June 10, 2023 at 4:15 am

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway (1997)
Director: David Lynch
Writers: David Lynch, Barry Gifford
Stars: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, John Roselius


(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1997)

Not for a moment in his latest film does David Lynch allow us the relief of believing that his primary characters, Fred (played poignantly by an edgy Bill Pullman) and Renee (portrayed by a sexy-perfect Patricia Arquette) are in a real marriage, saying daily good-byes, having a real life. Not even in the opening moments of the film when Fred and Renee are agreeing that it’s okay for her to stay home rather than accompany him to the club where he plays tenor sax, does Lynch allow us to believe that we are going to see only another noir narrative about a man obsessed with a woman he can’t possess. Nor will Lost Highwaybe another Fatal Attraction,” a movie that ultimately relieves its male watchers of their responsibility for the entanglements that ensue from their own voyeuristic flirtations. Lynch isn’t telling an everyday story; he’s linking a man’s loss of control over a woman’s sexual desire to feelings of murderous rage and going for the jugular of our present-day sexual anxiety.

Lost Highway is a long, drawn out film about entering and, maybe not fully, re-emerging from the dark shadows that contain the feelings of men in our culture. Lynch attempts to do justice to the inner sanctum of Fred’s self-torture aroused by the fear — old as Homer’s Paris losing Helen back to the Trojan king Menelaos — of losing the prize of his woman’s love. Much of America’s vision of masculinity still naively equates itself with a man’s ability to capture and keep a woman who carries the “right image” to the eyes of his fellow men. This is a private agony that has been sanctioned by the culture as a key cornerstone of initiation into manhood. When the manly task is nothing less than to compel the suitable woman to be perpetually desirous of nothing and no one else but him, the test of being a real man becomes the ability to possess the woman body and soul.

To link up, in a convincing way, the rhythms of extreme emotional fragmentation and impulsive acts of violence with what the American male has to go through when he feels he is not “man enough” to keep his woman with him is the affective brilliance of Lost Highway. The paranoia that tortures Fred and transports him into his own nightmare is tightly tied to the notion that masculine control is essential to survival. It wrenches us with the suggestion that if men do not break with this relentless pressure on them to be “real” men, men in cool control, masculinity itself will have a mental breakdown. Lost Highway is a man’s scream of anguish over his inability to escape from the ubiquitous cultural fantasy that possession of a woman is the only way for him to keep it together.

Lost Highway taps a world of dream reality and opens up a window onto an emerging male awareness of the internal cost of carrying such a burden. After Fred leaves Renee at home to read a book that they both know she will never open, he blows a frenzied stretch of jazz saxophone in his club that skims the rim of a scream. For a man filled with searing doubt, the wail of a tenor sax can easily sound like the inner pain of an injured anima. His access to soul is being cut off. And in a country headed by a saxophone-playing President who is being sued for sexual harassment, the film images of a man losing his grip take on a broader resonance. When Fred calls home between sets, we hear three different phones ring, with no response, in three different empty rooms; their staccato tones hollowly echo the repetitive anguished solo he has just delivered. We expect the worst when Fred arrives home. But there is Renee, fast asleep. The agony deepens; did she sleep through the call or did she merely get home in time (from whatever secret life she is leading) to carry off the ruse that she has been home all evening. Is Fred being paranoid or is he the classic symbol of a man emasculated, cuckolded even in his own house? The dark music rises from deep from within Fred’s fear of losing Renee, which means losing control, sanity, and identity all in one raw crescendo.

Lynch sets us up much in the same way he presents Renee to Fred, playfully spinning us around, letting us have the roller coaster experience of yielding to seduction and waiting for the surprise. He uses the movement in and out of shadows in Fred’s own house, in and out of time in Fred’s elliptical narrative, and in and out of Fred’s identity to intensify the uncanny feeling of unreality that ensues when panic creeps up from within. While Fred talks to the police about some video tapes that have been left on their doorstep, it gradually dawns on us that the tapes could only have been shot from his own mind’s eye. Fred and Renee are frightened, in other words, by the implications of paranoia; it is as if the video has been taken from the viewpoint of Fred’s sexual jealousy, outside ordinary reality and not able to be discussed by the couple in any rational fashion. Fred disavows any responsibility for this emotional complex, telling the police only that he does not own or like video cameras because he wants “to remember things my own way, not necessarily the way they happened.” In this instant, we become aware that Fred has chosen the point of view of madness, now verified as a separate reality on video. Lynch and his main character have begun to actively intermingle two viable realities. Fred’s inner reality now exists as “actual” memory, captured on camera. Swimming around in this particular ocean of confusion mixed with fear, memory is like a dream. The linearity of events becomes uncertain. Emotions are sucked up as if they were images, mixed up with facts and spit back as perceptions that openly distort what is being seen. Waking reality, sleeping reality, remembered reality, imagined reality and not-yet-imagined reality all collapse into each other. Just an instance of doubt gives rise to a whole story; the dream insists that it be taken seriously.

