Friday, February 26, 2016

Lost Highway (1997)

90s bizarre erotic mystery for true blue Lynch Fans!

All right, let’s get this on the table. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. No, I’m kidding. There are those of us who go into a swoon when David Lynch hits the mark (The Elephant Man, Eraserhead, the first ten or twelve episodes of Twin Peaks) and give him our patience when he doesn’t, quite (Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks after its degeneration into soap opera); and then there are those whose minds flat-out cannot process Lynch and his idiosyncratic liberties. Members of this latter group are inclined to demand "Yes, but what does it mean?" with varying degrees of patience. I accept that there are such people, and I accept that they feel justified in their frustrated distaste for my main man Lynch. Me, I can’t deal with televised football, not even for a few minutes at a time while I’m waiting to see the new commercials. Never liked it, never will, would rather give a cat a bath than have anything to do with it. But some people, even some of my friends, are crazy for football and even find themselves moved to stand up and shout and cheer. To each his own; it’s a big enough world for all of us.

I speak, then, as a longtime member of the former group of Lynch-watchers. And for me, Lost Highway is like some kind of Super Bowl. Critical scuttlebutt on Lynch’s film is that he’s only rehashing the cockeyed voluptuousness of Blue Velvet, which when it was released in 1986 was acclaimed as one of the most daring and original films in many many years, maybe one of the best ever. And what of his newest? Normal people descend into indescribable weirdness, we’ve seen this all before, sniff those in my opposing contingent. Pimps, casual brutality, and car chases – even I will not deny the existence of such Lynchian motifs. (In particular there has been some carping that the Robert Blake character in Lost Highway is drawn too closely from Frank Booth, Blue Velvet’s sociopathic nitrous-sniffing freak, of which comparison more anon.) 

But the implication being made by such comments is that having discovered, with Blue Velvet, the formula for critical success, Lynch has attempted to bluff his way to a by-the-book reinterpretation of it, and this is simply not the case. The descent into weirdness traced in that film was hero Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan)’s introduction to, and induction into, the underbelly of his cozy hometown, his realization of all that had lain just outside his range of vision. At a very basic level Blue Velvet was a sick and twisted coming-of-age story; at the end, Jeffrey, older but wiser, has a new sense of hope and the perspective to know what a precious commodity it is. (Whether Lynch is with Jeffrey on this score is a subject much open to debate.) Lost Highway affords the viewer no possibility of hope. It picks you up and throttles you like the cinematic embodiment of Frank Booth, and it casts off the supersaturated realism ofBlue Velvet in favor of surrealistic body blows.

With Lost Highway, you get two stories for the price of one that sort of, kind of come together at the end of the film. In the first, Bill Pullman is avant-garde saxophonist Fred Madison, who with his vampy wife Renée (Patricia Arquette) is the victim of a weird prank: someone is breaking into their house and videotaping them while they sleep. In one of the series of videotapes – these are left on the Madisons’ front porch with the morning paper – Fred is suddenly horrified to see Renée dead on their bedroom floor amid a pile of gore, and himself in the middle of it. The next thing he realizes, he is being interrogated by the police in connection with her actual murder. In the next scene, he is convicted and sentenced to death. End of Part One. 

In his jail cell one night, Fred ceases to be Fred – as the guards notice immediately, the person in Fred’s cell is someone else. A computer search reveals the inmate ex machina to be Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a junior car thief who went missing some time ago. Pete, who can’t remember how he got into Fred’s cell or much of anything in the way of an explanation, is released into his parents’ custody and resumes his former life – going out with his buddies, working as an auto mechanic. One regular customer at Arnie’s Garage is Mr. Eddie (the beautifully cast Robert Loggia, a demonic Dick Vitale; actually, his is the character most like Frank Booth), who seems to want to involve Pete in some shady dealings but just drives him around in his car while his two bodyguards ride in the back. Dropping off his Caddy one day to have Pete work on it, Mr. Eddie arrives with his girlfriend, Alice (Patricia Arquette again), who is drawn to Pete. The two embark on a motel-room affair, and when Mr. Eddie finds out, Alice and Pete plot to rob a pimp (Michael Massee) and run away together. They escape into the desert to find a fence she knows. Here Pete changes back into Fred, who pursues both Alice and Mr. Eddie through some kind of brothel in hell (cameos from Marilyn Manson and Twiggy Ramirez as porno actresses, so you know Lynch means it), ends up back at his house to deliver a mysterious message Fred also received at the beginning of the film, arouses the interest of the detectives who have been watching the house, and is chased down an open highway as another metamorphosis begins to overtake him. Roll credits.

