Monday, October 12, 2009

Dark Demented Noir – Lost Highway

David Lynch has been one of my favorite directors since the end of the 90’s. I remember seeing a scene from “The Elephant Man” when I was a kid. In it the nurse sees the unfortunate man, and his image terrifies her. It was filmed like a horror scene and it scared the hell out of me.

As a kid I also watched “Dune” because I loved “Star Wars” and my dad brought home anything sci-fi related. Needless to say The Baron terrified my sister and I found it to be the most disturbing sci-fi film I’d ever seen. I know others feel the same way for other reasons. :-)

I can’t remember if I saw “Lost Highway” before I got pulled back into David Lynch, or seeing that movie was the cause – but I do know I saw it and the film impacted me profoundly. It was surreal horror in a way I’d never seen before. Lynch had captured the feel of the nightmare, and in doing did something that I had rarely felt – he scared me.

Most of the time, horror movies are gross and don’t do much more than startle me. But there are the rare films that use atmosphere to build horror, and the first half of “Lost Highway” does it very well. I heard the first 40 minutes described as a pressure cooker, with you feeling certain that something horrible is going to happen, but you wait for the other shoe to drop.

Now if you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll tell you right now, most people leave the film immensely confused after the first viewing. The first forty minutes move very slowly, and many find them boring. The next hour or so seems to be a completely different movie and the final fifteen to twenty minutes are screw with your sense of narrative so much that confusion is the only resolution. To be honest this isn’t good story telling.

Now, this provides a bit of an issue, if Lynch doesn’t tell an effective story than “Lost Highway” fails as a movie right? Correct. But if Lynches goal wasn’t to tell a story but create an effective and horrifying atmosphere that creates mixes an uneasy and uncanny feeling in the viewer, then his goal is met. To be honest I don’t know what he was trying to do in this movie, and if I got a chance to ask Lynch, he wouldn’t tell me. His favorite reply to that question is “What do you think I was trying to do?” For him it’s more entertaining to hear what others make of his work.

So maybe he’s just a snobby guy who has a very good eye behind the camera and knows how to create nightmare visions on the screen. But he does this in such an effective way that many other filmmakers have used his techniques to great effect – and especially in horror films.

Lynch’s follow up to this movie, “Mulholland Drive” is a better film. The story makes a bit more sense, (once you piece it together after multiple viewings) and the style seems more assured and concise. The pacing is quicker and fits the mystery of the film.

But “Lost Highway” is primarily a horror film dressed as noir. Shadows and light play huge parts in the film. Lynch utilizes sound and music in such a way as to disorient and horrify the viewer. Early scenes seem to have eerie silence, or undulating rumbles as if the world is waiting to close over the main characters. The house of the characters is always in shadow and hallways seem to stretch into a dark oblivion.

Lights are used in ways that seem to be perfect. Flashing white-blue bursts signify power and a moment of change. Brilliant headlights bath nude bodies in the desert. And the red light of a jazz club illuminates the face of a man who feels suspicion and rage building inside him.

Haven’t seen it and curious? Let me tell you a bit about the premise of the first part of the film. A couple living in modern house seems to be having a strained relationship. There is no sign of understanding or passion between them. One day a video tape is left on their porch (movie was made in 96, so no DVDs). The tape shows a slow pan of the front of their house. The next day another tape arrives, showing the same thing, but after a burst of static, it now shows the inside of the house, from a very high angle, almost as if it was floating in the air. It moves down the hallway and into the bedroom right over the sleeping couple. They are so disturbed that they call the police, but the detectives are unable to find any evidence of a break in. Later on the couple is at a party, and the husband meets a small pale man with no eyebrows. The man claims to be in their house, “right now”. He hands his cell phone to the husband, who dials his home number, and the man answers, even though he’s standing right in front of him.

Seriously, it’s one of the most surreal and messed up phone calls in movie history. And that bit of the uncanny starts the unraveling of reality for all the characters, and only gets darker from here on in. If you are familiar with Lynch’s other work, “Twin Peaks”, “Blue Velvet” or “Wild At Heart”, you’ll know what to expect. But this film is darker, perhaps the darkest of his movies (although I still haven’t made up my mind about “Inland Empire” yet). But in my mind, it’s the closest we will get to a David Lynch horror film and that’s why it’s one of my favorites for Halloween viewing.

Seen “Lost Highway”? What did you think of it? David Lynch: skilled film maker or insane pretentious “arteest”? Can a movie or novel be successful if it only accomplishes mood, but fails in telling a cohesive story?

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