THIS MIGHT BE THE STORY OF A FALLEN IDOL - A once-brilliant film director whose talents
went astray and who lost his standing and esteem. Or it might be the story of a renewed hero who
overcame loss and disdain to do the bravest work of his life. Given that the filmmaker we are talking
about is David Lynch, perhaps it's fitting that we don't know how the story will turn out.
A few years ago, David Lynch was at the height of his achievements. He had become the first
avant-garde film artist to receive two Academy Award nominations as Best Director, and he had
brought some of his unsettling style and vision to the recalcitrant medium of network television with
Twin Peaks - a grand-scale murder mystery that became a pop-culture phenomenon. That same year,
1990, Lynch won the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes for Wild at Heart (a film most American critics
hated), and he landed on the cover of Time magazine. "It was a pretty high time," he says. "But in a high
time, there's plenty of danger."
It has been five years since Lynch's last movie, the much-maligned Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The
director has been relatively quiet in the interim, making commercials (Alka-Seltzer Plus, Adidas) and
trying his hand at a couple of other TV efforts, which almost nobody saw. Now, however, Lynch is
about to release a new feature film, Lost Highway, and it is something truly startling - a work that gives
structure to the interior reality of psychosis in much the same way that Lynch's earlier movies gave form
to the intangible logic of dreams. For my tastes, Lost Highway - a film about betrayal, sex, murder,
deception and tortured memory (a good list, wouldn't you say?) - may be the best movie David Lynch
has ever made, though it may also prove to be a major test for whatever mainstream audience he still
commands. In any event, there is nothing else like Lost Highway out there, and there is no easy way to
prepare an audience for its experience.
LYNCH LIVES IN THE LOWER part of a hill canyon just outside Hollywood. He owns three houses
in a row on the same street, and one of these houses figures prominently in Lost Highway - in fact, the
house may be the film's most unnerving character. In Lynch's mind, the house had to be a certain way.
He remodeled its exterior so the front featured eerie-looking slot windows, and he also added a
tunnellike hallway to the place. The changes were worth the effort. The scene in Lost Highway where
Fred Madison (played by Bill Pullman) walks down the house's hallway into pitch darkness is a pivotal
moment: It's a portrayal of man walking into the darkness of his own destiny.
Much has been made over the years of Lynch's homey manner - the way he wears button-down shirts,
speaks in a Jimmy Stewart-style twang and punctuates his conversations with phrases like "golly,"
"righto," "you betcha" and the like. This is all true, at least as far as I could tell. There's no question that
there's a profound darkness somewhere inside David Lynch, if only in his own power to imagine, but it
probably doesn't come to the surface easily.
On the afternoon I meet Lynch, he is dressed in a nice black shirt (buttoned to the neck) untucked over
khaki slacks. While we talk, we sit in the carpentry studio that is located in Lynch's middle house. The
room is full of big, gleaming machines and little items of woodwork. Lynch is 51 years old now. There
are crinkles around his gentle eyes, and as he listens and speaks, his delicate fingers sometimes flutter
Lynch doesn't seem bitter about the failure of his last two movies. "When you love something," he says,
"and feel you've done it correctly, then negative criticism doesn't hurt so bad. I love those movies. But
in order to say you're successful, a film has to make quite a lot of money, and I haven't really done that.
If I was successful in that way, I'd be ... I don't know, making pictures maybe more within the system."
Lynch pauses and flashes a smile. "I can see how it's nice to be entertained," he says. "But there are
different kinds of films. I hope it would be possible to make a film that has some depth to it but that
still has a strong story and great characters, and that people would really appreciate. That has happened
in history - a film made by a director where there is no compromise, and when the film was released, it
worked for huge numbers of people. And when that happens, it's thrilling to the soul."
IT IS TRUE THAT LYNCH'S MOVIES have never been major commercial successes. They've
generally done better with critics than with audiences that is, until Wild at Heart and Fire Walk With
Me, when they didn't do too well with either. At the same time, in the 25 years that he has been making
films, David Lynch has had a considerable impact on modern cinema. He has influenced not only the
way films look but also how filmmakers tell their stories and how their characters speak and behave.