Lost Highway, to me, recalled Eraserhead more than it did Blue Velvet, and I felt like Lynch was getting back to his roots: an elliptical, grotesque narrative lacquered over with sound and light. Many of the same cinematic elements are present in this film as in Eraserhead – in particular, the utterly contrary use of sight and sound, as if a screenful of pixels and some audio feedback constitute an offensive weapon – but here they feel more decisive than experimental; instead of trying almost overhard to distinguish himself as a brash auteur, Lynch is by now so far immersed in his medium that he feels it at an elemental level. The big difference here is that these days everyone knows his name, and he can score budgets chunky enough to bring locations, special effects, and name actors (not to mention color film) to the mix. His movies look more like regular movies now. This false relationship heightens their onslaught.

The primary way in which Lynch movies are not like regular movies is in their nonchalance where conventional plot is concerned. Plots to Lynch are a function, related to his endeavor as knowing how to drive is to wanting to see new places. But because getting there is half the fun, you have to want to enjoy the ride. And man oh man is there a surfeit of roadside attractions. Not the least of these is the cast. 

As the credits flashed (and they do flash) at the start of the film, from Henry Rollins to Richard Pryor to Gary Busey, my friend Steve said, "I feel like I should go out there and give them some more money." It is almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of the play of familiar and half-recalled faces across the screen, but it’s not shock casting. It’s like some mean flip side of the Love Boat, or the Hollywood Squares on a chain gang; there’s nothing comforting about it. 

Bill Pullman, who resembles Lynch himself, makes the quick dive from Presidential to vice – fleshy, sweaty, and surly. Balthazar Getty’s confused composure occasionally recalls Montgomery Clift, and as for Patricia Arquette, what other actor or actress can you name who has been in consecutive movies as schizophrenic as Beyond Rangoon,Flirting With Disaster, Infinity (about the life of Richard Feynman; she played his first wife) and this one and managed to be individualistically credible in all of them? When I first saw her, as the kooky, weepy failed hooker in True Romance, I thought for sure she was a fluke, but she seems to be hell-bent on convincing me and everyone else who goes to the movies that this ain’t the case. Other standouts are two pairs of detectives, who provide some welcome moments of deadpan absurdity, and Busey and Lucy Butler as the enigmatically bereft Mr. and Mrs. Dayton.

But what I can’t get out of my mind is Robert Blake as the "Mystery Man" (this per the closing credits), the one major character Fred’s and Pete’s trajectories have in common. If you’ve seen previews for Lost Highway, you’ve seen a piece of the party scene where Fred first encounters him, and you’ve seen what Blake is up to – you may well have been unable to take your eyes away from it. I wasn’t a Baretta fan, but my sister and I used to watch Blake as a crusading ghetto priest in a one-season TV flop called Helltown, and on a few occasions in the years since, I wondered what this amiable actor had been doing with himself. Having face lifts and selling his soul to the devil, that’s what. 

Blake’s voice vibrates laryngectomy-like almost imperceptibly out of sync with those of the other actors (Lynch’s real genius is as a sound designer), and he twists it as if it’s a knife. The effect of Blake’s characterization – voice, freakshow makeup, demonic eyes, and all – is cumulative, so that at one point late in the film I caught myself whimpering when he appeared. Unlike Frank, the Mystery Man will never make you laugh. He is more contained, so the fear he inspires is writ larger. And he performs on a larger stage: Lost Highway’s vast milieu, interior and exterior, blows Lumberton out of the water. The last movie to which I had such a visceral reaction, some years back, was a Jonestown docudrama starring Powers Boothe, and that was because it gave me flashbacks to the news footage I’d forgotten I really saw televised when I was a tyke. Blake builds a little Jonestown in his heart and holds it out to us, and it’s terrifying. Lost Highway mostly packs its wallop to your psyche because of the narrative authority given to Blake’s character. Is this the linchpin we keep coming back to? With everything you’ve got in your mind and body you make a futile plea: no. Yes, says Lynch, and that’s that.

If you want, you can try to figure out what it all means, you can attempt to use the film’s recurrent themes and images as keys to unlock the rest of it, you can try to get inside Lynch’s head and poke around for buried treasure. (I would in fact be very surprised if hundreds of would-be Film Ph.D’s have not already given this the old college try.) 

If you’ve got more fortitude than I apparently have, you can think long and hard about the Mystery Man and how he brings Fred's and Pete’s stories together in a grotty exploding shack in the desert. But although I did feel a sense of real despair during the film that made me scan its addresses and license plates as if under the influence of a fever, wanting so much to read something in them, in the final analysis I can’t make myself believe that this is the point. Anyway, David Lynch doesn’t want me to pin his movies’ wings down and put them in a case, he wants me to enter the insect kingdom, so to speak, and wonder at the life in it. And with Lost Highway and Blake’s central performance, the nightmarishness of which can only be a long-incubated dream for my old pal Lynch, he wanted me to get stung and see what poison feels like. I submitted.

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