April 1999: I’m in the local video shop, playing Siskel and Ebert with the bloke behind the counter. The film under discussion is Lost Highway, which I’d recently stumbled across in the ‘New Release’ section.
Guy Behind Counter: “Did you enjoy the film?”
Me: “Yes, but I had no idea what was going on.”
Guy Behind Counter: “Then you’re a David Lynch fan.”
This wasn’t my first encounter with the Lynchian universe. However, it was my chance encounter with this most recent (in 1999) Lynch opus that led to my interpellation as one of his aficionados.
So what’s it all about, Alfie? Where to start?
Well, we could start at the beginning. The film opens with a male voice intoning ‘Dick Laurent is Dead’ into an intercom. We have no idea who the speaker is, nor do we know how the hell ‘Dick Laurent’ is. We get a sense that he’s connected to Fred Madison (Bill Pullman, the cinema’s ultimate Innocuous-Looking Guy, in a role tailor-made for him), who lives in the house with said intercom.
Fred Madison pays the bills by playing jazz saxophone in smoky clubs. He finds himself in an icy marriage with Renee (Patricia Arquette), a slinky siren with a brown Bettie Page haircut and a bevy of sleazy friends. Fred suspects Renee of doing the nasty with one of said friends, but he can’t prove anything. We can’t go on together with suspicious minds, as The King once sang. (This film offers a startling insight into a paranoid, misogynist mind).
Anyway, after the intercom incident, video tapes (yes, video tapes! All hail the VHS era!) start arriving at Fred and Renee’s doorstep. These tapes contain grainy footage of the couple asleep. Who’s sending these tapes? Fred gets a hint at a party for one of Renee’s (possible) consorts, when he encounters the pre-emo Mystery Man (Robert Blake). Mr Eddy declares that ‘I’m in your house’, and a phone home reveals to Fred that the sinister stranger speaks the truth. I’m doing no justice to this scene, which is one of the most deliciously bizarre and darkly humorous in celluloid history.
The morning after the party, Fred wakes to find that Renee has been brutally murdered. He has no memory of this killing, but is sentenced to death for it, anyway. The weirdness continues when the guards inspect Fred’s jail cell one morning to find that he’s gone, and has been replaced by young mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). The prison Powers-that-Be (no doubt fearing legal retribution) release Pete, who is revealed to live an idyllic life – that is, until the familiar-looking, blonde Alice (also Patricia Arquette) turns up.
Confused? So you should be! The constant air of dread and confusion in Lost Highway is one of this film’s great strengths. Add to this the allusions to classic film noir (hello Double Indemnity! Hello Kiss Me Deadly!), the smashing soundtrack (from the era when Soundtrack Albums were cool), and the kind of elegant mise-en-scene that the VHS medium could never quite do justice to.
And the Mystery Man! Did I mention the Mystery Man?
Lovers of linear narratives will likely not warm to Lost Highway, and indeed it’s been known to repel those searching for something that, well, makes sense. This long-time Lynch fan will gladly give this stylish celluloid nightmare two thumbs up.
Join us on next week’s blog post, when we revisit that paean to mid-90s sexual politics, All Men are Liars!