The City of Absurdity Lost Highway
a film by David Lynch

Film Threat Review, April 1997

Obsessive love. Mysterious spirits. Twisted sex.
Gruesome murder. Lost Highway is David Lynch's strangest trip since Blue Velvet.

by Anthony C. Ferrante

The wait is over. Almost five years have come and gone since David Lynch last tried to weird out movie audiences in the guise of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It's been a lonely stretch of highway without the director's cinematic voice, which is why it's all the more refreshing to find his brush strokes painting the screen once again with his latest endeavor, Lost Highway.

Harkening back to the eerie, dream-like state Lynch created in his 1986 masterpiece, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway is an incredibly perplexing, yet wholly fascinating look into the psychoses of the human mind.

Described by Lynch as "21st-century noir/horror," Lost Highway stars Bill Pullman as jazz musician Fred Madison who grows suspicious that his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), is having an affair with another man. Ultimately, Renee turns up dead and Fred is sent to prison for her murder.

Then one day, in a Lynchian twist, Fred isn't Fred anymore. He wakes up in his cell an entirely new person-a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). Since the police can't detain Pete for what Fred did, Pete is released from prison. Pete goes about his work as an auto mechanic, when in yet another Lynchian twist, Patricia Arquette shows up again-this time as Alice Wakefield, a woman who, not surprisingly, looks a lot like Renee, the wife that Fred, who's now Pete, killed.

Like much of Lynch's work, the Lost Highway scenario grows increasingly complex and surreal as seemingly unrelated events pile on top of each other until they intersect and become a ragged, yet complex whole.

If you don't get it, then you don't get it. Lynch isn't going to be handing out Cliffs' Notes at theaters.

"I don't think about the audience really," says Lynch, who launched his career in features with 1978's acclaimed, but cultish, Eraserhead.

Screenwriter Barry Gifford, who co-wrote Lost Highway with Lynch, concedes that the new film is confusing. He even recommends repeat viewings. (That ought to work wonders for the box office.) Even then, Gifford isn't guaranteeing anything. "Like any Lynch film I think you either go with it or you don't," Gifford says. "You're not on concrete footing. We were very careful with that. This is not a jokey movie. It's very straight-forward, everybody talks very straight and that's for a very specific reason." The specific reason is that both Lynch and Gifford were trying to capture a phenomenon called a "psychogenic fugue." For the uninitiated, "fugue" is a psychological term for a disturbed state of mind. A person acts out, and later, has no recollection of his actions. A "psychogenic fugue" is, in theory, a person who flees his life. Moves to a new town, with a new name-having erased the past and created a new personal history, as well as persona.

"A 'psychogenic fugue' actually happens totally within a person's mind," says Gifford. "In Fred Madison's case, he's going mad anyway especially with the inability to control his wife and being thrown in prison where he can't flee. He's on death row, so he experiences a fugue which is entirely within his own mind, so what we're seeing is his fantasy."

As in any Lynch world, fantasy or otherwise, seeing is actually believing and Lost Highway is a hard film to peg. It veers in and out of varying surrealistic montages. Of course, if the concept itself is a tad bit confusing, it's really up to the audience to draw its own conclusions, says Peter Deming, cinematographer on Lost Highway. "I don't think you have to understand everything about a movie," Deming says. "I understood the beginning and end but not the middle as much and I think that's part of the purpose. By not giving all the clues and letting people formulate their own scenario of what happened is what David wants. He clearly gives you a beginning and an end that is certainly recognizable. What course it takes and what place in time the rest of the movie exists is really up to the viewer. And certainly some movies you must understand it, but that's not the case here. It's a mood and there were things we did to purposely keep audiences on the edge."

Even the actors in the film felt a bit perplexed by the material at times. "I don't know what it's really about," admits star Bill Pullman. "David would tell me things and I would do them. It's so wild. It's like being in graduate school when you work with him. You don't have to bring everybody around and underline everything. It's daring for the audience to try to keep putting their head around this thing."

For Patricia Arquette, going with the flow wasn't the objective. She was interested in trying to understand the world of Lost Highway, particularly because she plays two very distinct characters. She felt she needed to have clarity, even if just for her own piece of mind, regarding the arcs of all the characters.

"I had to make sense for myself because David really couldn't help me much with it-he doesn't want to give you all the answers," says Arquette. "I'm more linear than that, or more anal retentive. So, I set out to answer those questions myself because I was playing two parts at a certain point. So am I playing a hallucination, am I playing a real person or am I playing a ghost? I made some logic for myself."

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The City of Absurdity© Mike Hartmann