David Lynch has often been quoted describing ERASERHEAD as “a dream of dark and troubling things.” Since that 1978 debut, he has gone on to adapt his dream-like sensibility to far more accessible narrative structures. No matter how arresting the imagery is in The Elephant Man and Dune, and no matter how weird things get in Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, the audience basically knows who’s who and what’s happening. In Wild at Heart, Lynch even took a story, from a novel by Barry Gifford, and managed to graft on surreal images without ever quite losing the thread of the main narrative, the “story of Sailor and Lula” (as the book is subtitled).
LOST HIGHWAY, co-written by Gifford, seems to take a similar approach at first with Robert Blake’s Mystery Man intruding upon the otherwise normal, if not altogether happy, life of Bill Pullman’s Fred Madison. But when Madison, imprisoned for the murder of his wife, Rene, metamorphoses into a new character (Balthazar Getty) and then meets Alice, a blonde doppelganger of Rene (both played by Patricia Arquette), the story begins to spin beyond any kind of rational understanding on the part of viewers, who no longer know who’s who or what’s happening.
Many viewers (including critics like Roger Ebert) did not understand what had been sprung on them. “In fact, both Lynch and I thought it was a very easy story to understand and that it made perfect sense,” Gifford claimed. “I think David, especially, was upset by the fact that so many people seemed to have a problem understanding it, saying ‘Oh, this is nonsense. These guys are just being perverse on purpose.’ That was the conclusion of a lot of people, especially people who only saw the movie once, or were pushed out of shape by what they thought was our fucking with their heads.”
Lynch himself has no desire to enlighten viewers via interviews; he wants them to take their own meaning from what they see on the screen. Gifford, on the other hand, is not so reluctant to discuss his intentions. So what is his explanation for the strange narrative?
The answer, of course, depends on the question, and the question that Lynch originally posed, as Gifford recalls, was: “What if one person woke up one day and was another person?” Gifford said, “We had to create a scenario to make that plausible.”
To explain the film’s labyrinth logic, Gifford points to a psychological condition in which a person invents a new identity for himself. “We discovered a clinical, psychological condition which fit our premise a ‘psychogenic fugue,’” said Gifford. “It’s as if you decided to change your life and showed up with a different name and entirely created a new identity for yourself and really grew to believe you were this new person. There are different kinds of fugue states, and a psychogenic fugue takes place only in your own mind you don’t really go anywhere. It’s a mental fugue, for lack of a better term. This was something I researched with a clinical psychiatrist at Stanford, so we had some basis in fact here. After we found that freedom, more or less it was just a matter of creating this surreal, fantastic world that Fred Madison lives in when he becomes Pete Drayton.”
This explains how Fred Madison, locked in a prison cell, awaiting execution, transforms into a new character with his own past history. “It’s as if you decided to change your life and showed up with a different name and entirely created a new identify for yourself and really grew to believe you were this new person,” said Gifford. “It’s a mental fugue, for lack of a better term. The basic thing I can tell you is that Fred Madison creates this counter world and goes into it, because the crime he has committed is so terrible that he can’t face it.”
The fugue is a kind of escape that Madison ultimately cannot maintain, because unpleasant reality keeps impinging on it. “The fugue state allows him to create a fantasy world, but within this fantasy world, the same problems occur,” said Gifford. “In other words, he’s no better at maintaining this relationship, dealing with or controlling this woman, than he was in real life. This woman isn’t who he thinks she is, really, so all the so-called facts of his known life with Renee pop up again in Alice Wakefield.”
In this interpretation, the appearance of the Mystery Man is the first hint of the psychotic break that Madison will eventually suffer. “He’s a product of Fred’s imagination too,” said Gifford. “I think the phone call scene at the party is pretty interesting. A lot of work went into it. It’s supposed to be seamless; it’s supposed to look easy and sound normal. But there’s a lot that goes into writing this kind of thing. It’s the first visible manifestation of Fred’s madness. No one else can see the Mystery Man.”
Director David Lynch, on the other hand, prefers not to provide pat answers to the many questions raised by the script’s convoluted narrative contortions. “Barry may have his idea of what the film means,” said the director, “and I may have my own idea, and they may be two different things. And yet, we worked together on the same film. The beauty of a film that is more abstract is everybody has a different take. Nobody agrees on anything in the world today. When you are spoon-fed a film, more people instantly know what it is. I love things that leave room to dream and are open to various interpretations. It’s a beautiful thing. It doesn’t do any good for Barry to say, ‘This is what it means.’ Film is what it means. If Barry or anyone else could capture what the film is in words, then that’s poetry.”
In his own defense, Gifford responds, “In fact, I never told people what it meant. I did mention this business about psychogenic fugue, as did David, in many interviews. We did agree that we would never explain the film, and we haven’t, to my knowledge. It’s for each person to make up his own mind about it. He’s absolutely right, except that that phrase was in fact used in the promotion in the film, so I wasn’t talking out of school.”
