible than, say, Blue Velvet or the bulk of Twin Peaks. But it succeeds in conveying all of the purest Lynchian tropes without flinching at any point. It also serves as a terrific masculine counterpart to the inherently feminine Mulholland Drive. The two are like brother and sister in a maelstrom of feedback and nightmares. 

Lynch's primary preoccupations are with Americana and subsumed longing. His debut feature, Eraserhead, dealt with this line of reasoning particularly bluntly: the America embodied by Kennedy and Monroe, one of idealism and white picket fences, began to rot and fester when it's figureheads were stolen from the world. Behind the sunshine and immaculately preened lawns, Lynch asserts, lingers a very real yet almost intangible evil. The opening scenes of Blue Velvet begin by panning across a steady course of saccharine tableus, before cruising underneath a perfectly maintained lawn into a seething, writhing ocean of bugs. The film then proceeds to take an idealistic young man, Jeffrey (Kyle Maclaclan) and plunge him through the eye of the moral needle.

Lost Highway was made years later, and is decidedly muddier in handling the notions of good and evil. It begins with a phone call, received by Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a frayed saxophone player living in Los Angeles. From Lost Highway onward, LA has become the focus of Lynch's works; having moved from the falseness of suburbia to the far more bloated falseness of Los Angeles indicates just how ambitious this film was for him. Fred lives in a vast, almost amorphous home in a gleaming, nondescript street. The house from outside is a locked-down structure, undeniably sure of itself. But when Lynch takes the camera inside, he makes sure we aren't allowed time to orient ourselves; Fred wanders blankly through swampy oceans of curtains, into seemingly endless corridors. The only true focal point is the bedroom, which becomes a key plot point later on.

Fred is married to Renee (Patricia Arquette), who fast becomes an almost alien source of grief for him. For once, the deadened delivery unique to Arquette becomes a brilliant tool for Lynch: here is a story about a man brimming with paranoia about his unresponsive, unreadable wife, being played by an actress who, let's be honest, isn't the best at emoting. Renee and Fred head to a party, and from there, things get decidedly unsettling. I shan't go into excessive detail, but I will say this: phone calls and video in Lost Highway are a profoundly disturbing tool. Lynch truly can scare and unsettle the viewer on a primal level, and he does so deftly in Lost Highway. Robert Blake's turn as the Mystery Man is particularly affecting. By which I mean it will haunt your dreams. And not in a good way.

Shortly before the halfway point, the film careens off track (very deliberately), and abruptly changes course. Here, we meet Pete Dayton, a young mechanic played by Balthazar Getty. Things unravel very quickly and very violently, and again, I'm acutely aware of just how much would be ruined for you if I delved any further. Instead, I shall say this: the film will require quite a bit of reflection and decompression after being watched. If you like, head off and see it, then ping me on twitter (@paulverhoeven) and I'll be happy to theorycraft with you until the sun comes up. As with Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway is a puzzle. It's a tad more angular, and it's a great deal fuzzier, but it has a justifiably vast cult following. I highly recommend you see it and find out why.

/Paul
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3 comments so far..

  • dwoods's avatar
    Commenter
    dwoods
    Date and time
    Thursday 07 Feb 2013 - 3:34 PM
    Was Lost Highway chosen because you think it's as good as Lynch's classics like Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead, or just because it's under-appreciated?
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  • PaulVerhoeven's avatar
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    PaulVerhoeven
    Date and time
    Friday 08 Feb 2013 - 12:48 AM
    I legitimately think it's one of his greatest. They're all amazing (well, mostly); for example, I could just have easily covered Straight Story, and I probably will at some point! Lost Highway is, I feel, a very strong film, and easily stands alongside his classic works (the ones you mentioned).
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  • dwoods's avatar
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    dwoods
    Date and time
    Friday 08 Feb 2013 - 2:07 PM
    In that case, I would advise you, if you haven't already, to read David Foster Wallace's piece on Lynch titled "David Lynch Keeps His Head". He pins down really well exactly what makes Lynch such a great artist while talking about the filming of Lost Highway.
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