War Voodoo road: Marina Warner on David Lynch’s Lost Highway

War Voodoo road: Marina Warner on David Lynch’s Lost Highway

War

The plot of Lost Highway binds time’s arrow into time’s loop, forcing Euclidian space into Einsteinian curves where events lapse and pulse at different rates and everything might return eternally. Its first and last shots are the same – the yellow markings of a straight desert road familiar from a thousand movies scrolling down as the camera speeds along low on the ground to the pounding soundtrack.

Lost Highway is available on Blu-ray.

But this linearity is all illusion, almost buoyantly ironic, for you can enter the story at any point and the straight road you’re travelling down will unaccountably turn back on itself and bring you back to where you started.

That emblem of pioneer America, the road ahead, that track to the future, collapses here into a changeling tale, in which contemporary phantasms about identity loss and multiple personality, about recovered memory, spirit doubles, even alien abduction, all unseat the guy in the driver’s seat and lay bare his illusion of control. The film is made like a Moebius strip, with only one surface but two edges: the narrative goes round and round meeting itself, but the several stories it tells run parallel and never join up.

This feature was originally published in the August 1997 issue of Sight <span class=& Sound” data-aspect-ratio=”1.9887482419128″ data-src=”https://www2.bfi.org.uk/sites/bfi.org.uk/files/styles/full/public/image/voodoo-road-lost-highway-feature-and-cover-sight-sound-april-1997.png?itok=9p9LuSra” title=”This feature was originally published in the August 1997 issue of Sight & Sound”>

This feature was originally published in the August 1997 issue of Sight & Sound

Two plots are braided together: Free Jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his elusive wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) double expert mechanic Peter Dayton (Balthazar Getty) and the dangerous blonde dollymop and gangster’s moll Alice (Arquette again); somewhere in the middle, Fred is spirited away from a prison cell and Pete substituted and the film changes from an ominous Hitchcockian psycho-thriller to a semi-parodic gruesome gangster pic.

Scraps of dialogue overlap; the male characters are pierced with excruciating flashes of memory from one another’s lives; a puzzle seems to be forming, only to shatter again into an impossible theorem without issue.

The script, by David Lynch and Barry Gifford, mixes register and pitch, swerving between bizarre, semi-occult incidents, and a lowlife peopled by assorted high-tone pimps and heavies. The luscious – and affectless – blonde broad lures Pete into a life of crime, while her protector ‘Mr Eddy’ doubles as both porno racketeer and one of Lynch’s trademark arch-conspirators, his shadow round every corner, his fingerprint on every surface, wiped. During a mountain drive in the Californian sunshine in his vintage Mercedes, Mr Eddy savages a tail-gater: a kind of Tarantino vignette of unfettered random violence. 

This occult/mobster splice recalls Twin Peaks, of course, but it also looks back in style as well as narrative to the abrupt convergence of gangsters and initiates, of crime and magic, of external and internal world in Performance; Lost Highway gives a late millennial twist to Donald Cammell’s fascination with switched identities, with dislocation and disorientation of the self.

It also shares Performance’s Pinteresque manner of italicising such dialogue as does take place, though Lost Highway takes laconicism to aphasic extremes. But whereas for Cammell’s cast the agents of disintegration are drugs and fame, Lynch’s model of consciousness is a haunted house, invested by external, enigmatic forces, over which his protagonists can exercise no choice. “This is some spooky stuff,” says one of the prison guards after Fred has been spirited from his cell.

American horror – Stephen King, the Alien movies – has long been interested in changing ideas about personality; Lost Highway similarly shifts its characters away from the humanist and Freudian unitary ego, safely mapped on a unique genetic blueprint and enriched with a lifetime of exclusive personal experiences.

Instead Lynch and Gifford play here with a model of personality that far more closely resembles the beliefs of spirit religions as practised in Haiti, or elsewhere, among the Buissi people of the Southern Congo (as recorded this decade by the anthropologist Anita Jacobson-Widding).

