Sunday, November 3, 2013

formative films double feature - lost highway & mulholland drive.

Lost Highway (1997) & Mulholland Drive (2001)

Dir: David Lynch

yes, I couldn't choose between either of these films.

but since they're so thematically similar, one might even say that one is the natural evolution of the other, I felt it fitting to post them together.

and they were both instrumental in my development as both a cinematologist and a filmmaker.


after I first saw lost highway on VHS in 1997 and the ending credits began to roll, I had absolutely no idea what I had just seen.


granted, I was only thirteen - but this was the first time I had finished a film and felt that I knew even less about it than when I started. actors changed, names changed, timelines changed and, perhaps most terrifying of all, marilyn manson made a cameo appearance.

but, more importantly, I wanted to know more. I wanted to figure out this puzzle, the pieces of which david lynch had scattered before me. and thanks in large part to its' great soundtrack, lost highway stayed with me for many years.

nearly five years later, lynch released mulholland drive, and for the first time since lost highway, I again felt completely bewildered when leaving the theater. except now I was older. now I was taking film as an art form more seriously. and I took it upon myself to solve the puzzle.

and the key to both films' puzzling plotlines is the difference between the people we all want to be, and the people that we are.

both lost highway and mulholland drive revolve around characters who desperately wish, with every fiber of their beings, to be different people with different lives than the ones they've found themselves in. they wish they were more physically attractive, more charismatic, more talented, more of anything that would help them feel more fulfilled and happy with their lives and themselves.

and lynch's true gift is taking that internal desire and translating it in a way that affects each character's external world. fred madison doesn't literally turn into pete dayton - it's all just externalized wish-fulfillment. in both films, though, this desire for a new self is never strong enough to deny reality.

always pushing in, always getting closer, reality slowly invades both dreams worlds and eventually forces them to come crashing down. sometimes it's a person, sometimes it's just an object - a simple key in the case of mulholland drive - but those recurring reminders jam themselves into the psyche's cracks, forcing themselves deeper and deeper until the illusion just doesn't hold up anymore.

that brings me to yet another reason why I love lynch's films so much - no matter how weird or esoteric the situations and characters become, the desire to be someone better than who you are is a universal fantasy, hard-wired into the brains of every human being.

no matter how successful you are or how happy you are with your life, everyone's had at least one situation that they'd like to do differently, or one aspect of who they are that they'd like to change. some people daydream about being more assertive in their professional lives, some fantasize about following their dreams, but we all want to better in some way.

it's precisely this discrepancy between reality and fantasy that lynch dramatizes and explores so brilliantly. he stretches it to extreme levels until it consumes his characters and they end up destroying not only themselves but too many others in their lives, as well. these characters aren't necessarily bad people - they just push themselves deeper and deeper into difficult situations until there's no other way out.

as such, neither of these films has a happy ending. and if we wanted to add yet another layer to this discussion, we can look at the film that lynch made between lost highway and mulholland drive: the straight story, a G-rated film about a simple man with none of the frustrations that possess any of these other characters. the result is a heartwarming film, a stark contrast to the anger and self-destruction that runs through so much of lynch's other work.

there's a very logical conclusion to be reached here: lynch is presenting these films as cautionary tales about how insecurities can only hinder who we are and, at their worst, result in the pain and suffering of those we love. so instead, we must let these daydreams remain just that - momentary fantasies and wishful thinking.

become comfortable with the person you are; don't let yourself be consumed by the desire to change traits that are immutable.

(buy a copy of lost highway on dvd from amazon.)

(buy a copy of mulholland drive on dvd from amazon.)


  1. When Lost Highway was released, I was in York (for some reason) and there is an old church that had been converted into a cinema. You had to walk through the graveyard (and the fog was rolling in) and there were about 50 red seats set up like a real picturehouse. And then the red curtains opened and the projectionist set the reels in motion. Sat there with my mouth wide open and I left through the graveyard thinking "what the hell has just happened to me?". A truly brilliant evening!

    When I was a kid, I used to have to take care of my brother and sister whilst my parents went out and got drunk. Bad scene but it meant that I got to watch a lot of late night stuff that I really shouldn't have been allowed to see. And, then late one night, the BBC showed Erasurehead. Oh my god, what a disturbing trainride that turned out to be! I still remember every second and every emotion that ripped out of me!

    Blue Velvet was my David Lynch VHS experience (still have it) and have bought the dvd and blu-ray since. Perhaps his signature piece for me.

    I gave up trying to disect Mr Lynch's work ages ago...I ended up dissecting myself based upon the impact that his work had upon me. I actually learned a lot about myself to be honest!

    1. my friend, I cannot imagine seeing eraserhead as a child...I'm sure that was an intense experience.

      and that sounds like quite a place to see lost highway...I was lucky enough to see a midnight screening at the landmark theatre on houston street in NYC a few years ago and it was everything I hoped it would be.

      a sign of any great artist is the ability to create art that functions on multiple levels, and lynch succeeds in spades on that front. whatever these films may mean to him, he leaves in enough ambiguity to allow the viewer space to create his or her own interpretations.

      I guess that's one reason why so many different types of people appreciate his work.