© 2010 by James Clark
In the course of the bewildering machinations propelling David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), two detectives have under surveillance a young man enjoying a full calendar of trysts. One says, “Fucker gets more pussy than a toilet seat.” What we have to keep in mind with this is that toilet seats are unisex. And what the film demands we notice is that the two most conspicuous male protagonists (one of whom under surveillance) are pussies, hardly worth a shit to the (same) woman in their life.
Patricia Arquette, the actress inhabiting the sensibility of the leading lady, is a natural for a femme fatale hearkening to the noirs of yesteryear. She is so natural that, with hair styling and color, eye makeup and high beams from a stolen car (whose owner’s murder she has presided over) lighting up some lovemaking in the desert night, she fires out at us Jeanne Moreau’s “Jackie,” doyenne of the roulette tables in Jacques Demy’s noir, Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) (1963). She is a gambler, for sure; but, confining yourself to classical noir history, you’d never guess what kind of gambler she is.
At the outset she is “Renée,” slinky, well-groomed, with dark cascades in tune with a black silk dressing gown with 1940s shoulders and kabuki-inspired high-heeled slippers. Her voice is barely audible, seemingly in the throes of some oxygen inversion. She is quietly, very quietly, at a partial ease as she tries a meeting of minds with her partner, an avant-garde jazz sax player. “You don’t mind that I’m not going to the Club tonight?” The latter, whom we saw in an opening shot looking very anxious, tries to match her dreamy tone, but still seems a bit at a loss in inquiring, “What are you gonna do?” “Stay home. Read,” is her hollow reply. In a setting of cool moderne furnishings and impressive interior dimensions, she has about her the aura of Mike Hammer’s Velda, in the noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955). But her partner, that shaky guy? One thing though, he does share Mike’s position on reading. “Read? Read what?” She laughs. He overhastily follows up with, “I can still make you laugh.” “I like to laugh, Fred.” “That’s why I married you.” Then he’s at the Club, doing a John Coltrane “Love Supreme”-like outcry (accompanied by a light show [feebly] attempting to simulate a nuclear explosion) that has us wondering where the money came from to buy those digs.
A few nights pass, comprising a whole era for both of them. The first, still at the Club (“Luna Lounge”) has him trying to reach her on the phone, unsuccessfully, and doing some Soccer-Mom emoting. On arriving home, he’s nonplussed to find her asleep on the bed. (One other thing, in moving about the cavernous, unlit property, he passes—several times, in this fateful forty-eight hours, a red curtain that reminds us of the intro-format getting a workout four years hence in Mulholland Drive, and five years hence, in Rabbits.) She had said, in the awkward estrangement apropos of “reading,” “You can wake me up when you get home.” On getting her cue, the next day, she takes off her covering and hits a profile right out of one of the tonier skin mags. That cue comes after her having picked up, at the sun-drenched doorstep, not only the morning paper (her subscription) but a big Manila envelope containing a videotape that they find to consist of only a pan shot of their Bauhaus-inspired extensive frontage. She supposes it’s a realtor’s come-on; he, as always, looks worried. Then they have their conjugal moment, notable for some fine burnished skin tones, her carriage-trade charms, and her tapping a well-manicured, black-nailed set of fingers on his back, as he nearly faints imagining she’s sharing an orgasm. (She had first positioned herself by him as if she were going to have a pap smear.) Early next morning, she’s picking up the paper again, and another big envelope, having been wakened by “some dog barking.” (Being troubled by a dog would resurface in Rabbits, in light of the prissy horrors deposited by Henry the Eraserhead.) Apropos of the current dog, “Fred Madison,” the husband and suburbanite careerist in need of PR amplification, frets, “Who the hell owns that dog?” a question his prototype would never have asked, and in a Neighborhood Watch timbre he’d never have produced. This time the video gets inside and shows them asleep in bed. Something’s getting into their face here; and it is Renée who comes up with that tributary of common sense that Velda was far from immune to: “We have to call the police.” Two of LAPD’s finest—obese and dyspeptic—assure them of their support, and the man of the house gives them a sendoff with, “Thanks, guys.”