"The beauty in Lost Highway is at war with its absurdity, and the beauty wins," writes Greil Marcus in his essay on Lost Highway, "American Berserk: Bill Pullman's Face" in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice (2006). He's right. Each time you watch Lost Highway, it seems to me, the beauty matters more, and the absurdity matters less. This one needed time, and from this distance – 15 years now – it's hard to figure out why it was so reviled (not as reviled as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me a few years earlier, but still).
I remember watching the film, and I remember when the review ran in the Listener, and I remember the stills we used (not these ones, but stills that made it look more conventional – although maybe I'm just remembering things my way), but I don't remember what the review said and I don't have a copy of it. But in the years that followed I was boiling my 800-word reviews down into capsules when films ran on television. At some point last decade, Lost Highway:
David Lynch’s Lost Highway is even darker than usual – if your idea of “usual” is Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. The first third takes place in the quiet, creepy, dimly-lit nightmare world that is the decaying marriage of characters played by Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette – much of the terror in this sequence comes from subliminal sources, such as askew framing and ominous drones on the soundtrack. Pullman is afflicted by jealousy; he may murder his wife, but he can’t remember; in prison, he mysteriously morphs into another, younger man (Balthazar Getty), a mechanic who becomes involved with Arquette’s double. Like Mulholland Drive, this makes no sense as a conventional narrative but has an uncanny psychological truth and gets to a feeling of dread that more conventional horror movies seldom reach. A typically uncanny moment: Pullman meets a demonic, white-faced man (Robert Blake) at a party. The little man – the kind of death figure that recurs in Lynch movies – tells Pullman that he has been to his house. In fact, he is there at this very moment. And then he phones himself to prove it. Baffling and impressive. (1997)
Marcus' Lost Highway essay mostly riffs around the meaning of the American open road and the film's debt to the old noir Detour, and is thus more convincing than the Fire Walk with Me essay that follows it, which attempts an explanation of the Twin Peaks prequel/coda that refuses to accept the supernatural dimension ("there is mumbo jumbo all through Fire Walk with Me, just as there was when Twin Peaks was running through the woods on TV"). One valuable part of the Marcus essay is a long quote in a footnote from Lost Highway co-writer Barry Gifford, explaining some of the story's origins:
David [Lynch] had optioned for film my novel Night People, and we had talked for a year or more about how that could be done, but nothing happened. He fell in love with a couple of sentences in the book in particular, one of which was when one woman says to another, "We're just a couple of Apaches ridin' wild on the lost highway." What did it mean? he wanted to know. What was the deeper meaning of the phrase "lost highway"? He had an idea for a story. What if one day a person woke up and he was another person? An entirely different person from the person he had been the day before. OK, I said, that's Kafka, The Metamorphosis. But we did not want this person to turn into an insect. So that's what we had to start with: a title, Lost Highway; a sentence from close to the end of the book Night People ("You and me, mister, we can really out-ugly the sumbitches, can't we?"); the notion of irrefutable change; and a vision Dave had about someone receiving videotapes of his life from an unknown source, something he had thought of following the wrap of the shooting of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Now all we had to do was make a coherent story out of this.
The beautiful-sounding phrase "psychogenic fugue" became the official explanation for the Fred Madison/Pete Dayton switch in Lost Highway but there is another source, one I'd never considered, one which seems obvious now given the timing (a mid-90s production, a 1997 release). The endless road, the car chase and police sirens, the homicidal jealousy, the murdered girl and her shady friends ... this was a rare instance of Lynch topicality, of stories ripped from headlines. In a 2005 interview included on the new Lost Highway DVD (Madman release), Lynch says:
I had a fixation on OJ Simpson. I think some of this grew out of OJ Simpson. What does the mind do after such an horrific experience? How does the mind protect itself from that knowledge and go on?