‘Lost Highway’: A Soundtrack For A Psychogenic Fugue State [Spins and Needles]

Lost Highway

Late last month I caught a screening of Psycho and everything was perfect. Despite the hundreds of times I’ve watched the film at home, there was something arresting about seeing those images on a giant screen with booming sound for the first time. I was especially taken by the driving scenes featuring Janet Leigh’s sly expression as she runs scenarios in her head about what she had just done. The romantic gesture of stealing a small fortune to bail out her boyfriend Sam so they could build a life together quickly transitions to a selfish reveling in her own crime.

Robert Bloch’s novel describes Marion (named Mary in text) as somewhat of a loner down on her luck. Before she meets Sam, she suffers the drawn-out death of her mother. Then, she shoulders the responsibility of raising her younger sister. Hitchcock doesn’t dwell on this backstory, but Leigh wears all of that pain and more. It’s difficult not to side with her completely. And being with Marion as she travels that long, opaque road to a grisly end evoked another film whose protagonist is caught in a private trap.

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David Lynch’s Lost Highway is a challenging film, and likely his darkest. In it, a man named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) are tormented by a series of eerie video tapes that arrive as their relationship grows more estranged. After Fred is apprehended for Rene’s murder, he is replaced in his cell by his younger alter ego Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). What ensues is a story about identity as a two-way mirror.

As Fred and Peter are surveilled by a Mystery Man (Robert Blake), we are thrust into the narrative from both sides. Like Norman watching Marion undress from his office, our view is narrow and prying in Lost Highway. What we see is a mix of eroticism and horror unfolding through an increasingly unreliable perspective. Lynch’s films are often recursive and the keys to their mysteries lie within the protagonists themselves.

Non-sequiturs, along with other random occurrences, can either form patterns or lead to dead ends. Not every problem has an easy solution, though Lynch always gives his audience the tools they need. He builds his worlds intuitively, and so must we traverse through them. Here, even music cues can be followed as breadcrumbs.

Recounting the importance of a soundtrack to his work in Chris Rodley’s Lynch on Lynch, the director says, “the borderline between sound effects and music is the most beautiful idea.” Lynch’s relationship to both is artful and utilitarian. Music and effects are as integral a part of his projects as dead rats on a piece of canvas.

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The soundtrack to Lost Highway lands somewhere between alt-rock, jazz, and the menacing ambiance of the film’s sound design. Set in the fractured headspace of a man in trouble, Lynch and writer Barry Gifford’s approach has been described as a “psychogenic fugue state”. The DSM-5 classifies this now as a “dissociative fugue state” and its relation to the film has its limits.

But, as pointed out by Rodley, the word fugue doesn’t just apply to the waking nightmare that befalls Fred and Pete. In music, a fugue is a creative boundary that introduces infinite possibilities. Put simply, as one theme begins it is answered by a second theme, or it can be accompanied by a counter theme. Lost Highway is at once a story about dissociation, sublimated desires, and death. As Fred and Pete are plunged deeper into psychological conflict, certain songs embellish these moments and remind us of these themes and more.

The film’s opening track, “I’m Deranged”, gave Lynch a vision of how credit sequences would unfold. He stated that the image of yellow lines dividing black pavement came to him instantaneously. The song was recorded by David Bowie in 1995 for his non-linear concept album Outside. Written from the perspective of a serial killer and artist known as “The Minotaur”, the murder mystery from which the song stems is told across time and left deliberately open-ended. Bowie’s song is driven by frantically-paced electronic beats and bursts of chaotic jazz piano. Its choruses feel almost euphoric, though they are broken up by desperate vocal lines in the verses. The song captures the feeling of slipping further into an abyss.

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In the film, it fades out appropriately on the words “the clutch of life”. Fred is a desperate man from the moment we meet him. In the first exchange between him and Renee, there’s some warmth but no spark. “It’s nice to know I can still make you laugh,” Fred says, in a self-deprecating manner shortly before his gig as a saxophonist. He is palpably distracted by the idea of Renee’s infidelity and she becomes the object of his obsession. His erratic saxophone performance reads mostly like compensation for shortcomings in his sex life.