(Renée’s bored but cogent gambit has been spooked from the range of vision. She has heard herself peep, “Someone broke in and filmed us!” Looking at her shamefaced diminishment, you know she’s asking herself, “Did I just do this?”) There is a sudden cut to a pool party that night, where two indicators are served up to us. She’s a bit tipsy, and has latched on to an “Andy,” a smoothie with a pencil moustache who had arranged a job for her some time ago. “What kind of job?” Fred asks, his not excellent day having popped his blood pressure. “I can’t remember,” she tells him, so quietly you know she doesn’t care if he hears it or not. He has no trouble hearing a little guy with beady eyes and Kabuki makeup declaring, “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” “I don’t think so.” “At your house… I’m there right now.” (There is some business where he calls home and the same unpleasant sprite is on his phone. Before losing our temper or studying up on parapsychology or quantum singularities, let’s hold fast to the real-time drama of being consumed with self-contempt by reason of caving into fear. “How did you do that?” Fred’s easily mystified conscience demands. “Ask me,” demands the last thing Fred wants to confront. [He had mentioned to the cops, “I like to remember things my own way. Not necessarily the way they happen.”] This little device of personification spins into play from out of the shadowy anathemas of noir disappointment. Its emergence at this point prepares us for bigger circumspective trauma hurtling into view very soon.) “You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I’m not invited.” Then he’s dragging her away (“We never should have come here in the first place”), and snapping at her, “How’d you meet that asshole Andy, anyhow?” “We met at a place called “Monks,” is her deliberately unhelpful reply. They reach their pad, where something disturbs the electricity for a second or two. He shouts out the horror cliché, “Stay in the car!” finds nothing but darkness and that red curtain in the house, runs out, finds her by the front stairs, laughing at his fearful histrionics, they enter, lose touch altogether in that murky place of outrage, he comes into view with another Manila envelope, puts in the tape and sees himself by her on the bathroom floor, her blood everywhere, especially over his face and hands.
Was it plausible that he killed her? A humiliated coward might boil over in that way. Lynch presents, in countless filmic churnings, a critical mass of refusal to meet the rigors of personal and public history. There certainly might be a precedent for such a couple coming apart like that. But you have to trust where the carnal punch resides in this specific action, and it points to a far better put-together Velda bidding Hasta la vista to a Mike who should have been a one-night stand.
Be that as it may, his pals on the force as seen the day before are into beating a confession from him, he’s found guilty and spends some uncomfortable days on death row. That would be the probability twist of Fred-the-Mike’s homicidal disarray rolling into a policing farce, constant from ages past. That would not be an episode leading anywhere. But in the interests of establishing a monumental torrent of weakness in face of which Velda, a free agent and working girl once more, must tread, the routine of the jailhouse requires jolting. Replacing Mike in his cell comes “Pete” (perhaps prematurely housed with murderers). (Crying for an aspirin, Mike is referred to by one of the prison staff as “That’s one fucked-up wife killer.” His partner quips, “Which one?”and they laugh, mirthlessly.)
Pete is soon released to his parents, who could be likened to Ozzie and Harriett on Quaaludes. They all live in a sitcom bungalow on a sitcom street, the upshot of which is to heavily reinforce that American thrust of the proceedings given a first injection by the tribulations of Renée and Fred. Pete leaves for an evening of recreation with some hormonally overt friends—highly recommended by Mom and Dad, who are watching a black and white documentary on strawberry cultivation—which culminates in a bowling alley the staidness of the patrons prompting the clique to flourish their outlaw propensities, and Pete reconnects with the girl in his life who is very concerned about the nasty bump he is sporting on his forehead. “What happened to your face?” “I don’t know.” The next cut provides us with a pretty good guess about the disfigurement. We’re at a garage, Pete walks in and is greeted in the same way his garage mechanic pal, Nick, greeted Mike on being released from the hospital. (“Mikey! Mikey Boy! You’re back! How you doin’, Mikeeey?”) “Pete! Where you been? It’s good you’re back! Pete’s back!” (Nick, as you’ll recall, received a very nasty bump on the head when Soberin loosened the jack holding up a chassis he was working under.) And who should turn up, in a black limo, not unlike Soberin’s, but “Mr. Eddy” (and a couple of his hit men) who wants his main (garage) guy, Pete, to go for a spin to put the big hearse back in sync. (Pete soon goes under the hood and puts things right, just as Mike had defused two accelerator bombs—the second by way of Nick’s equipment.) Like Soberin, Eddy (or “Dick Laurent”) is an ethical rhapsodist. On this occasion, he and his men beat some hapless tailgater within an inch of his life, destroy his car and leave the writhing, crying mess with an injunction to restudy the driver’s manual. “Tailgating is one thing I cannot tolerate.” Before pulling away from the garage, he offers Pete a porn video (“Give you a boner”). Pete says, “No, thanks.”
