ROME – “It’s like kissing a mirror: you like what you see, but it’s not fun. It’s a cold film, a shaggy ghost story, an exercise in style made with a certain casual public disdain. I watched it twice hoping to make sense of it. It has none. It’s about design, not cinema. Two thumbs down». So said the eminent Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times about Lost roads by David Lynch. Presented at Sundance on January 24, 1997 and released in Italy on June 5, 1998, the film grossed just under 4 million dollars worldwide at the box-office and let’s say that therefore it didn’t fare very well in the test of the general public. And not for theTwo thumbs down», they made Lynch laugh to the point of stating: «These are two other excellent reasons to go to the cinema to see it».
Lost roads – which now returns to the cinema in a version restored by the Cineteca di Bologna – is a neo-noir contaminated by elements of German expressionism and French New Wave in a variegated flavor between horror and psychological thriller which, in echoing the modernism of cornerstones such as Detour, A kiss and a gun And The Woman Who Lived Twice, sees Lynch weave a psychogenic fugue of identity between the real and the unreal, the oneiric and the abstract. All rendered in the cyclical form of a narrative Möbius strip that the cultural critic Slavoj Žižek would later explain as follows: «The circularity of Lost Roads? Ananalogous to that of a psychoanalytic process. There is – as in all of Lynch’s films – a symptomatic key phrase that always returns as an insistent, traumatic and indecipherable message and there is a temporal loop, as in analysis…».
The reason for such an interpretation? According to Žižek because the protagonist Fred Madison (played by Bill Pullman) fails to meet the self at first but is eventually able to consciously pronounce the symptom as his own. As if to indicate that Fred’s madness is so powerful that even the dissociative fantasy in which he sees himself as that Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) with different memories and personalities ends up dissolving into a nightmare: «An escape starts one way, takes another direction, and then back to its origin. So, yes, it refers to the film formLynch said about it. According to Žižek in the bipartite structure of Lost roads there is also an opposition to be read: «The opposition of two horrors: the ghostly horror of the nightmarish noir universe of perverted sex, betrayal and murder and the despair of our gray and alienated daily life of helplessness and distrust».
Patricia Arquette, on the other hand, never changes except in the color of her hair between the dark red of Renée Madison and the golden blond of Alice Wakefield. Quintessence of femme fatale postmodernism rendered by Lynch as the perfect link between the two narrative worlds that the psychoanalytic circularity of Lost roads finally lets mix and interpenetrate between narrative shadow cones and only apparently inexplicable suggestions. And not only. Because Lynch’s work must be seen in a broader perspective. That of the Lynchian recoding process of the noir imaginary that between Blue velvet And Twin Peakspassing through Twin Peaks Secrets, Wild Heart, Mulholland Drive And Inland Empiresaw Lynch progressively dry up the typical and coherent linearity of noir cinema by mixing more and more surreal and nonsense until the components are completely deconstructed, letting them sail in a sea of fairytales and uncertain a-linearity.
In between – chronologically as well as purely thematically – there really is Lost roads that of the excursus is the decisive turning point for which Lynch reasoned so that the sync between sound and image was not only cognitive but supportive of the narration: «Every sound has to support that scene and magnify it. A room is, say, nine by twelve, but when you introduce sound to it you can create a gigantic space». Lost roads which Lynch originally wanted in black and white. Idea then rejected due to the economic risks that could have resulted from a work by him that was already difficult to use. Yet Lynch shot the film to present different levels of darkness and very few daylight scenes, according to DoP Peter Deming: «What I wanted to achieve was to give the feeling that anything could emerge from the background, under the surface».
But where does the intuition behind the film come from? Let’s take a step back. Because it was just while reading about People at night by Barry Gifford from 1994 that Lynch came across the vision of Lost roads. Specifically a page of the novel, according to Lynch, populated by words Lost And highway. Her brilliant mind did the rest. And Gifford knew it well having already collaborated on it for Wild Heartbased on the 1990 novel of the same name. The two decided to write the script together despite having totally opposite ideas of what should have been Lost roads. Concept that Lynch had already touched on him during the making of Fire walk with me and of which he correctly imagined the narrative contours: «A videotape and a couple in crisis», the heart of the first macro-sequence, until Fred Madison is consigned to death row.
Sequence that according to Lynch was indirectly – and incredibly – inspired by none other than OJ Simpson case: «When Barry Gifford and I were writing the script for Lost Highway, I was almost obsessed with the trial of OJ Simpson. Barry and I never explicitly talked about it, but I think the film is somehow connected to that story» and in particular by Simpson’s ability to lead his life afterward. The real reason besides the media hype? The uxoricide at the center of the legal story, exactly as part of the narrative of Lost roads. Ironically, and in this cinema – like life – can be ruthless at times, that Robert Blake whom Lynch personally chose as supernatural Mysterious man he will be arrested in 2002 for the murder of his second wife Bonny Lee Bakley who, on the other hand, had marriages – excluding the one with Blake – as many as nine!
Back to us, because at that point in the creative process, Lynch and Gifford realized that something had to happen in Lost roads. A transformation, something that gave momentum to the story. Thus they developed another story that would have had several points in common but also differences with the first, that of Pete Dayton for which Getty had no idea of what his natural development could be, or to put it in his own words : «Part of David’s technique is to keep his actors guessing so that there is a certain atmosphere on set». Last but not least a biographical note. Because the famous pivotal moment of Lost roads – «Dick Laurent is dead» – does not arise out of nowhere, but from an episode similar in form and content, experienced by Lynch years ago.
Early one morning he was awakened by the intercom. Approaching the phone he heard a man say the iconic phrase. Surprised, he went to the window but saw no one. According to him, due to the homonymy with the neighborhood neighbor – the actor and dubber David Lander – the person in question had simply got the wrong house and, realizing it too late, had preferred to flee. Truth? Legend? Only Lynch managed to modify its inertia by enveloping it in a gloomy and alienating silence so as to make it one of the most incredible and evocative sequences that 90s cinema remembers and – by implication – rightfully deliver Lost roads to the immortality of time, today as yesterday, twenty-five years later.
- LONGFORM | Mulholland Drive is an enigma that has become a masterpiece
- TV COLUMN | The Secrets of Twin Peaks and the history of TV
- HOT CORN GUIDES | 4 good reasons to (re)discover Lynch in streaming
Below you can see the trailer of the film: