Stranded in the Jungle--18

Lost Highway

INTRUSION. A sound breaks the silence, a slow intake of breath. A glimmer emerges from the darkness. It's the first shot (after the credits) of David Lynch's 1997 film Lost Highway. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) draws on a cigarette. The glow at its tip is the only source of light. Tobacco crackles and burns, in extreme close-up. We see Fred's weary, ravaged profile. He holds the smoke for a long, drawn-out instant. Then he exhales, and the screen fades to black. This opening shot is an omen of things to come. It isn't just Fred who is tired. The whole first hour of the film is a study in exhaustion. Motions are started, but not completed. Phones ring and ring, but go unanswered. It's too dark to make anything out clearly. A low electronic rumbling plays incessantly on the soundtrack. Fred and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) seem drained of vigor. They wander languidly from room to room, like sleepwalkers. They barely speak to each other, voices in a mumble. The house they live in is dark and airless. The narrow windows don't let in much sun. The art deco lamps are way too dim. The rooms are wide and bare, with low ceilings. They are decorated in muted reds and browns: dull, absorbent colors that further deaden the light. The corridors leading out from these rooms are darker still. The camera gets lost in their murky depths. When Fred walks back into one of them, he seems to disappear. The house's furniture has a retro Fifties look. Shelves line a wall of the living room. Most of them are empty, but one contains a VCR. An old couch takes up another wall. A few small paintings hang above it. A broad coffee table lies before the couch, with just a single ashtray on top. A TV stands far off, in the opposite corner. These forlorn objects are lost among the shadows. They do not liven up the room. If anything, they make it even more dismal. The house is a closed space, folded back upon itself. Fred and Renee are prisoners of the space, just as they are prisoners of each other. Their marriage is on the rocks. The tension between them is as thick as the darkness itself. It is always there, though they never speak of it directly. We get a sense of it best when they have sex. Fred thrusts himself upon Renee. She doesn't resist, but she also doesn't respond. The scene is a series of harsh close-up shots and reverse shots. We see the actors' faces and torsos, from oblique angles. The close-ups make us feel the thickness and weight of these bodies. Fred is consumed by intense physical effort. His expression is strained. His passion is desperate, and devoid of pleasure. When he finally comes, he doesn't seem satisfied, merely relieved. Renee remains impassive throughout. Is she feeling boredom, longing, despair, disgust, hatred? Perhaps all of these. But we can't be sure. Her feelings are so private, no image can do them justice. They are so intense, no action can express them. Emotions like these can only appear in the darkness. They can only be displayed under a mask of indifference. Feelings like Fred's and Renee's cannot be turned into a story. That's why the first half of Lost Highway is so brooding and mysterious. It pushes up against the limits of what can be seen and said. So much is hinted at, and so little is shown. Even the event upon which the whole film turns, Fred's apparent murder of Renee, does not take place on screen. We see what comes before, and what comes after. But we do not--cannot--see the act itself. It is missing from the body of the film, just as it is missing from Fred's own consciousness. The murder drives the story, but it stands apart from the story. It is like an intrusion from another world. Fred is not able to reach outside himself. He is too worn down, too tormented, too self-absorbed. Instead, the outside must come to him. It comes in the form of a series of anonymous videotapes. He finds them on his doorstep every morning. The images are a grainy black-and-white, shot with a handheld camera. In the first tape, the camera pans over the outside of the house. In the second tape, it enters the house, and glides from room to room. It reaches the bedroom, and captures Fred and Renee as they lie asleep. The third tape is the worst. It shows Renee dead. Fred stands over her mangled body, bathed in her blood. It is only in this way that he learns what he has done. He cannot recall the action as his own. He has become a stranger to himself. In the second half of the film, this is made literal. Fred turns into another person, portrayed by a different actor. He plays out a smarmy parody of film noir. But none of this resolves his dilemma. The outside offers no respite, and no escape. Fred can neither break free of himself, nor come to terms with himself. The intrusion of the outside only confirms his inner darkness. The film ends just where it began. Fred comes full circle, back to the house and back to the infinite fatigue of being himself.

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