Although we’re in Mike Hammer’s hometown, the nitty gritty of this scenario wants to show something beyond Angelinos copping out. Tailgating the quirky scene described above is one of Lynch’s patent epiphanies, bringing into force a new regime and endowing Lost Highway, surely the director’s most maligned work, with a claim to be one of his best. Eddy had mentioned to Pete he was bringing in his Caddy for some special care, and we see the latter, being approached by the former, under a chassis in a classic set-up for disaster. Only, this is a delayed disaster; and before it strikes we’re in for some real excitement. One of the hurdles to overcome in this movie (as was the case in Inland Empire) is its smattering of pop music cladding, arranged to make us slightly sick. The opening conduit for the credits includes evocation of expansive, wide-open highway adventure by Lynch’s longstanding musical assistant, Angelo Badalamenti; but it is an offering interrupted by David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged,” which leans on us—like a badly trained dentist—by way of a tremulous vocal line, putting us in mind of a choir boy’s mid-week or an NGO spokesperson. There are several other moments, by the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein, that seemingly take as their pretext a challenge to keep a straight face while mimicking at length the voice of Bella Lugosi. The aural design here would be negation of a rootedness of American sensibility. In welcome contrast to such puerile misjudgment, the scene coming up involves Mr. Eddy and his big black Cadillac convertible, a passenger, and Lou Reed’s rendering of “This Magic Moment.” The passenger is Renée, now a platinum blonde and doing business under the name of “Alice Wakefield.” (That Velda’s last name was “Wakeman,” is only the beginning here.) Pete has rolled out from under his job and, as a Fender base growls and the lead guitar covers not only its last frontier in California, but the whole skein of American desire for well-being, Alice, in torrid slow-motion, locks into Pete’s eyes, while Reid sings, “This magic moment, so different and so new/Was like any other, until I met you./And then it happened/It took me by surprise/I knew that you felt it too/I could see it by the look in your eyes./Sweeter than wine/Softer than a summer’s night/Everything I want, I have/Whenever I hold you tight./This magic moment,/While your lips are close to mine,/Will last forever/ ’til the end of time,” and we understand, beyond any doubt, but prior to any articulation, what Renée is about. The shoreline of Balboa Beach at sunset, with Santa Carolina off in the haze, takes over, as does a brief and dark impromptu by Badalamenti. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJuya9mJcDA&feature=related Then she’s arriving, alone, back at the garage, at quitting time. She steps out of a cab, made for her, not only in its big “V” on the door, but its full name, “Vanguard.” She walks up to Pete and asks (very quietly, but with more oxygen than she ever generated with Fred), “How’d you like to take me to dinner?” The Valley boy—he had convalesced by way of Bossa Nova—replies, with the same fear in his eyes we’d seen in Fred’s, “I don’t know…” (Uneven-tempered Mr. Eddy had anointed him, “You’re my man, Pete.”) Alice smiles and counters with, “Why don’t I take you to dinner?” He stands pat with, “Look, I don’t think this is a very good idea.” But his eyes belie all this. She graciously defers, goes to the phone to get back on the Vanguard, and Pete changes his mind. She smiles at him with laughing eyes and says, “Maybe we should just forget about dinner.” Their love-making includes eye contact and they breathe freely. Her nails are hot white, and she does not tap on his back. A quick cut forward shows her on the top level walkway of a motel, calling to him, “Hey! Up here! C’mon up, Baby! I already got the room!”
This latter register of the bleachers does not reach us by happenstance. It coheres perfectly with the unspoken motives of the song, “This Magic Moment.” Blonde or brunette, this Velda is an aristocrat in spades. And precisely for that reason she exudes a carnality closely meshed to the comings and goings of workaday life, especially the wheeling, dealing life of democratic America. Early in the nineteenth century, a French visitor to America swallowed hard in face of the rowdy rage for material well-being evinced by a population whose near-ancestors could never have dreamed of aspiring in that way. His aristocratic distaste for the “smallness” of that socioeconomic invention did not prevent him well recognizing the consequentiality of a topspin of sensual intensity sporadically trailing above the “miserable” specifics threatening an end to what he called “greatness.” The writer’s name was Alexis de Tocqueville, and, sad to relate, he lacked the balls to provide serious coherence to his sense of the drama of democracy in America. There was nothing trivial about having Renée opt for reading; nor was it meaningless chat having her and her overmatched husband being close to “the Observatory.” Departing that insolvency (Tocqueville marvelled at Americans’ tolerance for bankruptcy) whose fiscal vectors would make a shell game seem transparent, she resurfaces with a long-standing business associate (the strong points each bringing to their axis not hard to fathom) under the name of not only recent icon Velda, but distant inspiration, Alex (Alice). Alex lacked the sensual finish to be more than a catchy, classical rational academic. Alice is another matter, apropos of drawing a bead upon the desert overriding “greatness,” here referred to by Lynch as a “lost highway.”
