Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Lost and Found Highway

"I like to remember things my own way. How I remember them; not necessarily the way they happened."

So says Fred Madison, Bill Pullman's character in David Lynch's 1997 mind bender of a movie Lost Highway. This is shortly before he's arrested for the murder of his wife (Patricia Arquette), which he has no memory of committing, and then morphs into a totally different character (played by Balthazar Getty) who's having an affair with a gangster's moll (also Arquette) who may or may not be the same person as Pullman's murdered wife.

When is was released in 1997 Lost Highway belly flopped at the box office and the critics, to put it mildly, tore it (and Lynch) a new asshole. I, on the other hand, liked the film quite a bit. I'm a big David Lynch fan and ever since I saw it in the theater (I might have been the only one) eleven years ago, I like to remember Lost Highway as one of my favorite Lynch films. It's a classic noir tale of sex and murder in Los Angeles reimagined through the lens of a terrifying, surrealist nightmare. I don't think the movie has ever been given a fair shake.

So imagine my delight today when I stop by The Onion A.V. Club today and discover not one, but two articles about Lost Highway and that both of them are positive reconsiderations of the film! I've talked about it before on this blog, but I am endlessly fascinated by the way general opinions and perceptions of movies shift over time. It's interesting to trace these gradual evolutions of thought and also deeply satisfying when the critical winds eventually turn in your favor.

Today on the A.V. Club, Nathan Phipps reviews the newly released Lost Higway DVD (the first ever available American DVD release of the film, btw) and gives the film a shockingly positive A- review

The second article is a post on the Onion A.V. Club Blog in which Phipps rationalizes, and more or less apologizes for, the scathing review he gave Lost Highway eleven years ago. This is not the sort of thing that critics usually do, but I applaud Mr. Phipps for it. I'm often annoyed that when older, catalogue films are released on DVD many critics will simply rerun their original review of the film rather than revisit it, even if decades have passed in the interim. I realize that this would essentially double the critic's already substantial workload, and in most cases would be fruitless - films like Chairman of the Board or I Still Know What You Did Last Summer aren't suddenly going to ripen into an unsung masterpiece, no matter how much time you give them - but occasionally there are films that are genuinely underseen and underappreciated in their own time and in my opinion the time taken to find and rescue those films is time well spent.

For me Lost Highway has always been one of those films. I've been hoping for a proper Region 1 DVD release for years, but ironically it turns out that being unavailable on DVD in the US until now is the best thing that ever happened to Lost Highway. Looking around the internet this week, the new DVD release is forcing many websites, magazines, and critics (almost all of whom originally panned the film) to watch it again with new eyes. Had Lost Highway come out on DVD in the late '90s or early aughts most critics probably would have fallen back on their original reviews (only a few years old at that point) and dismissed the film out of hand, but viewing Highway again after a decade, and now in the context of Lynch's continuing body of work, many critics are discovering a much richer film than the one they originally blasted. Slate Magazine's original review, written by David Edelstien, was subtitled "Lynch in Decay" and accused the director of descending into empty style and shock tactics.
"But where his masterpieces looked inward, Lost Highway has a baleful eye on the throng. It's an assaultive, punk-rock notion of moviemaking, a head-banger. Sitting through it, I felt as if my brain were being whirred into a gray-matter milkshake, as if Lynch were convinced that this was the end of art: to fuck with people's minds."

Roger Ebert had similar words in 1997, accusing Lost Highway of being "a film made with a certain breezy contempt for audiences."

Eleven years later the consensus among a growing number of critics is that, in retrospect, Highway marked an important artistic turning point in Lynch's career. A moment when the themes and ideas he'd been playing with in all of of his films up to that point solidified into a new sort of surrealist horror film that was uniquely "Lynchian" and yet made Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart seem like mainstream cineplex fare by comparison. David Lim's review of the DVD for* describes Lost Highway as having
"unlocked something in [Lynch]. The movie is itself a rupture point within the Lynch cosmos. It moved his films even closer to the logic of the unconscious, not least his own."

