“Ladies and gentlemen, direct from the Roadhouse in Twin Peaks, USA, Miss Julee Cruise!” That was how Andrew Dice Clay, decked out in his leather jacket and gold chain and stupid floppy leather hat, introduced the first musical guest on his sole episode hosting Saturday Night Live. Context makes it slightly less of a fever dream: the original musical guest, Sinéad O’Connor, dropped out in protest of the controversial, misogynistic comedian with whom she was expected to share a bill. Looking for anyone to fill in on short notice, producers managed to get Cruise to drop in and sing “Falling,” the theme song for the hot new show of the year: a bizarre, beguiling murder mystery in small town America called Twin Peaks. It would be another seven years until one of the show’s creators, David Lynch, made Lost Highway; still, that surreal moment on SNL is important to understanding the film in the context of Lynch’s career.
David Lynch helped define the ’90s. This isn’t a retroactive view, either, like how it took years for people to see Douglas Sirk films as more than weepy chick flicks. Lynch’s cultural impact was obvious right from the start of the decade. Apart from Julee Cruise getting a shout-out from the Diceman, Twin Peaks itself became a genuine phenomenon. Audiences were drawn in by the first season and its mix of lush visuals, charming quirk, and haunting surrealism. As one of the first shows to be described as “water cooler television,” it was extremely influential, in both the short term (Northern Exposure, Picket Fences) and the long term (basically every prestige TV show from the late ’90s on). Even Darkwing Duck parodied it. (Seriously, it did. It’s called “Twin Beaks,” and Launchpad McQuack plays the Log Lady.)
Aside from Twin Peaks, Lynch’s impact on ’90s cinema cannot be overstated. The Coen Brothers took some of Eraserhead’s symbology for Barton Fink, and some of Twin Peaks’ offbeat regional charm for Fargo. Quentin Tarantino’s mix of retro flair and grotesque violence in films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction is undeniably indebted to Blue Velvet (although he later said Lynch had his “head up his ass” after watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me). Eraserhead was an obvious influence for Pi, the microbudget black-and-white debut of one Darren Aronofsky. And Blue Velvet got the ball rolling on the ’90s’ fascination with the dark side of suburbia, perfectly summed up by that shot of writhing, hissing bugs beneath the surface of a clean green lawn.
But although Lynch made movies throughout the ’90s, Lost Highway is the only one (aside from the Twin Peaks companion Fire Walk with Me) that feels like it was made in the ’90s. While Lynch’s output in the previous decade ventured to Victorian London and outer space with The Elephant Man and Dune, his work in the ’90s, from Wild at Heart to The Straight Story, exists in Lynch’s usual ’50s-influenced dreamworld. While that’s certainly present in Lost Highway — it comes with the neo-noir territory — it feels unusually contemporary for Lynch, from its setting to its music to its subtext. It wasn’t the last movie he made that decade, but all the same, Lost Highway can be seen as Lynch’s farewell to a decade whose cultural landscape he helped shape.
While Twin Peaks, Washington sometimes seemed like a town frozen in time, and Wild at Heart was a desert hallucination slipping in and out of the ’50s and ’60s, the Los Angeles of Lost Highway is recognizably the Los Angeles of 1997. The house of Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette) is the kind of spacious, tastelessly modern house that upper-middle class people in ’90s movies always live in. Numerous plot points revolve around technology — VHS tapes, camcorders, cell phones that gad only just moved past the giant-brick design — that date the movie to a fairly specific moment in time. And Fred’s friend Andy (Michael Massee) is the kind of soul-patched, loud-shirt-wearing douchebag that seemed to grow like lichen on the walls of L.A. house parties in the ’90s.
There were plenty of neo-noir films in the ’90s; cineplexes were filled with helpless saps, violent hitmen, and femme fatales, just like the ones that populate Lost Highway. (In fact, Blue Velvet was a huge influence on many of them.) Plenty of those films were set in L.A., and a lot of them looked a good deal like the more “normal” scenes in Lost Highway. But rather than making the film seem dated, it just heightens the contrast between the typical genre elements and Lynch’s heady surrealist horror.
Take the scene at Andy’s house party, filled with beautiful people drinking and chatting while lounge-y trip hop plays in the background. It could be a scene from any neo-noir, erotic thriller, or slick crime drama from the ’90s, at least until the Mystery Man (Robert Blake) shows up. As he approaches Fred, the music fades away, as though a cone of silence surrounds him. He has unblinking eyes, smiling black lips, and no eyebrows. He speaks politely, but menace drips from every word. By the time he has Fred call his house to prove he’s in two places at once, we have left the world of the neo-noir and entered the realm of nightmares. The music fades back in when he walks away, but his presence lingers for the rest of the film.
Speaking of music, Lost Highway’s soundtrack firmly places it in the ’90s. Angelo Badalamenti’s scores have always dabbled in dissonance, but with additional supervision by Trent Reznor (aka Nine Inch Nails) the film’s soundtrack is the coldest and noisiest for a Lynch film since Eraserhead. The droning, scraping pieces that play while Fred watches the mysterious videotapes could be interludes from The Downward Spiral, and the rest of the soundtrack is augmented by songs by Nine Inch Nails Rammstein, and (regrettably) Marilyn Manson. The movie’s defining song— its “In Dreams,” its “Wicked Game” — is not some simmering jazz tune or rockabilly throwback, but David Bowie’s pulsing, gnashing late-career freakout, “I’m Deranged.” It could have only happened in the late ’90s, but it works perfectly for the opening (and closing) scenes of that dark highway plunging into the darkness.
Lynch has always been reluctant to reveal what his movies are “about,” and understandably so. His movies operate on such a strange, dreamlike wavelength that any attempt to logically explain them cheapens the whole enterprise. When it comes to Lost Highway, however, he has offered insight that can be used to interpret the film. In his book Catching the Big Fish, Lynch says that Lost Highway depicts a “psychogenic fugue” inspired by one of the defining moments of the ’90s: the O.J. Simpson trial. “What struck me…was that O.J. Simpson was able to smile and laugh,” Lynch wrote. “He was able to go golfing with seemingly very few problems about the whole thing. I wondered how, if a person did these deeds, he could go on living.” That was how Lynch came to the concept of the fugue, where “the mind tricks itself to escape some horror.”