A Great Movie: “Lost Highway”

A GREAT MOVIE is, well, just that. A chance, untethered from any specific purpose, to write a little about a movie that’s great, hopefully recommending you to check it out for the first time or again. It’s of course inspired by the legendary Roger Ebert, whose Great Movie books were a foundational asset to me.

Many of the cultural essays and books I’ve read lately have made offhand mention of a specific cultural process that my millennial generation doesn’t quite share. The video bootleg was, for many years, a process by which underground or pop oddities were shared between siblings, roommates, or friends. It was such a common touchstone that companies and studios created “official bootlegs” which, alright. My generation didn’t have this analog community distribution model, but we did have YouTube and the ilk, from early to advance versions. I remember huddling around home PCs or school computers to see the latest hilarious out-there video. One of my favorites was this clip from David Lynch’s 1997 cult-classic Lost Highway.

Once I was shown this clip, by a classmate/cousin, I made it a duty to share it as far and wide as possible. I’ve watched it dozens of times. It’s an amazing bit of cinema, that plays even creepier in the film, but also operates as an extraordinary short film removed from all context (which with Lynch films, admittedly isn’t that hard to do). It’s a terrifying convergence of sound, performance, and style that has never left anyone I’ve shown it to unscathed. The same applies to Lost Highway in whole.

The Mystery Man call scene is so extraordinary that, for years, it turned me off entirely from seeing Lost Highway. But finally, after avoiding it all through college, I finally experienced Lynch’s film in full and it was just as unsettling as I had imagined.

Bill Pullman, radiating lukewarm intensity, plays Fred Madison, a Jazz saxophonist who, after probably killing his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), is sentenced to the electric chair. Once on death row, Madison suffers from visions, related to earlier sequences in the film, that change him into another person entirely, Pete (Balthazar Getty), a twenty or so year old car mechanic. It’s a true Lynchian narrative: a pain to describe, but sure to make the listener intrigued no matter how I (poorly) described it. The film is pretty starkly divided into thirds. The first is the Pullman/Renee section, and is some of Lynch’s finest work I’ve seen. It’s psychologically terrifying, narratively puzzling, but stylishly clear. Lynch is a genius because the way his preoccupation with theme overruns narrative, but never misses out on character. Lynch makes mysteries without puzzles. There’s nothing to solve (and his plots work against any kind of cohesion that would allow a viewer to solve them), but there is always mystery around emotion as much as story. This has made Lynch both loved and hated, sometimes at the concurrently.

Lost Highway often feels like a dry run for Mulholland Dr., Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece that evolves many of the themes and devices found here. What Lost Highway misses most of all is a titanic leading performance, the likes that Naomi Watts gives Mulholland. Highway is instead saddled with Balthazar Getty. All you need to know about Getty is how David Foster Wallace described him in his essay on the film and Lynch: “Balthazar Getty turned out to be uninteresting & puerile & narcissistic as only an oil heir who’s a movie star just out of puberty can be.  As a Hot Young Male Actor, Balthazar Getty is to Leonardo DiCaprio roughly what a Ford Escort is to a Lexus.”

Lynch’s film is a hodgepodge of psychologically unsettling moments, both intentional and not (the Richard Pryor cameo is uncomfortable when it’s clear his health is deteriorating), but the director manages to mold them together by the film’s end. Perhaps by intrinsic nature or my experiences with it, Lost Highway, while great, may live better and longer in moderation. I don’t know when I’ll have the fortitude to see the film in its entirety again, but I’ll see the Mystery Man scene probably a hundred more times in my life.

Scenic Routes:

* The film’s soundtrack was a hit upon its release (it reached #7 on the Billboard 200), no doubt due to the arrangement and original songs by Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor. It was re-released last year on special edition vinyl, a true sign of its cult importance. It is a great soundtrack, with a fantastic cultivation of hard, near avant-garde rock. It’s not something I’d just throw on, but a late night drive (probably not in LA) would suit it well.

* The film features the final performances of three greats: Robert Blake, Richard Pryor, and Jack Nance. The only shame is that they aren’t given enough to do and are sidelined for, ugh, Balthazar Getty.

* I haven’t seen Twin Peaks yet, but Pullman seems to fit with Lynch’s fascination of playing with the tense faces of B-level leading men (Kyle MacLachlan, Nicholas Cage, etc.)



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