Tuesday, January 20, 2009

“We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

I recently watched David Lynch's Lost Highway. I remember seeing it shortly after it came out, which means it would have been some time in the late 90s. I also remember being thoroughly confused by it, but still liking it. I didn't really trust my previous opinion of it, and for good reason. I was probably 15 or something when I saw it the first time, which means my opinion is worthless for a few reasons. First, no wonder I didn't understand any of it, I was 15. Second, the soundtrack features a lot of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Rammstein, so 15-year-old me thought that was pretty sweet. Finally, the movie features plenty of nudity, and no one should ever trust a 15 year old boy's opinion of anything that involves nudity. So, anyways, here we go, Lost Highway Round 2:

Lost Highway starts out following avant garde jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). Fred suspects Renee of cheating, and is especially wary of her friendship with a man named Andy (Michael Massee). Their marital issues are put on hold, though, when Fred and Renee begin receiving video tapes in the mail. The tapes initially show the outside of their home, but soon begin showing the interior and even Fred and Renee asleep in their bed. Fred and Renee's storyline continues to progress (I won't say much more for the sake of spoilers), up until Fred is literally replaced by Pete (Balthazar Getty). Fred goes to bed one night, and the next morning Fred is gone and Pete is in his bed. Pete is a young mechanic who gets the majority of his work from Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), a violent and ruthless (albeit pretty charming) mob boss. Mr. Eddy introduces Pete to his girlfriend, Alice (Patricia Arquette, yet again), and soon Pete falls in love with, and starts a torrid affair with, Alice. As the situation between Pete, Alice, and Mr. Eddy spirals out of control, Pete's mind begins to slip away. All of this, both Fred and Pete's stories, are overseen by a threatening and mysterious diminutive Mystery Man (Robert Blake).

Lost Highway revels in film noir conventions. The mobsters, the femme fatales, seedy motels, double-crossing, and infidelity. The film also has a decidedly nourish style, steeped in darkness, the sets are draped in deep reds, stark whites, and urine-stain yellows. (Though, apparently, the Region 1 DVD release looks different than other versions) The film is certainly a David Lynch film, exploring concepts of identity and reality, presented in an ambiguous, fever dream style. Lost Highway seems to be Lynch's homage to the more exploitative side to film history, recalling classic noir and drive-in fair like Siodmak's The Killers, only seen through the distorted and nightmarish lens of classic Lynch.

While it doesn't reach the heights of Lynch's upper pantheon (e.g. The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks), Lost Highway most certainly has its merits. It's an exceedingly dark and terrifying movie. It is certainly confusing and even frustrating, but worth the effort, especially if you're a fan of David Lynch (or neo-noir or psychological horror, for that matter). Plus it has one of the more ridiculous casts I've seen in a while. The following actors are all in the movie in roles of varying size: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia, Richard Pryor, Gary Busey, Henry Rollins, Giovanni Ribsi, Marilyn Manson, Twiggy Ramirez, and Balthazar Getty (who, for whatever reason, I feel like I should know, but admittedly don't).

I do want to talk a bit about the confusing nature of the movie, but that requires discussing things that are definitely spoilers. So if you haven't seen it, and want to see it, stop reading here. Part of what makes the movie so exciting is not really having any idea where it's going.

*** SPOILERS ***

So, I'll admit up front, I had no fucking clue what was going on when this movie ended. I was trying to piece together how Fred and Pete's stories were connected. There were obvious connections (e.g. the Mystery Man, Renee/Alice, Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent, Andy, etc.), but I still couldn't seem to make the two worlds fit. Not even a little. I wasn't expecting the pieces to all line up perfectly, but I was seriously at a loss.

I did a little internetting, and pretty quickly came across what seems to be the prevailing interpretation. One that, in hindsight, made me feel extremely stupid for not figuring out on my own. Here goes: the entire Pete storyline was a fantasy/delusion/dream of Fred's. The second half of the movie was essentially an "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" story (which, by the way, you can read in its entirety here), meaning Fred was condemned to die and experienced a sort of dream-like hallucination or psychotic break. A fantastical escape from his inescapable fate.

