Just Like You Imagined: David Lynch's Lost Highway is Still Years Ahead of Our Time.

by Paul Deeter

“ Ed: Do you own a video camera?

Renee Madison: No. Fred hates them.

Fred Madison: I like to remember things my own way.

Ed: What do you mean by that?

Fred Madison: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

Lost Highway is a tough nut to crack, and like most of David Lynch's work, it took years to finally be processed more positively than its original debut. Now its not a perfect film, and very few of David Lynch's films can be called perfect. But the audacity of the film and its neo-noir smirking effect it has on the viewers is more than admirable when breaking down what works and what doesn't. The film knows you're as lost as the protagonist is on his journey, and it doesn't quite give you a guide or a hand to hold on to, but sends you down the rabbit hole in the most respectful way possible. Lost Highway is not a David Fincher film, in which the protagonist's life would be explored stylistically but with a bigger focus on narrative. Where Fincher might have allowed a slightly more ironic but clear ending, Lynch doesn't do that. Additionally, Lost Highway is not a film by Christopher Nolan, with some of his earlier projects in mind, and the desire to happily wrap up a narrative struggle. Instead: the film's surreal narrative structure has been likened to a Möbius strip, while Lynch has described it as a "psychogenic fugue" rather than a conventionally logical story. Lynch is making a modestly budgeted experimental feature film here. He's breaking the mold like Radiohead did in 1997 with their quintessential Ok Computer. This is the mark of the new Lynch, one that ideally prefaced Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire with enough style and similar story beats to fall into the same genre of his work. The problem is that until recently the film is just starting to be appreciated, with a large audience still lacking in this appreciation due to the perplexity of its existence in compared to the more polished and critically received Mulholland Drive. If anything, we can appreciate that Lynch was still getting his sea legs here, and after years of occasional "ok that was weird" films, we were going to start getting consistently "uh what the fuck was that" movies.

David Lynch is his own beast of a director, a cult figure adorned for years of solid work in the 80s with Twin Peaks, a show that's legacy still exists today with its many references and re-releases on physical media. He helped propel Kyle MacLachlan past corny roles like his own Dune and into cult stardom with eventual work in Blue Velvet among starring in Twin Peaks. His experimental works were prevalent, but nothing quite like the flavor of Lost Highway just yet. In 1977, a fatherhood film with an alien baby titled Eraserhead (which I'd love to write more up on) blew critics every which way. It was dropped from Cannes along with other festivals for its controversial and almost incoherent narrative. It also went on to hit the cult circuit very early on, and be one of Stanley Kubrick's favorite films.

1977's Eraserhead.

Most famously, Lynch would make critical and award-garnering waves with 1980's The Elephant Man, one of his most commercial features ever on a subject of surrealism. Starring John Hurt as the lead, it emotionally handled the subject of elephantitis and would go on to be adapted for the stage with David Bowie as the lead! Also to my surprise I found out that...after The Elephant Man's success, George Lucas, a fan of Eraserhead, offered Lynch the opportunity to direct the third film in his Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi. Lynch refused, arguing that Lucas should direct the film himself as the movie should reflect his own vision, not Lynch's. Imagining a David Lynch Star Wars movie is about as weird as imagining him making a Disney picture. (Oh that's been done? Good gravy.) With years of establishing himself as prestigious as he was experimental, Lynch would finally truly shake some of his all-time fans with 1997's Lost Highway.

Lynch's first film since 1992's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch spent quite a bit of time establishing the film's themes and purpose; he actually took some inspiration from OJ Simpson's post controversy attempt to live normally. With a heavy leaning on the music and shockwave of dark synthladen sounds that filled the underground radios at the time, Lynch used Trent Reznor for a few original tracks including "The Perfect Drug" and as a producer and Angelo Badalamenti as the film's composer on the rest of the movie's eclectic soundtrack. Lynch cast Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette as the leading actors, and implemented the excellent work of editing by Mary Sweeney. And also a lot of technical work went into Lost Highway: Lynch worked with cinematographer Peter Deming to give the film a surreal look. Because the script did not include many descriptions, the film's visual approach evolved as filming progressed. Deming would occasionally pull out the lenses of his camera to defocus a particular scene, while Lynch would often listen to music in his headset and to a scene at the same time to visualize the screenplay.

It can't be denied that a lot of Lost Highway was shot as one would shoot a music video, and I'd say that's maybe one of the film's only shortcomings. And the film leans heavy into its soundtrack with original tracks from the Smashing Pumpkins and a Marilyn Manson cameo among many other heavily musical scenes. My favorite scene in the movie, and one of my new favorite songs, is a slow-motion shot of Arquette hypnotically walking out of her car to the song cover "This Magic Moment" by Lou Reed: below for the full magical effect.

Stylistically, Lost Highway is a technical achievement. Its implementation of blurry head-shaking borrows from the use of it in Jacob's Ladder (1990). The dark lighting and bleak background setting feels like minimalistic noir focusing on not what we see, but what we imagine we might be seeing instead. He'd use a lot of the same shooting style in his work on Mulholland Drive, with shadowy figures and mysterious strangers working their way into our heroes' narratives. But its also questionably too much style over substance. It reminds me of David Cronenberg's 1996 film Crash which portrayed most of the film's surrealism in its explicit sex. The film's NC-17 rating would keep it away from the mainstream, and the hard R here almost fell into that territory as well. That's a minor complaint of mine, with the use of sex over substance sometimes the movie feels less in depth and more skin-deep. Well that and a Marilyn Manson cameo that has not aged well.

With its mix of blurry dark film techniques and spooky imagery, Lost Highway was bound to be a cult classic. But at the time it received negative reviews, and to this day sits at a meager 67% critically on Rotten Tomatoes. But with a fresh theater run and the recent launch of it in 4K and on Bluray on the Criterion Collection. It seems like the love for Lost Highway has blossomed more than ever, and perhaps audiences are ready to digest the movie for what it was meant to be. Or maybe years later, audiences will still be discussing what the film is supposed to be and where it lives in this weird timeline Lynch has created.

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