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


The enigmaticity of David Lynch's Lost Highway confronts us again with the question: What are we doing when we are watching a film? How do we read films? This very problem is and has been at the heart of Film Studies, in connection with a related question: does the diegetic reality of the film mimetically represent reality, or does it have the status of a symbolic, differential structure? As Peter Wollen has put it,

[t]o what extent does film communicate by reproducing an imprint, in Bazin's term, of reality and of natural expressivity of the world ...? Or, to what extent does it mediate and deform (or transform) reality and natural expressivity by displacing it into a more or less arbitrary and non- analoguous system and thence reconstituting it, not only imaginatively, but in some sense symbolically? (7)

Both problems collide in the question if a movie as such is something that necessarily should be about something, or if the stance "against interpretation" is in fact the more appropriate attitude in particular towards postmodern cultural productions. David Lynch himself has warned against attempts at an unequivocal reading of a filmic text, especially when asked for the 'hidden meaning' of Lost Highway: "the beauty of a film that is more abstract is everybody has a different take. ... When you are spoon-fed a film, people instantly know what it is ... I love things that leave room to dream ..." (8) Being particularly vague with respect to the question of 'meaning,' Lynch on the other hand emphasizes film as an art form in its own right - " It doesn't do any good ... to say 'This is what it means.' Film is what it means" (Cinefantastique).

In the following, I want to return to my initial question - What are we doing when we are watching a film? How do we read films? - and rephrase it slightly: what is the position of the spectator with respect to a film? Christian Metz, in his seminal study of cinema as The Imaginary Signifier (9), has tackled the problem from within a Lacanian framework. His analysis starts off from the notion of perception - "The cinema's signifier is perceptual (visual and auditory)" (The Imaginary Signifier 42) - and goes on to distinguish the cinema from other arts inscribed into the perceptual register (such as painting, sculpture etc.) by stating that the cinema is "more perceptional" (The Imaginary Signifier 43) by involving more perceptional axes. Compared with other types of the 'spectacle,' such as the theater or the opera, this apparent superiority, however, is thwarted by the fact that in the cinema, the spectator and the spectacle do not share the same space, since not only the diegetic reality of film is an illusion, "the unfolding itself is fictive: the actor, the 'décor,' the words one hears are all absent, everything is recorded" (The Imaginary Signifier 43). Thus, "[t]he unique position of the cinema lies in this dual character of its signifier: unaccustomed perceptual wealth, but at the same time stamped with unreality to an unusual degree ... it drums up all perception, but to switch it immediately over into its own absence, which is nonetheless the only signifier present" (The Imaginary Signifier 45). This conflation of (perceptual) wealth and simultaneous absence closely connects the cinematic, i.e. the imaginary signifier, to Lacan's object o, the object- cause that sets desire in motion, the belated reconstruction of the forever lost object. Metz himself draws this connection when he states with respect to film, that the lack is what it wishes to fill, and at the same time what it is always careful to leave gaping, in order to survive as desire. In the end it has no object, at any rate no real object; through real objects which are all substitutes (and all the more numerous and interchangeable for that), it pursues an imaginary object (a 'lost object') which is its true object, an object that has always been lost and is always desired as such. (The Imaginary Signifier 59)

In further relating film to (and also distinguishing it from) the dream, daydream and (conscious) fantasy (and thus relating film to the status of a symptom, of a cultural - or, culturally sanctioned - pathology), Metz' imaginary signifier can be seen to be inscribed the Lacanian formula of desire, which is also the formula of fantasy/the phantasma, and which reads : "The phantasma is defined in the most general form which it receives through an algebra constructed by us ... the formula (), in which the romb should be read as 'desire for.'" (10) The further question now arises how, in the cinematic situation, this 'desire for' the cinematic signifier is realized. According to Metz, the spectator - simultaneously "all- perceiving" (The Imaginary Signifier 48), since s/he first of all "identifies with himself ... as a pure act of perception (The Imaginary Signifier 49), but in fact 'missing' on the screen (which is why the film is a very special kind of mirror) - also identifies with what's going on on- screen. One (and in fact, the most common) way, is to identify with the 'central character' in/of the film, which is ultimately an identification with a certain camera position. Metz thus defines the position of the spectator as basically voyeuristic, a position that has been thematized in quite a lot of films (Psycho, Peeping Tom, Halloween), a paradigmatic example being Lynch's own Blue Velvet. In semiotic film studies, the relation of the spectator position to the film - which recalls the relation of the subject to its object of desire in Lacan's formula- is called 'suture.' (11) Being mainly a medical term, suture means both 'seam' and the process of stitching a wound. Following Jacques-Alain Miller's definition of suture, this concept denotes the "procedures by means of which cinematic texts confer subjectivity upon their viewers" (Subject of Semiotics 195). However, even if Miller provided an elaboration of suture, it is first of all a Lacanian term, and in the following I would like to do a cross-over of the cinematic reading of suture with a psychoanalytical reading of this concept, only fitting for a medium which is constantly brought into proximity with psychic formations.