When you watch the films of Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, Tim Burton, the Coen brothers, Jim
Jarmusch, Jane Campion and Todd Haynes, you are seeing talented directors working with a sense of
permission and stylistic nerve that David Lynch helped make possible.
Lynch's first feature film, 1976's Eraserhead, was a spooky black-and-white independent venture that
played like a sex nightmare captured in lucid form (well, semilucid). It told the story of Henry Spencer,
a pillar-haired man who finds his already-fearful life made all the more fearful when he unwittingly
fathers a demanding, helpless, half-human infant. Henry eventually kills the baby. Or maybe he just sets
it free. Either way, the results are both awful and wondrous. The film's meanings were hardly plain
(Lynch later admitted that the story partly reflected his own fears about the confinements of youthful
marriage and fatherhood), but for many viewers, Eraserhead's fantastic imagery and industrial-Gothic
atmosphere were meaning enough. Though some critics saw the influences of surrealism and
expressionism in the movie, Lynch claims he was simply filming the vision that he saw in his own head.
One thing is for certain: Eraserhead was a radical and indelible viewing experience, and it presented
Lynch as one of the few fully original visionaries to emerge in postwar American cinema.
Eraserhead played largely to college audiences and midnight art-house crowds. With his next film, The
Elephant Man (produced by Mel Brooks), Lynch got the chance to reach for a broader audience. The
Elephant Man was Lynch's version of the life of John Merrick, the horribly deformed man in Victorian
England who briefly managed to transcend the cruelty of his own body and of the world around him.
Lynch's script for the film was linear and fairly orthodox, even old-fashioned - like a 1930s or '40s
misunderstood-beast horror tale - but the movie's cinematography had much the same abstract, spectral
look as Eraserhead. The effort won Lynch an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and also
earned him the chance to direct Dino De Laurentiis' production of Frank Herbert's epic science-fiction
novel, Dune. The latter proved a disaster, an embarrassing, indecipherable mess though, like nearly all
of Lynch's work, it still held moments of stunning imagery. Lynch later forced the removal of his name
from the film's credits. "With Dune," he says, "I felt like I had sort of sold myself out."
Dune's failure turned out to be a saving grace. Had it been a mass success, Lynch might have got snared
in the Hollywood machinery that reduces interesting filmmakers to blockbuster formalists. Instead, with
his next movie, Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch delivered a wonderfully twisted landmark of modern film.
Blue Velvet is the story of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a young man who returns to the small
city he was raised in and finds that behind the town's pacific facades, people are living lives of malice,
corruption and humiliation. Jeffrey also finds terrifying desires within himself, including an appetite for
sexually abusing a woman (Dorothy, played by Isabella Rossellini) who is so damaged that, without
more damage, she can no longer feel longing or trust. Blue Velvet with its dark town and dark souls,
and its strangely hopeful ending - earned Lynch his second Oscar nomination.
Four years later, Lynch took the same obsessions that defined Blue Velvet and transported them to
prime-time network television. Twin Peaks, an ABC series created by Lynch with screenwriter and
author Mark Frost, was the story of a small-town homecoming queen, Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl
Lee), whose murder tears open a whole community's intricate webwork of secret sex, violence and
horror. It was also the story of FBI agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan), whose investigation of Laura
Palmer's death leads him to some creepy discoveries about how evil can share the places and dreams
where people live, and how it can get passed along from troubled heart to troubled heart.
For its first several weeks, Twin Peaks was a sensation. More important, it demonstrated that network
television was capable of producing an audacious and cutting-edge work of culture. But Twin Peaks'
ratings began to dip, and Lynch says the network pressed him and Frost to solve the central murder
"The murder of Laura Palmer," Lynch says, "was the center of the story, the thing around which all the
show's other elements revolved - like a sun in a little solar system. It was not supposed to get solved.
