Several things happened between several weeks ago, when I watched Mulholland Drive, and several days ago, when I watched Lost Highway. The most relevant is that I discovered David Lynch's YouTube channel, where he gives a daily weather report, in one minute summing up the weather, as well as giving some cheerful advice on life and art. When the Pacific Coast fires were turning my life into an apocalyptic misery, Lynch was reminding us to look forward to a better tomorrow and thank our fire fighters. In the year 2020, David Lynch is a beloved and wholesome figure that is just a step below Mr. Rogers for being a trustworthy figure.
Which might have been the wrong mindset to go into watching "Lost Highway", a 1997 film that combines noir elements with a soundtrack and attitude taken from the gothic subculture of the time.
I watched the film and got some sense of what was going on. It was a mystery that came together slowly, and like many, most or all viewers who were not David Lynch himself, I still don't have a full picture of what was going on. We meet a man, Fred Madison, played by Bill Pullman, who seems to be in a somewhat tense marriage to Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette). They begin receiving videotapes, taken by a stranger who is in their house. At a party, Madison meets this man (Robert Blake), and the strangeness increases until Madison is found to have murdered his wife, and is sentenced to death row. One day, when the guard checks his cell, he finds someone else there: a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who has no idea how he got there. Pete is a pretty good kid, working as an auto mechanic, despite a few brush-ins with the law, and a job as the favored mechanic to gangster Mr. Eddy. But when he meets Mr. Eddy's mistress, also played by Patricia Arquette, but going by the name "Alice Wakefield", his life gets complicated as he starts an affair with a woman who proves very dangerous to him.
The consensus view of the film's plot, almost 25 years after its release, is that Madison murders his wife and her lover, and then while on death row, imagines himself into the role of the young, innocent Pete Dayton, seducing his wife away from an older man. This seems like as good a synopsis as any, and "jealous lover enters dream state to avoid guilt" was also probably the plot of Mulholand Drive. It also doesn't fully explain everything we see in the movie. It also wasn't my own view when I finished watching the movie. Wanting to capture my thoughts before they could be contaminated by a consensus view, this is what I scrawled down after watching the movie:
A man tries to find meaning/significance symbolized by Patricia Arquette's character, but eventually becomes corrupt, circling through the stages of corruption. A way out of it is "The Lost Highway", the road to true meaning.
Alice Wakefield proclaims "You'll never have me", and it can apply to the three male characters, the young and eager Dayton, the weary, middle aged Madison, and the cynical, violent Mr. Eddy.
That is my interpretation. It doesn't explain everything.
After watching the movie, and thinking about the plot, I went back to thinking about the tone. This film was released in 1997, and other than the 1992 movie Fire Walk With Me, a continuation of Twin Peaks, was Lynch's only project in the 1990s. Some parts of it seem dated now: not just the bulky cell phones and VHS tapes, but the film's incorporation of gothic fashion and music. The soundtrack features Rammstein and Marilyn Manson, and Marilyn Manson also has an acting role. The scene where Pete Dayton meets Alice Wakefield plays the 60s classic "This Magic Moment", but in a darker version, performed by Lou Reed. While David Lynch has obviously never been afraid to feature the bizarre, this film feels like he is going for grim and gritty, dark and edgy, in the most 90s fashion. Several scenes also seem like they would fit in a Quentin Tarantino movie: the scene where the gangster pistol whips a tailgater and the coffee table scene both seem like they would fit in a Tarantino movie. And in this movie, and in Tarantino's True Romance, a character played by Patricia Arquette tries to abscond with a bag full of stolen goods.
There are a number of 1990s films, from various genres, that all have a theme of people caught in a seemingly satisfactory life, but who yearn for something more. Groundhog's Day, There's Something About Mary, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Fight Club and Office Space might not seem to have a lot in common at first glance, but they are all about how normal life isn't enough. And this film is another film that seems to be about the same thing: Fred Madison, and later Pete Dayton, have satisfactory, even successful lives, but something seems to be missing from them. They seek meaning, symbolized by the Patrica Arquette character, but find only corruption. The "Lost Highway", their road back to meaning, is missing. And it might also reflect the mindstate of the creator. David Lynch, a man who seems to be able to find something creative in almost everything, almost seems like his own ability to create and find meaning is slipping away. A buoyant surrealism is replaced with a dismal and almost derivative usage of 1990s goth culture. Luckily for us, and for him, Lynch would find his voice soon enough.