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Head Trip: David Lynch

Lynch article in "Black + White" number 24, April 1997

Lost Highway is a Journey back into the Nightmarish World of David Lynch

Stephen Todd navigates the mind of Cinema's dark and Twisted Genius

As David Lynch enters his swish Paris hotel suite, something is kind of strange. Well, fact is, what's strange is that nothing is strange. No inexplicable lesions. No neoplasmic swellings, no slightly vague comatose gaze - scarcely a razor nick from this morning's close shave. Hell, the guy's not even wearing black. Instead, he's sporting a rather smart mud-colored suit which seems tailored to fade into the hotel's over-padded brown velvet armchairs. Urbane camouflage for this urban myth who is, when all's said and done, a rather unremarkably handsome, salt-and-pepper quiffed, affable 50-year-old man. A neat Mr. Normal who just happens to have made some of the most bizarre, the most brutal and the most confounding films of the past 20 years.

In town to junket his latest release, Lost Highway, Lynch has reluctantly agreed to speak to the press. It's something he hates. Not so much because he mistrusts journalists, but because he mistrusts words themselves. He's an image man, our David, if you hadn't already guessed. And since the (still) birth of Eraserhead in 1977 - after five years in the making - he has dwelt in a cinematic twilight zone of dark secrets, sublime horror and terrible, agonizing beauty. Infused with mystery and illusion, his films hit hard -but we're not always sure where the punches come from. In domestic bliss lie the sinister seeds of evil. Behind every white picket fence are planted les fleurs du mal.

And along every lost highway is strewn the debris of the American psyche. "Lost Highway," explains Lynch, in a clipped helium-pitched voice which is perhaps his one 'Lynchian' feature, "are two words from (co-screenwriter) Barry Gifford's novel Night People. Two words that made me dream. And on the last night of shooting Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the front of this film fell into place." The front of Lost Highway is where the dream - or the nightmare - begins. From the unsteady-cam opening shots of a two-lane Death Valley blacktop sliced by rapid-fire yellow lines, Lynch pulls us into a vortex from which there is no backing up. Keeping the horizon always obscured, he creates a kind of tunnel vision which forms the (sorry) linchpin of the film. The characters - and we - have to feel the way, rather than see what's up ahead. At the same time we know that, as surely as the Death Valley Highway cuts a lonely path between Devil's View and Telescope Peak, they are being watched.

They are the Madisons. They live near the Observatory in the Hollywood Hills. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a successful jazz musician, Renee (Patricia Arquette) his never-loving wife. He is convinced she is having an affair. We don't know. But when anonymous videotapes start to arrive on their doorstep, it's clear something more frightening is afoot. The first, harmlessly enough, pans across the exterior of their LA high-modern home before breaking into a miasma of static. As subsequent tapes arrive, a surreal step-by-step threat builds up to a violent and bloody crime. While it doesn't seem possible, and he has no recollection of the event, Fred finds himself convicted of a murder and awaiting the long walk down death row.

With a swift, Kafkaesque transmogrification, the story switches to that of Pete (Balthazar Getty), an adolescent motor mechanic living in the valley, who 'blacked out' and found himself in prison. When released, Pete goes back to work on the flash cars of Mr. Eddy, a gangster with a soft spot for snuff movies and a bleach-blonde moll called Alice, played by - that's right - Patricia Arquette. When Pete falls for Alice in a flaring slow-mo haze, we know his troubles have only just begun.

Low on narrative but high on emotion, Lost Highway takes all the accouterments of classic film noir - the desperate men and faithless women, expensive cars and cheap motels - and distends them beyond the pale. "Barry and I called it a 21st-century noir," says Lynch. "There's a human condition there - people in trouble, people led into situations that become increasingly dangerous. And it's also about mood and those kind of things that can only happen at night. You can just take that and run with it your own way."

Lynch's own way is a skin-tingling and surreal one. As his camera pans the ectoplasmic blackness of corridors, plunges through visceral conduits and leads us right into Fred's head, you get the feeling Lost Highway is not just about the human psyche, but is actually taking place inside it. When Fred and Renee have sex we all but share Fred's disconsolate orgasm. When he dreams he can't find her, we go looking. "In a sense," says Lynch, hands fluttering like butterflies he's desperate to net, "all film is entering into someone else's dreams. Maybe we can even share the same dreams, exchange the same experiences."

This kind of mild-mannered mysticism pops up throughout our conversation. But Lynch isn't one of those crystal toting cyberpsychos you encounter endlessly in LA. His is more of a hard-edge belief in the force of creativity, of desires and dreams and rogue wills. When explaining the delay in releasing the film (it was meant to hit the screens late last year), he talks about a "strange dirt" that just "appeared" on the negative, as if it was some kind of divine sign. A talismanic stamp of approval. It's an almost animistic belief in the autonomy of exterior beings. Whatever it is, for Lynch filmmaking is a matter of leaving himself open to ideas that need to be expressed.