Mythically, Lost Highway is the dark night of the soul with an unconscious Eros bidding a man deep into his psyche, his love drawing him into the underworld close to death in life. Loving the woman who captivates him instead of a woman captivated by him, Fred becomes a prisoner of his fear of inadequacy. The anima pulls the hero into the unconscious with an amazing force, just as intense sexual passion can culminate for a man in an experience of fragility that is anything but manly, in an orgasm more like losing than winning. He feels his mortality, his vulnerability, his insufficiency, and — perhaps most of all — he is touched by life’s uncertainty. The fluidity of his feelings terrifies him and destablizes his coherence. He loses his ability to remain in control not only of Renee but of his own self. The non-linear nature of Lynch’s film thus becomes a reflection of the inner state and process of his main character, Fred.

It is true that as an audience, we keep feeling (like some of the critics who have disliked the film) that this is all wrong: a director, like a man, is supposed to be in control. But Lynch, like Fred, attacks dreamlike images as if they were real and relates to real events as if they were dreams. Seemingly, the love of film opens Lynch up, again like Fred, to a wild insecurity that drives him into irrational sensation, unintelligible shifts in reality and palpable changes in the identity of his central characters. There is be no other way to tell this story. Fred is in the grips of an even more insidious cinematic shapeshifter, on the road to meeting his own, internal demon. Personified effectively by a white-faced, trickster figure (a two headed snake, reminiscent of both Klaus Kinski’s nosferatu vampire as well as the Joker in Batman comics and played to the hilt by Robert Blake), the “demon” of repressed male rage introduces himself to Fred at a party. Renee is having a drink nearby with a guy from her past. The demon, in a memorable “twice” doubled-identity cell phone scene, tells Fred that he, Fred himself, has already invited him into his house. And that, in fact, as they speak face-to-face at the party, he, the demon, is simultaneously at home in Fred’s house. The implication is clear. Fred’s inner hostility is bubbling to the surface and beginning to wreak havoc. Tormented by the shapeshifter he himself has now become, Fred’s psyche caves into the inescapable connection between polarized opposites (love and hate, arousal and impotence, Eros and Thanatos) and his own violent nature. Psychologically, what is revealed is the paradox inherent in the male fantasy of arousal within this heterosexist anima set-up: the dueling desire to control, and finally kill, the very one who enlivens feeling. For this reason, any woman entering into a man’s emotional life is both terrifying and fascinating. She never comes without also bringing the fear of his not being ruthless enough to conquer and thereby destroy her. This anima fantasy takes root in an inescapable truth; women are powerful. Women do hold a mysterious power over men because they cannot be controlled — more precisely, because they offer an option for an alternative male identity that drives a man onto a lost highway of possibility.

Nowhere else in the film does Lynch depart from logic to convey a sense of inner reality as much as when he changes Fred’s identity to Pete, the twenty-ish garage mechanic (played with just the right degree of post-adolescent erotic acuity by the brooding Balthzar Getty). When Fred finds himself imprisoned in the psychic reality of having killed his wife, he is wracked by a headache and starts to regress; perhaps because his obsession seems more like a younger man’s preoccupation with the unreachable beauty of a big screen goddess than genuine grief over Arquette’s loss, he morphs into the morally less complex Pete. Here Lynch seems both to pose his audience with the question “Why Pete?” and to make us feel that in becoming Fred’s avatar that something terrible has happened to Pete, too. The scar on the side of his head suggests some horrible lobotomizing experience that Pete’s parents won’t talk about. Could Pete have been snatched by aliens, or perhaps by Fred’s demon? Sexual obsession, beyond its effect on the spirit can feel like some other being has come to inhabit the body. When Alice (Arquette again, now a sultry blonde) stands in the street just outside the garage in a tight white dress, wobbling in platform heels, looking for Pete and asks in a little girl voice if he would like to take her to dinner, the scene is a retro-fifties young American male’s dream. And when Lynch turns Pete and Alice into two beings of luminous light making love in the desert, we are held spellbound as if viewing unearthly beings from another planet. But more importantly, the passionate encounter is a direct comparison to the dead-end, dead-body, lovemaking we witnessed early on between Fred and Renee. We already know what’s coming. “I want you,” Pete cries out from the depths of his soul. “Well, you can never have me,” Alice hisses predictably, and in a nakedness no longer vulnerable to any manipulation, lifts herself up out of Pete’s reach and walks away in those dreadful shoes across the sand of a now arid fantasy — straight out of the picture.

Contrary to the assertions of some critics that the film is all style and no substance, David Lynch and his team of filmmakers have used their extraordinary command of the movie medium almost as a direct argument to articulate why there is such a widespread resistance to narrative in so much good contemporary art. To those who would honestly envision it, the sexual state of things no longer grants the luxury of an unearned coherence. By borrowing the discontinuous discourse of dreams, Lynch has succeeded in conveying what we too often try to conceal from ourselves, the torture of insecurity in the American male psyche, from which there is no present vision of reprieve. The only hope is to go where Lynch takes us in the final moment of his own wild at heart, emerging vision, on a desperate drive into a black night, kept to center by nothing but yellow broken lines.

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