© 2017 by James Clark
The film world abounds with generally furtive protagonists locked into an almost hopeless and definitely endless dedication to sprucing up sensibilities that won’t do. One of the grand masters of presenting this unheralded and widely unsuspected mission is Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973), generally regarded (when regarded at all) as a mid-century inventor of chic crime sagas. When you have nothing else to do, the now very muted chronicling runs, check one of these out for the cinematic equivalent of a “good read.” Melville’s endeavors, however, when approached with something more than a good read, come to light as remarkably close to films like Nocturnal Animals, Arrival and La La Land.
In the spirit of reaching improved clarity about this still-buried treasure, I’ll be, near the outset of this manoeuvre, digging into Melville’s final film, Un Flic (1972); then, next, I’ll be showing that Melville’s (and Jean Cocteau’s) Les Enfants Terribles (1950) is at the heart of Stephen (and Tabitha) King’s Carrie (1974) as inducing Brian De Palma, in 1976, to get up close to what’s up with the work-load of carnal consciousness; then we’ll spend the rest of the year savoring such dare devils coming at us from many sources.
One dare devil we need to open with, however, has been virtually ignored for years at this spot, namely, David Lynch. And the delirium of his Lost Highway (1997) involves, to a distinguished level, that heart-pounding crisis of perceptual lostness which is incumbent on all who care to see what cooks. Nearly seven years ago, my take on this movie stressed the noir aspects and particularly the equations of courage and cowardice. We did, of course, have to account for its being one of the most punishing narrative pitfalls in the history of cinema. But, in lieu of a premium upon consciousness per se, the matter of the two sets of hard-pressed lovers came down to a mechanistic fulcrum whereby entities are twinned in such a way that the initial presence finds itself preceded by a presence at the opposite end of the universe. This factor of Lynch’s reckoning did play a part in the coherence of the film. (The consensus that the helmsman did not have a serious idea of what was afoot, and that therefore his film is a shambles due to a self-indulgent reach exceeding its grasp, is insulting nonsense based in ignorance of what a major artist [requiring a reputation by which to raise millions of dollars] is about.) But what now must be added is the second and more primordial polarity that a material-inertial presence paradoxically is amenable to and dependent upon finite intentional consciousness to complement the formation of reality. This state of affairs accounts for a union of Fred and Renee Madison who dare to aspire to subtleties of creative dynamics, as implicated in the rough and tumble of Pete and Alice who tend to lead a far less subtle existence.
That tangled matter being put aside for a while, we must make a sharp turn to recover the nitty-gritty of Lynch’s endeavor, namely, not cosmology, not phenomenology, but a movie about the fulfilling drama of motion. Lost Highway establishes in a masterful way its priorities by means of, first of all, the optics of a roadway and its yellow median strip jiggling with an extreme speed as being raced along, along with David Bowie, that expert of the exceptional, singing “I’m Deranged;” and then the jazz club date with Fred’s tenor sax performance being not merely a deranged frenzy, but, more importantly, a betrayal of his and Renee’s birth of that cool which singles them out as persons of interest to an apparition in deathly white-face style who adds salt to their lacerating mishap of mood in the land of the best and the brightest. The solitude and interplay of actors, Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, as their golden ring becomes tin constitutes a cinematic territory granting access to the center of what it means to be alive. Fred first comes into view in the confines of his severe but attractive Bauhaus home, the chic club-dark paucity of windows of any real size affording a study of his face and him smoking in such darkness that his mouth appears to be a grotesquely wide maw, bleeding out to the full realm of darkness. Coming near to one of those perhaps anal windows, he is now seen to be in the throes of some vague dismay having aroused a sweaty and eye-lid tightening decline from being a confident artist and design innovator. After some joyless drags on his cigarette while shuffling around in silhouette he encounters Renee in a dark, silk housecoat in tune with her dark reddish hair; and in her wispy voice, perhaps modelled on torch singer, Julie London, she manages a statement that has something to do with the self-hating simplism of his imminent gig. “You won’t mind my not coming to the club tonight…” Though