GREAT MOVIES ESSAY: Lost Highway (1997)

***CONTAINS SPOILERS***

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway is a film constantly on the verge of exploding. Characters react through instinct: shouting, swearing, having sex whenever the opportunity arises, committing brutal violence, sobbing, shaking and being forever paranoid. The narrative coils in on itself until past becomes future, and memory twists into reality. It at once makes perfect sense whilst simultaneously being absolutely incomprehensibly mad. It is style over substance, yet paradoxically the substance is the style – and when you re-watch it, you realise that beneath the style is actually some degree of substance – there might not even be substance, I don’t know if the word ‘substance’ can be applied to such a film, what the bloody-hell is ‘substance’ anyway?

That sentence probably didn’t make any sense, neither does Lost Highway – a lurid piece of ‘car-crash cinema’ which constantly performs ‘cinematic gymnastics’ – bending itself into bizarre, awkward positions, but thankfully, never breaking in two.

Möbius strip - where a piece of paper conjoins the beginning and the end together by coiling and twisting on itself. Many have described Lost Highway's narrative similar to this shape

Möbius strip – where a piece of paper conjoins the beginning and the end together by coiling and twisting on itself. Many have described Lost Highway’s narrative similar to this shape

David Lynch’s 1997 film is many things: a horror, a comedy, a thriller, a romance, a gangster-flick, a crime-drama, an exploitation pic, a sexploitation pic, a parody, an erotic dreamscape, a pseudo-porno, a noir, a neo-noir, maybe even a bloody road-movie.

You may watch Lost Highway and wonder why none of the characters are developed, or why the pacing flits around from slow to fast, why two actors are playing the same person, or one actor playing two different people (who simultaneously might actually be the same person), you may think David Lynch is being self-indulgent or being bizarre for bizarreness sake. If you think any of these, you’d be missing the point. Lost Highway is all storytelling, it is about the winding road of the narrative itself. It’s not about the meaning, it’s about the ride. It is confusing, baffling, unsettling, hilarious, bizarre, violent and very very sexy.

The opening shot of the film can only be described as a point-of-view shot from a car itself. In the distance we see absolutely nothing; the headlights light up the road and the yellow road-lines hurtle and spin towards us constantly, as we head towards oblivion. This image has now become iconic with David Lynch’s other infamous images, such as the baby in eraserhead, or Frank Booth breathing heavily into a gas mask.

Following this, we cut to Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) who is living with his wife, Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette). It is interesting how every synopsis of the film states that Fred thinks that his wife is cheating on him, yet this notion is never mentioned in any dialogue in the film. It is all implied through visuals and the physicality of the actors. The dialogue exchanges between Fred and Renee are small and diluted. There are countless awkward silences. There is no passion, no intimacy, and this is bizarrely quite unsettling. Furthermore to this, when they have sex, what we have is an incredibly unsettling and awkward sex scene. It is done in slow-motion, a cliched technique perhaps. Not so here. Each shot is a medium shot – and we see both of their faces in view, extreme close-ups are never used, so what we have is a sex scene done almost objectively, slowing everything down so we can see the emotion on the character’s faces. During this scene, Fred Madison looks physically uncomfortable, as if he is in pain somewhere, there is no pleasure at all, and his wife Renee stares blankly into the distance. Sex scenes are usually always emotional, and if they’re done in slow-motion, the previous statement is further accentuated. Not here. It is unsettling how David Lynch warps one of the most intimate acts into an uncomfortable scene, and then heightens it by using slow-motion so effectively (a technique which I usually despise, but here works). Immediately, with out any trigger events to kick off the film’s narrative, we know that something is not quite right, and this is through Lynch’s genius at creating uncomfortable atmospheres through simple yet inventive ways – like the gas mask in Blue Velvet.

Following this, we begin to get some form of narrative develop, and we think that Lost Highway is turning into an unsettling psychological horror. The couple begin to recieve video-tapes, the footage being of their house, and later on, footage of them sleeping.

Fred and Renee's unsettling relationship is recorded on camera for us and them to see...

