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David Lynch's Lost Highway:
Man With a Movie Camera
The Stop Smiling DVD Review
Monday, March 31, 2008
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Lost Highway (1997)
Directed by David Lynch
Reviewed by Nathan Kosub
When Richard Widmark died on Monday, his views on gun control seemed a part of the Connecticut landscape where he chose to live, because he valued privacy. Widmark, who also owned a ranch in California, was the last of the Hollywood greats, though he will die remembered by the popular press as much for his presidency of the National Rifle Association as his work in film. In some ways, Charlton Heston lobbied for the sorts of characters that made Widmark famous: the thugs, the put-upons, the lowlifes. Heston marched on Washington in support of Civil Rights, too; he is a distant generation, but when he passes, I will think of him in the Technicolor of The Naked Jungle or the end of the 20th century. I thought of Widmark in black and white while I marveled at his longevity, and he was the last actor alive for whom that was true.
But no era has passed. Instead, with Widmark’s death, the influence of David Lynch extends even further, back past Eraserhead clear through the history of film. For Lynch, there is no re-imagining of old Hollywood, but a lineage to which a movie like Lost Highway simply belongs. If Mulholland Dr. was the lush rot of the Hollywood dream, Lost Highway is the overripe teenage fantasy of Los Angeles, like Slash’s hotel room in the music video for Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience."
But there is also a voyeuristic menace of hired muscle in almost every sexually provocative scene. A gun is aimed at Patricia Arquette’s head when she strips for Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia), and what seems like a dozen men around her. Lynch films it like a striptease, not an assault. Twice in the film, a scene in slow motion is paced by Arquette’s bare breasts, and if they are scenes where Arquette’s character (either Renee Madison or Alice Wakefield) is in control, then the sense of being swept along — even taken advantage of — is part of the fantasy.
Lost Highway is full of beautiful women, all of them at the beck and call of teenage mechanic Peter Dayton (Balthazar Getty). He needs only to be left alone with one to find her in his arms — a stark contrast to aging doppelganger Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who can’t even make love to his wife to spite her when she stays home from his jazz club to “read.” But Pete’s disdain is half his charm.
“Why don’t you like me?” his girlfriend Sheila asks tepidly.
“I do like you,” Pete replies.
“How much?” But she doesn’t wait for an answer before she’s naked in the backseat of his car. Sheila, like Pete’s parents, is there to measure how far Pete’s life slips out of control when he gets involved with Alice, the siren at the movie’s center. Pete can have it both ways: Alice at the Starlight Hotel on Sycamore, or Sheila in a side-street hotrod. He’s never even sold on Alice’s plan to rob a man who makes pornos for Mr. Eddy, because the bad idea roughly executed is a cinema archetype, too.
Lynch conveys this in close-ups of red lips and telephone receivers. He frames Patricia Arquette’s face with velvet blacks and lights her from the corners of her eyes to the tip of her nose: a cat mask made of lamp-tones, her disguise in darkness. Even Halloween cannot match the gradations of vision that cinematographer Peter Deming achieves in the hallways of the home Fred shares with Renee. The walls bend in towards a limitless distance, as if we are following Fred into his dream.
Lost Highway’s terrors are the primal intrusion on the helplessness of sleep. The first part of the movie is obsessed with the bedroom Fred shares unhappily with his wife. Pulling into the driveway, they see a light sweep across the second-story window: Someone else is at home. The video cassettes they find on their doorstep show a camera moving inexorably toward their bed. When they try to make love, they sink into their sheets as if chains might pull them down. Where one sleeps, where one dreams — nothing is more vulnerable in the subconscious. And if Fire Walk With Me remains Lynch’s scariest movie for precisely that reason, Lost Highway makes the menace less explicit — less identifiable, even in the devil avatar of Robert Blake — and more troubling during the odd 3 a.m. walk to the kitchen for a glass of water.
Lynch, too, is careful to let us laugh more often than we did with Fire Walk With Me, either at Pullman’s delivery or Mr. Eddy’s salutations. The plot, I would argue, matters not at all, just as the music, which I will forever associate with an MTV interview showing the members of Rammstein running around stage set on fire, will eventually escape its late-Nineties bond through every new teenager who isn’t old enough to remember the same cultural context I do. Lost Highway is the romance where lust is no sin, where sex is lit by the high beams of a cherry ragtop Mustang, where the swelling registers of Angelo Badalamenti’s scores defer to the whisper of doo-wop songs that Lynch has always loved, sung by singers who are bad at goodbyes.
“You still want me, don’t you, Pete? More than ever?”
“I want you. I want you. I want you. I want you, Alice.”
“You’ll never have me.”
After which a whirlwind of conflagrations, grainy video, hotel rooms, blood and sirens hurls Fred Madison back out onto the highway where the film began, in one of the most beautiful shots in movies, with two headlights trained on the dividing yellow line of motion, distance and time. The sound dies away, but it’s the longest road in film: the perpetual motion of recurring nightmares we return to in sleep as if we did not anticipate them this time, and find ourselves still helpless, still unprepared. We are left with wonder for the haunting machinations of dreams.