there is no longer a scintilla of affection between them, the imperative of hard-won and perhaps precious classiness which they have both bought into adds to their malaise a direction which, in his case, especially, sounds a death knell to that full-bodied recovery of effective solitude which had to be instrumental at an early age. Very much minding her breach of loyalty but staying the gentleman; and, when asking her what takes precedence, hearing the perhaps unintentional provocation, “Stay home… Read…” he—speaking way too quietly to be true—meets her knowingly gorgeous and prevailing stance with two widely-separated deliveries of the word, “Read?” She lowers her eyes and he witlessly pounces with, “Read what?” She guffaws and produces an awkward smile. Now being a long-term arbitrator to someone he used to love, he pulls out the gambit, “Nice to know I can still make you laugh…” Renee, relieved to be entering a public forum (though her voice remains make-it-better soft), matches his self-evasion with, “I like to laugh, Fred,” which elicits the almost Pavlovian, “That’s why I married you…” Her subsequent, “You can wake me up when you get home if you want to,” is far more redolent of getting him out the door than of brimming passion. The wake-up call consists of his being no more on a stairway to the stars than his wrong, almost Dixieland, one-sided, default excesses on the bandstand. Adding to their miasma, they receive a series of Manila envelopes containing blurry, black and white videos of their imposing house.When Renee moots that the first one must be from a real estate agent, a different level of rout is on. When they receive one showing themselves asleep in their own bed, they both feel diminished; but Renee, having had an upper hand, falls harder. In frantically rushing to round up by phone a police detail, she becomes another crime victim, her usual eccentric but controlled vocal timbre becoming ordinary as she puts herself in the hands of “detectives” who clearly could not detect anything that might be of use to her. (One of them, now on the premises, on finding that Fred is a musician, tosses off some empty, Keystone Cops comedy lingo— “What’s your axe?”—and, hearing what the man of the house plays, ends with the hard but easily brushed off truth, “Tone deaf…”)
The descent into tone deafness on the part of our protagonists is far from a laughing matter—the upshot of their blurry disorder being Fred’s ripping apart Renee’s head and torso with much blood spilling over onto him as captured by the video series those lawmen could not begin to fathom. Renee had helped the posse find them by noting that their enviable residence is near the Observatory. True enough they did partake of some wide-space forces at the nub of that mysterious intrusion into their intimate despair. Before the festering energies boiled over, Fred was (along with her but not near her) at a pool party for beautiful people and addressed by a figure (lacking a tan, a tallness and high cheekbones) not only unattractive but not quite human at all. He tells Fred that they had met before; Fred is sure he is mistaken; and the spook with the hard, contemptuous eyes insists that he (Fred) had invited him—in all his uncanniness—to his house, that centre of right moves, and that in fact he’s in the course of haunting right now the failure that their abode has become, notwithstanding its ready access to a world-class Observatory. When once upon a time, perhaps quite a long time ago, in days when Fred could muster real musical art, real primordial power, that claim would not have seemed absurd, inasmuch as he could have discerned a beckoning (not, of course, in the form of a spook; but the form of consciousness informed by lovers as he was once). Now, however, feeling completely foolish and under attack, Fred rounds up Renee, who was with someone named Andy, who “a long time ago… told me about a job” [not so unlike the job she was doing under the rubric of “reading”]; and he brings down the curtain on his being a player of the sur-real (more real). Or does he? And, moreover, does she?
Lost Highway is far more intent on where the creative spark thrives (however motley) than rounding off denizens of a planetary census. On Death Row, Fred is visited in a headache-inducing vision by that irritating little know-it-all who puts him out to pasture and oversees the presence of Pete Dayton, a young garage mechanic, installed in the cell which no longer serves the bureaucratic justice-machine but, more importantly, launches another kind of cool—this time being not Madison Avenue brittle but Dayton Rust-Belt raunchy. Can, the question is, a thrum of old school mechanics rise effectively to the neighborhood of Observatory-level quantum mechanics? (But, rest assured, the can of worms to come divulges its feast right out there on the good old silver screen.)
