The camera is focused on a highway, its yellow stripes are passing by rapidly, and Bowie’s song I’m Deranged is playing; a highly suggestive introduction into the film. In the opening shot, we see a man smoking a cigarette, by carefully following the narrative throughout the film, we can recollect that he is in death row. Lost Highway is a kind of a puzzle, a recollection of a man’s life, remembered in the way he “chose“ to do so. In the same way, as we watch the film, we pick up the pieces and assemble our own recollection of the events, hopefully in a way which makes sense, if not narratively, at least in terms of meaning.
We can conclude, by observing the film as a whole and then returning to the very beginning, that the scene in which a man called Fred, although we cannot be sure of the veracity of his name (the same is with everything presented in the film), is the only scene in the film which portrays reality. Everything else is a psychotic deconstruction of actual events and their rearrangement according to Fred’s fantasies and desires. My recollection of the actual narrative, a template for Fred’s fantasies, in short, how I as writer of this essay remember them, would amount to this:
A man discovers that his lover used to act in pornographic movies, and is jealous of her another, steady lover, a pornographer. He murders him, and then murders her as well. He is sent to death row, and executed for murder.
This is fairly simple. Now, let’s observe Fred’s fantasies, the way in which they develop, which is unusually complex. This makes this film, along with Eraserhead and Inland Empire, one of his most purely surrealist efforts. “Dick Laurent is dead.” This is the message Fred receives by the unknown man on the intercom. When he speaks with his wife, her lips are darkly and provocatively red, their conversation seems ordinary, but also strangely out of place. Lines like: “I like to laugh.”, and Fred’s response: “That’s why I married you“, seem cringy and are almost indicative of the fact that this probably did not happen. Fred plays saxophone in a club and delivers a dissonant solo in the form of a cry, comes home exhausted and his wife Alice (played by Patricia Arquette) tells him that someone has delivered a videotape to their door, with nothing on it.
They watch it together and realize that they are being watched. In a short video, their house is shown for a few seconds, and that’s it. This motif of observance, surveillance one might say, seems important, since it shows that in his fantasy, Fred feels like he is being watched all the time, that his every move is recorded. This also adds a bit of paranoia to the whole ordeal. The red curtain is shown, characteristic of Lynch, most notably his Twin Peaks, and it is as if the Veil of Maya covers everything which is about to be presented, in other words, it is an illusion. Fred sees Alice with someone, holding hands, and we can see hints of his jealousy. An intensely erotic scene happens, as Fred and Alice have sex. David Lynch once said: “Sex is a doorway to something so powerful and mystical, but movies usually depict it in a completely flat way.” Lynch cannot be accused of the same thing.
Instead of his wife’s face, Fred sees a mysterious man with his face painted white, sinister looking. This seems to be a projection, of his own murderous desires, and as we can observe later, the Mystery Man is presented as a duality; he can be at various places at the same time. He is an embodiment of evil, which can be present both within ourselves and outside of us. Lynch’s understanding of evil is important for this, since in Twin Peaks, evil is portrayed as a daemonic force which possesses individuals and “makes them” do terrible things. In other words, evil is metaphysical, and can “enter” individuals. Fred and his wife receive another videotape, this time a bit more extensive, and two investigators come to the house.
Fred says something completely out of place, but crucial for understanding of the film: “I like to remember things my own way… How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” This is the nature of the film which unfolds before our eyes, we see things remembered in Fred’s own way “not necessarily how they happened”. Arthur Schopenhauer writes that “if certain events or circumstances are wholly suppressed for the intellect, because the will cannot bear the sight of them; and then, if the resultant gaps are arbitrarily filled up [my emphasis] for the sake of the necessary connexion; we then have madness.”. Schopenhauer also writes: “Whoever, through frequently recounting an event that he originally fabricated comes at last to believe in it himself, is really already insane at one point. We can credit an insane person with flashes of wit, isolated shrewd ideas, even correct judgments, but we shall not attach any validity to his testimony as to past events.”