I think that's accurate. Certainly it was a formula that Lynch would later perfect with Mulholland Drive which, despite being a virtual remake of Lost Highway, was beloved by the same critics who tore Lost Highway apart. This always perplexed me. While I agree that Mulholland Drive is the better of the two films, they are both working so completely from the same bag of tricks that I've never seen how it's possible to love one and dismiss the other.

History seems to have proven me right on this one. Eleven years on, in the pages of Slant Magazine, the very same publication in which David Edelstien cited Lost Higway as proof of Lynch's artistic decay, Jeremiah Kipp concludes his four-and-a-half star review of the Lost Highway thusly:

Lost Highway is not an artistic failure; in many ways, it's Lynch at his most daring, emotional, and personal. It has not achieved the same attention his other films have, though it makes a fitting companion piece to, and inversion of, Mulholland Drive in countless ways...when his work genuinely connects, even at its most base and bizarre, Lynch is one of the most pointedly realistic filmmakers in cinema, far more than most of his more naturalistic contemporaries. To understand the emotional realism in Lynch's work is, in fact, to understand the emotional realism of poetry."

It's hard to sum it up any better than that, so I'll finish here with some clips here of my favorite moments from Lost Highway.

The first is probably the most famous scene in the film, the confrontation between Bill Pullman and Robert Blake's "Mystery Man." This scene is creepy enough on its own, but considering that it comes just before the bizarre "discovery" of Patricia Arquette's murder and the equally bizarre turns that Robert Blake's real life took after this film, the whole thing has an extra level of creepiness to it.

This next clip is the scene where Balthazar Getty first sees the girlfriend of mobster Mr. Eddie (a never snarlier Robert Loggia). This is Lynch playing around with a classic movie moment: A sexy ankle steps out of a car, the camera pans up a sexier leg to an even sexier body and music plays as the guy lays eyes on the dame for the first time. It's easy to criticize this scene for being cliche, but when you consider that this second half of Lost Highway is most likely a delusional fantasy concocted by Bill Pullman while he sits on death row (in exactly the same way that the first half of Mulholland Drive is probably the delusional fantasy concocted by Naomi Watts's character after she is jilted by Laura Harring's character, which we don't actually see until the second half of the movie) then the scene becomes a playful riff on the cliche. This is the sort of thing a man on death row would come up with as he imagined himself into an alternate, noir-infused fantasyland. Also, I really dig the slow motion photography here and Lou Reed's cover of "This Magic Moment" is rad as hell. And it doesn't hurt that Patricia Arquette is hot.

Finally, in a way that is kind of fitting for this Lost Highway, I'll end at the beginning. This is the opening credit sequence for the film; the POV of the front fender of a car as it screams down the middle of a pitch black highway into darkness. This sequence leaves me with a feeling of deep dread that sets the mood for the film. I would describe it as "I don't know where we're going, but I feel like something awful is going to happen any second." Again the music here (David Bowie's "Deranged")is awesome. Lost Highway had a great soundtrack. Even if you're not fan of the film, I recommend picking up.

* - I highly recommend David Lim's review/reconsideration of Lost Higway on It is not only a well written review of the film, but it also does an excellent job of describing the movie's evolution from reviled flop to cult favortie, and even tracks the influence it's had on other works:

"With its myriad doublings and insistent twinning of the sex and death drives, it has been a goldmine for psychoanalytically inclined scholars (including philosopher Slavoj Žižek), who have deciphered the plot in terms of repressed memory, wish fulfillment, and repetition compulsion...

"...It's not just shrinks and academics who have been inspired. David Foster Wallace's essay in Premiere magazine on the making of the film is a masterful blend of set-visit reporting and critical biography. One of the movie's eeriest plot points—a couple terrorized by surveillance videotapes—later turned up in Michael Haneke's Caché. Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth, making an explicit link between a psychological and a musical fugue, reimagined Lost Highway as an avant-garde opera, with a libretto by novelist and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. 'When I saw the film for the first time,' Jelinek said, 'it was like a blow to my brain stem.'

1 comment:

Seanothan said...

I saw this years ago when I was in High School because I was/am a huge NIN fan. I gotta see this again. Thanks for your article!