Pete—now being not only a big puzzle to the law (which promptly has him tailed), his parents (who watch on TV 50’s documentaries heard to inform, “It takes many strawberries to fill a basket”) and his girlfriend, Sheila (a good old blue-collar, Rockabilly tag), but to himself—gets the ball (he didn’t even know was there) rolling by, while working under a repair job, finding painfully wrong that sax disaster of Fred’s as now recorded and played on the workshop radio. The physical crisis, which this loud and crude excuse for fulsome jazz elicits in Pete, brings to light a reprise of his intensive care nightmare at being at the starting block on always imminent Death Row. And it also underlines the link, somehow onstream, between Pete and Fred as sharing being fated to produce real music. Pete rushes to the radio and turns it off. An elderly co-worker (probably also a fan of Dixieland) complains, “I like that…” “Well, I don’t,” the usually easy-going protagonist insists, the geezer offering being an affront to much more than his listening habits. That same day, Pete (with help) brings off a magic moment, perhaps too good to be true (or too true to be widely sustained).
The day before, a still somewhat shaken and bruised Pete (being a virtuoso in instrumentation, but in being about the smooth and powerful operation of car machinery), is put on the case of a rich client’s Mercedes needing some tuning. (“I don’t like the sound of something…”) He finds and fixes that problem after only a few minutes of taking a spin with the owner at the wheel. That owner, sort of like but also pointedly unlike the geezer being a fan of Fred’s, dotes on Pete’s zone of mastery. But he (Mr. Eddy, by name) has other enthusiasms far less to Pete’s liking. (Enthusiasm for producing [poorly-toned] porn movies, for instance.) And then there is his fixation on the rules of the road that—when enjoying the glitch- free operation of the car on a hilly highway and being tailgated by a young man assuming that the Mercedes driver, being middle-aged, is an effete pushover—drives him to ram a miscreant in a flimsy American-make with his good-old Krupp steel and, with armed henchmen attending, use his hand gun as a dagger and deliver a Gestapo rip-up, which causes Pete to feel very tense. (Another ingredient of the river of malaise being magnified here is shown by Mr. Eddy’s allowing his carriage-trade tastes in automobiles to dwindle to moralistic preaching— “… tailgating is a thing I cannot tolerate…”; comparable with Renee and Fred’s sounding like geezers in denouncing the owner of a noisy dog.)
Thus Pete’s encounter, right after being sickened by Fred’s collapsing art, with Mr. Eddy’s girlfriend, Alice, who accompanies the driving purist arranging for some work on his Cadillac—a blonde, but Renee by another name, and also played by Patricia Arquette—involves both his awe in the face of her physical beauty as complemented by kinetic grace (as accentuated by a slow-motion exit from the Caddy); and terror at the prospect of ever going near her. This meeting is washed over by Lou Reed’s “This Magic Moment,” as accentuating, “by the look in your eyes,” that she is as smitten as he. Near closing time, she returns in a cab (a Vanguard cab) and her facial expression is quite astonishing in being the only emission of true warmth in the entire film. Pete tries to get her out of his harm’s way, but he decides in the thrill of the moment to live not only dangerously but ruinously. On their second night of saturation bombing, one of Mr. Eddy’s scouts sees them entering the motel unit Alice arranged (in the mode of an SEC football cheerleader— “Hey! Up here! C’mon up, Baby! I already got the room!”); and their retreat in face of General Sherman has begun.
