Lost Highway

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Several years ago, the L.A. County Museum of Art ran a retrospective of the films of David Lynch. The L.A. Weekly ran a dismissive review by Paul Malcolm of Lost Highway which angered me enough that I sent them the following letter, which they then published (in much shortened form):

Re: Paul Malcolm's A David Lynch Retrospective (May 8 - 14).

Fine if Paul Malcolm confesses to not understanding David Lynch's film Lost Highway -- but how he can then go on to assert that not only Lynch himself is unable to find the meaning and purpose in the film, and neither can anybody else, seems like baffling conceit. What's unfortunate is that Mr. Malcolm, who appears to have high regard for Lynch's earlier work, should have missed the point entirely of what is probably Lynch's most serious-minded film to date. In spite of the generally vacant response the film has engendered (especially among film critics), the logic of Lost Highway is actually quite simple and clear -- once you make the shift in consciousness the film demands.

In a nutshell: Fred (Bill Pullman) murders his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). The record of the carnage, captured on videotape, is enough to convict him. His guilt a fait accompli, he languishes in a cell, a condemned man with no way out. He'd need a miracle to redeem his life, and he gets one. He's granted a second life, a second chance. He gets to switch lives with an innocent younger man, Pete, (Balthazar Getty). The catch is, he has no memory of his original life as Fred. He encounters Alice (also played by Patricia Arquette), whom we recognize, but he doesn't. (The casting of Arquette in the double role is not gratuitous weirdness, but crucial in driving home the point that he has no memeory of his previous life. Also, it turns out that she is,in a way, the ghost of Fred's wife, come to lead young Pete astray...) Fred/Pete then proceeds to screw up his life all over again by making a series of unwise moves, which to him, seem like expressions of freedom (rebellion), but to the viewer, seem like a wasteful squandering of a precious reprieve from doom. Pretty soon, he's committed murder all over again. In the desert, he encounters the cosmic Joker (Robert Blake), time runs backward (the shack burning in reverse) and Pete reverts back to being Fred. The cruel joke played on him is revealed; he has learned his lesson, that there is no escape; that there is no advantage to being another person; that no matter who you are, your actions are your own.

I haven't the space here to elaborate on the subplots involving the Robert Loggia character (his involvement with Renee/Alice and Fred's suggested reason for killing her), the Robert Blake character (a kind of fairy Godmother figure with the ability to cross time and space), the police, the violation of linear time (in favor of interior time), not to mention the daring, expressive use of sound and image marking the work of a creative force unfettered with appeasing the conventional audience.

Lost Highway is an important film because its purpose is to invent new modes of expressing deeply personal and elusive notions. Lynch invites us to speculate on the meaning of what it means to be who we are -- that is, "how is it that I am who I am, and not someone else; what if I could be another person?". This question of "why wasn't I born as someone else, in another time and place", is the deepest mystery of life, and probably the most universal. For me, the most fascinating byproduct of having seen Lost Highway is the implication that if I've lived other lives, but have no memory of them, perhaps I can live as if I had that memory, and not like Balthazar Getty. As viewers, we wish that he might draw upon the wisdom he gained from Bill Pullman -- the film is indirectly in favor of collective consciousness.

Other Hollywood films have regularly put forth the idea of switching identities in Big, Switch, All of Me, Vice Versa, etc. but they are all cheats in that they allow the individual to retain his original awareness and memory while embodying the second identity. Lost Highway, as far as I know, is the first film to explore this theme seriously, with no punches pulled. (If I become you, I become someone who has no memory of having been me -- of course.)

For Lynch, the film marks a step up, in that there is no longer a clear line between good and evil characters. Whereas in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, he played on strong divisions between the innocent and the evil, in Lost Highway, these impulses are both present in the principal characters. Also, the palatability of Blue Velvet is largely due to the essentially spoofy tone of that film; as stunning a work as that is, it never ceases to be a film referential to (and a reaction to) a particular genre of film.

Lost Highway is a film highly interested in metaphysics and not at all in psychology, which may be why its meanings have so eluded audiences. When Bill Pullman kills his wife, I suppose that most viewers want to know why he did it. (The angle I'm sure most directors would have pursued, also). Lynch is not really interested in that question. In any work of fiction, answers to such questions are ultimately arbitrary. Lynch spends no time at all on either the trial, the question of guilt, or a psychological rationalization. The transference of one man's life to another's is the point, and having that man be a condemned soul raises the stakes dramatically.

In all Lynch films, understanding only comes as a result of a shift in one's frame of reference; our literal-minded, workaday consciousness is of little use. This is because with Lynch, there is no differentiation between internal and external events. He allows the internal states of his characters to be projected freely into the external world, and he does so without explanatory devices; this is the method of poetry.

After a year of hostile reviews, of critics shaking their heads in disappointment, and of popular indifference, Lost Highway deserves reevaluation as a vital contribution to modern American film. We malign our important contemporary artists at our own cultural peril.

Peter Chung Creator of MTV's Aeon Flux. 5/8/98

-- Peter Chung (pkchung@attglobal.net), March 18, 2001


After reading this, I've realized that I had a parallel experience when I first saw the film... I had been an avid viewer of "Twin Peaks" when I was eleven or so, and my mother and I would watch it every saturday night. We both loved it. I consider it one of my earlier "quality media" experiences, and it was probably a good introduction to "Aeon Flux" for me, which aired about a year later.