"It's a strange thing, ideas. They're not there, and then they're not there again, and then suddenly they're there. And it's a magical and beautiful thing when they do come. And then the next thing you know, there are some ideas you don't like. So those are discarded or saved until they find their place. When you fall in love with ideas, that's pretty close to euphoria." So where do they come from, these lovely ideas? "Oh, it's a tricky thing. If ideas come from outside you, how can you say they're yours? They're more like little gifts or something. Sometimes strange, twisted little gifts!"

And for Lynch, turning these twisted little gifts into film, getting the psyche onto celluloid, is a matter of leaving himself open throughout the shooting. "It's a process, for sure. The film talks to you from the beginning all the way through to the end. You've got to stay alert. Beautiful accidents can happen that you can take advantage of. Serendipity occurs all the time and you've got to move in the direction that feels right."

For Bill Pullman, who slipped gracefully from president of the United States in Independence Day to the edgy Fred Madison, that's the pleasure, and the paradox, of working with Lynch. "It seems like it's all controlled, but when you're working with him, you realize he's looking for things that he didn't plan on. That's what he wants. There's no improvising dialogue or randomly changing blocking - he locks all that down - but inside that, there's a huge range of possibilities." Lynch provides the basic structure and lets the film more or less make itself. In the process, he creates a microcosm in which he, the actors and the characters live. "I told David about a recent visit to Japan," Pullman goes on. "I had been stunned by kabuki theater - the very still poses, the larger-than-life gestures and immense physicality. And he was like 'Oh, I love that!' And then, when we began shooting he'd start to say, 'Okay, this one's total kabuki' or 'This one is 50 percent kabuki and 50 percent mysterioso'. All this stuff that doesn't mean anything to anyone else, but all of a sudden these words accumulate so much resonance, and leave you a thousand different ways to interpret."

It's also a way of working which enhances Lynch's sensual, expressionistic style. Trained as a painter, his films appropriate a rich palette of genres, from studiously composed, almost academic still lifes and tight minimal compositions to broad gestural sweeps of intense color and light. Strangely, while his filmmaking is avowedly postmodern, his most recent paintings are the epitome of modernist aesthetics. Heavily under the influence of mixed-media painters Antonio Tapies and Anselm Kiefer, the medium-scale canvases are layered with fecal shades of black, grey and ochre, and encrusted with bandages, insects, glass eyes and even birds. While titles like Wounded Man As A Tree Creating Bugs and Blind Man's Experiment (both 1996) ring the right Lynchian bells, it is difficult to see the rapport between his cinema and painting. "Actually," he shrugs, "they're really different. It's a whole different experience, painting. And yet, a similar experience. It's like a creative process. A dialogue with something. It's action and reaction. It's an experiment. It's talking to you, it wants to be a certain way. And there are highs and lows in it. Many, many things happening in it, which are abstract, that you can't put into words. And I love painting because it's really an internal, personal thing. But then, so are films..."

But despite the visual parallels that can be drawn between the two media, the one quality that film has that painting doesn't is time. And time is one of the facets of film that Lynch stretches beyond all normal boundaries. In Lost Highway, more than in any other Lynch movie, there is a sumptuous sense of languorous inertia, an almost Painteresque elevation of silence to the supreme value which dialogue is occasionally allowed to violate. Patricia Arquette laughs as she remembers her first realization that Lynch operates outside of a standard cinematic time frame. "Bill and I were finally getting into it, getting excited about our roles, our relationship. When we did the first major scene together we thought, yeah, that was great! But David came in and said 'We're gonna go again'. And then we did it again and thought it was horrible and he would say 'Great! Take more time, take a lot longer, make it dreamier'."

Dreamier. A long time ago Lynch said, "films must be mysterious, but not confusing", but like the best, most seductive, even the most terrifying of dreams, it's sometimes hard to stop them heading over the edge. "There's a fine line that you tread," he admits. "For me, it all comes out of the ideas. You can push them here, but they don't want to go here; they want to be this way. When you see parts relating to other parts, it feels correct. You have to feel it with intuition, rather than with so much intellectual understanding. You feel certain things that you understand. And sometimes translating them into words, doesn't say that which you want to say. There are a lot of things like that. Things we sense, but can't prove."

And Lost Highway is one of those things we have to 'sense', but can't necessarily 'prove'. Is Pete Fred's guilty alter ego? Is Alice the shameless hussy Fred always thought Renee was? Does the Mystery Man really exist, or is he the collective unconscious of all the characters in action? What does Pete's dad know that we don't? What is whispered in the white-out light of the Death Valley love scene? As Lynch says, "There are explanations for a billion things in life that aren't understandable, and yet inside - somewhere - they are understandable". Or maybe sometimes the questions in themselves are enough.

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