David Lynch is very similar to Joni Mitchell for me – in one regard only. Whenever I’m listening to a Joni Mitchell album it feels like my favourite by her. The best one she made. It’s often like that with Lynch’s films. I could make a case for Blue Velvet – as so many do. Elephant Man had a huge impact for me. Eraserhead, frankly, frightened the shit out of me. Baffled me. And I liked that. And The Straight Story is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. I was super into Mulholland Drive and I like that it’s raved about and revered and yet still very much polarising. And I only just saw Inland Empire recently and I can’t believe I left it so long. Wild At Heart is one I definitely need to see again – but I’m going to read the book first. And so, you see, they all kick in on some level. But the movie that means the most to me from the Lynch canon, to date anyway, is Lost Highway.
For a start it’s the first film by David Lynch that I saw in a cinema.
It also arrived at peak cinema-going for me. A part-time job to pay for tickets and no cares beyond. Movies on at ten in the morning and right through until nearly midnight. Sometimes it was two a day. Three on one occasion. Luxury.
And many other things aligned.
Bill Pullman was everywhere – but mostly in rom-coms so the chance to see him getting gritty was good. Similarly, Patricia Arquette was very much in my world after her star turn in the Tarantino-derived True Romance (add Ed Wood and Flirting With Disaster too). And, hey, probably my all-time favourite horror movie is A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. That’s Patricia Arquette’s first film! The brilliant and very old-school character actors Robert Loggia and Robert Blake were fresh in my mind as I had started bingeing video-store classics. And Henry Rollins – a bit of a blatant non-actor bit-part that he has continued to reference as one of the great footnote-highlights in his career – was on my bookshelf and bedside table very much around this time. He’s now elevated to that space of names I mentioned at the top – his work has had a huge impact on me but at the time I first saw Highway I knew him from a couple of intense songs and a couple of intense books only.
So all of that is crucial scene-setting for me.
Then there’s the soundtrack. So many good things about this – Bowie the brilliant phoenix rising from the ashes of a rum 90s. Lou Reed covering This Magic Moment is actually the last magical moment from him I reckon. It’s the swansong I think of when I think about Reed (and you know from the way I started this that I very much do think of Reed – he was a guiding presence for the longest time it seemed).
And Lynch’s composer of choice, Angelo Badalamenti offers up some of his best work; here assisted by Barry Adamson – who again was relatively new to me at the time. A name to credit-spot since I was just getting into the Nick Cave/Bad Seeds music and charting the work of all of the associated musicians.
So that’s the perfect storm of ingredients for me. But what about the content?
Well, it’s a beautiful headfuck. All at once a nod to German Expressionism and the French New Wave, crime potboilers and a neo-noir that is also just this deep existential horror film: You are trapped in the loop of a crime that you don’t know you committed, the names and faces change around you and you can’t escape – it’s a feverish dream that plays out in its own languid space. And then you escape only to be dumped back in it like a perpetual Twiliht Zone.
Bill Pullman’s shrieking-honk jazz was exciting. And then his character disappears and is replaced by a new actor and a new character. Arquette’s character is killed but she reappears with a new look, and a new name – so she is someone else. Or is she? All the while the music surges. The images are arresting. And the creepy moments pile up. Particularly thanks to the unhinged Robert Blake and his “Mystery Man”. This scene is etched into my brain:
So I said at the start that it’s interesting how worlds swirl, how you start thinking about one thing and then find the connections…The Lynch thing was happening again for me. Then I got obsessed with just how good Laura Dern is – even without straight away thinking of her as one of Lynch’s early and enduring muses. And then I start thinking about how much I love Barry Gifford but I need to read more – so I buy this thing called The Rooster Trapped In Th Reptile Room – an anthology of sorts, it’s subtitled ‘A Barry Gifford Reader’. Gifford wrote the novel that Lynch adapted into Wild At Heart. He was the person Lynch went to when he thought about Lost Highway.
The title comes from a line in Gifford’s early 90s novel, Night People. David asks Barry to help him write a script for an imagined place – The Lost Highway. He wants to explore that phrase. He’s also coming out of the deep period in his life devoted to Twin Peaks – and the dream-logic that he rides on across Lost Highway is refined for both Mulholland and Inland. They might be better explorations but they both need Lost Highway. The way Court and Spark set up both Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira for Joni after her intense period as ‘just’ a folk-derived singer/songwriter.
Gifford’s Reader was in my hands and I chopped through the wee extract from the Lost Highway screenplay and an article he wrote for a film mag about his collaborations with David Lynch. (I read some of the poems too). And then it was down to Aro Video – which I support with both my heart and wallet (while it remains) and I rented a DVD copy of Lost Highway.
It was wonderful. Again. The mood. The music. The creepiness. The performances. And in fact the only thing that’s dated badly about it is Marilyn Manson’s involvement (soundtrack production and contributions and a barely-there acting cameo). But you couldn’t know that at the time and doesn’t diminish the power of the film – and actually Manson’s soundtrack efforts were right for it; him being about as on point as he ever was.
And speaking of magic moments, this wasn’t just Lou Reed’s final great song (in my opinion) it was Richard Pryor’s (actual) final film appearance. He’s been on my mind an awful lot too lately.
The last thing I love about Lost Highway is that it received two thumbs down from Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel – leading names in film criticism back at the time of the release. Lynch took their comments and summarized them as simply “two more great reasons to see” the film. Lol. That is how you handle criticism. And that is what I love about Lynch. He’s in his own world when he’s making and creating. He’s sure of it – or sure at least of what he’s attempting to do. He stands by it. As any artist should. He knows it was worth his sweat.
Lost Highway is a beautiful mess of a movie – that went on to be the major way forward for David Lynch films. I met Barry Gifford once, briefly. But that’s another story. For another time. It also swims in my head now when I watch this film in particular.