Though we are only shown the aftermath of Renee’s murder, it’s clear that the motive, however abstract, is there. The connective tissue between Bowie’s song and Fred’s deteriorating psyche is all about a malicious feeling that Lynch has described as being “just on the border of consciousness”. And it is this feeling that stalks the couple without recourse early on.

Jealousy, voyeurism, and rage slowly embed themselves in the lives of Fred and Renee. This results in her dismemberment shown on tape as a snuff film, whose images resurface every so often. The impulse to kill is not like in Psycho, where murder happens quickly and decisively. But Lost Highway does tease its audience with a protagonist whose crimes are so horrendous, he conjures a different persona to shelter himself from consequences. And in a sense, Renee is like Marion: a victim of unchecked masculine insecurities who did not deserve to die.

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In essence, Lynch and Gifford’s script reverse engineers Renee’s murder through a different reality taking place inside Fred’s mind. Fred isn’t the tragic “wrong man” archetype that is familiar to the world of film noir because Lost Highway does not seek to absolve him of any crime. Nor does the film implicate anyone else. Rather, his prolonged guilt recontextualizes key moments leading up to Renee’s murder with Pete acting as a kind of mediator. “I’m Deranged” could be interpreted as a confession of sorts. But attempting to find closure in it would negate the half of the story that belongs to Pete and his discoveries.

Although it appears faintly in a scene where Pete and his girlfriend Sheila (Natasha Gregson Warner) dance at a bar, The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Eye” is rife with introspection. Its lyrics describe a person agitated by forces beyond their control. There’s a similar abjectness to it that is present in Bowie’s song, where the speaker accepts their situation for what it is. The theme of leading a double life takes over.

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Reaching into our bag of Lynchian goodies, we find the filmmaker’s utilization of tulpas to express multiple parts of a fragmented being. Pete, who morphs from a violent head wound suffered by Fred, has a life independent of him. Lynch’s films give ideas the space to unfold organically and materialize on their own. Even though Pete stands as a psychic guard between Fred and the truth, his experience is vital. As Billy Corgan sings “to myself be damned”, he rebukes Shakespeare’s immortal plea against self-deception while also providing the audience with a link back to the inciting trauma of Renee’s murder. Fred cannot help but look back at his crime. As Pete, he allows himself that narrow peephole into unspeakable horror.

Renee, as a sex object and damsel in distress in the life of an insecure man, is seemingly denied the interior and level of personhood of a character like Marion Crane. Whatever her truth is, we are not privy to it entirely. Her character is bound to fantasy for the most part. When Pete meets Alice (Renee’s counterpart also played by Arquette) she is an ethereal being almost always portrayed in a soft light—courtesy of cinematographer Peter Deming. Both her and Renee’s only moments of tenderness are tethered rigidly to male desire.

This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren” is deployed beautifully during two sex scenes, as is Lou Reed’s cover of “This Magic Moment” when Pete sees her for the first time. But these songs have more to do with unrestrained nostalgia than exploring a romantic bond between two equals.

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Curiously, Pete betrays the boundary of his and Sheila’s monogamous relationship. Their bond is broken by the same thing that triggers Fred to commit murder in the first place. The guilt that Fred experiences manifest through Pete, and the latter persona enacts what he considers to be chivalrous acts of revenge on behalf of Renee/Alice. Yet, this is mostly self-serving. 

As an audience, we reckon with the fact that Arquette’s characters are bound to the perspective of one man. But Arquette herself is not limited as a performer, nor is Renee/Alice any less compelling as a result. Talking to The Guardian prior to the film’s re-release, Arquette is open about her collaboration with Lynch. She says about her roles: “He asked me what I thought. I decided that they were women through the eyes of a misogynist.”