In other words, Lynch puts us in an impossible situation. We are supposed to believe in the fragments of the narrative of a person gone mad, and try to piece them together. He meets the Mystery Man at the pool party, and the latter says to Fred that they have already met, in his house. Fred denies this, but actually they did, when he saw Mystery Man’s image instead of his wife; he is already acquainted with the evil within himself. The Mystery Man says that he is in Fred’s house at this very moment, and to prove this, he urges Fred to call “him”. He obliges and hears the voice over the phone, although no one is there when he comes back. A mysterious stranger being in the house, a doppelgänger, is a powerful metaphor for evil penetrating our spiritual interiors. “You invited me”, the Mystery Man says.
“Sit down killer.”, says the cop as he accuses Fred of murdering his wife. The evidence is presented on the tape, made by someone unknown to us.He is convicted to death in the electric chair, but while he is in the cell, he starts to have severe headaches, and suddenly morphs into a young mechanic. He is released from the cell and claims that he doesn’t remember things which happened the previous day. The mechanic, Pete, does repairs for the old gangster and pornographer – Mr. Eddy (who looks exactly like Dick Laurent). As he continues with his life as if nothing happened, Pete has sex with his girlfriend, does repairs and hangs out with his friends. Soon, a scenario similar to the one from Bruce Springsteen’s music video for the song I’m On Fire unfolds.
A stereotyped fantasy of a working-class man becomes reality as a beautiful, high-class young woman, comes to the repair shop and asks him to have dinner with him. She looks exactly like Fred’s wife, except for the fact that she is a blonde, while Alice had black hair. Soon, they start an affair. Things start to become even more stereotyped and comic book-like when a car chase and a beating happen when Pete drives with Mr. Eddy (who looks like Dick Laurent), who acts like a typical gangster from a B movie. Pete has sex with his girlfriend one night and with Renee (the blonde) the other and one of the investigators who follow him all the time says: “Fucker gets more pussy than a toilet seat.”
At this point things become if not unbelievable and hilarious, then much darker as Pete realizes that he got into something that is beyond his capabilities (another movie stereotype). Earlier in the film, we could see an erotic extreme close-up on Alice’s dark red lips, now we see a similar shot of Renee’s pink lips, and this is a detail which must not be overlooked; each character’s seductive traits are emphasized. Renee manages to convince Pete, rather easily, to rob her acquaintance so they can get some money and leave town, so she says to him, as Mr. Eddy is closing in on them, aware of their affair.
Mr. Eddy speaks with Pete on the phone, and hands it over to the Mystery Man, who tells him that they have met in his house. He also tells him: “In the East, the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they are sent to the place where they can’t escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them, and fire a bullet into the back of their head.” This shows us how Fred feels about his execution, since the Mystery Man is a projection of his desires and fears. In the Far East, in today’s Japan for example, the date of execution is unknown to the inmates, and they spend their remaining days, or months, trembling with fear and despair. They realize that they are about to be executed only a few hours before the execution.
Renee and Pete enter the house of her acquaintance, a pornographer, he is brutally murdered by Pete (in a sense, accidentally), and pornographic videos are shown on a large screen. Since we are aware that this is in fact Fred’s fantasy, we must ask ourselves, why is it conjured in such a way? We can only assume. For instance, that this fantasy is pleasurable to him, since a man who was hitting on the woman he loves is murdered, and a young man steals Dick Laurent’s lover from him. Lynch, as some interpreters argue, follows the strand of surrealism which derives from Bataille – eroticism is associated with violence, sadism and death, and this film is a remarkable example of it.
Renee brings Pete to an abandoned cabin in the wastelands, and in this instance things start to become both erotic and nightmarish. They have sex on the ground, brightly illuminated, and while ethereal music plays they are entangled. Just a moment after, when Pete says to Renee that he wants her, she replies: “You will never have me.” It is a possibility that Fred and Alice/Renee were never together, that she was a pornographer’s lover, and he was deeply in love with her.