Mr. Eddy (a competitive Beast with [very] unsteady purchase upon sufficient rightness) would have had to absorb many losses (not all of them monetary) in the course of tolerating the reckless overtures of his invaluable (and not indifferent) partner (her account to Pete of coming into his lair and his orbit—a harsh initiation, to be sure—does not lack eerie appreciation, though she denies it when reproved by him) and far from constant lover. Alice knew that, events having spun as they did, little Pete could not be accommodated within the creative accounting systems she had pressed upon Eddie. On recognizing her consort’s being well aware of the boy’s tailgating his procession, she brings to “Baby’s” attention their being confronted with some messy conflict, profit-taking and intercontinental travel (a new frontier). The boy is soon reduced to tears, but she plays him along, for the sake of her next stand, to the point of his murdering Andy and chauffeuring her to a fence she knows at a desert cabin. During the early stages of this wonderfully nuanced positing of the cost of working into an intractable market, she with difficulty quells her own fear (blue nail polish becoming compelling); then, sucking it up, rattles off details of a clinically conceived assault and heist, and, with Andy’s head geometrically sliced by an unforgiving countertop and large screens showing one of Andy’s oeuvres wherein she is depicted being screwed from behind (her eyes looking only at the camera) saunters down, in déshabillé, from his bedroom, says (as if watching a nice double play) “Wow,” and, looking squarely at Pete, capsulizes things as they stand, with, “You killed him.” He becomes ill on noticing a photo showing her twice, as Renée (the touchstone for his trauma of replacing Fred) and Alice, with Eddy and Andy (the most eerie paste-up on record, of the longing of Demy’s young girls of Rochefort. She levels a gun at his head, then lowers it, gives him a sunny smile, hands it to him and says, as if sending a toddler off to school, “Stick it in your pants.”(On going upstairs to find a bathroom, the disintegrating recruit comes to a room numbered 26 [like Henry’s room in Eraserhead] and glimpses Alice mounted from behind, thus constituting an almost unrecognizable version of Balthazar. The actor playing Pete has somehow come up with the name, “Balthazar Getty,” leading us, particularly as to Jean Paul Getty, one of the foxiest exponents of American capitalism, with a sort of microchip of Tocqueville’s unfinished task in synthesis.
She says, “C’mon, Baby,” leading him to Andy’s car. Then, later in the drive, Peter fuming, “Where the fuck are we goin’?” she explains, “We have to go to the desert, Baby.” As they race toward their destination (“He’ll give us money and passports for all this shit”) it rips apart in a fireball in slow-mo like Soberin’s beach house, then recombines to stand as a cabin in the desert, the fence not in. By this time, Pete straggles behind her, like a child wishing he’d had a mother who’d warned him about talking to strangers. All the affinities, from his point of view anyway, have vanished forever. She gives him a knowing smile—like the ones Jean Moreau, as “Jackie” the gambler, in Demy’s Bay of Angels, gives her young “lucky charm” and disenchanted paramour—and says, “We’ll have to wait.” She sets up the high beams, turns up the radio, and, with a night wind blowing, they love one more time. (This has been preceded by a grim and fearful Pete’s trembling, “Why me, Alice? Why choose me?”) She is on top, and as she savors the night and what there is to gain from such a prop-heavy, ritualized action—something she knows a lot about—her platinum mane twisting wildly, her eyes lower toward his and the comedy strikes them and her mouth, and at that moment she astonishingly comes to a visual unity with the “Jackie” of thirty-four years before. Swept up in all this as far as his courage allowed, her lover repeats, “I want you.” She whispers into his ear, as he lies exhausted in the sand, “You’ll never have me.” She strides away to the cabin, and that is the last we see of her.
