The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
On the Lost Highway: Lynch and Lacan, Cinema and Cultural Pathology

Introduction: On Mediation

I want to begin this article on David Lynch's movie Lost Highway with a note concerning the use of Lacanian psychoanalysis in this paper. (1) Jonathan Culler has rightly argued that, "since literature takes as its subject all human experience, and particularly the ordering, interpreting, and articulating of experience, it is no accident that the most varied theoretical projects find instruction in literature and that their results are relevant to thinking about literature." (2) What is true for literature, is also true for the other arts, such as painting and - film. Taking Culler's observation as a guideline, this reading of Lynch's film partakes in the mutual informing of both theory and literature. Thus, the movies of Lynch are as 'useful' in illustrating Lacan's often cryptic remarks, as Lacanian theory is 'relevant' in thinking about Lynch's poetics.

Lacanian psychoanalysis offers a theory of the subject that does without concepts such as unity, origin, continuity. It goes from the assumption of a fundamentally split subject and thus comes up with a model of subjectivity that grounds itself on a constitutive lack rather than wholeness. Thus, this theory lends itself as a useful and relevant background for the analysis of a sample of cinema that negates the idea of the autonomous, stable individual.

According to Lacan, the human being is entangled in three registers, which Lacan calls the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real. Whereas the imaginary constitutes the (perceptual) realm of the ego, the register that accounts for a (however illusive) notion of wholeness and autonomy, the symbolic is the field of mediation that works according to a differential logic. Whereas the imaginary constantly tries to 'heal' the lack-of-being of the subject, the symbolic accepts castration. The human subject is thus doubly split: on the imaginary level between the ego and its mirror image, while on the symbolic level it is language and the inscription into a specific socio-cultural reality and its rules that bars the subject from any unity. Thus, this forever lost unity belongs to the third register: the real, which is simply that which eludes any representation, imaginary or symbolic. Because of this lack, the subject, which, according to Lacan, is an effect of the signifier, aims at recreating that lost unity. The 'strategy' of desire emerges as a result of the subject's separation from the real and the 'means' by which the subject tries to catch up with this real, lost unity again. It is thus desire that accounts for the subject's trajectory through the human world, which according to Lacan "isn't a world of things, it isn't a world of being, it is a world of desire as such." (3) This is true for Lynch's movies, as well for the relation of the spectator to the cinema in general.

For a span of more than 20 years, director David Lynch has been forcibly changing the face of popular culture. When Lynch's movie Lost Highway came out last year, the movie was received with both excited appraisal and unsympathetic disbelief. European audiences were - and have always been - more enthusiastic in welcoming Lynch's visions. From Eraserhad onwards, through The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Fire walk with me, Lynch's films have been immensely popular overseas, especially in France. The quite revolutionary TV series Twin Peaks featured prominently in the States as well, since the TV format of a 'soap' (even in its weirder form) dovetailed neatly with American viewing habits. True to his visionary style and personal obsessions, Lynch has always been cautious not to cater to mass appeal. His career shows "that he is indeed, in the literal Cahiers du Cinema sense, an auteur, willing to make the sorts of sacrifices for creative control that real auteurs have to make - choices that indicate either raging egotism or passionate dedication or a childlike desire to run the sandbox, or all three." (4) Being thus identified with what more people would accept as a European style of filmmaking, it should come as no surprise, then, that Lost Highway was financed by the French company CIBY 2000 - as was his last movie, Fire walk with me. Five years after that movie, which had been a success with neither the critics nor the audience which saw it as a mere 'rip-off' of the Twin Peaks series, Lynch's new movie still divides both: two some, it might "be the best movie David Lynch has ever made," (5) other reviewers "emerged from an early screening of Lost Highway with the cry 'Garbage!'" (6) So, what is the excitement all about?

Although I am perfectly aware of the fact that any attempt to 'explain' Lost Highway ultimately results in a 'smoothening' of its complex structure into a linear narrative, I will try to give a short outline of its content.

Ostensibly, Lost Highway is the story of Fred Madison, jazz musician. His wife, Renee, is a strangely withdrawn beauty. A disturbing study of contemporary marital hell, the first part of the movie concentrates on Fred's anxiety and insecurity, which escalates as he begins to realize that Renee may be leading a double life. Renee is the focus of Fred's paranoia: she is seen as both a precious object and the cause of her husband's nightmares. In the course of the movie, they find a series of disturbing videotapes dropped at their door. The first merely shows their house. The second depicts the couple in bed, from an incredibly strange angle. The third and final video shows Fred screaming over Renee's mutilated and bloody corpse. With brutal suddenness, Fred is convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair, though he can't seem to remember anything. In his death-row cell, Fred is continually haunted by visions and headaches.

The Double - Renee/Alice At this moment, Fred somehow morphs into Pete Dayton, a young mechanic who is suddenly sitting in Fred's cell. Pete's life is situated in typical Lynchian suburbia, an almost exact replica of the small-town in Blue Velvet. Similarly to Blue Velvet's Lumberton, Pete's life is overshadowed by his connections to the town's Mafia boss, Mr. Eddy. At some point, Pete meets Alice Wakefield, Mr.Eddy's babe. Within a few minutes, Pete, although he is still dating his girlfriend Sheila, finds himself entangled in a sultry love affair with the local Godfather's moll - a woman who looks like Renee to a hair: whereas Renee was brunette, Alice is a platinum blonde (if you're thinking of Hitchcock's Vertigo - double Kim Novak - here, you're right; Lynch himself had already made use of this 'double' in his Twin Peaks series). Alice, like Renee, is leading a double life. Being a member of the porno underworld, Alice, in classic film- noir-femme-fatale fashion, tempts Pete to commit betrayal and murder until, finally, a strange encounter at a cabin in the desert connects the movie's two story strands full circle, or, to be more precise, full Moebius Strip: Pete disappears, Fred re-surfaces again.

Such is the 'rough' plot. Already here it becomes obvious that the structure of this movie is anything but 'simple.' To this I am going to approach my subject asymptotically, that is, indirectly, in a series of excursions – to circle my subject by way of digressions.

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© Mike Hartmann