In 1997, nearing the end of a decade that would see the rise and fall of Twin Peaks, the polarizing and surreal ultraviolence of Wild at Heart and would close out with the penultimate Y2K release of a film about a man and his tractor (The Straight Story), David Lynch would release a voyeuristic neo-noir as terrifying as it is erotic and as esoteric as its cast and director would lead you to believe. Starring such screen luminaries as Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Robert Blake, Robert Logia, Gary Busey, Richard Pryor, Jack Nance, Henry Rollins, Marilyn Manson and the voice of Mink Stole – Lost Highway would be far from conventional on screen, playing like a forgotten piece of trashy film noir with a cast of 70s/80s/90s fringe pop-culture class. And David Lynch’s fingerprints would be all over it.
I’m curious as to what October Films expected as a finished projected when they signed on to produce and distribute Lost Highway. Regardless of their familiarity with Lynch’s previous output – with his last theatrical outing being the batshit insane Wild at Heart – they couldn’t have known that they’d be putting out a fifteen million dollar budgeted, two and a half hour long odyssey of voyeurism and sadism. Despite how sexually violent Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart get, they never get quite as unrelentingly bleak as Lost Highway does. The previous films had hints – if not overbearing patches of – black humor and maybe even satire, but that is nearly absent here. If I’m laughing, it’s out of unease and/or shock rather than at any sort of punchline.
Lost Highway isn’t just some dark, bastard child of 90s cinema though. It belongs to a strange trend in voyeuristic dramatic content that stemmed from an increasing obsession with surveillance and the comforts and fears inherent in highly adopted trends in technology (i.e VHS). Building off of the decidedly 80s obsession with video rentals – and what potentially heinous crimes could result – with films like Video Violence and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – the 90s glossed things up a bit but took the terror from being housebound to a much wider public sphere. Voyeurism in the 90s would run the gamut of genre, from teen comedy (American Pie) to erotic thriller (Sliver) and even the domestic drama (American Beauty). But beyond existing as a narrative device in cinema, it became a much bigger part of decidedly American culture thanks to Reality TV. In the 90s, people weren’t just watching movies, they were watching each other. Or, they were watching movies about watching each other, like Ed TV or The Truman Show. But nobody did it like Lynch.
Blue Velvet is hardly the first cinematic portrayal of a voyeur – Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock were perverting the gaze of the viewer before it was even hip to write about it – but it lays the groundwork for voyeur cinema of the 90s and, most explicitly, Lost Highway. The images of Kyle MacLachlan watching Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rosselini – doing all sorts of aberrant sexy stuff for 1986 – through the slits of a closet door is at once immediate and removed. There are no means of recording video and/or broadcasting it to anyone anywhere and he is there, in danger. The voyeurism in cinema that predates this – particularly that of Peeping Tom – is even more immediate, with the voyeur in question being far more active than passive. But that changes in the 90s and not just through technology, but through storytelling itself.
I like to say that following the release of Hitchcock’s film, each decade has its own Rear Window: the 60s have Antonioni’s highly influential Blow-up, the 70s have the super kinky Baba Yaga, the 80s have DePalma’s perverse Hitchcock aping Body Double and the 90s have everything else, including the in name remake to Rear Window starring a legitimately wheelchair bound Christopher Reeve. This not only shows that Hitchcock knew what the fuck he was doing in 1954, but that voyeurism is as inherent in cinema through the decades as it is inherent in us as people. But, unlike every other decade before it, the 90s didn’t have just a Rear Window (despite having an explicit remake in 1998), it had many. Including Lost Highway.
Lost Highway will never be as canonical as Blue Velvet, as highly regarded as Eraserhead or as fast forwarded as Mulholland Dr. (How’s that for voyeurism?) but, for my money, it’s Lynch’s most erotic and disturbing work to date. It airs grievances about the 90s that I never knew I had. I was a mere 12 years old when it was released theatrically, and somehow managed to sneak a cable broadcast a year or so later only to be haunted by the face of Robert Blake holding the video camera responsible for the voyeurism inherent in its narrative. But I never looked away then. And I can’t stop looking now. Forever a voyeur. Thanks, Mr. Lynch.