The Pitfalls of Media "Representations": David Lynch's Lost Highway

By O'Connor, Tom | Journal of Film and Video, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The Pitfalls of Media "Representations": David Lynch's Lost Highway


O'Connor, Tom, Journal of Film and Video


There are no paradises other than lost paradises.

-Borges

A JAZZ MUSICIAN, FRED MADISON (BILL PULLMAN), catches on to the fact that his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), is having an affair. Fred is anxiety-ridden and cannot sleep; he's heading for a psychotic breakdown, which finally happens at a party when the Mystery Man (Robert Blake)-a ghoul who bi-locates-approaches Fred with the insane claim that he's simultaneously inside Fred's house. Fred calls his house on the Mystery Man's cell phone and the Mystery Man somehow picks up at the other end, stating that Fred is the one who invited him inside. Other bizarre phenomena also confront Fred. Three mysterious videotapes appear on his doorstep: the first displays the outside of their house, the second Fred and his wife sleeping in their bed, and the third Fred dismembering Renee's corpse. Fred, who cannot remember what happened to Renee, is then convicted of her murder and placed on death row. Miraculously, in his cell, he transforms into another person, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty).

The dumbfounded police are then forced to let Pete out of jail. Pete, who also cannot remember how he got in Fred's jail cell, returns to his mechanic's job and soon starts an affair with one of his mobster client's girlfriends, Alice (also Patricia Arquette), who may be another incarnation of Renee. The mob boss, Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia), finds out about the affair and has the Mystery Man (a friend of Dick Laurent's) threaten Pete's life. Pete and Alice then rob one of her rich clients and hope to escape Mr. Eddy's wrath. They drive to a fence's cabin-the Mystery Man's abode-to get new passports, where, after Pete tells Alice "I want you," she disappears. Pete at that point transforms back into Fred. Fred then drives to a hotel where he finds Renee and Mr. Eddy, who are in fact having an affair. Fred takes Mr. Eddy hostage and kills him with the help of the Mystery Man. Fred then attempts to evade the cops who are hot on his trail.

The October Films press release introduces the film described above, Lost Highway (1997), in the following manner: "Unfolding with the logic of a dream, which can be interpreted but never explained, Lost Highway is punctuated by a series of occurrences that simply can't have occurred: one man turns into another man; a woman who may be dead seduces the man who might have killed her. . . . As post-modern Noir detours into science fiction . . . the only certainty is uncertainty" (5). Critical responses to the film were both embracing and dismissive. Jack Kroll, writing for Newsweek, states that "[the film's] mysteries become not fascinating but maddening, a Rubik's cube that's metastasized into 256 sides" (68). His cancer metaphor is intriguing because it implies that multiple and unresolved narratives, which run counter to traditional narrative cinema, are "sickly" or "contaminated." Since Kroll was seeking clear-cut meanings in Lost Highway, he is uneasy with the film's unresolved aspects: "and who in hell (literally) is the Mystery Man, a corpse-faced galoot who can be in two places at the same time" (68)? Calling Lynch the "Heisenberg of cinema," Kroll concludes that the film will only "drive you bananas" (68).

Among critics more receptive to the film's mysteries and unresolved elements, Marshall Fine commends Lynch's idiosyncratic vision: "What makes Lost Highway so psychologically invasive and compelling is Lynch's ability to pull you into a dreamlike world based in some skewed reality." Fine finds the film's indeterminacies sites for productive interpretations: "Where is Fred? How are Pete and Fred connected? Are Renée and Alice the same person? Lynch isn't saying. Any and all conjectures are possible." Calling it "one of the most profoundly disturbing films [he's] ever seen," Fine acknowledges that an unresolved narrative can still provide a meaningful cinematic experience.

Describing Lost Highway "as a complex cross-weave of parallel worlds and identities that refuses to yield its secrets easily," Chris Rodley claims that the film's open-ended conflicts are precisely what "has prompted some critical confusion and hostility" (215). …

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