Here is basically how I see the movie's story breaking down. Fred suspects his wife of cheating on him, kills her, and is sentenced to death. He experiences his escape from reality in the form of "becoming" Pete. Pete goes along with his normal existence (which apparently is comprised of going to dances at bowling alleys, having sex with his unbelievably good-looking girlfriend Sheila, and working at the garage). Pretty soon, Fred's reality comes creeping in to Pete's world. Alice, the ersatz Renee, enters the picture, and Pete begins reliving Fred's life. Soon the Pete fantasy has become so overlapped with Fred's real life, that Fred re-enters the picture, re-replacing Pete, and proceeds to finish out his own story (i.e. killing Renee and her lover Dick Laurent, aka Mr. Eddy). After informing himself of Dick Laurent's death (i.e. the first scene of the movie, as seen from the other side of the intercom), Fred leads the police on a high speed chase through the desert while being electrocuted in the "real" world (hence the strobe lights and all that jazz).

Now, this obviously doesn't explain everything. Is Pete a real person? If so, how did he and Fred switch places? If not, what was all the talk about what happened "that night" to Pete? Who is the Mystery Man? Why was he sending Fred and Renee the video tapes? How could Fred tell himself that Dick Laurent is dead?

There a number of answers to those questions (e.g. the Mystery Man is something akin to Fred's conscience, and was sending him the tapes to remind him of what really happened as opposed to simply what Fred chooses to remember), and plenty of other questions one could ask. I'm not looking for definitive answers, especially given that this is David Lynch we're talking about. No matter how you look at it, this movie is not going to wrap up into a neat package. There will always be loose ends, and that's definitely not a criticism. He doesn't give you everything, and many times, I'm not sure there's an "everything" to get. But that's just part of what makes Lynch Lynch. It's part of what elevates him from simply a filmmaker or storyteller to an artist.

Plus, any movie with a scene as terrifying as Fred's confrontation with the Mystery Man is worth seeing. "Alice who? Her name is Renee. If she told you her name was Alice, she's lying. And your name? What the fuck is your name!"

[Update: The discussion of interpretations of the movie has continued in the comments. It is filled with spoilers, but my opinion has progressed past the "Owl Creek" interpretation.]


Brad said...

I like your write-up of this movie. I think I disagree with you regarding some interpretations (the videotapes are a kind of external manifestation of the domestic conflicts -- a hellish metaphysical kind of exaggeration of the unspoken tensions within the relationship -- all that cool, clinical and definitely meaningful but nigh-impossible to interpret gaze).

Also, I really resist the Owl Creek Bridge reading of the film, if only because that seems to diminish it in some hard to define way -- it just seems too restrictive and dumb.

Finally, I think the Mystery Man is the devil. Or something. Because, wow. Super scary.

Also-finally, wasn't this the last film appearances of both Pryor and Nance?

Brad said...

Also-finally-for real this time: I forgot to add that David Foster Wallace has a really good essay (occasioned by this film) about Lynch (and this film) called "David Lynch Keeps His Head" in his book of essays and arguments, A Supposedly Fun Thin I'll Never Do Again. Did I already tell you that?

Anyway, it's very good reading.

And I like your write-up.

Scott said...

Regarding the Owl Creek style interpretation, I don't take it too strictly. I don't think Fred actually experienced a literal psychic break, but more the idea that Pete's life is some kind of escape for Fred, but that escape is tainted and ultimately ruined by Fred's past misdeeds' inevitable reemergence.

My thoughts towards the video tapes as an unwelcome reminder to Fred of what he's done is based mostly on Fred's response to the detectives when they ask if he owns a camcorder. He says something along the lines of "I hate camcorders. They record things as they really happened, I choose to remember things as I remember them."

But the beauty of this movie (and movies like it) is that we can debate this back and forth, and all that we're doing is spurring good discussion. I don't think either of us expect to arrive as some kind of definitive "right" conclusion.

I think that one could easily watch this movie and take away an understanding that the movie is making a sort of ineffable exploration of the destructive power of love and obsession on fragile and insecure men. Or any number of other perfectly legitimate interpretations.

