In writing this column, I’ve been interested in films that explore the relationships between the mind, perception and representation: films that challenge the viewer to look at the world in a way that opens up new meaning. When choosing movies and directors to review, I’ve wanted to visit cinematic moments that helped me learn something new about my own psychology. So, it was probably inevitable that before long we’d get onto David Lynch. To make up for the suspense I’ve kept you in by not doing this sooner, we’re going to spend three weeks looking at three of his most radical and challenging films, beginning with Lost Highway (1997) today. I hope you’ll take the opportunity to watch as many of Lynch’s oeuvre as you have yet to see. As usual with Rogue Cinema screenings, make sure you’ve got some quiet time to really immerse yourself in the experience. Large screens and loud volume are preferable, of course. If you own a cinema, you’re at an advantage.
Lost Highway ‘begins’ at the home of jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). A strange message is left on the intercom on the front door, which is followed the next day by a videotape in an envelope, left on the doorstep. The videotape shows shots of the house, before cutting to noise. Renee passes it off as ‘from a real estate agent’: brushing off the real dynamic of the tape: it’s unknown quantity highlighting the tension and suspicion Bill bears towards his wife. A second tape appears on the doorstep the next day, and Renee seems reluctant to watch it. They both sit down in front of the TV to view this intruding visual object, and see a smooth-panning shot, as if filmed from the ceiling of their house, floating through the corridors towards the bedroom where Fred and Renee are sleeping. They agree to call the police, and a couple of officers arrive who dryly scan the property and ask the usual questions. There is no defence from this strange invader: something is in their home, forcing them to face their alienated domestic situation at such haunting angles.
Let’s skip forwards. Like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway is a film of two halves. Fred’s character undergoes a strange transformation midway through the film, and finds himself transformed into a younger man called Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) who the film follows for much of the rest of the film. Strangely, Pete is revealed to be having an affair with a woman, Alice, who happens to look exactly like Fred’s wife Renee. Out in the desert at a strange cabin, Pete discovers that Alice has been forced to make porno films for Mr Eddy, her big-shot boyfriend. As they make love on the ground, illuminated by the car headlamps, she says to Pete: “you’ll never have me”, before he inexplicably transforms back into Fred. The film ends as it begins: with a temporal loop, and another transformation of identity.
Just as Fred has managed to evade the authorities by a transformation of identity, we are challenged regarding the identities of Renee/Alice, Mr Eddy/Dick Laurent and, of course, ‘the Mystery Man’. Just who are these people? And what might be behind the numbered doors of the ‘Lost Highway Hotel’? What could be the content of the next videotape to arrive on our doorsteps? Videotape embodies this potential for ‘nasties’: recordable by anyone, without censorship or narrative-friendly editing. Discovery of the unconscious mind is an exciting and irresistibly important quest – but it threatens to destabilise. The level of distrust endemic to our postmodern society is proportional to the loss of faith in stable, controlled personal narratives. If we are no longer what society tells us: then who are we? And how can we be trusted?
As men and women ‘on the run’: towards self-realisation, and away from the inauthenticity of externally imposed narratives, we drive on the highway into darkness. Contemporary life makes it possible for us to live several lives in the space of one. The late twentieth century seemed to afford Westerners more options for career changes, dissolving of marriages, or midlife crises. Yet, through transformation, perhaps our discovery will be that we inhabit different facets of a larger sense of our identity. We discover that the depth of our unconscious mind is more than our previously limited sense of ‘self’ can contain. If we can define new narratives in our relationships, then we can embrace a new kind of trust, that is based on who we really are. I’m aware that my rather positive conclusion to this review of a very dark film goes beyond the immediate scope of Lynch’s creation. Yet his long-term interest in and promotion of Transcendental Meditation reveals the director’s commitment to constructive self-realisation, for a better society. Lost Highway is a bipartite Noir mystery that visualises the first, haunting steps into ‘waking up’ from an enclosed, yet uncomfortably alienated social existence, into something as vast and potential as the desert of the night.