David Lynch and Trent Reznor: The Lost Boys

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Will Lost Highway change that bad fortune? Hard to say. Certainly its unexpected plot turns and mystifying final movement may prove dismaying for viewers accustomed to the unambiguous narratives that define today's popular-film sensibility. "Every single element in a movie," says Lynch, "now has to be understood – and understood at the lowest common denominator. It's a real shame, because there are so many places that people could go if they weren't corralled so tightly with those kinds of restraints."

Lost Highway, co-written by Lynch and Barry Gifford, is the story of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a jazz saxophonist married to a dark-haired, sexy, cold woman named Renee (Patricia Arquette, in a tricky and award-worthy performance). Fred and Renee share a dark bedroom in a dark, almost windowless house (darkness is everywhere in the first part of this movie), but they don't share confidences, and they don't share time together. Fred suspects that Renee may have another life, another lover. One morning, Fred and Renee begin to find cryptic videos left at their front door, showing the two of them asleep in their bed. It's a scary intrusion, but for Fred it also represents another kind of violation: He hates the presence of a video camera. "I like to remember things my own way," he tells a policeman, "not necessarily the way they happened."

One horrible night, Fred thinks he senses someone in the house. He wanders off into the house's blackness, and when he returns, Renee has been savagely murdered. Did Fred kill her? He isn't sure, but he ends up on death row for the crime. There, on another horrible night, he suffers a psychic implosion, and when he comes to, Fred no longer exists. He has been replaced by (or metamorphosed into) a younger man, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who possesses no memory of how he entered Fred's cell.

Since Fred Madison and Pete Dayton are seemingly not the same man, and since the younger man is guilty of nothing more than an old car-theft charge, Pete is set free. He returns to his job as an auto mechanic, where one of his prize customers is a gangster, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), who has a taste for fine cars, ravishing women, guns and pornography. One afternoon, Mr. Eddy brings a Cadillac to the shop. He is accompanied by a lovely blond woman (also played by Arquette). That night, the blonde – who calls herself Alice – returns alone to see Pete, and the two begin a feverish affair. This, Mr. Eddy makes plain, is not to his liking. Alice grows frightened and wants to flee Los Angeles with Pete. First, though, she persuades him to help her rob a friend of Mr. Eddy's whom she sometimes fucks for money. The robbery goes wrong; Pete accidentally kills the man (horrifically but also hilariously). It is then that Pete finds out Alice is not the woman he thought she was and that everything in Lost Highway – time, fate, identity and love – turns inside out.

There's more that could be said about the film's plot twists and characters – especially about a gnomish figure called the Mystery Man (played with elegant menace by Robert Blake), who reckons crucially into Fred's and Pete's fates. But a narrative exposition can't truly illuminate what Lynch has accomplished with Lost Highway. Long after the movie's frantic closing moments, you will wonder how its mysteries fold in on one another. Who killed Renee? Are Renee and Alice the same woman? And the Mystery Man: Just who the fuck is he? Is he an incubus or a demon – or is he as close to an honest and redeeming character as can be found in this story? The keys are all there – Lost Highway is not simply an absurd conundrum – but the answers can be as hard to uncover as the hidden details of a dream.

"You can say that a lot of Lost Highway is internal," says Lynch. "It's Fred's story. It's not a dream: It's realistic, though according to Fred's logic. But I don't want to say too much. The reason is: I love mysteries. To fall into a mystery and its danger . . . everything becomes so intense in those moments. When most mysteries are solved, I feel tremendously let down. So I want things to feel solved up to a point, but there's got to be a certain percentage left over to keep the dream going. It's like at the end of Chinatown: The guy says, 'Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.' You understand it, but you don't understand it, and it keeps that mystery alive. That's the most beautiful thing."

Barry Gifford, Lynch's co-writer on Lost Highway, is slightly more forthcoming. "Let's say you don't want to be yourself anymore," he says. "Something happens to you, and you just show up in Seattle, living under the name Joe Smith, with a whole different reality. It means that you're trying to escape something, and that's basically what Fred Madison does. He gets into a fugue state, which in this case means that he can't go anywhere – he's in a prison cell, so it's happening internally, within his own mind. But things don't work out any better in the fugue state than they do in real life. He can't control the woman any more than he could in real life. You might say this is an explanation for what happens. However, this is not a complete explanation for the film. Things happen in this film that are not – and should not be – easily explained."

Gifford is right: There's more to Lost Highway than its mysteries. There's also the movie's painterly photography, the tense and subtle performances by Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, and the bravura creepiness of Robert Blake's Mystery Man, plus a throbbing undercurrent of ambient sound by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor during the video sequences. All these elements add up to making Lost Highway a film about the wonder of what film can be.

"For me," says Lynch, "a film exists somewhere before you do it. It's sitting in some abstract world, complete, and you're just listening to it talk to you, telling you the way it's supposed to be. But not until all the sound and music and editing has been done do you truly know what it is. Then it's finished. It feels right, the way it's supposed to be, or as right as it can. And when it's finished, you're back in a world where you don't control anything. You just do the best you can, then say farewell."

In the days between my first and second conversations with David Lynch, actor Jack Nance – whom Lynch had worked with for 25 years – was found dead in his South Pasadena, Calif., home. The day before, Nance had gotten into a fight with two men in a doughnut shop and suffered a severe head blow.

It was Nance who played Henry, Lynch's high-strung alter ego in Eraserhead. He also appeared in most of Lynch's subsequent films and played the part of Pete Martell, the long-suffering lumber-mill foreman, in Twin Peaks. In that series' opening moments, he makes the awful discovery of Laura Palmer's dead body; in its final hour, he is blown to kingdom come.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

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