But that may be ascribing too much to the anal attacker. Alice phones next day, cancelling their third day of paradise. “I think he suspects something… We have to be careful…”(That dispensing of free-wheeling, including crossing many state lines, would, in the sightline of Mr. Eddy, be turning their multifaceted momentum into an easy target.) Her call is framed in such a way as to show only her red lipstick lips. We had seen the same visual of Renee’s lips quavering to the police about the vague threat comprising the video of her and Fred sleeping, with zero erotic energy. And some of us had seen the same optics in Samuel Beckett’s play, “Not I” (1973) where white-knuckle anxiety meets an abyss that could be far less geriatric were the self-imprisonment of respectable intellection and piety not seen to be so impressive. By the time the lovers do meet again (Pete having been dragged over the coals by Sheila), Alice has dropped all traces of the wonderment of an uncanny love’s momentum and replaced it with a hard-boiled scheme to murder and rob one of her colleagues (that same Andy), steal his car and take off…; and there the anticipation runs out of steam. Once again Pete chafes and then dives in. By way of her fearfully overthinking demand that he ride a bus to the target, and therefore be less traceable, she puts into place a further come-down in dynamics and he proceeds to smash the cinematographer’s head on an unyielding coffee table—the blood flow resembling a Dali clock, to match the Dali red lips sofa evoked by those phone calls. She greatly adds to his anguish by coming downstairs from the bedroom as if she were another person. “Wow!” she goes, with adolescent nihilism. “You killed him…” she adds, expertly sizing up the worst legal case scenario. (Contributing impressively to the shredding of tone now entering a terminal phase, there are two preambles to the murder. On having the third takeoff aborted, Pete rounds up Sheila and at a motel his approach is as sterile as Fred’s, notwithstanding a faster pace. Mooting the porn involvement with Mr. Eddy, she describes her audition [Marilyn Manson’s hysterical version of “I Put a Spell on You” striking an appropriately dysfunctional chord].) Their exit from the world of fervent discovery takes place at a small plywood facsimile of Fred and Renee’s Bauhaus establishment. You could even call it an expulsion. Before their driving off, she notices Pete’s nearly breaking down and points the dead man’s gun at the dead-man-lover. Her question, “Don’t you trust me, Pete?” is a further ingredient of a one-way travesty. At the desert haunt (kicked off by her matter-of-fact nightmare, “We have to cross the desert, Baby!”) she pushes up the high-beams and, in an eerie and riveting display of challenging the failure, she employs her employee to stand-in as a lover on the sands to her platinum blonde, windswept mane and incandescent wildness. She ends her moment in the spotlight by reciting a noir moment of collapsing cool (that shack also standing for the beach house of Soberin undergoing an atomic eruption, in Kiss Me Deadly.) “You still love me Pete?… More than ever?” [he had asked, “Why me, Alice?”]. His ineffective rally is, “I want you!” Her ineffective rally is, “You’ll never have me!”
The denouement dispenses with those fugitives from Mr. Eddy and gives us Renee as the tailgate and Fred as his killer. How did they beat the odds? Well, that small and sickly but durable ringmaster becomes some kind of ally in the field of endless expanses and their endless ebb and flow. Fred (alone)—or his facsimile—has come back to the fray in supplanting Pete in his birthday suit in the sands. He’s beckoned (to the shack into which Alice had disappeared, no longer a person of interest) by the omnipresent and barely substantial pacesetter who clears the jazz-man’s cobwebs in angrily insisting he forget the Pete-salient Alice and instead embark in the vicinity of Renee, dead or alive. Moreover, he sports a video camera to measure the creative temperature and let us see what he sees to be crucial. There is a drive to The Lost Highway Hotel and Fred’s cleansing (a sort of Mike Hammer) the premises of the hyper-sober, Soberin-like man with the fleet of black cars. He stashes in the trunk the former underground king and sweet talker, drives to the empty wasteland and—very pointedly with the video cameraman’s assistance finishes him off in a bloody attack. The articulate, even rhapsodic(in a gritty way), crime lord’s last words set in relief that the fussy little taskmaster is about threading a needle of clarification to maintain a state of productive and finite grace in a catchment quite proud of savaging a brief and infinite delight. “You and me, Mister, we can really out-ugly the best of them, can’t we?” After the Mister administers the coup de grace, there is a cut to Fred with the murder weapon now in his hand—emphasizing quite a different alliance than that which Mr. Eddy could envisage. (During the shaky moments when first we see him, Fred hears from his front-door intercom a message, “Dick Laurent is dead…” The speaker was the very white figure, making a point on the level of the more crude but more speedy dispensation—that where Mr. Eddy/ Dick Laurent died. Before hitting the open and largely lost highway, Fred, having rallied to primordial effect [better late than never] goes to that intercom and reiterates the death of Dick Laurent, to residents who may be heartened.) A follow-up scene, with those two tone-deaf LA detectives scoping out the disconcerting resting place of Andy, comprises them recognizing a photo including Renee, the murder victim not being well recognized by the system. The cop having raised tone-deafness (being thereby a rather close kin to Mr. Eddy who had offered one of his products to Pete to induce a “boner,”) intones a Dragnet-style bit of fluff apropos of the photo, which nevertheless speaks to the depths of this odd flood of lost satisfaction: “I think there’s no such thing as a bad coincidence” [all tries somehow being to the good].