I’ve always hated David Lynch. Not personally, he seems like a perfectly pleasant guy, but his films, more specifically, the fans of his films. I caught a couple episodes of Twin Peaks on the TV when I was a kid, but I had no idea what was going on. I saw the Twin Peaks movie on TV a few years later, and it seemed alright, but there was a scene early in the film where some FBI agents explain some complicated symbolic sign-language to Chris Isaak that bugged the hell out of me: my teenage sophistication chalked it up to pretension, weirdness for the sake not just of weirdness but with the sole goal of making me feel stupid.
A year or two later, I watched Blue Velvet, and to this pretension was added a brutalizing of the audience that I found both insulting and disgusting. It’s my own personal prejudice against films that try to give me the cinematic equivalent of a kick to the groin (a genre that includes Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Takeshi Miike’s Audition and Blue Velvet, among others). Some people like that kind of thing though, I make no value judgments about them.
The last Lynch film I watched was Dune, a disaster of a sci-fi adaptation that doesn’t work on any level: dramatically pointless, visually ugly, totally without action, suspense or philosophical interest. Even Patrick Stewart wasn’t enough to save it. A projectionist friend of mine was running Dune many years ago, and he’d miscued the middle of the film such that it changed over to the other projector one reel too early, cutting out 20 minutes of the film. After the film, he waited at the exit for the expected complaints from the audience, but not a single person mentioned it. He did, however, overhear one customer tell his wife “I don’t understand why everyone thinks it was so confusing, it made perfect sense to me.”
That was it for me with David Lynch. For a decade I refused to have anything to do with him. Through sold out showings at my theatre of Eraserhead, Lost Highway and The Elephant Man, with their crowds hipster yuppies that plague Seattle like mixed metaphors in an English 101 class. Many people tried to convince me of Lynch’s singular genius and I rebuffed them all. What the Lynchheads seemed to like about his films was an open-endedness that allowed them some control over what they could say the film was really about, and what it really meant, feeding their egos and making them feel smart and superior.
But, like most things, I mellowed with age and a few months ago decided to give Lynch another shot. I watched Wild At Heart and actually enjoyed the goofiness of the performances and the overblown hyperbole of the direction, at least for the first half of the film. As the film went on, I grew tired of the shenanigans and began to suspect the old weirdness for the sake of weirdness crime. But, I’ve grown fonder of weirdness in middle age, so it didn’t seem to be such a big deal as it was 15 years ago. My reaction was boredom instead of anger. But, all things considered, I enjoyed the film enough to give Lynch yet another chance with Lost Highway.
I watched it about a month ago, after having had it saved on my Tivo for most of 2006, and it is a masterpiece. In Lost Highway, Bill Pullman plays a saxophonist who kills his wife (Patricia Arquette) because she was apparently cheating on him, and is so guilty over the murder that while in prison he goes insane and creates another reality for himself, one in which he’s a young mechanic (Balthazar Getty). Pullman’s fantasy world is something out of the 50s or early 60s of American Graffiti, with its car obsession, decent suburban family, right down to the cute girl next door (Natasha Gregson Wagner). Unfortunately for Pullman, his subconscious won’t quite let him forget his crime, and soon Getty’s hanging around with a gangster (Robert Loggia) and his femme fatale girl (Arquette again). As in a typical film noir, Getty falls for the bad girl, conspires with her to commit some crime (including a murder or two) and comes to a bad end.
It’s the elements of the noir genre that save the film from becoming another Lynchian disaster. While the film has more than its share of weird, seemingly inexplicable imagery and dialogue (not to mention Robert Blake), the genre grounds the film in a familiar structure that gives the viewer a basis for attempting to understand what the hell is going on. At the same time, genre does nothing to limit the virtues of Lynch’s non-linear, dreamlike style. The flashback, circular structure of a narrative about a doomed man is an essential feature of film noir (see Sunset Boulevard, Out Of The Past, Detour, Double Indemnity, etc) and Lost Highway is structured like a Möbius strip, coiling back on itself in a way that reflects the disturbed consciousness of the protagonist, condemned to replay the tragic events of his life in an endless loop. Occasionally the film cuts to a blurred image of what appears to be Pullman shaking his head and screaming, to me looking like Pullman in the electric chair, apparently referencing Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge in which a convict about to be hanged imagines an entire last minute escape and flight home in the microseconds before his death. Thus the entire second narrative of Lost Highway (and probably the first too) occurs in the final instants of Pullman’s mind.
So, what we have in Lost Highway is a film noir in which the protagonist, in order to escape his past (the goal of many a noir hero) invents a world in which he’s the protagonist of a 50s sitcom, but gradually his invented world becomes infected by noir, until he’s just a sap in yet another noir story. Like the film’s characters and structure, the subtexts and possible interpretations of Lost Highway circle back on themselves. The medium itself is an essential motif in the film, not only in its generic characteristics and references, but also as an object that twice sets the film’s crimes in motion. In Getty’s story, it’s porn films starring Arquette that lead directly to murder. In Pullman’s story, his happy home is disturbed by the appearance of anonymous videotapes made by someone prowling about his house (a device appropriated, some might say ripped off, by Michael Haneke for the quite overrated Caché). It is unclear where the videotapes come from in Lost Highway, or what purpose they serve. My theory is that the entire early section of the film is another dream by Pullman. The film is in fact two dream realities conjured by the same murderer, two scenarios in which he tries to imagine away his crime. The circle is neverending; where Getty’s story ends, Pullman’s begins, and vice versa. In this interpretation, the videotapes are, like the noir plotline of the Getty narrative or the personification of Evil played by Robert Blake, interruptions of Pullman’s dreamstate by his conscious mind (conscience mind?). Like alcohol, film is the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.
This was written to be part of the Lynch Mob blog-a-thon organized by Ryland and the guys over at Vinyl Is Heavy. Check it out for more Lynchie goodness.