In David Lynch's Tangled Nightmare, Reality Itself Is a Schrödinger's Paradox
1997 / USA, France / 134 min. / Dir. by David Lynch / Opened in select U.S. cities on Feb. 21, 1997by:
David Lynch is an auteur, so he has every right to tell you not to buy Kino Lorber’s new edition of his film Lost Highway (1997), which arrived for the first time on Blu-ray in the U.S. on June 25. As one of the most singular filmmakers in the history of the medium, it’s reasonable for Lynch to have complete control over his filmography. Just days before Lost Highway was set to be released, Lynch tweeted, “A Blu-ray of LOST HIGHWAY will be released very soon. It was made from old elements and NOT from a restoration of the original negative.” He went on to express hope for a different restoration in the near future, which many interpreted as a hint at an upcoming version from the Criterion Collection. The boutique home-video label has already produced lavish editions of Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), and Mulholland Drive (2001), as well as a documentary about the director’s creative process, David Lynch: The Art Life (2016).
Kino Lorber was quick to respond to the Lynch’s tweet, claiming, “We reached out to Mr. Lynch via email to oversee and color grade a new 4K transfer (from the original camera negative) and get his approval on the dozen or so extras we had planned to include.” The company went on to explain that Lynch was disinterested in collaborating, and they had no choice but to carry on with their release using the current Universal master. This contention between filmmaker and distributor underlines the insoluble debate over the true ownership of art. Lynch, who spent five years perfecting his debut feature, Eraserhead, and includes instructions on how to calibrate one’s TV for optimum viewing experience with the film’s Criterion edition, is naturally going to be very particular about how his films look on home video. Kino Lorber, which seeks to release historically significant arthouse films from around the world, is obviously interested in bringing Lost Highway to a wider audience. Neither side of this dispute is necessarily in the wrong.
The notion that there are two sides to every story is especially prominent in Lost Highway. Early on, jazz saxophonist Fred (Bill Pullman) tells the police and his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), that he hates video cameras because he “likes to remember things his own way.” When asked what he means by that, he replies, “How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” Fred’s suggestion — that two aspects of the same thing can both be perceived as the truth — is key to interpreting what is easily Lynch’s most horrific and enveloping film since his debut. Fred’s opinions on the duality of daily life and how technology can distort that reality are revealed after a series of increasingly unsettling VHS tapes arrives on the couple’s front porch. The footage on these tapes, which begins outside their home and slowly moves into their bedroom, where they are shown sleeping, eat away at Fred and eventually push him commit an unthinkable crime. A terrifying exchange between Fred and a Mystery Man (Robert Blake) certainly doesn’t help his deteriorating mind.
Fred eventually finds himself on death row, and here the story shifts from suggesting the coexistence of dreams and nightmares to a full-on embrace of heaven-and-hell-on-Earth. This is where Lost Highway proves to be a proto-Mulholland Drive: Fred’s splitting headache literally cleaves his head open, leaving the prison guards baffled during their morning rounds when they open the door and find not Fred but a man named Pete (Balthazar Getty). An understandably confused twentysomething auto mechanic, Pete is released back into the world — after all, he wasn’t sentenced to die; the missing Fred was — and the film thereafter takes on a whole new form. It isn’t until Pete takes a joyride with glad-handing gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) that the true purpose of this new narrative comes into focus: The mob boss’ blond girlfriend, Alice, bears a striking resemblance to Fred’s brunette wife, Renee. As the titular Hank Williams song would suggest, the last half of the film is a blur of lost people led astray and sins that carry debts to be paid.
One thing that Lynch has made clear time and time again is that his films carry absolutely no message. He insists that his films are nothing more than a collection of ideas. Regarding the many interpretations of his most recent project, Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), the filmmaker noted, “Everybody’s a detective and whatever they come up with is valid in my mind.” It’s safe to assume the same goes for Lost Highway. Rather than poring over the film looking for meaning, it’s perhaps best to simply identify parallels between the film’s dualities and the real world. Fred argues that there are two sides to any situation and both can be disputed even with the existence of photographic or video evidence. There are also two sides to this film, which is divided down the middle but never completely severed into two unique entities; Lynch presents video evidence of the many connections between Fred and Renee and Pete and Alice. Taking this “two sides” idea further, there are also two sides to the debate over the new Lost Highway Blu-ray.
In each of these instances, reality lies somewhere in the space between the dreams and nightmares. Fred tells Renee about a nightmare, only for it to later be revealed as truth. He never gets to see what the audience sees, so it’s never more than a haunting figment to him despite his story being visualized in such a dreamlike fashion for the viewer. It’s the same with Pete, who can’t seem to remember anything before appearing in Fred’s prison cell and must rely on his family and friends to reconstruct the details of his life. All his old dreams and nightmares are lost, and the only ones that still exist are the ones that have been recounted secondhand. Similarly, those following the back-and-forth between Lynch and Kino Lorber will never be able to discern the truth that lies between the lines of their correspondence, which means both parties get to remember things their own way, not necessarily how they happened.
Toward the end of the Lost Highway, Alice says something to Pete that’s almost as important as what Fred tells the police and his wife: “You’ll never have me.” Fred will never have his wife back. Pete will never have his past back. Kino Lorber will never have Lynch’s approval on their latest release. Alternatively, Renee and Alice will never give themselves completely to the men who lust after them. David Lynch will never give up complete control over his filmography. No one is wrong and everyone is correct. No one is unconscious but everyone is asleep. It’s a nightmare that both Lynch and Lost Highway relish in.
Further Viewing: Vertigo (1958); Obsession (1976); Possession (1981); Blue Velvet (1986); Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992); Eyes Wide Shut (1999); Mulholland Drive (2001).
Lost Highway is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Classics.