Personally for me, it's easier to wrap my mind around with the Owl Creek interpretation. Though, I plan on rewatching it this weekend. Maybe I'll take away something different the second time around.

By the way, I found that D.F. Wallace article online. I haven't gotten to read it beyond his first Lynch sighting (when he's peeing on the tree), but I'll probably read it tonight.

Damn, this is a long comment. Apparently that movie was a lot better and spurred a lot more thought than I initially gave it credit for.

Brad said...

Yeah! I totally agree that there really is no definitive interpretation. Absolutely not. It's way to inscrutable -- the fun is in the debating the readings.

I like to think that Fred and Pete are discrete people -- or that these people exist in flux, existing at some points in time but not in others. I'm thinking here also about Alice/Renee, how she is at once both people, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes sequentially.

Think about that photo that's on display at that lounge-lizardy-pornographer's house in which she is clearly there in that photo as both characters and then later only as one. It seems to me that the most obvious interpretation -- that she can be there and also not be there at different points in time -- is, on face value, true. This idea is also present in that great and super-creepy three-way conversation that Fred has with the MM at the party and also at his house.

Lynch is always doing this -- doubling his characters and creating fluid identities. DFW writes on this waaay more eloquently and in much much more depth than I can. But this thematic interest of his (Lynch's) really run through everything he's done, all the way trough INLAND EMPIRE. The question is just how much he chooses to tether himself to a traditional narrative.

Scott said...

I watched Lost Highway again last night, and kind of kept in the back of my mind the Owl Creek interpretation.

I think you were right. In hindsight it made sense to me, but it doesn't really hold up that well when watching the movie with that in mind. I think one could still make that argument, but I'm less convinced than I was before.

Pete seems too much like an actual person to simply be a fantasy-escape for Fred.

At this point, just in terms of what happens plot-wise, it seems more like the Mystery Man sort of hid Fred inside of Pete (or something to that effect). The MM has that conversation with Pete where he tells him the story about the "Far East" where they put people condemned to die in fall away places where they can't escape and never know when the executioner is coming for them. So, for whatever reason, it seems more likely the MM has stashed the condemned Fred in Pete.

Which would also explain the MM's comments about having met Pete before. He could be talking about Fred inside Pete, and he could also be talking about "that night" when Pete disappeared and reappeared in the prison. The MM would have been at Pete's house, as the man Gary Busey had never seen before.

Regardless, teasing out the plot kind of seems beside the point. Something as intentionally ambiguous as this, probably doesn't need to have its story completely figured out to appreciate it.

By the way, Robert Laggio's rant about tailgating may be one of the greatest scenes in all of film.

Molly said...

How about Robert Blake is like D'Hoffryn. You know how he was "invited" into Anya/Aud's and Willow's "houses" (ok, I'll stop using quotes) because they were so miserable that their pain reached him across interdimensional barriers or something. And then once he was called or invited to their dimensions he exploited their mental health problems by using them as pawns in his vengeance game. I guess the comparison falls apart at the end.

But maybe Robert Blake is sort of mischievous old Rumpelstiltskin-D'Hoffryn hybrid type who skips around different dimensions creating horror stories to entertain himself. Maybe he was invited into Fred's house/life by his double mental life. Like instead of using scorned women or sad maidens, he uses men with split mental lives. Because at home Fred and Renee are spookily reserved. Everything's dark, terse, full of suspicion, he and Renee have quiet one-sided sex, etc. But at "the club" he's a wildcat. Also, it's like he wants to know if she's cheating but at the same time he doesn't. ("I like to remember things my own way. ... How I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened.")

So anyway, Fred invited the MM by being repressed, and the MM proceeds to mess with time and squirrel away Fred in Pete (good idea, Scott!). Maybe Pete's head was so bulgy at first because Fred had recently been Russian Dolled inside his brain.

...And maybe the MM created Alice by going back to the moment in time when Renee met Dick Laurent, creating an alternate universe where she says yes to porn instead of dying her hair and marrying a musician who's really proud of his sternum.

Anyway, whatever, I agree that you shouldn't overanalyze movies, books, etc. I just wanted to add the Buffy interpretation to the mix.