A postscript ensues, Fred having replaced Pete. He’s almost literally trampled by the not easily pleased harbinger of the lost highway (especially incensed that Fred can’t see Renée as the one; Alice—from his [questionable] discernment having pushed the envelope to tatters), races off in Andy’s car (it was almost a write-off, anyway) and comes to something called The Lost Highway Hotel. (If only writing it down could really make it happen!) In Room 26, Renée is servicing Eddy (somewhat like the girl with Henry in Eraserhead). At about this point we realize, the master having made her final exit, a bit of unsellable but still edifying fireworks remains to be burned as a last lugubrious and laughter-accessible note. Fred, the jettisoned artiste, has been brought to bear (his righting instincts being what they are) upon the unrespectable source of his former wife’s line of credit. After she tucks him in and kisses his forehead, Renée drives off in Andy’s car, and Fred goes on to smash Mr. Eddy in the head with a gun and load him into the trunk of his own limo. Then he drives off to a remote part of the desert, opens the trunk, is attacked by a revived Dick Laurent, slashes Dick’s throat, and with blood coursing from various sources, the latter checks out on a Blackberry-like device proffered by the short Conscience (before shooting him) a sort of highlight reel of his swinger’s haven (“Monks”), including Renée in various manoeuvres, one, with him, laughing off a snuff-movie scene). He nails his resentful, bathetic adversary with faint praise, in terms of, “You and me, Mister. We can really out-ugly those sons of bitches.” (Though it hits our eyes for only a microsecond, and in very low light, Fred’s murder scene entails the kind of mutilation [of Renée] that the 1946 Beast would apply to that deer he just had to chase down. Some years later, Eddy would do it again, applying his Mercedes’ 1400 horsepower engine to chase down that tailgater.) On delivering the news of Eddy’s death to his own intercom (to iterate how recurrent such entities as Fred and Dick are), he is pursued by several police cars and runs into a roadblock to fatal effect (screaming like a baby), one last reason, if you needed it, distinguishing him from Mike.
That wrap-up would be all well and good, were it not for lumping Dick Laurent (Le Roi, King) with slaves like Fred (Mad. Ave. Madison) and Pete (Dayton, only for datin’). The presence of someone so old, so crude and so ridiculous would seem to preclude involvement in a love story with a breathtakingly beautiful and seriously innovative young woman. But the powers of the Beauty and the Beast adventure only come into their own where you find yourself thinking, “Impossible!” Mr. Eddy’s loopy and embarrassing eccentricities, as portrayed in our first meeting him apropos of the deadly Californian sin of tailgating, immediately put him out of the running as a romantic lead. But let’s look closely at another first, at Alice’s first day on that job she is so cavalier and evasive about. Pressed by a now directly targeted and terrified prudish (ascetic) Pete to explain the hold her improbable consort exerts upon her (“How did you get in with these fuckin’ people?”), she takes him (and us) back to her initial interview. Dressed in a tightly fitting black skirt and suit top, her hair pinned short, she is made to wait in a cavernous foyer, sternly overseen by a well-tailored and no-nonsense front office foot soldier, and also in the incongruous presence of a shirtless, big black guy lying on his back pressing Olympics-level weights. She is finally shown in, and, with Marilyn Manson (judging from the name, an offspring of Cocteau) delivering a cataclysmic version of “I Put a Spell on You” to fill out the den, she has a big revolver put to her head by a living prop reminiscent of the light-standard holders in Belle et Bête. Mr. Eddy, seated, and intent upon her, makes a slight hand sign for her to get started; she slowly peels herself out of that tight covering and, following the slightest of eye signs downward, walks up to him with a mixture of fear and thrilling and kneels to show what she can do.
“I put a spell on you
Because you’re mine.
I can’t stand the things that you do
No, no, no. I ain’t lyin’.
I don’t care if you don’t want me
’Cause I’m yours, yours, yours anyhow.
Yeah, I’m yours, yours, yours.
I love you. I love you.
I love you. I love you.
I love you. I love you.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
I put a spell on you.
Lord! Lord! Lord!
’Cause you’re mine…
I can’t stand the things that you do
When you’re foolin’ around.
I don’t care if you don’t want me.
’Cause I’m yours, yours, yours anyhow…”
Despite the lack of full explicitness, Pete gets the jist (“You liked it, huh?”[Alice had used the gambit, “Meow, meow” in informing him by phone one night that she couldn’t show because she had to “go somewhere” with Mr. Eddy]) even as he swears to her his love, from which—in a flash—she comes back with, “Should I call Andy?”(to put the new business plan in motion).
At the Lost Highway Hotel, in Room 26, Renée gently makes love to Eddy, straddling him, tucks the sleeping lion in with a simple kiss, and departs. Fred and his importuning shadow of ascetic rectitude put an end to the aged lover’s errant venture, and in this they resemble the spouse jealous of a talking horse in the 1961 comedy, Mr. Ed. Not only Balthazar (the “Mathematical Donkey” of Bresson’s film) but the butchered baby in Room 26 in Eraserhead thereby flit across their vigilantism. From out of this surreal overdrive, Renée’s/Alice’s/Belle’s bidding adieu to an unviable royalty finds itself capitalized over and above Andy’s reluctant contribution.