The idea was for it to recede a bit into the background, and the foreground would be that week's show.
But the mystery of the death of Laura Palmer would stay alive. And it's true: As soon as that was over,
it was basically the end. There were a couple of moments later when a wind of that mystery - a wind
from that other world - would come blowing back in, but it just wasn't the same, and it couldn't be the
same. I loved Twin Peaks, but after that, it kind of drifted for me."
After Twin Peaks, things misfired badly for Lynch. His prize-winning film at Cannes, Wild at Heart
(based on the novel by Barry Gifford), seemed unfocused and loopy compared with his earlier, better
works. There Lynch made his worst mistake: He returned to the terrain of his greatest success, Twin
Peaks, and plumbed its dark central story. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me aimed to reveal the events
leading up to Laura Palmer's murder, but the TV series had already done so by outlining her descent
into hell, then leaving its details to the viewer's imagination. Still, the movie had some powerful
moments - a narcotized sex party at a roadhouse club, monstrous rages between Laura and her father,
the bloody train-car murder ritual - and brilliant, terror-giving performances by Ray Wise (as Leland
Palmer) and Sheryl Lee. Reviewers tore the film apart. This was not the Twin Peaks that fans
Lynch's stellar moment had faded - or, some critics would say, had been tarnished by the director
himself. He had changed film, he had changed television, but most of that was forgotten. Popular
culture turns over quickly, and David Lynch had fallen off it's wheel.
WILL "LOST HIGHWAY change that bad fortune? Hard to say. Certainly its unexpected plot turns and
mystifying final movement may prove dismaying for viewers accustomed to the unambiguous
narratives that define today's popular-film sensibility. "Every single element in a movie," says Lynch,
"now had to be understood - and understood at the lowest common denominator. It's a real shame,
because there are so many places that people could go it they weren't corralled so tightly with those
kinds of restraints."
Lost Highway, co-written by Lynch and Barry Gifford, is the story of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a
jazz saxophonist married to a dark-haired, sexy, cold woman named Renee (Patricia Arquette, in a tricky
and award-worthy performance). Fred and Renee share a dark bedroom in a dark, almost windowless
house (darkness is everywhere in the first part of this movie), but they don't share confidences, and they
don't share time together. Fred suspects that Renee may have another life, another lover. One morning,
Fred and Renee begin to find cryptic videos left at their front door, showing the two of them asleep in
their bed. It's a scary intrusion, but for Fred it also represents another kind of violation: He hates the
presence of a video camera. "I like to remember things my own way," he tells a policeman, "not
necessarily the way they happened."
One horrible night, Fred thinks he senses someone in the house. He wanders off into the house's
blackness, and when he returns, Renee has been savagely murdered. Did Fred kill her? He isn't sure, but
he ends up on death row for the crime. There, on another horrible night, he suffers a psychic implosion,
and when he comes to, Fred no longer exists. He has been replaced by (or metamorphosed into) a
younger man, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who possesses no memory of how he entered Fred's cell.
Since Fred Madison and Pete Dayton are seemingly not the same man, and since the younger man is
guilty of nothing more than an old car-theft charge, Pete is set free. He returns to his job as an auto
mechanic, where one of his prize customers is a gangster, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), who has a taste for
fine cars, ravishing women, guns and pornography. One afternoon, Mr. Eddy brings a Cadillac to the
shop. He is accompanied by a lovely blond woman (also played by Arquette). That night, the blonde -
who calls herself Alice - returns alone to see Pete, and the two begin a feverish affair. This, Mr. Eddy
makes plain, is not to his liking. Alice grows frightened and wants to flee Los Angeles with Pete. First,
though, she persuades him to help her rob a friend of Mr. Eddy's whom she sometimes fucks for money.
The robbery goes wrong; Pete accidentally kills the man (horrifically but also hilariously). It is then that
Pete finds out Alice is not the woman he thought she was and that everything in Lost Highway - time,
fate, identity and love - turns inside out.