Lynch did not clarify whether both characters were one and the same. But Arquette’s creative freedom led her to explore facets of Renee/Alice that are conventional to the archetype of the femme fatale and which speak to the objectification of both characters. Arquette states that she viewed female sexuality in the script as “dangerous”. With the added challenge of not being able to affect the outcome of Renee/Alice’s story, the actor drew on symbolic representations of women whose personal narratives were similarly taken for granted.

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Renee, styled with the unmistakable rockabilly bangs of Bettie Page, traces the 8mm footage shown in Lost Highway back to its roots in ‘50s underground kink culture—of which Page was a pioneer. Page’s career is storied and sensationalized. But suffice it to say that Renee stands in as a woman seeking more out of life than to be the wife of a musician. Page’s carefree attitude towards sex work and outsider communities is present in Renee. It’s also clearly a source of resentment for Fred. 

For Alice’s look, Arquette recalls working with makeup artist Debbie Zoller and discussing her resemblance to Elizabeth Short (aka, “The Black Dahlia”). Given how Renee is killed in the film, the inspiration for Alice’s look points to a morbid legacy in early Hollywood history. Short, whose murder remains unsolved, is one of the many casualties of a predatory system that persists to this day.

In a story where one woman is killed by an intimate partner and another suffers humiliation at the hands of her artistic collaborators, Lost Highway can also be seen as a film about restless spirits. Where Arquette’s characters lack the influence of a classic femme fatale, they are woven into the narrative of Fred and Pete in a way that suggests a haunting.

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“Song to the Siren” is one of the only tracks in this film to ebb away and intensify through its runtime. The track is primarily associated with the euphoria of sex. But, its lyrics describe a tumultuous relationship between a sailor and a siren. It is uncertain and melancholic, acting as a warning rather than an affirmation. The voice of singer Elizabeth Frazer echoes in Fred’s mind as if to suggest that the life of Renee/Alice had value, regardless of how her image is contorted. Or how hard the men in the film, including scummy porn producer Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia), try to “out ugly” one another in her name. 

Lost Highway feels like an appropriately pessimistic time capsule for the late ‘90s. It closely emulates the edgier music on its soundtrack, which doubles down on themes reflecting unresolved social issues in a deeply isolating time preceding the 21st century. Its images nonetheless resonate with a culture that has long since enshrined its obsession with dead women at the hands of violent men. If comparisons to Page and Short weren’t enough, Lynch’s own research on the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson hangs over the film. This stacks another layer of unpleasantness onto an already bleak premise.

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The ending of the film plays as a loop back to the beginning. Trent Reznor’s piercing “Diver Down” takes over instrumental duties from composer Angelo Badalamenti shortly before the credits roll. We’re shown in the film that there is a Lost Highway Motel, where Fred discovers Dick Laurent and Renee having an affair. But the phrase is more than just a motive for murder. Looking back further, Leon Payne’s 1948 song by the same name is something of a sinner’s lament to other men who seek the same lifestyle. The look on Fred’s face is everything but remorseful, however. 

Riding with Marion as she is accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s emotional score, the music swells and stings. My favorite track, possibly the film’s most important, is “Temptation”. For me, that song contains everything that Psycho is about. Sorrow, regret, anger. In the grand scheme of things, Marion’s crime is rather harmless considering the victim is an oil baron who bandied his money around like pocket change. She experiences a change of heart regardless and is killed in cold blood for her troubles. Such is fate in that particular film.

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Badalamenti’s score follows Fred and Pete to their exit as well. Although, it’s arguable that where Herrmann sides with Marion, Badalamenti approaches the men from a distance. The overrepresentation of pop music in the film can be seen as further evidence of the kind of control Fred/Pete exerts over the narrative.

Unlike with Laura Palmer, Badalamenti’s themes are utilized to underscore the destruction that the men in Lost Highway leave in their wake. When the disembodied voice of David Bowie creeps back over the credits, the picture is as opaque as when it started. Lynch offers no closure or any other assurance except that the blurred yellow stripes on the long black pavement are destined to go on forever.

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