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.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the