If you look over in the DVD reviews posting today you'll find my review of the long-overdue DVD release of David Lynch's Lost Highway. As I allude to in the review, this is my second go at reviewing the film. My first was back in 1997 when I tackled it for this publication. At the time, it was a pretty big assignment. I had less than a full year of film-reviewing under my belt. Heck, I wasn't even doing it full time. After completing a year of grad school in English at UW-Madison–enough to get me an MA but try taking an English MA on the job market and see what it gets you–I'd dropped out and taken a job at a video store. Thanks to the encouragement of former editor (and current NPR mover and shaker) Stephen Thompson, I'd started doing some freelance movie reviews for what was then called The Onion A.V. Club between shifts spent checking in soft porn, steering customers to a virtually direct-to-video movie called Bottle Rocket, and buying coupons in the student newspapers in my capacity as "Marketing Specialist." (Would a true marketing specialist have had to open the store at 8 a.m. and do change runs to the bank? I'm thinking not.)
Within a year I'd be working for the publication full time, but all that was ahead of me when I walked into the now-defunct Majestic Theater in Madison, WI in 1997 to see the latest Lynch film. I emerged with this opinion:
The latest offering from David Lynch, the first in nearly five years, is a slow, ponderous, ultimately unsuccessful exercise in cerebral nihilism. Bill Pullman plays a tortured sax player who begins to receive mysterious videotapes that intimate dark things about his wife (Patricia Arquette). Then he seems to kill her and turn into Balthazar Getty. (You kind of have to be there.) This is Lynch's most challenging, experimental film since making his debut with Eraserhead, but it's also among his weakest. Perhaps the biggest flaw may be the jettisoning of the strand of dark humor that has run throughout his work. Lost Highway is as somber and oppressive as a Presbyterian sermon, and though it's visually impressive, so was the last video from Bush, and this is about as emotionally engaging.
Why Presbyterian? I now have no idea. Maybe because it sounded especially severe. And Scottish. Who knows?
That review practically requires footnotes now. Kids, between being synonymous with failed Presidential administrations, the word "Bush" instantly brought to mind the English band of that name. This Bush trafficked in copycat grunge music filled with carefully postured distress. And in a way, I think that had as much to do with my negative review as anything else. Not Bush in particular, but this kind of free-floating, mid-'90s aesthetic of secondhand miserabilism and easy darkness. Kurt Cobain scraped his soul for his music. Not everyone else had it in them.
I thought Lynch had tapped into the same thing. Looking at the film again, I can see he went deeper. Watched twice, when it becomes clear that everything involving the Balthazar Getty character is almost certainly the death row fantasy of Pullman's character, it all makes much more sense. What's more, it is pretty funny. The dark humor hasn't been jettisoned so much as made deadpan flat. We see Pullman as an inexpressive man whose sexual incompetence alone might be enough to drive Arquette to cheat. (If she really was unfaithful.) So of course as Getty he's young, dangerous-but-inherently good, and magnet for women.
Context matters, too. In 1997 I was single with no prospects. Now I'm (happily) married, and being married makes it easier to appreciate the stakes of a story about infidelity. It may be one of those movies, like Two For The Road that you can get if you're not married but you won't get all the way.
Or maybe I just didn't get it. It happens.
As a final footnote, our Madison office manager at the time let me know that Lynch's office had called and wanted a clip of the review. A part-time resident of Madison at the time, Lynch wanted to see how it had fared in his adopted hometown. Getting into Lynch's work was hugely formative to me as a young film enthusiast so I felt bad knowing he'd see the unkind words I wrote, but I also felt like I was being honest with my opinion. And I was. Now I just think I was wrong. Hey, maybe I'll end up loving Inland Empire in 2017.