Fred and Renee’s unsettling relationship is recorded on camera for us and them to see…

But this is a David Lynch film, what we think the genre may start off as, will definitely warp and change like plastecine. Lost Highway is a film which can be considered to have elements of multiple genres and due to this, it refuses to be categorised.

Later on, we see Fred Madison watch footage of himself screaming pscyhotically in front of his wife’s dead body, whilst covered in blood. The Fred watching the footage looks confused, this never happened, we just saw his wife a few minutes ago, she’s still in the house…or is she? Is it the same house? Is it the same Fred Madison? Did the characters change in the space of one cut? Perhaps they didn’t – it is difficult to work out. And this is the point.

And then before we know it, Fred is sentenced, and put on death-row. But is this the same Fred we know? Are we actually still watching the footage which seconds ago, Fred was watching looking utterly terrified and confused. It is never revealed. and then the film spirals even more out of control. In a sense our interpretations control our opinions on the characters, as they conclude whether one section is dream, reality, and if it happens in a fake or an imagined location. In a sense, the viewer is made to choose directorial decisions.

In his prison cell, Fred starts to develop severe head-aches, the pain begins to extend itself in the outside world, the camera shakes violently, the sound of electricity is heard and blue sparks of energy strike across the cell. The guards then check the cell to reveal two surprises:

1) Fred Madison is not in the prison cell

2) Somebody else has replaced him

We presume that the electricity and the severe head-aches are signifiers to the cause of what has happened – it is hinted that Fred Madison has turned into the new character, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). But even this, we are unsure of.

What we now see – in my opinion – is a parallel universe which perhaps exists in another dimension, or arguably, in Fred Madison’s head. In this world, Renee Madison is now Alice Wakefield (performed by the same actress, but in a blonde wig). Eddy – or ‘Dick Laurent’ – suspects that his wife is cheating on him…ironically, with the ‘reincarnation’ (?) of Fred Madison. In the opening world, Fred Madison murders his wife (?), but here, he murders his wife’s lover (who may be an extension of Fred Madison, as they are both married to Patricia Arquette’s characters).

What we have here is a film constantly interracting with the viewer, forcing you to question what has happened and why. Lynch says that he dislikes people asking for meanings to his film, and preferrs viewers to come to their own interpretations. I think Lost Highway is about male anxiety and identity, the longing to be someone else or your situation to occur to another person. Perhaps the second world we see is inside Fred Madison’s head and all of the character’s are an extension of him and the people he has met. Yet this theory contradicts himself. If Fred turns into Pete Dayton, we have a clash of personalities. Pete Dayton has an affair with Alice Wakefield, and the former Fred Madison would disaprove of that. If Fred Madison does turn into Pete Dayton, Fred Madison’s character is ironically more closely connected to Eddy as he suspects his wife of having an affair. What we have here is a blurring of identity, characters turning into other characters who their previous selves would disapprove of. There former friends become their enemies.

Yet through all of these contrasts of motifs and identity, there are some things that stay the same – just about. In both worlds, we have the character only known as ‘The Mystery Man’, a bald painted man who’s weapon is a sinister grin and a camera.

'The Mystery Man' in David Lynch's 1997 film, Lost Highway

‘The Mystery Man’ in David Lynch’s 1997 film, Lost Highway

Perhaps the link to unlocking the film’s mysteries is said in a quote at the beginning by Fred Madison when he states why he does not like cameras: “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened.” The Mystery Man is the only constant force in the film, and we get the sense that he is the driving force of the movie, the person that controls all of the events, memories, how they happened and how they didn’t happen, and then records them for us to see – he is David Lynch characterised.

