While I was gathering notes for this article, David Bowie died. Fitting, then, that Lost Highway features one of his songs prominently in both the opening and closing credits. Bowie understood more than most the utter maleability of an artist’s mind, which is really at the heart of this film. Recently, after watching the movie for maybe the sixth time, and the first time in maybe five years, I realized that the film really can’t be understood without understanding that the main character is an artist, and that the mind of an artist is one of abstraction.
Speaking of David Bowie, he might easily have been summing up Lost Highway in a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose. He said, “I’ve often wondered if being an artist is a sign of a kind of dysfunction, a social dysfunction…the saner, rational approach to life is to survive steadfastly and create a protective home…anything else is extra.”
Indeed. But are artists’ minds so much different? Some think so, primarily certain artists themselves. David Lynch, who directed Lost Highway, features artists somewhere in most of his movies. Usually, they’re musicians, that most abstract yet mathematical kind of artist. Whether this attitude originates from a superiority complex or maybe some place more noble is debatable. Whatever the motivation, Lost Highway makes the argument that artists have a very unique relationship to the unconscious.
The film begins with a frenetic opening sequence: A shot of a two-lane road at night, the center lines moving erratically back and forth, the camera pushing forward up the road at a delirious pace. It’s a highway of the mind, unfocused, constantly moving. Then there’s the David Bowie song, written during his brief Industrial phase, “I’m Deranged,” playing over the whole crazy scene. It’s a cool song, but one that kind of gives the game away from the beginning. The main character, Fred (Bill Pullman), is indeed quite deranged. But the song choice might have been necessary, an immediate indication that the movie we’re about to see is coming from a very, very subjective point of view. In other words, exit now if you don’t want to become one with the Weird.
The movie opens as Fred (Bill Pullman) slowly inhales a cigarette. The camera stays tight on Fred’s face. The scene is saturated in red. Fred is a very jealous, angry, disturbed man. Next, there’s a call on his intercom. Fred goes to answer it and a mysterious voice says, “Dick Laurent is dead.” He looks out his window. Nobody there. We are entering a world of deep paranoia.
From here we move to a scene between Fred and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) at their home in Los Angeles. They’re having a very strained conversation. Renee asks if it’s okay that she doesn’t go to the club to watch him perform that night. But it’s more a statement than a question. When Fred almost hatefully asks what she plans on doing instead, she says she’s going to read. A maniacal grin on Fred’s face. “Read what?” he says. In just a few words and gestures, we know that this marriage is a sham.
We’re never told why, of course. This wouldn’t be a David Lynch movie if the characters had any real backstory. They exist only in the moment.
The whole movie is a product of Fred’s imagination. Insanity, delusion and fantasy are all combined into a singular surreal vision; we are looking into a man’s unconscious. At the center of this strange fantasy is Renee, his obsession with her, with her vague past, with the idea that he can’t get a handle on who she is.
Fred plays tenor sax in a modern Jazz band (the soundtrack is hauntingly composed by Angelo Badalamenti and supplemented by late 90’s rock acts like Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein). Jazz, that very intuitive, abstract, emotion-driven art form. It’s an abstract kind of expression for an abstract thinker like Fred– in short, the perfect profession for him, and no wonder he excels at it and makes his living doing it.
We see Fred at work only once, just after the previously-mentioned conversation with Renee. He’s on stage, playing with his band, and when the rest of the band reaches the end of the song, Fred keeps playing passionately, blowing a real dark sax solo. His misery, the violence inside, distilled into sad, frenetic notes. To Fred, everything is abstraction. He’s not a logical thinker. He’s all instinct. To paraphrase William S. Burroughs, he’s exterminated rational thought. He’s emotionally deep but logically shallow. In other words, if Fred is an artist, he is pathological.
Lost Highway is a series of surreal images grounded in a kind of cinematic realism. The film’s universe isn’t totally dreamlike. It’s almost like everyday life. The strangeness, the unreality, is mostly based on the behavior of the characters, the coincidences, the nonlinear structure. You feel like this could almost really happen. And that’s much more frightening than something you realize is a dream.