In such schema of identity, the dream self can wander and perform independent acts or become possessed by the spirit and identity of a local stranger over whom the self has no authority. In Voodoo, as is well known, an animal spirit takes possession of the priestess or medium, and invites participants to ‘ride’ her, to Tell My Horse, as Zora Neale Hurston entitled her pioneering work of ethnography from the 30s; the spirit can also evacuate personhood from a person, creating the walking shadow or ‘zombie’ so loved by the horror movie tradition.

The Buissi, on the other hand, express a more tranquil acceptance of the plurality of the self. “In the personal discourse,” writes Mary Douglas, “metaphors for the person refer to body liquids and shadows. They evoke elusiveness, uncertainty, fluidity, ephemerality, ambiguity.”

The Salem witch trials reveal how profoundly at risk Christians can feel when they think those shadows are closing in and that they are losing their grip on their sense of self.

Prowlers and intruders

war Robert Blake as Mystery Man

Robert Blake as Mystery Man

David Lynch’s characteristic flux of bizarre, lurid flashes and glimpses swims around the intrinsic instability of personality; his brooding images float and swivel in darkened rooms and mirror reflections from skewed vantage points – high above the action, crawling below it, until the camera itself becomes a plural narrator, a prowler as unpredictable and as knowing as the ghostly intruder who made the videotape that Fred Madison and his wife receive anonymously at the start of the film. There they find their house filmed, then themselves asleep in bed, and finally, in the sequence that brings the first story and Fred’s life to a crisis, the savage murder of Renee in the same bedroom. Fred sees himself doing the butchery. But was it him, or was he swapped?

David Lynch does not say so in so many words – Lost Highway depends on its insolubility – but his plot assumes a form of shadow stealing or spirit doubling. For example, a ‘Mystery Man’ turns up at a party and hands Fred a cellular phone; he says that he’s at Fred’s house at that moment, and tells Fred to call him there. Fred does so, and the Mystery Man’s voice, remote but unmistakable, replies.

The Mystery Man, played with sinister conspiratorial effectiveness by Robert Blake, grins. He has a satyr’s pointed ears and eyebrows, and in whiteface and crimson lipstick looks Mephistophelian: he’s a trickster figure, gifted with divine ubiquity and omniscience; he lives, we see later, in a desert hideout that spontaneously combusts only to reassemble perfectly, and it is he who is the source and master of the video camera that has anticipated – or perhaps prompted – the murder of Renee.

David Lynch is too committed to the principles of surrealism to pitch for true thriller suspense; he’d rather catch its shadow after it’s passed. He has often invoked Andre Breton as a mentor and quoted Breton’s axiom about le merveilleux banal (the mundane and its wondrousness) and le hasard objectif (daily coincidence).

His films’ eeriness grows from the everyday look of his characters, their suburban milieux and their inconspicuous lives; but Lost Highway does not gleam with hygienic and wholesome ordinariness to quite the same hallucinatory degree as Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks.

This new film wears its strangeness with more baroque emphasis. But it does stage an anonymous Los Angeles of well-heeled houses and domestic values (Fred Madison is elegantly set up in a marital home, his doppelganger Pete lives at home with Mom and Dad).

It deploys a range of superfamiliar Californian-American paraphernalia along two axes: designer chic for Fred Madison, whose house is furnished in subdued and sparse Philippe Starck style (some of this being Lynch’s own designs), and by contrast in Pete’s life, a parodic LA of metallic light, big cars, lock-up cells, canyon roads, polished gold guns, underlit swimming pools, square suits – so that the spooky undependability of the film’s storyline erupts more violently.

One by one the rules of film noir and conventional narrative are laid down, only to be enigmatically set aside. Mr Eddy viciously threatens Pete for interfering with his girl, but thereafter the mobster’s pursuit and revenge lose heat and energy.

Patricia Arquette plays both Fred’s wife and Pete’s lover, changing wigs from an Uma Thurman heavy short fringe to a tousled fall of tinsel blonde. The plot confuses her identity beyond solution: she has already been murdered by Fred when she reappears in the bodywork repair shop where Pete works as a mechanic and thereafter vamps him into surrender and of course self-destruction.