This is the first part of David Lynch’s ‘LA Trilogy’, three films that concern Los Angeles, filmaking, and film-watching. We are shown Fred and Renee watching a film, The Mystery Man making one, Alice Wakefield starring in a pornographic film, and then later watching said film being projected. In a sense, the film is almost about itself, and it maintains a form of self-aware brechtian-esque feel to it, and due to this, its difficult and challenging appeal is heightened. Throughout it pays homage to numerous genres. Noir: the image of the femme-fatale, sexually alluring, lips covered in red, and eyes which have a deadly fetishistic appeal. Perhaps even horror: the sequence where a man’s head goes straight through a glass coffee table, his head has a huge piece of glass inserted into it, and blood splatters all over the flaw.  Here, it’s as if David Lynch takes a genre, all of its conventions and amps them up so that they become extremely obvious. It’s a bizarre place betwen self-parody and something quite unsettling. For example, the Mystery Man. When we first see him, his dialogue is ripen with cliches: “We’ve met before haven’t we?, “I’m there right now.” We don’t know whether to laugh at the ludicrousness of the cliches or feel disturbed, because the person who’s speaking these is covered in white paint and has a creepy grin.

In Lost Highway, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but you definitely enjoy the ride.

Dogville (2003)

5 STARS

General Information:

The information from below is taken from the following link: http://www.imdb.co.uk/title/tt0276919/

15  178 min  –  Drama  –  13 February 2004 (UK)

Director

Lars von Trier

Writer

Lars von Trier

Stars

Nicole Kidman; Paul Bettany; Lauren Bacall

Plot:

Dogville (2003)

Dogville (2003)

A woman called Grace (Nicole Kidman) is on the run from a group of dangerous gangsters. She runs into a village called ‘Dogville’ and has to bargain with the people in the village to see if they will hide her from them. However, as the plot unfolds, the residents of Dogville are just as malicious and evil as the gangsters looking for Grace are…

Review:

You’d have to be absolutely insane to come up with the style in which this film involves, and completely daring to see it through. Fortunately for controversial and always experimental, Lars von Trier, it works. Really well.

Dogville is less of a film but rather a piece of filmed theatre. The setting itself is in a small village called ‘Dogville’. In the centre of the village is a road and either side of it are buildings and houses. Apparently there is a beautiful view surrounding the area. I use the word ‘apparently’ because we cannot see it. Dogville is shot inside a soundstage, and the walls surrounding this ‘village’ are black. None of the houses have walls, instead there are lines drawn onto the floor. Characters have to mime knocking on a door or opening it because there are no doors. There are some gooseberry bushes, which we cannot see, but rather it is drawn onto the floor, and characters interract with air itself pretending that they are there. There is a dog, who again, is simply drawn onto the floor, occassionally we hear a sound-effect of a dog – but we are very much aware that this is a sound-effect. When it is day-time, the walls of the soundstage are white, when it is night-time they are black. Other elements of light are created by spotlights.

Dogville (1)

Dogville (1)

Dogville (2)

Dogville (2)

The film is heavily influenced by the theatre practitioner, Bertolt Brecht – a man who believed that theatre should not emotionally draw the audience in, but rather distance them, alienate them, so as the audience questions constantly what they are seeing and thus are intellectually challenged throughout. Why, Brecht was so anti-emotion I do not know. I like the idea of showing him a Steven Spielberg film and watching his face twitch until finally his his brain turns into goo and slowly drips out of his ears and nose, simultaneously. Or something. Either way, this is an absolutely fantastic film in terms of audience-response. We are constantly reminded that none of this is real: that the characters are played by actors, that the world created is actually merely props inside a soundstage, that all the lines have been written – due to this, it is partly an investigation of the elements that make of narrative art forms, mainly: theatre and film. But this is merely subtextual reasons of how the style aids the messages of the film.

Bertolt Brecht (1898 - 1956)

Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956)

The film is a critique on right-wing America, a burningly vicious satire about the American dream which would quite happily rampage and trample on the white picket fence itself. Grace, a brittle innocent blonde-haired girl, excellently played by Nicole Kidman, arrives in the village running away from gangsters. There is a sense of unnerve already, do the villagers want her there or not? Is she a risk to them? I would say ‘yes’ to both, but some audience members may say ‘no’ – after all, the Brechtian influences on this film make the viewing experience very objective. In a sense, there is perhaps no definitive message, as whilst watching, we are forced to come to our own conclusions. I get a sense that because this is all filmed it is more distancing – it is often a technique to mime certain elements in theatre, and thus the audience is used to it (and perhaps even expects it). But it is so effective here, because we do not even imagine this technique being used in film. It subverts all expectations.