When I first saw Lost Highway, I was sixteen years old and my friend and I were only going to see the thing because Marilyn Manson was on the soundtrack and he and bass player Twiggy Ramirez had a small cameo in the movie. We were obsessed with the group at the time. And sure, I had seen The Elephant Man as a kid, but I had no idea this was the same director. I knew almost nothing about this David Lynch guy. All I knew was that this was going to be some dark, dark stuff. I wasn’t prepared for something so abstract and nonlinear and left the theater on that weird winter night feeling confused, cheated, tricked. But I was also fascinated, transformed. I thought about the plot for a while and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I finally came to the conclusion that it wasn’t meant to make any sense. I figured Lost Highway was a series of episodes connected only by the “I’m Deranged” song. I was partially right. Just sitting back and letting the images wash over you is a good way to experience the thing. Lynch is famously reticent about revealing meaning or motivation behind his images. So watching the movie unencumbered by rational thought is most likely the way the filmmaker would prefer us to experience it. Still, back then, I felt like I was missing something.
The meaning, if that’s even the right word, became much more clear as I was discussing the movie with my friend Adam around a year later. He told me there’s a few lines of dialogue, spoken by Fred, that explains the whole movie. “I like to remember things my own way…how I remembered them, not necessarily the way it happened.”
Indeed. And this line is delivered to a couple of detectives who are interviewing Fred and Renee at their LA home after a VHS tape arrives at their door. The tape is the second one they’ve received in what we assume is as many days (like everything else in this movie, time is a relative concept). The first tape shows in black and white the image of the outside of their house. The second tape begins with the same image, but soon the camera moves into their house, and into their bedroom, where it pauses on the husband and wife sleeping in their bed, very opposite sides of the bed, with no indication of love or compassion between them, before abruptly shutting off.
Yes, we know that cameras lie, but they also tell the truth. The camera can’t help it. It needs at least some reality in order to be of any use. And it’s this truth that Fred is afraid of. When the detectives ask him whether they own a video camera, Renee says that, no, Fred hates them. However “false” his memories might be, to be tampered with, intruded on by the perceived objectivity of the camera is the real crime. Fred’s truth is of a higher order than the camera can deliver. The emotional truth of a situation is all that matters.
That scene with the detectives is important for another reason: they are caricatures instead of characters, human by only the thinnest of definitions. They speak in unemotional, short declarative sentences. They are stiffs, as cold and unfeeling as the video camera that Fred’s so afraid of. Mere placeholders. Since Lost Highway takes place in Fred’s mind, there might or might not be any real detectives he’s basing these guys on. Characters are given development only in their importance to Fred, especially as it concerns his relationship to Renee.
The detectives finish their questioning and head out to their cars. Very interesting thing here: As they stand in the sunlight outside Fred and Renee’s house, we’re treated to one of the many overhead shots throughout the film. We get the sense of someone looking down on the scene, spying on it. I took this to mean it was Fred himself, peering into his own mind. But there’s really no direct evidence for this. Like a lot of things in Lost Highway, we’re allowed to bring our own unconscious into the thing.
Later on, during a fancy dinner party, Fred meets his Mystery Man for the first time. Played by Robert Blake in his final acting role, he wears pale white makeup and speaks in a dark, menacing tone. Fred approaches the man and the loud party music goes mute. (A nice little nod to the subjective perspective of the flick. Fred isn’t paying attention to the music anymore, so it goes away.) There’s a familiarity about the guy that Fred can’t quite place. The Mystery Man tells Fred that he’s in his house, right now. After first dismissing the claim as “crazy,” Fred finally dials his house at the urging of the Mystery Man, who has one of those bricks of a late 1990’s cellphone. Someone picks up on the other side. It’s the Mystery Man, who is somehow both standing in front of Fred and in his house at the same time. When asked how he was able to do that, the Mystery Man says, “You invited me. It’s not my custom to go where I’m not wanted.”
So the Mystery Man is a kind of agent of chaos, a trickster demon invoked by Fred’s unconscious mind. He seems an evil entity when we first meet him, but we later find out that he can be a friend. He can’t exist without Fred, though Fred can exist without him. (In what form would Fred exist, though?) The Mystery Man is an abstraction, kind of the king of abstractions, a primal urge, desire made manifest. And who better to be keyed into this kind of thing, this extrasensory being, than Fred, an artist, and an abstract artist at that. The Mystery Man cannot exist in a logical world. He’s too dynamic a force.