Lynch, for his part, insisted he was not playing fair with the audience, providing the necessary material for them to make their own interpretations, not just generating random images. “There is a key in the film as to its meaning,” said the director. “But keys are weird. There are surface keys, and there are deeper keys. Intellectual thinking leaves you high and dry sometimes. Intuitive thinking where you get a marriage of feelings and intellect lets you feel the answers, where you may not be able to articulate them. Those kinds of things are used in life a lot, but we don’t use them too much in cinema. There are films that stay more on the surface, and there’s no problem interpreting their meaning.”
So, has the mystery (not to mention the Mystery Man) been explained away? Well, the film is consistent with this reading; however, it does not go out of its way to tip audiences off to this interpretation. For example, there is no obvious stylistic shift when Madison enters the fantasy world of Pete Drayton; if anything, the narrative and visual are more concrete at least until the alternate reality starts to break down again. “If you read the screenplay, it’s easier to see,” said Gifford. “I suppose you could have gone into black and white just as if, on the page, we could have gone to different type, like italics.”
To grasp Gifford’s take on the story requires, perhaps, a second viewing. “I agree, because there’s so much menace the first time you see it,” said the writer. “I don’t know how you felt, and it’s hard for me or David to talk about it, because when you live with a thing for so long and David had to go through the post-production on it, which is monumental in his films, because of the care he takes with the soundtrack and every element of it it’s hard to be objective about it.”
After an initial test screening with a hand-picked, 50 person audience, 25 minutes were cut, bringing the running time down to 130 minutes. “Some people didn’t quite understand things at first, especially in the longer version,” said Gifford. “My youngest son, who’s 21, got it all he’s amazing that way. Some people had some resistance, I think, just because they were trying to make sense out of it, but if you keep an open mind, the sense comes to you; you see what it is; and you can interpret it several ways.”
Despite its willful resistance toward offering easy answers, LOST HIGHWAY is never less than entertaining. For those unable to make sense out of it, the film resembles a bad dream about mysterious forces manipulating a hapless protagonist. “I think the fear of being out of control is a very real one that most people do have,” said Gifford. “Seeing a spirit or a presence or having—I don’t want to sound clinical—a psychotic episode, seeing the Mystery Man, whom nobody else can see, and having conversations with him this is all really an element of losing control. It’s all right there, and it’s not often that you would see it on the screen, especially in this way. There have been other examples of this thing, but never close to being filmed in this way.”
Of the critical reaction, Gifford said, “We went out on a limb with this thing and just let everything out. When you do that, people don’t generally like this sort of stuff, so you know you’re going to get slapped around to some extent. However, here we are, years later. It’s still shown all around the world all the time. There are books written about it and college courses devoted to it. So it provoked interest in some way.”
Ultimately, Gifford thinks viewers should not feel obligated to come to a definite interpretation of what the film means. “This has a lot to do with the idea of entering a movie theatre and surrendering, as you would unto a dream,” said the writer. “The idea is that the images and the sound wash over you, and you submit. Now if you don’t like what you’re seeing—if it’s a bad dream, as I’m sure LOST HIGHWAY was for a lot of people, especially the first forty minutes—you can get up and walk out, unlike having a bad dream while you’re asleep. But that’s the whole sense of seeing it in a movie theatre and seeing it in a correct way: entering that dream world and trying not to analyze it, trying not to think about it while we’re watching it. I know that’s a difficult thing for a lot of people to do, but it’s really crucial, especially when dealing with certain films, like Lynch’s. LOST HIGHWAY is certainly one of those. I think it’s a shame when a film is over-analyzed.”
Gifford also prefers to avoid attaching labels to the film. Asked about the film’s noir styling and the script’s hard-boiled elements (such as the dangerous romance between young mechanic Pete Dayton and gangsters moll Alice Wakefield) he responds, “I don’t think it’s ‘hard-boiled at all,” adding, “Certainly, there are the iconic images, like the Patricia Arquette character, Alice Wakefield, resembling Barbara Stanwyck as she looked in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. So you can see how it fits, but I never thought of it as film noir, any more than I thought of it as science fiction or horror. It’s scary, but it’s psychologically frightening, and there isn’t much gore. I hope not everybody feels like they were in a bad dream. That certainly wasn’t my intention. I just don’t think of the word ‘bad’ in connection with it. It was sad more than bad.”
Gifford concluded that what he sees in the film “is a sadness really—terror, certainly—and it’s a kind of a metaphor for our time: a sort of fractured existence, of the pressures that people are laboring under at the very end of the 20th century. In other words, it’s not so easy to cope. I think that LOST HIGHWAY is really reflective of the time. There’s a big revolution in terms of the demand on your brain; it looks like there’ll be no end to it things are changing so fast it seems like you can’t keep up with it. I think, for us, it exists as a metaphor. I don’t want to presume to speak for David in that sense, but for me that’s how it feels.”
Copyright 1997 by Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in the April 1997 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Nuber 10).