Some movies affect people in peculiar and personal ways. Maybe I romanticize my experience with Lost Highway because it was the first movie in ages that I watched in total silence, perfect darkness, alone, without interruption, and with unadulterated focus. Or maybe I retrospectively idolize it because the night I watched it I had a really haunting nightmare related to the movie. Whatever it is, Lost Highway left a really distinct impression on me.
David Lynch’s movies have always excelled at creating an atmosphere so thick and inviting: as though the screen acted as a portal to some alien and inverse universe, where logic and knowledge don’t function by our familiar rules. Lost Highway, somehow, managed to absorb my attention and pull me into its world more strongly than anything else by Lynch. To use Lynch’s own term, the “sense of place,” in this movie is remarkably dizzying, and for that reason above all it has become one of my favourite Lynch films.
Somewhere between the disturbing macabre of his early short films and Eraserhead, the drama of Blue Vevet, and the sharply cut yet slowly surreal mood of his later films Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Lost Highway manages to both transcend all eras of Lynch’s evolution and enclose it all. Visually stark, dark, and deceptive, it’s easy to feel lost within the mirrorworld created beyond the screen. Lost not only visually, but in the overlapping strands of the narrative, in the twisting contradictions in the mood, in the postmodern collage of the soundtrack. This isn’t a linear Highway – this is an endless and circular maze.
The element of fear is far more central than in the middle period of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, but I also think it largely subjective. The horror of the movie, like Eraserhead, lies mostly in its oddity and its overwhelming atmosphere rather than a threat of danger. That said, I found it personally scarier than most full-on horror movies, and in a unique almost rewarding sense. At the end of it, I felt accomplished as well as disturbed. And, of course, confused. Very confused.
Philosophically, as is Lynch’s norm, it can go so many different ways. My own analysis, based only on the initial view, is one that reflects postmodernity in film. The two worlds of the film mirror the two worlds of the viewer. In one world, the protagonist Fred is threatened by nightmares, haunted by a Mystery Man, and eventually loses all attachment to the world. As he says himself, he likes to remember things his own way – not necessarily how they happened. His grip on reality slips from him, perhaps intentionally, in his denial to accept any single truth. When the last of his attachment to objectivity fades, he enters a second world – a world where he remembers everything his own way. Like us, the viewers, we are sucked out of our everyday reality into a subjective realm of one man’s perspective of a fictional drama. And we, maybe intentionally, believe it. At least temporarily, like Fred.
Fred, who likes to remember things his own way, from the start has a dwindling faith in an objective world. However, when at first this gravitation towards the rejection of meta-narrative – a staple of postmodern philosophy – he receives what may at first appear to be an utterly objective form of depicting the world: a videotape. Unlike a painter’s produced world or a writer’s biased fiction, a film is merely capturing a part of the world. No one is creating it in his or her image. The videotapes temporarily threaten Fred’s view of the world, but before long he rejects the truth they depict and withdraws to his own completely personalized reality where he sees himself as a different person altogether. And, as it turns out, whether it’s only an hallucination of this other world – a world of subjectivity – or not, Fred’s wife is not dead.
The Mystery Man, whose name even evokes the unknowable, personifies the uncertainty that Fred invited into his life. The Mystery Man even verbalizes it clearly: "You invited me. It's not my habit to go where I'm not wanted." How poetic, then, that the Mystery Man works as the in-between of these two worlds – as the cameraman. Lost Highway is Lynch’s comment on filmmaking, and perhaps art in general. It is not real. He simultaneously poses a simple question to accompany this reality across not only the film’s two worlds, but also the audience’s. Is anything real? Is your world real? Maybe we all, cameramen included, remember things our own way.