Later on, the police arrive, and they pin up wanted posters. Tom the moral voice thus far of the film calls a meeting, Grace leaves, and they all vote on whether Grace should stay or not. What we have here is a sharp dissection of democracy itself, delving into how political spin and personal gain are all part of the decision itself. There is a sneering hypocrisy to it all. Can a real democratic society exist? Or will it always be hindered by matters of selfishness and pride?

Either way, she is allowed to stay.

Later on in the play, more threats occur, and the tension within the community builds up again. There are more meetings, more effortless dissections on society. Now the people of Dogville want Grace to stay, but for a price. She has to work longer hours, work harder, and perform more helpful tasks for more people. Following this, she is essentially forced to stay by brutal means which I will not give away. What we have here is an excellent examination of the human condition: of how humans are essentially greedy, selfish and will progressively do anything to get what they want – of course, society mimics this harsh nature, because society is essentially a group of people. Dogville knows this, and this is what makes it a masterpiece.

Also of note is Nicole Kidman’s astonishing performance. She is an actress that I have always admired for her impecabble subtleties. As I have said countless times before, the best actors are those that do not try to act. There are moments when she will stand and stare into the distance. By acting with her eyes, she becomes a real person. This is something I admire in Lars Von Trier, ensuring that the acting is that of the utmost believability. He blends emotion with coldness. Intimacy with distancy. By combining depth of the acting with the brechtian conceit, we have a film which is emotionally engaging as well as intellectually challenging.

Nicole Kidman's subtle, but intense performance in Dogville (2003)

Nicole Kidman’s subtle, but intense performance in Dogville (2003)

As the play progresses, Grace is not only psychologically abused but also sexually abused. There is a scene where she is raped on the floor. Lars von trier shoots this at a distance, from the other end of the ‘street’. Of course, in Von Trier’s world, the audience can see everything that occurs. The message being, on the outside things appear to be innocent and normal, but dig deeper, go through the walls is a world of oppression, abuse, hypocrisy, and absolute evil. People may not believe that this sort of thing would occur – but then again, in the real world, the walls aren’t stripped away for us to see what really occurs behind closed doors.

Lars von Trier makes this message so utterly clear that it is impossible not to leave the viewing utterly depressed, but more importantly: questioning the society that we live in. Has anything really changed?

Verdict:

A masterpiece of invention and originality. Here is a film which style aids its substance to great effect; and blimey, this film has substance. It is about society, the human condition, and Art itself. Dogville will greatly benefit repeated viewings: there will be more taken from it after each watch, and this makes it even more the masterpiece.

Solaris (1972)

“Solyaris”

5 STARS

General Information

The information below is taken from the following link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069293/

15    167 min  –  Sci-Fi  –  20 March 1972(Soviet Union)

DirectorAndrei TarkovskyWritors

Stanislaw Lem (novel); Fridrikh Gorenshtein; Andrei Tarkovsky

Stars

Natalya Bondarchuk; Donatas Banionis; Jüri Järvet 

Solaris (1972)

Solaris (1972)

Plot:

Kris Kelvin goes aboard a space station. Whilst there he discovers that his ex-wife, Hari is on there to. However, he later realises, that this isn’t a real person, but a phyicalised memory, an impression of her…

Review:

Solaris is a film so emotionally complex and dare I use the critic-cliche, ‘layered’, that it essentially urinates all over the majority of films which attempt to be ‘deep’ and ‘rich in meaning’. It is about everything and nothing – and I am fully aware that this statement makes no comprehensible sense at all. The only way that statement will ever be justified is when you watch Solaris. Of course, this statement applies with most of Tarkovsky’s work. His films are intentionally slow, and unfold like a droplet of water dripping glacially down a glass pane. Even though he is a careful and slow director, it all builds up to something significantly powerful; because his films are long, he can go into more depth than a shorter film. The power of a short film is that it can make its points with a quickening force. The power of a longer film is that it can make more points and in more depth. I find that longer films have the power to immerse you more in their universe. As you spend more time with a film, you geet used to the tempo or the rhythym of it, and thus get progressively more obsorbed into it.

