It’s fairly common to hear filmmakers talk about being inspired by a singular image and then working backwards from it, an approach that seems intrinsically tied to the record-scratch-freeze-frame introduction that has become an exhausted cliche and eventually an exhausted meme (Dewey Cox, after all, has to think about his whole life before he goes on stage). David Lynch (perhaps unsurprisingly) has tended to do exactly the opposite throughout his career, beginning with a single image—a disembodied ear in a patch of grass, a teenager’s corpse wrapped in plastic—and eagerly unfolding the curious and often uncertain path forward. Lynch has frequently been associated with a particular brand of 1950s and ‘60s kitsch in his portrayals of small-town American society; these images often become a starting point to unravel the careful veneer of quaintness that sensibility projects.
The aforementioned examples, from Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks respectively, are preceded by establishing shots of an idyllic suburban life that feels frozen in time: Friendly firemen, neatly trimmed lawns, roadside diner milkshakes, white picket fences. Throughout Blue Velvet, that sitcom-pleasant centerpiece expands outwards into a fuller picture of a seedy criminal underworld growing on the outskirts of town. Twin Peaks, a few years later, was an even more bitter portrait of how that wholesome front gave an entire town implicit permission to ignore danger right under their noses. In both cases, that catalyzing image is a portal into a creeping darkness growing unchecked in blissful ignorance.
Lynch’s first post-Peaks film, Lost Highway—which celebrates its 25th birthday this year with an inauguration into the Criterion Collection—bypasses that transition entirely. Its own catalyzing image has become one of Lynch’s most iconic and recurrent: A car careens down a road in the black of night, its high beams casting the immediate next few feet of divider lines in a bright, almost plasticine yellow, all soundtracked by ‘90s cyberpunk David Bowie. The first in a “Los Angeles trilogy” that continued with Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, the dark urban landscapes of Lost Highway feel almost shockingly modern compared to the director’s previous focus on quaint small-town locales, while allowing his visions of mid-century Americana to manifest in much stranger ways.
Lost Highway’s first act primarily focuses on the increasing paranoia and insecurity of saxophonist Fred Madison (played with slow-burning bitterness by Bill Pullman) who struggles with sexual dysfunction and begins to suspect his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is having an affair. Eventually, he’s convicted of her murder and thrown in prison, at which point its second act pivots wildly when Madison disappears from his cell and is replaced by young car mechanic Pete Dayton (played by Balthazar Getty, who is exactly half Pullman’s age). Upon release, Dayton’s life is like something out of a 1950s teen drama as he begins an affair with Alice Wakefield, a gangster’s girlfriend who just so happens to be a dead ringer for the late Renee Madison.
Although the narrative treats its supernatural mechanisms with complete incredulity, it’s not hard to read between the psychological lines. As a narrator, Madison is hardly reliable, denying his crimes in the face of video evidence and at one point even proclaiming that he doesn’t make home videos because he prefers “to remember things [his] own way. “How I remembered them,” he clarifies obtusely, “not necessarily the way they happened.” Lost Highway is described in marketing assets as a “psychogenic fugue,” and its second act comes across fairly openly as an elaborate fantasy in which Dayton plays the role of a younger, more idealized avatar for Madison, seducing a mirror image of his wife.
This character—the angsty, motorcycle-savvy leather-jacket bad-boy—had already become something of a familiar trope in Lynch’s work, and Dayton’s story bears more than a passing resemblance to some of the more notorious later-season arcs of one of that trope’s most irritating manifestations. Twin Peaks’ resident teenage motorcycle fanatic James Hurley, like Dayton, feels like a character ripped straight out of Rebel Without a Cause: A troubled and rebellious outcast falling in love with women he shouldn’t (the girlfriend of the high school football star, then her best friend, then her cousin) and constantly compelled to “just get on [his] bike and go.”
When he eventually does just that in season two, Hurley ends up spending the remainder of Twin Peaks’ initial run in a story that runs entirely parallel to anything else, involving an unadvisable affair with a married woman who hires him to fix her husband’s car in exchange for room and board. Hurley’s baffling social credibility as a 1950s Cool Guy in modern Washington has regularly been singled out as one of the show’s most frustrating elements; Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost, however, double down on the trope in the 2017 revival. First, we meet Wally Brando—a young man self-styled after Marlon Brando’s character from the 1953 motorcycle drama The Wild One, threatening to roam the countryside on his bike much like Hurley once did—then a few episodes later Hurley himself reprises a performance of a doo-wop song he wrote in the show’s second season to an audience of adoring fans. “James is cool,” his old classmate Shelly affirms opaquely. “James was always cool.”