Or could the events be switched around, and her murder take place after their passionate affair? No, because in one photograph that Pete finds, as he’s burgling her pimp’s house at her order, she appears twice – side by side with herself.

Mesmerising vacancy

war Patricia Arquette as Alice Wakefield

Patricia Arquette as Alice Wakefield

As usual where women are concerned in a David Lynch film, her mystery is as deep as the spectacle of her body and her face: that is, both impenetrable and yet as spectral and thin as the celluloid of which it’s made.

Peter Deming, the cinematographer, has been directed by Lynch to linger on her in fragments: Arquette’s sturdy legs emphasised by shots of her from the back, stalking like some wader on stacked heels, her full mouth fetishistically incarnadined in close-up on a pink telephone, her hands fringed with black lacquered nails on her lovers’ backs; she performs a striptease at gunpoint for Mr Eddy and the camera exposes her bit by bit to us, too, the whole manner of image-making effectively translating her substance into a thousand coloured shadows.

Arquette sleepwalks with lazy lust through the role, a convincing phantom of desire within a circumscribed convention, whereas the male doppelgangers whom she enthrals inspire an entirely different brand of scopophilia.

Pullman as Fred and Getty as Pete frown, twitch, grow pale and sweaty, screw up lips and eyes in an orgy of expressive anguish that grants them an interiority the modern siren has been denied. Their dream selves have taken up multiple occupancy in their two bodies – and they pour all those recovered memories and unbidden desires into the mesmerising vacancy of Arquette’s femme fatale, their fall underlined by such languorous standards as ‘I Put a Spell on You’, covered here by Marilyn Manson.

Robert Loggia as Mr Eddy brings a charge of cold evil to the part, but he doesn’t suffuse the whole film with pent-up menace as Dennis Hopper did in Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway beats at a slower rate; its mysteries are schematic rather than visceral, those of a clever brainteaser rather than a spinechiller.

The general verbal emptiness now and then erupts into a line of dialogue that seems to come from another movie (“That fucker’s getting more pussy than a toilet seat”). But throughout, Lynch’s interest seems to grasp at another kind of silence, another kind of vacancy: the gaps between sounds.

Lost Highway has a soundtrack as quick and quivering as a newly shucked oyster or peeling sunburn: noise slashes and slices and shivers, thrums, hums, thrashes and explodes in cascades that suddenly come to a stop, leaving a hole where terror can only collect and deepen.

He accompanies this clangour with flaring light – sudden white-outs on screen, foxfire flashes and ghostly shirrings, and a climactic sex scene in the desert filmed in burned-out overexposure. In voice-over, such gothic bands as Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins come to haunt the action, pacing its slow unfolding to a rhythm that is faster and hotter than the film’s; sound effects that have been dubbed in later and have no explicable grounding in the action move in and out of the scenes, in and around the audience, corning and going in a dazzling aural equivalent of the prying and ubiquitous camera.

Lynch’s way of foregrounding his soundtrack calls attention to his filmmaking presence; significantly, it creates a faceless but insistent double who is masterminding the audience response. The conspicuous camerawork and flaring noise of Lost Highway don’t enhance the story in a traditional thriller manner, but interrupt and disturb its flow, compelling the audience to see how film can take possession of your mind and estrange you from yourself, just as the characters in lost Highway are estranged from themselves.

Invasive and distorting

war Balthazar Getty as Pete Dayton with Arquette

Balthazar Getty as Pete Dayton with Arquette

As in Dziga Vertov’s classic study of the cinema’s way of looking, Man with a Movie Camera, Lost Highway is telling a story about the medium. But unlike Vertov’s witty self-reflexive celebration, it expresses disquiet, distrust, even repudiation.

Lynch may not be strongly invested in sincerity as a quality, but this latest movie certainly mounts an attack on film narrative’s mendacity, showing deep alarm at its hallucinatory powers of creating alternative realities. Simultaneously, it also calls into question film’s capacities to document and record: everything filmed is fabrication, but that fabrication has the disturbing power to supplant reality.

Fred’s initial ferocious revulsion against the medium pulses through the whole film, dispersed among different characters: photography is totalising and invasive and distorting, its record of ‘the way things happened’ arbitrary and capricious and coercive; it replaces personal images and inhabits your head and takes it over. Fred’s head bursts in agony with the pictures inside it; later Pete suffers a blow to his head and afterwards is crushed by migraines, as the memory of who he is crashes into phantasms of something other crowding his eyes.

When Pete is breaking and entering the pimp’s house, a huge video screen hangs above the gilt and crystal living room, where a grimacing but mute Alice is being taken from behind (or perhaps buggered) in lumpy black and white. At first, it seems that she is in a room in the house somewhere at that moment, being forced; but then she comes down the marble flight upstairs, imperturbable.

Lynch seems to want to clear space between his own kind of filmmaking and the porn industry: when Mr Eddy dies, his throat slit by Pete/Fred and a collar of gore seeping into his shirt, a pocket video monitor is thrust into his hand where the shooting of the porn film flickers; his murder is revenge for his debauch.

Yet Mr Eddy and his sidekick, the Mystery Man, may also embody Lynch’s own alter egos, his shadow side. For their methods in lost Highway replicate Lynch’s process as a filmmaker: he is the invisible eye that enters the bedrooms of his characters, who stages their sex acts, their crimes, their disintegration, who takes possession of their inner imaginary lives and moves them to his desire.

And the plot of Lost Highway adapts narrative devices that film – and only film – can make actually visible, mines that potential to represent the uncanny that the medium had delightedly played with from its earliest years. Der Student von Prag (1913) first explored the theme of the doppelganger, when its protagonist sells his shadow to the devil in return for a bottomless purse of gold, and then in a wonderfully shivery moment watches his identical double slide out of the door, smiling.

Reversing action, slowing down time, replicating two different people in the same body (The Double Life of Veronique was a recent example of the genre) have almost become jaded cinema tricks, but still, prose storytelling can only assert they happen; film, in comic or eerie mode, can make them seem real.

Lynch here has take this further: his changelings imply the phantasmagoric but practical world of movie-making, in which actors alter appearance and behaviour from film to film, and stand-ins have to be indistinguishable from their ‘originals’.

Above all, though, his use of recovered memories extends the notion of flashback, as does indeed therapists’ faith in them during analysis of previously forgotten abuse. Also, Lynch’s handling of looped time mimics the fast-forward/reverse stasis of the editing booth, while his exploration of disassociated lives intermingling at random, and of switched identities, comments from one point of view on the relation between stars and audience and the projection the modern enterprise of fame overwhelmingly encourages in America – introducing a new aberration in iconoclasm, John Lennon’s murder, Valerie Solanas’s attempt on Andy Warhol.

Modern narcissus

war David Lynch

David Lynch

When Fred Madison declares, disclaiming the truth of the video record, “I want to remember things my way – which is not necessarily the way they happened,” David Lynch is fingering a contemporary anguish about identity.

Such contemporary artists as Sophie Calle have explored the autistic realm of the surveillance camera and its hosts of anonymous, zombie-like inhabitants; Tatsuo Miyajirna’s current show at the Hayward Gallery aestheticises digital signifiers in a poetic reverie that rescues ideas of symbolic time for metaphysics, reanimating automatically generated computerised data.

Contemporary video installations, such as Tall Ships by Gary Hills or The Messenger by Bill Viola, conjure revenants and angels from the looped dreams of the camcorder. Those who fear to lose their souls to the image are desperately seeking to capture its unique mystery, somewhere stable and permanent amid the spate of duplicates and faked images and reflections.

The modern Narcissus looks into the pool, and there are two of him there, maybe more; and he does not know which is which. Lost Highway touches on these concerns, but its handling remains oddly bland, ultimately hollow.

The film asserts an all American, suburban-Puritan belief in the idiosyncratic eyewitness and the visionary, the truth of an individual viewpoint and even of messianic derangement, while all the while conveying almost wearily that such subjectivity as idealised elsewhere has entered terminal decline.

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