If a film-maker is only as good as his last film, then for the past five years David Lynch has been in
pretty bad shape. Fire Walk With Me, the movie prequel to his Twin Peaks TV series, was unveiled
at Cannes in 1992 to all but unanimous scorn. The backlash against this "genius naif" (as Pauline
Kael called him) was so resounding that Lynch's new film, Lost Highway - which opened last
Friday in the States - is being seen by some as his final shot at critical rehabilitation. Yet the film
itself ismarked, not by trepidation, but a giddying, liberating sense of irresponsibility. Kinky,
sensuous, disturbing and untroubled by earthly logic, Lost Highway leaves the viewer baffled and
seduced in equal measure. This is not the work of a directorplaying safe.
Lynch, who trained to be a painter, is one of cinema's great expressionists: an expert in finding the
exact visual and aural textures for sinister, barely communicable moods and sensations. This talent
has never been more apparent than in the first halfof Lost Highway: virtually wordless and
peculiarly electrifying, it exists in a vacuum of dread. Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia
Arquette), the main characters, live in a sparse, shadowy house in what is probably Los Angeles.
Paranoia andmalaise plague the couple; the source of their problems, it is implied, is a malevolent
dwarf (Robert Blake), a conflation of Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and Twin
Peaks's evil Bob.
Fred eventually kills Renee (or does he?) and is consigned to Death Row, where, one night, he
metamorphoses into a teenager called Pete (Balthazar Getty). After he is released, Pete begins a
relationship with Alice, a gangster's moll and porn starlet,also played by Arquette. So Alice, who
looks like Renee, is sleeping with Pete, who - osten- sibly - used to be Fred. The film becomes a
tangle of alter-egos; a tangle which Lynch and his co-writer Barry Gifford resolve not by picking
apart the threads,but by pulling the knots tighter. The story ends by folding in on itself, its energies
compacted into a heart- stopping (and literal) implosion.
It will be a disgrace if a work of art this vital, fearless and intuitively brilliant fails to find an
audience. But an obvious commercial difficulty is one of definition: part murder-mystery, part noir
pastiche, part existential horror-flick, the filmcan either be seen as a study in psychosexual
pathology, or as a tale of an acute identity crisis.
Lynch has always been difficult to pin down. More than most of the independent film-makers who
came after him, he has displayed at various points in his career both a refusal and an inability to
cater to anyone' s desires but his own. His first feature,Eraserhead, made over five years on hardly
any money, was released in 1977 and initially shunned (Variety called it a "sickening, bad-taste
exercise"). Set in an industrial wasteland populated by tragic grotesques (a bouffant-haired
Kafkaesque hero, apustulent monster-baby, a puffy-cheeked woman who lives in a radiator) the
film was a true original, and success on the midnight- movie circuit spawned a cult around it. In
1981 Lynch directed The Elephant Man, with John Hurt as the disfigured JohnMerrick. Fusing the
spectral quality of Eraserhead with the grace and humanity required by the storyline, Lynch made
what remains his most straightforward (and sentimental) film. Seven Oscar nominations later, he
was suddenly a serious Hollywood player.It didn't last long.
George Lucas asked him to direct Return of the Jedi, but he opted instead to film Frank Herbert's
sci-fi novel Dune (1984), under the auspices of Dino De Laurentis. Herbert's scrambled plot and
mus-ty prose proved problematic, and the finished product -further mangled by studio cuts - was
incoherent and often nondescript, a muddle of mismatched sensibilities. Lynch's next move was to
retreat to small- town America - a move that paid off. Steeped in the horrors of the familiar, Blue
Velvet (1986)rattled audiences as few films have done. Reinventing its karaoke-bland, Bobby
Vinton title- song as a macabre signifier of suburban rot, it was a dark coming-of-age movie, with
Kyle MacLachlan's character learning scary things about his picket- fencedcommunity - and scarier
things about himself. A generation of upstarts was duly inspired: the lip-synching and ear-slicing
scenes in, respectively, My Own Private Idaho and Reservoir Dogs are explicit homages.
With Twin Peaks, Lynch invited the TV masses into Sleepytown, USA; within weeks, they were
hooked, obsessing over who had killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer. The series lasted two
seasons, growing increasingly compromised and lazy, but always stillyielding small, subversive
pleasures not normally associated with US network TV.
By this time, the word "Lynchian" was being widely used as a catchphrase for all things creepily
surreal, creepily ironic or creepily banal. Yet it wasn't only his imitators, but also Lynch himself who
diluted the connotations of the term. In 1990'sWild at Heart, a funny, gory road-movie with Nicolas
Cage and Laura Dern (and a controversial winner of the Palme d'Or), the weirdness was, of course,
Lynchian - but it also seemed routine and somewhat disingenuous. So the critics were itching to
attack- and then, with Fire Walk With Me, Lynch gave them all the ammunition they needed.
Unintelligible, cynical and borderline- inept was the consensus. Unusually for this director, even
some of the performances were flat-out awful - but there were alsohaunting, lyric passages, and
more than a few moments of lucidity.
Lost Highway is undoubtedly a return to form, and the kick in the rear that American movies have
needed for some time. The spooky supernaturalism of Twin Peaks remains, but it is rendered here
with a force and clarity worthy of Blue Velvet. This couldbe crunch time for Lynch, but it' s
doubtful that he is terribly concerned. Regardless of what the film world thinks, David Lynch does
what he wants to; and regardless of what he does, the film world needs him more than he needs it.