There's more that could be said about the film's plot twists and characters - especially about a gnomish
figure called the Mystery Man (played with elegant menace by Robert Blake), who reckons crucially
into Fred's and Pete's fates. But a narrative exposition can't truly illuminate what Lynch has
accomplished with Lost Highway. Long after the movie's frantic closing moments, you will wonder
how its mysteries fold in on one another. Who killed Renee? Are Renee and Alice the same woman?
And the Mystery Man: Just who the fuck is he? Is he an incubus or a demon - or is he as close to an
honest and redeeming character as can be found in this story? The keys are all there - Lost Highway is
not simply an absurd conundrum - but the answers can be as hard to uncover as the hidden details of a
"You can say that a lot of Lost Highway is internal," says Lynch. "It's Fred's story. It's not a dream: It's
realistic, though according to Fred's logic. But I don't want to say too much. The reason is: I love
mysteries. To fall into a mystery and its danger ... everything becomes so intense in those moments.
When most mysteries are solved, I feel tremendously let down. So I want things to feel solved up to a
point, but there's got to be a certain percentage left over to keep the dream going. It's like at the end of
Chinatown: The guy says, 'Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.' You understand it, but you don't understand
it, and it keeps that mystery alive. That's the most beautiful thing."
Barry Gifford, Lynch's co-writer on Lost Highway, is slightly more forthcoming. "Let's say you don't
want to be yourself anymore," he says. "Something happens to you, and you just show up in Seattle,
living under the name Joe Smith, with a whole different reality. It means that you're trying to escape
something, and that's basically what Fred Madison does. He gets into a fugue state, which in this case
means that he can't go anywhere - he's in a prison cell, so it's happening internally, within his own mind.
But things don't work out any better in the fugue state than they do in real life. He can't control the
woman any more than he could in real life. You might say this is an explanation for what happens.
However, this is not a complete explanation for the film. Things happen in this film that are not - and
should not be - easily explained."
Gifford is right: There's more to Lost Highway than its mysteries. There's also the movie's painterly
photography, the tense and subtle performances by Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, and the bravura
creepiness of Robert Blake's Mystery Man, plus a throbbing undercurrent of ambient sound by Nine
Inch Nails' Trent Reznor during the video sequences. All these elements add up to making Lost
Highway a film about the wonder of what film can be.
"For me," says Lynch, "a film exists somewhere before you do it. It's sitting in some abstract world,
complete, and you're just listening to it talk to you, telling you the way it's supposed to be. But not until
all the sound and music and editing has been done do you truly know what it is. Then it's finished. It
feels right, the way it's supposed to be, or as right as it can. And when it's finished, you're back in a
world where you don't control anything. You just do the best you can, then say farewell."
IN THE DAYS BETWEEN MY FIRST and second conversations with David Lynch, actor Jack Nance -
whom Lynch had worked with for 25 years - was found dead in his South Pasadena, Calif., home. The
day before, Nance had gotten into a fight with two men in a doughnut shop and suffered a severe head
It was Nance who played Henry, Lynch's high-strung alter ego in Eraserhead. He also appeared in most
of Lynch's subsequent films and played the art of Pete Martell the long-suffering lumber-mill foreman,
in Twin Peak. In that series' opening moments, he makes the awful discovery of Laura Palmer's dead
body; in its final hour, he is blown to kingdom come.
"He was one of my best friends," says Lynch. "Jack had a quality ... it's hard to put into words, but in my
mind, Jack was a real Kafka character, Gregor Samsa [the man transformed into a cockroach in The
Metamorphosis], which means to me: He understands trouble. He's trying to do the right thing, but he's
also sensing the darkness and confusion of the world. That was pretty much Jack. He really had a pretty
rough life, and it was rougher because he was a thinking person. Sometimes when you don't worry so
much about stuff, you're actually kinder to yourself."
Nance's death bears close relation to Lynch's work. Clearly, this is a dangerous world - death and
destruction are often closer than we would like to believe - and this is one of the major themes of
Lynch's movies. But it is also Lynch's powerful treatment of this theme - especially the way he presents
the caprices of violence - that has turned many critics against him. Some reviewers found Wild at
Heart's impassioned scenes of brain bashing and decapitation all but unbearable, and Fire Walk With
Me was excoriated for its depictions of father-daughter incest and murder (which, actually, were quite
heart-rending). Other critics have expressed outrage at Lynch's portrayal of female characters as either
victims or malicious seductresses (particularly Dorothy in Blue Velvet). Lost Highway likely won't be
immune to these protests. In the preview screenings I saw, several viewers audibly gagged at the scene
where Alice's slimy fuck-for-money customer is killed (I think it's the sound effect, which is
astonishing). More troubling is the scene where Alice is forced to strip at gunpoint for Mr. Eddy. She is
terrified at first, but her body starts to undulate in movements of pleasure, as if she's turned on by being
forced into this act. Then she puts her head between Mr. Eddy's legs, smiling the perfect smile.
These are moments that will drive some viewers nuts - particularly those who think that depictions of
explicit violence and chancy sex threaten the moral or cultural sanity of our times. Lynch has been
hearing these arguments for years. "I'm not sure what these people are saying," he says. "Is it that if you
depicted no graphic violence, the world would calm down and there would be less violence? Or is it
that if you sense certain things about violence and then portray those things in a film, does that make the
violence go to another level? Or is the violence in films a way to experience something without having
to do it in real life?
"It's a tricky thing," he continues. "When you're an artist, you pick up on certain thin that are in the air.
You just feel it. It's not like you're sitting down, thinking, 'What can I do to really mess things up?'
You're getting ideas, and then the ideas feed into a story, and the story takes shape. And if you're honest
about it and you're thinking about characters and what they do, you now see that your ideas are about
trouble. You're feeling more depth, and you're describing something that is going on in some way.
"In film, life-and-death struggles make you sit up, lean forward a little bit. They amplify things
happening, in smaller ways, in all of us. These things show up in relationships. They show up in
struggles and bring them to a critical point.
"I don't know where to break this thing," he says. "Are we in the business of falling in love with stories?
What if every movie had to have a positive message at the end? If we only put out pleasant films,
nothing would really stop, except that people would stop going to the movies."
IN SOME OF HIS EARLIER WORK, David Lynch would deliver something magnificent and terrible
only to creep back from its implications. At the end of Blue Velvet, after a night of mayhem and death,
pretty birds come out to sing (though they hold worms in their beaks). In Twin Peak, after Leland
Palmer confesses to killing his own child, we learn that he had actually been occupied by an
otherworldly presence - something that FBI Agent Dale Cooper found more comforting than the idea
that "a man would rape and murder his own daughter." In these moments, some semblance of order is
restored after all the horror. "Once you're exposed to fearful things. . ." he once told ROLLING
STONE, "you begin to worry that the peaceful, happy life could vanish or be threatened."
In Lost Highway, Lynch does not pull back. The plot delivers you to no easy place. Order is not
restored, and not all the guilty are clearly punished. (After all, who isn't guilty in this story?) Instead, the
movie's final moments are nothing but chaos and fear.
This may sound strange, but there is something heartening about witnessing one of America's most
inventive artists allowing his art to grow darker, more difficult - especially at a point where he has
everything to lose and at a time when there are loud voices in our culture who can stand no more
admissions of darkness into the popular arts. Lynch has decided to put his vision up on the screen and
protect neither himself nor us from it. Maybe he's saying that life's fractures aren't always easily
comprehended or corrected. Or maybe he's saying that art shouldn't be reduced to something that, in the
end, serves mainly to allay our anxieties or reinforce a fiction of order. Either way, it's a hell of a treat
to see a brave artist working again at full strength. There's something about it that, truly, thrills the soul.