Then, as a senior in highschool in '97, I went to go see "Lost Highway", eager for my first Lynch fix in years. My mom was troubled by my going to see it, probably because she'd heard of all the "mindless" sex and violence it had. She had always supported my admiration of "Aeon Flux" and "Twin Peaks", but she just couldn't fathom my liking this latest work (which she never saw).

Peter, what an interesting interpretation! I had never considered any of that. I've always had a hard time deciding what the film was about, personally. I'll have to take another look at it sometime...

As far as "Malkovich" goes, I thought it was a great comedy. I never really saw it as a film to analyze metaphysically; to me, it didn't seem like that was the point. As far as plot inconsistencies go, comedy transcends logic. (Plus, I think I have a thing for puppetry.)

-- Matthew Rebholz (matrebholz@yahoo.com), March 20, 2001.

Finally...relief! This film has ever been on my mind like a pregnant pause. The topic of why we are who we are no matter when we are was well poised. The subject of our own uniqueness is also wrapped up with the question of our own existence. Now I can begin to digest this exquisite script. As for the columnist, guess he became Malcolm in the middle.

-- Barb e. (Suesuesbeo@aol.com), March 19, 2001.

I think the ad said it best: "Two Thumbs Down!". These days, being panned is almost a badge of honor; look at Blade Runner, 2001, Army Of Darkness, Miracle Mile...

-- Inukko (nadisrec@worldnet.att.net), March 19, 2001.

I personally loved the movie "Lost Highway." It was mind boggling, i don't think i understood a dang thing in it. but just the intricacy and the work and thought put into this movie astounded me. My brother and I spent many a day trying to figure out this movie. That was half the fun of it, also 2001 space odyssey we must have spent about an hour just in awe of the obelisk. One of our all time fave is "Dune" that movie blows me away every time i watch it. the music the whole idea of it, is just incredible and very original. Sad these days that people don't appreciate the finer things in life. The majority would rather walk away and say "i got it" rather than "what the heck"? I perfer a movie that makes me think during the viewing and long after i have ceased to watch it. :O)

-- Lady Morgan (AeonFluxFan1@aol.com), March 19, 2001.

Since writing the above letter several years ago, I've revised my view on the question of why Fred kills his wife, Renee in the first act. There is a seemingly arbitrary device of having the story's timeline form a loop by having Fred arrive at his own front door and saying "Dick Laurent is dead" at the end. I take this now to indicate that the order of events is immaterial to the relationships between characters and their actions. In other words, a way of regarding time is that experience unfolds chronologically because that is the only way our linear-thinking minds can grasp them. Perhaps all events exist simultaneously, or in an unending cycle. In this view, Fred is motivated to kill Renee not for anything she's done in the past, but for the way she, as Alice, will lead Pete to his doom in the future. Fred punishes Renee; Alice avenges herself by destroying Pete, the future incarnation of Fred. I'm further convinced of Alice's identity as Renee's ghost by the fact that her image disappears from the photo once Pete reverts to Fred. For the record, I've seen the movie twice. When I see it again, maybe my view will change again.

I must say that I was unimpressed by a more recent treatment of the theme of transference of identity in Being John Malkovich. That film seemed merely to use the idea as an opportunity to set up a series of comic incidents which became increasingly contrived as the movie progressed. By the end, the plot holes and inconsistencies became unforgivable. I watched till the end, but unlike Lost Highway, I can't say I've spent any time thinking about the movie since.

-- Peter Chung (pkchung@attglobal.net), March 20, 2001.

I have a tendency to look at the psychological aspects of the film, but as you pointed out they are not important here. The time loop thing and the order of events as not necessarily in linear time is a pretty interesting idea. Pretty original, wonder what sparked them in David Lynch? What sort of stuff does he like to read I wonder. Is he often into metaphysical subjects I wonder. Really the world has quite a few mysteries in it, and our understanding is limited with the methods often used.

-- Barb e. (Suesuesbeo@aol.com), March 21, 2001.

The most frustrating thing about David Lynch is that he keeps saying not to analyse his movies intellectually, but to percieve them intuitively. I don't even know what that MEANS. I remember he said once that directors treat people like they're stupid and people aren't stupid. I sure felt stupid after watching Lost Highway.

-- Frostbite a.k.a. Frosty the Snow Chick (mbkrooks@bellsouth.net), March 22, 2001.

I recently watched a biography about Jim Morrison, (the Doors). In it they mentioned he scorned tv, and movies, but did like surrealism in movies which suggested David Lynch's approach to film. Morrison's poetry was beautiful, (I'm not recommending the lifestyle he chose, drinking and drugs), and would've loved Lynch I think. Anyone know what Morrison's movie choices were.?..and wouldn't Lynch be a great biographer for Morrison, as the guy seemed to be on that 'Lost Highway' himself,...

-- Barb e. (Suesuesbeo@aol.com), April 30, 2001.

Blake: Mystery Man. Guilty or innocent? Care to say? Funny how Lost Highway was about murdering your wife....

-- Barb e. (Suesuesbeo@aol.com), May 24, 2001.

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