Spooked by the Mystery Man, Fred convinces a very drunk Renee to leave the party. He’s angry and jealous because Renee was flirting heavily with Andy, an old friend, who is probably either an ex-boyfriend, ex-pimp, or both. Fred drives erratically, mimicking the opening scene, except this time instead of focusing on the road, the camera stays on Fred and Renee as they awkwardly converse. Renee causally hints at a “job” that Andy got for her before she met Fred, when she was looking for work. It’s here that Fred’s jealousy and paranoia reaches a peak, as the implications of Renee’s possible prostitution and involvement with underworld boss Dick Laurent become too real to deny.
They arrive at their house. Fred, convinced that someone has broken into the place, takes a look around before the two of them go in. A very chilling scene follows. There’s just the briefest flash of a shot where Fred is covered in blood, presumably Renee’s, as she lay lifeless on the floor. Then we quickly flash to an interrogation scene and one of the detectives we saw earlier screams “Murderer!” before punching Fred in the face. It’s not possible. He couldn’t have killed Renee. But soon it dawns on him that he has.
The murder is conspicuous by its absence. Fred’s mind won’t allow him to access that. It’s the one memory he cannot reproduce, even in the muddled way he remembers and dreams. We only see hints of it, and very briefly, in its aftermath. Its absence signifies its reality. It’s the cold stare of the camera made manifest, the one thing he cannot change or deny. So he represses it totally. For us, the audience, the murder is the one “fact,” the one thing we can be sure really happened. Everything else we see, every fantasy, every attempt at redemption revolves around this very concrete fact.
A very quick few moments after the interrogation scene, we see Fred being led to a dark prison cell. A judge’s voice-over tells us that Fred has been convicted of Renee’s murder and is now on death row.
Except for interactions with the guards, his life is solitary. Outside, by himself, presumably to get some exercise, Fred is seized with headaches. A guard asks him what’s wrong and Fred replies, “My head.” And, yes, indeed. So he’s taken to the prison doctor, another character almost totally devoid of character, purposely there to deliver lines in monotone. “Sleep now,” the doctor says, forcing some pills down Fred’s throat.
Here we enter the second act. If we’ve been on a weird journey so far, things are only going to get weirder.
A guard making his morning rounds discovers something very strange: a young man in his late teens sits in the cell where Fred should be. Fred has inexplicably morphed into Pete (Balthazar Getty).
When Pete’s parents (Lucy Butler and Gary Busey) come to pick him up from prison, we’re once again presented with cardboard characters devoid of any real personality. Stand-ins, placeholders, stereotypes. Further proof that they’re products of Fred’s imagination, mere sketches of people.
Transformed into Pete, Fred has the chance to live his life over again, to right perceived wrongs. And he does. Whereas Fred was a poor lover, unable to sexually satisfy Renee, Pete is a young, virile man who is a rockstar in bed with both his girlfriend and a blonde named Alice. Alice is Renee by another name, Patricia Arquette in a blonde wig. She’s the girlfriend of Mr. Eddy, who is actually gangster Dick Laurent going by another name.
Alice drops by the garage where Pete works (Dick Laurent sent her, Pete being his favorite mechanic) and Lou Reed’s version of the Ben E King classic “This Magic Moment,” written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, plays. Time slows down. Pete is mesmerized, as are the other men working in the garage. Patricia Arquette plays Alice as Renee as the embodiment of sexual fantasy and frustration, a kind of unreachable beauty. Even someone as sexually together as Pete will have trouble trying to figure her out. Yes, the song is a bit heavy-handed, but, besides the opening titles, it’s the only part of the film that’s so straightforward with its symbolism. Still, it’s pretty powerful. And it works. Pete, like everyone else, is under her spell. It is indeed a sort of magic that she wields. More important, unaware that he doesn’t even exist, at least not in any meaningful way, Pete unconsciously sees this moment as his chance to right everything that Fred’s done, to “save” Alice as well as himself. He has a chance to figure out the mystery that is Renee.
Of course it never works like that. As cool and sexually robust as Pete is, he still won’t be able to solve the puzzle that is Renee / Alice. He won’t be able to charm her or dominate her like he does his girlfriend. He won’t be able to understand her. How can you understand another person when it takes more than a lifetime to understanding yourself? As such, Renee, as fully developed a character as she is, is still an abstraction. She is the Muse, personified.