This explains the murder of her lover Dick Laurent, and consequently Alice’s murder – it is a crime of passion, but it most likely does not involve marital partners. Fred could have been disillusioned with her when he found out that she is in pornography, and murdered both Laurent and Alice out of jealousy. One of the investigators says, when he sees a picture with Alice that it is Dick Laurent’s girl. Renee’s reply that he will never have her, is what most likely happened in reality, in the end, Fred was refused by Alice/Renee.
A young mechanic now morphs into the saxophonist Fred again, and the Mystery Man appears in the cabin, films Fred with a video camera and tells him: “If she told you her name is Alice, she is lying. And your name? What the fuck is your name?”. In short, he asks him of his true identity, and since the man we know by the name Fred does not answer, it is obvious that his first identity is a lie, a fantasy as well. His lover “Alice” lied to him about her name, and consequently, we can see that “Fred” is a man who got entangled in a rather mysterious ordeal – with a porn actress who hid her real name from him, and is dating a much older man, who runs the business.
Fred comes to a place called “Lost Highway Hotel”, a reference to the mind which is lost, but paradoxically, also the place where the real events happened. In one shot we see Dick Laurent having sex with a girl who called herself Alice, the one with black hair, and soon, we see the Mystery Man observing Fred through the window, as he goes toward the cabin where he meets Dick Laurent and fights with him. The Mystery Man hands Mr. Eddy hand-held Watchman TV, who looks at it and sees the interior of a house where Mr. Eddy and Renee watch a snuff film together, while embracing each other.
The image suddenly changes back to Fred and the Mystery Man, pointing to the possibility that Fred found this video (in reality) and that this was the main motive behind the murder of Alice/Renee. The Mystery Man deals a fatal blow with a gun, and in this instance, we see Fred transferring the responsibility of murder to another person, which is in fact a part of his fantasy, but also a personification of evil which engulfed him. In the final shot of the film, we can see Fred in his car, shaking as if he is on an electric chair. In his fantasy, he is executed on a highway, which represents the stream of his fantasies and his lost mind.
Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed this article, I would like to recommend you some great books and movies associated with it. You can purchase them on Amazon:
Fear is the key to his work and the undying fetish of it: like a hardcore horror fan, Lynch can’t really live without it. His macabre imaginings are inflicted on the gleaming banality of the superficial life, but they also infect it with a sense of the uncanny. The ordinary is always waiting to be rendered unwholesome. The Art Life shows us a lot about Lynch’s process, just in a different medium from the one that made him famous. His paintings are terrifying. One day, he just had the sudden urge to watch them move.
Documentary review: Tim Robey, The Telegraph
While some of Bataille’s writings are scarcely coherent – I say that as an admirer – his late theoretical work Erotism is a surprisingly cogent, wide-ranging examination of the obsessions Bataille pursued his whole life long. A devout Christian who abandoned the faith and hurled himself into a mysticism of evil, Bataille sought an atheistic basis for ecstatic experience that would redeem humankind from enslavement to work, security and acquisition. To him, we are anguished, “discontinuous” beings who seek fusion with the universe by way of eroticism, which in its fullest expression approaches death. Erotism pulls in materials from a variety of disciplines – art history, sociology, anthropology – to back up Bataille’s vision of a cosmos consumed by raging violence, where loss and devastation must be embraced.
Book review: Rob Doyle, The Irish Times
“Room to Dream”, then, is at its most illuminating when it focuses on the nuts and bolts of the director’s work; charting his ascent from a gawky art student to “a brand and an adjective”. McKenna recounts how the director’s apprenticeship in depressed, crime-ridden Philadelphia provided the “rich mulch for Lynch’s imagination” that would eventually bear fruit in his 1977 breakthrough “Eraserhead”, and how his fascination with the OJ Simpson trial sparked the existential noir of “Lost Highway”. Along the way, though, the man sporadically breaks cover or is briefly hooked on the line. Lynch, we learn in passing, once suffered from anger-management issues until transcendental meditation ironed out the kinks in his system.
Book review: Xan Brooks, The Guardian