Whether or not we agree, that perception of 1950s leather-jacket coolness is the main tenet in Lost Highway’s fantasy that essentially transforms Fred Madison into his very own James Hurley. Free of the television censors that once kept Hurley restrained, Pete Dayton is presented as shockingly and almost uncontrollably virile in contrast to Madison’s own struggles with sexual impotence. As he two-times his girlfriend with Alice Wakefield, Dayton embarks on a series of hookups lengthy enough to exhaust the two detectives assigned to covertly trail him after his release from Madison’s cell (“What a fucking job,” one complains during yet another motel stake-out. “His or ours?” replies his partner).
Madison’s fantasy, however, is not purely sexual but also moral, guided by the neater structure of the 1950s movies that influence it. In real life, the greatest danger to Renee Madison proved to be Fred himself, but as Wakefield it’s Mr. Eddy, a gangster played with a horrifying volatility by Robert Loggia. Mr. Eddy, a much more straight-ahead villain, allows Madison, as Dayton, to play the neatly-cut role of the protagonist that saves her from a cruel fate at the hands of a violent partner. Fred Madison, however, is antagonized by a presence that’s much more passive, a simply-named Mystery Man who regularly breaks into the Madisons’ home to film them and later mail them the tapes.
The Mystery Man is framed throughout Lost Highway’s first act as a malicious force to the Madisons (perhaps because the idea of an intruder helps obfuscate Fred’s guilt over Renee’s murder), but he never actually lays a finger on either one. Rather, he represents a much more personal threat to Madison by showing him as he really is, even as he uses his fantasy and his skewed perspective to avoid acknowledging responsibility for his crimes and the problematic psychological disposition that inspired them. Really, the Mystery Man is the closest thing Renee Madison has to an ally. His video is the evidence that puts her husband behind bars, and eventually a call from him to Dayton unravels the fantasy that would allow him to escape the consequences of Fred Madison’s murder.
Mr. Eddy, through cigar-biting teeth, announces him: “Hey, I want you to talk to a friend of mine.”
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” the Mystery Man begins, referring to an encounter with Fred Madison the night of Renee’s murder. “At your house, don’t you remember?” Dayton denies it but looks visibly shaken.
Later, outside what appears to be the Mystery Man’s house, Dayton finally transforms back into Madison. He enters the house and sheepishly asks where Alice is, which seems to anger the Mystery Man.
“Her name is Renee.” he snarls. “If she told you her name is Alice, she’s lying. And your name?” he continues, raising his camera and nearly barking through clenched teeth. “What the fuck is your name?”
As he begins slowly advancing on Madison, the film loops back on itself and the Mystery Man films a pathetic and terrified Madison peeling out onto the road into the same night-driving sequence that began the film. Later, in pursuit by police, Madison begins to shriek and contort violently in the driver’s seat the same way he did when Dayton first appeared. But this time he doesn’t.
In crafting an icon of your own avoidance, you could do a lot worse than Pete Dayton or James Hurley. The latter’s many exploits and infatuations throughout Twin Peaks felt inherently tied to the personality he presented, the sort of James Dean-cool that once made a troubled disposition look romantic, but it was never enough to outrun the trauma of Laura Palmer’s death. Pete Dayton, likewise, was a romantic symbol for Madison, hatching a plan to skip town with Alice and start a new life. But when she disappeared, he quickly returned to his body all the more pathetic.
It seems like people rarely remember that Rebel Without a Cause is careful to show Jim Stark—the original to their archetype—not as an icon of a new teen independence, but rather as a terrified and broken child trying desperately to escape the repressive and conservative society of his parents’ generation. In the end, the Stark family reconciles after his compulsive thrill-seeking directly leads to the death of a close friend, and his parents are forced to recognize the damage they’ve unknowingly inflicted on their son. Over the years, he’s nonetheless come to embody a notion that there’s romance in running away, a notion that is clearly central to both Lynch characters. But Lost Highway seems especially interested in exposing the fragility of that belief by indulging its protagonist in his idealized fantasy life, then shoving a camera in his face to show him who he really is.
Think of the first time you ever heard your own voice played back on a recording or saw a video of yourself after a lifetime of only seeing that person carefully positioned in front of a mirror. The more certain we are about the way we present ourselves, the more precarious our grip on what our life actually is. We all want to feel like the star of our own movie, but the irony is that standing in front of a camera might actually be the best way to shatter our carefully curated delusion of how we look to other people, how we move through space, even how we speak.
Our lives are complicated and often ugly; they will always be confusing, and no matter how much we might try to process them through a simpler narrative structure, we can never outrun how things really are, how we really are. A real movie of our lives is bound not to be a popcorn movie.
Tommy Ordway is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY with bylines in Paste and Hullabaloo. He disdains sweet potatoes and loathes the dreaded parsnip. You can find him on Twitter @tommyttommmy.