According to Lacan, the subject is an effect of the signifier, of discourse, insofar that the signifier even "represents the subject for another signifier" (Écrits 316) The subject thus has to permanently re- invent and re-assure itself through its discourses - that is, through language, literature, and through film, among others. Miller defines suture as that moment where the subject fades by becoming represented - in discourse - by a signifier:

Suture names the relation of the subject to the chain of its discourse ... it figures there as the element which is lacking, in the form of a stand-in. For, while there lacking, it is not purely and simply absent. Suture, by extension - the general relation of lack to the structure of which it is an element, inasmuch as it implies the position of taking-the-place-of. (12)

This definition not accidentally recalls Metz' observation that the spectator is as such missing from the cinematic discourse, and that the viewing subject might identify with the camera position as its stand-in. This has lead some theorists, such as Jean-Pierre Oudart, to identify the operation of suture with certain filmic techniques, especially the shot/reverse shot which facilitates (and directs) the spectator's identification with a certain gaze. Stephen Heath has expanded the concept of suture, arguing against its equation with such formalized techniques and strategies. Since the imaginary and the symbolic are always simultaneously present - an image having no value in itself, but always with reference to a cultural background, to a set of rules or genre-conventions - suture in Heath's account refers to the play of presence and absence as a mode of subject production in which the identification with the image always has to be read against the background of a symbolic system: "the spectator is always already in the symbolic ... No discourse without suture ... , but equally, no suture which is not from the beginning specifically defined within a particular system which gives it form ..." (13)

With Lacan, the term suture denotes the "conjunction of the imaginary and the symbolic." (14) With respect to the Lacanian registers of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real, suture thus refers to the stitching of the representational registers, with the seam closing off the real from reality, closing off the unconscious from conscious discourse. Suture thus prevents the subject from losing its status as a subject, prevents it from falling into the void of the real, from falling into psychosis. Thus, the subject's identification with the movie fundamentally relies on this "conjunction of the imaginary and the symbolic" levels within the cinematic discourse itself. Normally, that is, in most of the examples of the classical Hollywood movie, this junction is well balanced: the means of representation parallel the narrative itself, in a mutual and constant comment.

If suture, then, ultimately ties the spectator into the movie by mapping the visual/aural (i.e. perceptual, and thus imaginary) means of representation onto the narrative (and the structure of the narrative), the ripping open of that seam consequently has to result in a problematization, if not complete undermining of identification. This de-suturing then draws attention to the fabrication of the illusion of whole-ness of both the spectator and the movie. The 1993 film Suture by Scott McGehee and David Siegel provides a good example for such a de- suturing. (15)

Suture begins with the attempt of Vincent Towers, a millionaire who has killed his father, to kill his identical half-brother Clay Arlington in a planned car explosion and to pass him off as himself to escape prosecution. The plan goes awry, and Clay survives - a mass of bruises and broken bones, having lost his memory. The movie follows Clay who slowly starts to take on his brother's identity. Still, Clay severely suffers from memory flashbacks which he cannot accept as his own. However, the end of the film - which indeed is its starting image as well, since the movie as such is a long flashback - shows Clay, who has by now fully accepted his new identity as Vincent Towers, shooting his brother who has returned to bring his plan to a successful close. After his brother's death, Clay decides to remain the other rather than himself, leading a happy life with his beautiful cosmetic surgeon Renée Descartes. No problem so far. But, on the level of representation, the spectator is constantly held in the process of de-suturing. The movie constantly emphasizes the physical similarity of the two brothers (on the blurb on the video jacket, they are actually referred to as 'twin brothers'), which is in fact a prerequisite for the film to function in the first place. "Our physical resemblance," remarks Vincent at one point, "is striking." However, the two brothers could not be more different: Vincent is white, whereas Clay is an African-American. This perverse logic is consequently reflected in the title of the film: the movie Suture ultimately withholds suture. (16)

Lost Highway, I argue, functions in quite a similar manner. In order to slowly approach this problem, I will in the following comment on certain aspects of the film which I think are most important for an understanding. First, there is the structure of the film. After the credit titles that flicker over the screen - fittingly accompanied by David Bowie's song "I'm deranged," a track that sets the tone for what's to come - the movie begins with Fred sitting alone in front of a window, smoking, his image mirrored in the pane of glass, when suddenly a message comes in through the intercom: "Dick Laurent is dead!" (29K .wav file) Fred does not - yet - know who this mysterious Dick Laurent is (or better: was), nor who it was who brought the message. Neither does the spectator. Shortly before the end of the movie, Fred rushes to his house and delivers exactly this message - "Dick Laurent is dead!" - into his own intercom. Whereas most reviewers have failed to take notice of this strange structure, in favor of a more straightforward telling of the tale, even the one article that has mentioned it fails to acknowledge its real impact:

at the conclusion of Lost Highway, when Fred returns to his home to deliver the message that will set the whole narrative in motion again, a new element has entered ... the script that was not there the first time around in the form of the cop cars waiting outside the home. This illustrates well that repetition is never identical, and that at the core of sameness is difference. (17)

If we have a look - or much more importantly - a careful LISTEN - to these two scenes again ... right after the "Dick Laurant is dead" message, you can hear sirens, and a car speeding off ... in fact, they're the same sirens (and car speeding off) that occur at the end of the movie. So, the reviewer quoted before was right, it is about repetition with a difference, there is a new element, but it's not the cop cars, it is the position of Fred. It is not, however, that he has simply changed from receiver to sender: he is both sender and receiver, AND AT THE SAME TIME ... AND SPACE!

In order to approach this mystery, a different topology is needed, a topology accounting for a time-space that differs markedly from Euclidean space and teleological time concepts. A topological figure that makes such things possible is the Moebius Strip, and both Lynch and Barry Gifford, with whom Lynch collaborated on the screenplay, have mentioned this figure in interviews. (18) So, what is a Moebius Strip?

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© Mike Hartmann