Pete gets involved with Alice and before long Dick Laurent is onto them.
Convinced that Laurent is going to kill them, Alice gets Pete to go along with a scheme wherein they’ll steal some money from Andy, who is inexplicably the only figure in Fred’s life who is allowed to keep his original name in the second act. It’s here that, good intentioned as he might have been, Pete starts to realize that he might have been deceived, played all along by Alice in order to help her escape Laurent. But he’s in too deep now. He agrees to help. The robbery gets botched and Pete ends up accidentally killing Andy. When Pete asks “What did we do?” Alice answers that “we” didn’t do anything, he did. It’s at this point that Pete realizes he’s made a mistake. He’s been duped. Fred’s attempt to make things right by changing into Pete has gone terribly wrong. Even in his dreams he can’t escape his paranoia, his jealousy. He never had the slightest clue about his wife, his relationship to her, what she represented.
After making their getaway, Pete and Alice go to a “safe house” where Alice assures him that a man is going to meet them, a “fence” who can give them money for their stolen goods. But there’s no one at the house. One last time, outside the house, in the California desert, Renee and Pete make love. Finally, totally submissive to Alice as she lay atop him, he whispers, “I want you.” Alice responds, also in whisper, “You’ll never have me.”
And that’s really the last word on the subject. Alice walks away, naked, toward the house. Pete doesn’t try to follow her. He failed. Realizing the truth of what Alice said, Pete disappears and is replaced by Fred, still wearing Pete’s clothes, including his hip leather jacket. Now he goes after the one person he can actually do something about: Dick Laurent. He doesn’t need to figure Laurent out, he just needs to kill him. If he can’t do anything about Renee, he can at least destroy what he sees as the cause of her corruption. Fred tracks him down and, with the help of the Mystery Man, who is armed with a camcorder, does, in fact, kill him. The killing of Laurent is the death of Fred’s attempts to understand his world. He’s embraced his madness, his derangement. There’s no understanding for him except on an intuitive level. Fred listens as the Mystery Man whispers a secret into his ear. This is a secret we’re not allowed to hear. It belongs to Fred. And then the Mystery Man is gone.
The mystery, then, can be embraced, let in. It can be a friend. In fact, abstraction, personified by the Mystery Man, was Fred’s friend from the beginning. Fred simply failed to realize that you can’t fight it. You can’t apply logic to something inherently illogical. You can’t try to solve what is unsolvable. If you try, you risk serious psychological injury. And it’s a futile gesture anyway. The same goes for the camera. Fred finally realizes that it isn’t a malevolent force. In the hands of the mystery man, it becomes a tool for abstraction. (Sound perhaps a bit like a certain filmmaker?) Sure, a camera needs reality if it’s going to be of any use. It has to record something that is at least partially verifiable as objective reality, however hidden it might be. But it can use reality to abstract reality. The camera, Fred finally realizes, can be used to remember things how they are remembered, not necessarily now they happened.
Giving into his true nature, his “derangement,” is what sets Fred free, wandering down the Lost Highway of the mind. Realizing that some things are beyond understanding sets Fred free, removes the obsession.
Finally, Fred arrives back at his own house and through the intercom, pushes the button and says to himself on the other side, “Dick Laurent is dead.” A cryptic warning, indeed.
The sound of sirens in the distance. Fred gets into his car and speeds off to evade them. Fred’s head starts to vibrate, to shake, until he disappears and all we see is the highway. Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” plays again. Fred has given himself to the madness, the abstraction, the mystery.
At its most extreme, the life of an artist begins to resemble mental illness. We’ve all heard the stories of Picasso, Van Gogh, the Beats, the Surrealists. People who subsumed everything else in their life to the pursuit of art. They deny family, friends, even their gods in pursuit of their fantasies. They have a singular vision, an obsession. In Fred’s case, his obsession isn’t Renee, but what she represents: an enigma. Fred, the artist, the abstract thinker, is deranged and his derangement is a result of an inability to think in a logical, concrete manner. He remembers things the way he wants to, rather than the way things really are. This, in essence, is the mind of an artist, illustrated here in the extreme. Is Lost Highway a kind of warning? Far from it.