"Lost Highway" may be David Lynch's best, most Lynchian film yet. Dark and disturbing, unrelenting and unsettling, gorgeously made, sizzlingly sensual yet coldly fatalist, it shows Lynch ever more determined to escape the shackles of narrative convention, even after four years of being unable to get his projects financed. In its fever-dream orchestration of incident, sound and music, Lynch has made a musical. After you've seen it, you find yourself humming—in your sleep.
Almost twenty years ago, in college, I talked to Lynch on the phone. "Eraserhead"'s reputation had begun to grow, but it had no distributor and the campus film society wanted to show it. I can still remember Lynch's gee-whiz voice on the phone, every bit the "Jimmy Stewart on Mars" Mel Brooks called him after they worked together on "The Elephant Man." This time out, I fell victim to Lynch's PR-fade, missing chances to talk to him at the Sundance Festival and over the phone. It may be all to the better: In interviews, Lynch is notoriously elusive, wanting never to pin down meaning, symbolism or directorial intent, but fond of saying things much like his characters would, such as that he's "lost in darkness and confusion." On the night of "Lost Highway"'s premiere in Park City, Utah, Lynch whirled through his own party on a cushion of hellos and smiles, his graying hair a constructivist event, spiky on one side and strangely curled on the other. Much like the furniture he's constructed for his characters to languish against in "Lost Highway," Lynch seemed as much artifact as flesh.
After seeing "Lost Highway" four times, I've found it more and more haunting, open to equally nightmarish interpretations each time. "Lost Highway" is the story of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who has a world of trouble boiling through his head over his feelings for his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette)—jealousy, madness, rationalization, some large thing. Whether taken as fantasy or nightmare, Lynch's revisionist noir yarn is as pungent as a punch in the face, as quixotic as revisiting a lost love; it's essentially a romantic tragedy, tinged with a deep undercurrent of sadness and hurt. Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford use minimal means in trying to convince us that Fred could transform himself into another person out of his emotional pain; the amazing surfaces that the former painter composes while working through the plot are nothing short of ravishing. And yet... is the story banal, riddled with psychological clichés, or grandly mysterious?
A sometimes-overlooked element in Lynch's mastery of mood—evading the subject of traditional narrative coherence entirely—is the use of sound. Robert Bresson once wrote that "the sound film invented silence," and Lynch intuitively understands the use of the pause, of silence, of distant, indeterminate noise. My interpretation of the mobius-strip structure of "Lost Highway"—you may want to stop here if you want to be surprised—is that Fred Madison is caught in a nightmare he can't wake from, a sexually paranoid dream in which his wife has sex with every man she meets. As Madison becomes more paranoid, his personality splits into several characters—young stud Balthazar Getty, who meets a woman much like Renee; old goat Robert Loggia, who possesses the second Renee already; and Robert Blake's Mystery Man, an enabling id-creature with eyes that burn into your soul.
Sound's the key. For twenty minutes, the tension between Fred and Renee grows. In a chicly furnished house of dark, interminable hallways and strange, impossible portents, the couple are cocooned in their unspoken disharmony. One morning, a dog begins to bark. Fred becomes upset—"Who owns that damn dog?" (Much as one's dreams can shift focus based on external stimulus.) I ran that idea past Bill Pullman, who grinned, "That damn dog. Uh-huh. Tell me more." Like the loopy line the late Jack Nance had in "Wild at Heart," "My dog barks... late at night... sometimes," this seems to be the moment that the nightmare begins—the moment when the outside world begins to impinge on the claustrophobic space inside Fred Madison's head. Pullman smiles. "David isn't much for interpretations, but he might like that one."
Lynch's instructions were specific. "I want to hear bubbles and gristle and the weight of the body pulling down on the bone," he told Gaeta, who got the job after cutting the sound on two scenes—Loggia's gangster berating a tailgater and a close-up of a moth banging against a light bulb. "Once I did that, he loved it," Gaeta said.
Beyond Lynch's precise idea of how a film should sound as well as look, Gaeta credits the director with one unusual practice—music by Angelo Badalamenti, Barry Adamson, and a "drone" composed by Trent Reznor were all there in advance. "I was doing sound effects around the drone," Gaeta says, "So you can't tell the music from the sound effects. I could be in the key that Trent was in; my effects could be tonal." Since most scores are composed at the very last moment, this is an incredible rarity. "Sound is usually atonal. I was purposely trying to hit the key the music was in. And that gave us a beautiful marriage of sound and effects." [Originally published 11 October 1997.]