It is bizarre that this film is oft compared to Kubrick’s 2001. Perhaps it’s because they’re both philosophical and set in space. Or something. I don’t know. To me, they couldn’t be more opposite. Paradoxical to Kubrick’s nature, 2001 is very optimistic; whilst Solaris is rather cynical. 2001 goes on a journey to the outer edges of space itself whilst Solaris goes to the edges of the human psyche, right into the subconscious, and beyond. And Solaris doesn’t even have any monkeys in it, to my rather large disappointment.

Tarkovsky vs Kubrick: Solaris and 2001 are often compared to one another

Tarkovsky vs Kubrick: Solaris and 2001 are often compared to one another

Solaris is a film about memory and perception, and how what we experience is related to what is actually happening. It is also about how the metaphysical concepts of truth and reality may not even exist. Our memories are evidence that we have lived in this world – yet humans are unreliable, and our perceived notion of what might have happened is naturally warped, made sentimental and romanticised.

Kelvin, a psychologist is sent on a mission to a space station. This space station is studying the eluvious planet, Solaris. The gases on this planet somehow effect the human psyche and memory itself. Kelvin then sees his ex-wife, Hari, on board the ship. This is a bizarre occurrence, as a year ago she committed suicide. However he falls in love with her again. What is stranger is that the other crew members see her as well. Kelvin is not hallucinating: his memory has taken a physicalised form. He doesn’t necessarily fall in love with his ex-wife again: he falls in love with the memory of her, the idea of her. If your partner has died, all you will be left with is the time which you sent with them.

Perhaps falling in love with a person and the idea of that person are the same thing. We cherish our experiences of people that we love, and this is how our thoughts and memories are shaped. The genius of Solaris is that it knows these many factors. Tarkovsky is a subtle director. He does not need dialogue to put across these complex notions, but merely images and sounds – which once made, he puts forward for us to interpret.

Beautiful imagery in Solaris #1

Beautiful imagery in Solaris #1

 

Beautiful imagery in Solaris #2

Beautiful imagery in Solaris #2

Complications arise. Hari begins to believe that Kelvin does not love her anymore. She becomes irratic and attempts suicide. Of course, she cannot die. Human beings can die, but memories transcend this notion, memories can never die, they live on inside the mind. Yet what makes this notion more haunting is that his memories can be seen. The presence of his memory haunts him more because she has the appearance of being real. Of course, this poses the question: is reality as real as our perception of it?

Tarkovsky takes this fantastic singular idea of a memory having a physical presence and develops it to such complex levels that it forces us to engage with the piece and engage it with our own lives.

The character of Kelvin’s memory of Hari also develops the central idea to the film. She does not know where she comes from. She has no parents or friends. The only memories she has are those with Kelvin. In this sense, she is incomplete, and she is aware of this. She of course, never tells us these things, but Tarkovsky is such a masterful director that we can interpret the look in her eyes, or the way she moves, or simply how we’d react in the situation that she’s in to understand her position. It must be horrible to think that your lover isn’t in love with you, but must be even more horrific if you know that this is because you are not even a real person, just a fictionalised construct of their imagination. Khari is a complete mystery: what she thinks, feels, and even means is unknown – she is the human form of the memory that is created after watching Solaris.

Verdict:

So mysterious in what it could mean that numerous interpretations could be drawn. Perhaps the entire film is a dream, a memory – who knows? Either way what we’re left with is a challenging film filled with beautiful shots and a haunting score, a film so organic and complex that it defies categorisation.

Cinematography

Cinematography. The art of setting an atmosphere via visuals or simply making the frame look visually impressive. Often underrated as aspects  such as screenwriting, directing or acting are more commonly praised. This is bizarre considering the fact that cinematography is at the heart of cinema itself, since it is concerned with expressing an idea, stimulating an emotion or telling an idea simply through visuals.

Rambling aside, here’s a lovely piece of expressionistic cinematography concerned with spring and nature. It is visually dazzling and has awe-inspiring colours and extreme-close-ups. Please watch.