Skip to main content

Call me. Dial your number. Go ahead.

Lost Highway
(1997)

(SPOILERS) ‘90s David Lynch might have been “purer” in its distillation of weirdness, but generally speaking I found it less satisfying than his ‘80s experimentations with studios and pre-existing source material. There was Twin Peaks, of course, several of the episodes he directed ranking among the best things he has ever done, but his features lacked something, revealing themselves as either a hip, pop version of his sensibility (Wild at Heart) that would predict much of the “colourful” pulp revelry of Tarantino and his imitators, or a distended, half-masterfully dark, half-distractingly ungainly bookend to his cancelled TV show (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which despite its subsequent re-evaluation, is still a bit of a bodge). Lost Highway arrived five years after, his third collaboration with Barry Gifford (after Wild at Heart and Hotel Room) and is at once as wilfully weird as you’d expect from Lynch, replete with de rigueur doppelgangers, fractured time and shaken identities, yet curiously reductive for the first time, such that the uncanny could be wrapped in a neatly explicable bow.


Do you want an easily digestible Lynch film? I mean, all his pictures have unique and elusive aesthetics (images, sounds), but more specifically in terms of character and tenor? Because Lost Highway, really, is no more special than Shutter Island directed by someone who takes crazy pills for breakfast (or TM pills). Perhaps that’s the Gifford influence, but the picture suffers more from its dive into an alt-reality than Wild at Heart does into a heightened one.


Perhaps, if we were left thinking that Fred (Bill Pullman) really did swap with Pete (Balthazar Getty) and that Renee really did have a noir femme fatale twin/double Alice (Patricia Arquette), rather than Pete and Alice being the products of a “psychogenic fugue” resulting from Fred’s brutal murder of Renee, there’d be more to chew on abstractly. As Lynch put it, in worryingly lucid language (it ought to be a concern, if he’s making sense and easy to pin down), “The persons suffering from it creates in their mind a completely new identity, new friends, new home, new everything – they forget their past identity”. He also compared it to the OJ Simpson murder case.


But the picture begins intriguingly enough. Sure, elements don’t quite satisfy. Bill Pullman is as much of a blank here as he is in any of his lead performances, but initially at least, you wonder if this might be intentional, that he and his alter ego are supposed to be interchangeable canvasses upon whom it’s impossible to project very much. The problem there is, even if that’s the case, it doesn’t make for compelling viewing. Some actors ask to be watched, and neither the leading men in Lost Highway do that.


Consequently, when we see Bill grunting and sweating away on his sax, we’re not entirely sure this isn’t supposed to be as self-parodic as the gangster movie Fred falls into (as Jeremiah Kipp notes, for all his rage – a distillation of Fred’s? – Robert Loggia’s Mr Eddy is a kind of toothless Frank Booth; ironic, as Lynch cast Loggia based on his expletive-fuelled reaction to missing that role).


And yet, Robert Blake’s Mystery Man is a marvellously iconic character/villain, deserving of a better picture, and the unnerving first (second?) meeting at a Hollywood party, as the Man informs Fred he has met him before, at his house (“As a matter of act, I’m there, right now”), handing him his chunky cell phone as confirmation, is a classic Lynch scene for all the right reality-bending reasons.


The Mystery Man might be regarded as the shadow self of Fred and Pete, leading him both from and to self-recognition. Of course, there’s a case to be made that Pete is, in fact, the original deal and Fred his construct, owing to the detectives at Andy’s mansion discovering his print’s (not Fred’s) “all over this place”. That might be intriguing if it altered the basic set up in some way, but it doesn’t. Not really. Indeed, I’d suggest that, rather than seeing this as “objective” reality, it’s a signifier of the addled existence Fred/Pete is experiencing (the Mystery Man has just been interrogating Pete with “And your name? What the fuck is your name?”)


Patricia Arquette delivers a far superior performance to her insubstantial co-leads, although her delivery is sometimes pitched on the inaudible side and it’s difficult to escape the impression that Lynch isn’t just flagrantly objectifying her, be it in the sex scenes or Mr Eddy’s “audition” in front of a room full of gangsters (the seedy underbelly here has no resonance in the way it does in Blue Velvet, it’s only ever a distant construct).


I had a similar response to the underused Natasha Gregson Warner as Pete’s dumped girlfriend Sheila, who seems to have been cast on the basis of her breasts. There has always been a voyeuristic angle to sex and nudity in Lynch pictures, but hitherto it has felt integral to the story being told. Here, it just comes across voyeuristic, at the whim of David.


Also problematic are the obvious cameos, including Richard Pryor, Marilyn Manson and Henry Rollins. They stick out the way Clooney or Travolta do in The Thin Red Line, distracting from the material. On the other hand, Gary Busey is great as Pete’s dad; you can see a whole backstory of him and wife Candace (Lucy Butler), middle-aged spread ex-bikers, reduced to passive medication by TV, not so far from Emilio Estevez’ transfixed folks in Repo Man.


Michael Massee (sadly recently deceased), who brings something of a Willem Dafoe-esque sleaze bag to his minor role, and Blake (whose striking appearance was all his idea, which given his troubled life is unsurprising) are also standouts. Jack Nance, in his final Lynch appearance, plays a mechanic protesting at Pete changing the music station. Indeed, it’s unfortunate that Pete, with his being a grease monkey, biking and involvement with a dangerous girl (and his musical side), reminds one of the least interesting character in Twin Peaks, James Hurley. Or perhaps that’s intentional again.


Part of Lost Highway’s problem is that it doesn’t feel like a film Lynch was compelled to make. It’s more like a doodle of various interests and obsessions, lacking an essential quality. Even the soundtrack, often the best aspect of his pictures, is burdened by some impulsive decisions (I love the use of Bowie’s I’m Deranged on the opening and closing titles, and Trent Reznor’s contributions feel entirely appropriate, but Marilyn Manson and the impossible to take seriously Rammstein by Rammstein are eclectic yet also cumulatively less distinctive than we have come to expect from the director). Nevertheless, being a Lynch joint, the sound design is richly unsettling, underscoring every scene and invariably proving instrumental in ensuring they carry the impact they do.


Jonathan Rosenbaum commented of the picture that Lynch “hasn’t developed his themes one iota in a quarter of a century” but I’d argue it’s less flattering than that. He seems to have actively regressed here, to junk psychology and undisguised adolescent ogling. There are great moments in Lost Highway, but also long stretches where the atmosphere just isn’t enough, less-than-compelling protagonist(s) failing to take up the slack. Even the picture’s great advocates seem to acknowledge its great deficiencies. It would take getting out of, rather than being under, his own skin to get back on track.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …