I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how noir antiheroes are mostly just sad sack losers who make their own shit luck by feeling sorry for themselves, by which I mean I recently rewatched Edward G. Ulmer’s Detour. Noir always looks different after watching Detour. The Poverty Row production values look dreamlike & otherworldly instead of limited & cheap; the femmes fatales seem more deliberately, deliciously vicious in their misandry; and, most glaringly, the tough-guy alcoholics at the genre’s center start looking like whiny babies instead of macho lone wolves. Apparently, David Lynch sees the genre through those same grubby Detour lenses. At the very least, his 1990s neo-noir Lost Highway turns the interchangeability of the genre’s drunken mopes into a kind of existential crisis. A Lynchian nightmare, if you will. He tells two loosely connected noir stories about two unremarkable, pouty men, then gradually makes it clear they’re just same story repeated. They’re all the same story, with the same miserable sad sacks circling the same drains.
Bill Pullman stars as a mopey saxophonist frustrated by his loosening grip on his straying LA hipster girlfriend (not unlike the down-and-out pianist who loses his girlfriend to her own Hollywood starlet ambitions in Detour). Until he doesn’t. Pullman disappears after the first act, inexplicably transforming into a young-dumb-and-full-of-cum teen mechanic played by Balthazar Getty, who quickly gets into his own girlfriend troubles when he falls for a gangster’s moll. With Lost Highway, Lynch twists himself in knots trying to make the James from Twin Peaks archetype genuinely compelling in a second draft . . . and he eventually gets there, even if the slack-jawed, leather-jacketed drip needs a little supernatural help from a legit movie star like Pullman to pull it off. Of course, neither of these parallel losers are as compelling as the femmes fatales that get them in lethal, cosmic trouble—both played by Patricia Arquette—but then again they never are.
Because this is a David Lynch film, I’m zapping some of its magic just by “explaining” what happens and how it relates to larger genre filmmaking traditions. So much of Lost Highway is composed of hypnotizing highway lines, Skinimarinkian hallways, and UFO-landing strobe lights that reducing it to a loose collection of noir tropes is somewhat insulting and very much beside the point. Still, you don’t really need to hear that Lynch uses red velvet drapes to mark the boundary between reality & the dream world, or that the dream-logic procession of the plot(s) defies rational explanation; you’ve seen a David Lynch movie, you get it. The only vivid deviations from his go-to formula are the temporal markers of when it was made: a Trent Reznor-supervised soundtrack, a Marilyn Manson cameo in a stag night porno, a mid-film spoof of road safety PSAs, etc. On that front, real-life monster Robert Blake might outshine Arquette as the film’s MVP, dressed in the usual ghoulish make-up as one of Lynch’s trademark specters of Death, except this time armed with a menacing camcorder that updates the usual formula with some weirdo 90s video art. It’s all very eerie, off-putting, frustrating, and strangely compelling, which is to say that it is a David Lynch film.
I do find it helpful to have some kind of a contextual anchor to help appreciate Lynch’s work. I don’t want to be the guy who “maps out” the identity shifts, time loops, and dreamworld symbolism of Lost Highway as if it were a puzzle to be solved, but I also find very little enjoyment in the late-career formlessness of projects like Inland Empire and Twin Peaks: The Return, so it helps to seek a little guiding structure under the heavy layers of nightmare logic. It’s the Philistine position to take, but I truly believe Lynch was at his best in his early career, when his most far-out, for-their-own-sake impulses were still somewhat tempered by Hollywood storytelling conventions. With Wild at Heart and Lost Highway in the 90s, there was still just enough recognizable genre structure beneath Lynch’s loopy surface aesthetics that he hadn’t yet completely lost me. Hell, I’d even rank Wild at Heart high among his very best. He was already pushing his subliminal anti-logic to its late-career extremes, but I detect enough familiar noir DNA in Lost Highway‘s bones to not feel totally abandoned. And a lot of that has to do with how mopey & ineffectual its two parallel leads are at center stage, and how much fun Patricia Arquette has crushing them under her heels (when she’s not getting crushed herself by even more vicious bullies further up the Hollywood food chain).
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