Thursday, February 02, 2006

Lost Highway

Antonio Carlos Jobim: "Insensatez" (mp3)

Years ago, when I first saw David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), it left me disappointed and confused. It didn’t have the clean contours and indelible characters of Blue Velvet, or the circumscribed concentratedness of Eraserhead. It defied attempts at neat explication, bypassed psychological realism, and its structure seemed perversely baffling. The film felt remote and cold; I wasn’t ready for it.

I returned to Lost Highway this week and found an entirely different film waiting to meet me (a different me to meet the waiting film). The structure now seemed purposeful and original—perhaps it took me Mulholland Drive to see that—and the deliberately abstract quality of the movie and its characters made the rejection of realism a virtue. A little treatise could be (or perhaps has been) written about this movie; here is simply an observation or two.

Lost Highway is a Moebius strip movie—its beginning and ending are tied together, but at their point of meeting, they don’t complete a tidy circle. Along the way, this celluloid/highway strip of a movie has twisted, and turned itself inside out.

Here are the two elements that make up the Moebius strip:

(1) Bill Pullman, a saxophonist who suspects his wife is having an affair. A few minutes into the film, we see him go to work at the Luna Lounge. For one electrifying minute, Pullman blows the most anguished and scary free jazz solo you ever heard, all wails, blares, squawks, and squeals, with a thunderous rhythm section behind him.

(2) Balthazar Getty, an auto mechanic who lives with his working-class parents. A few minutes after we meet him, he’s in his backyard on a sunny afternoon looking over into his neighbor’s yard at a small pool with a toy boat and a floating ball with a frisky dog hanging about. It lasts just a few seconds but it’s the only optimistic moment in the entire film. On the soundtrack is “Insensatez” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. A little later, he hears a blast of free jazz on the radio; he turns it off.

As we travel down this strip, we see a stream of doubles, like pairs of headlights flashing by: two women, one blonde, the other redheaded—two Patricia Arquettes; the two-named gangster; two pairs of cops shadowing their quarry. The film itself softly fractures in two at one point.

What happens at this mysterious point where the Moebius strip twists? We’ll never know. Getty's dad, Gary Busey, knows. But he can't bear to tell his son and just shakes his head; he’s got tears in his eyes. He could almost be a stand-in for Lynch, but the reason Lynch is silent is that there is nothing "to know". What we have here is simply a structural pretext on which to build a beautiful edifice of echoes to house an unwaveringly subjective cinema.

So, I ask you: Ever run into a film (or films) that took you a second viewing, years later, to appreciate?

37 Comments:

Blogger girish said...

Wanna hear something disgusting?
The DVD available here in the US (which I saw) is 4:3.
And this looked like it might have been a great widescreen film.
Check out the DVD Beaver screen captures from the film. [Scroll half the way down].

February 02, 2006 11:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain--This is nifty.
[Follow link from Trix's].
Also, when I visit New York next month, you won't have to wear a flower in your lapel for me to spot you at our rendezvous...

February 02, 2006 11:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach turned me on to the Filipino critic Noel Vera.
Here he is revisiting Lubitsch's The Shop Around The Corner and making some really nice and perceptive points about the film and Mr. Matuschek aka Frank Morgan.

February 02, 2006 11:50 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

There are a lot of good spots in Lost Highway, but my favorite (aside from the creepy phone call, or the creepy un-explosion) is when Arquette's character reaches out and the film cuts to close-up of his face as she touches him. The first time I saw it I thought, briefly, it was a continuity error on her fingernail polish. But no, it's deliberate: a cut to a flashback.

I first started paying any serious attention to films in Fall 1996. Can you believe that that semester I saw M.A.S.H., 2001, Raging Bull, The Seventh Seal, and Citizen Kane for the first time and hated them all? ^_^ I'm laughing and red-faced thinking about it now, not at all sure what it was I wanted from films (explosions? a strong case of the warm fuzzies?) but there it is. I can see now that they're all brilliant in their own ways, though I've yet to warm up to Raging Bull (I'm afraid I admire it more than I enjoy it).

The Shop around the Corner is beautiful. The Shop on Main Street too.

February 03, 2006 12:07 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

"Ever run into a film (or films) that took you a second viewing, years later, to appreciate?"

Seeing Last Tango in Paris when it first came out, I was a teenager, and postively nowhere near the level of burnout the film gravitates toward. And I thought the sex scenes -- people screwing through their clothes -- were really bad.

Seeing the film for a second time when I was about thirty, it was nothing short of a revelation. Brando and Bertolucci had wandered inside of my head and pulled out all my fears and desires, analyzed them and gave them form on the screen. It was a transcendental moment.

Fifteen years later, seeing the film for a third time at the age of forty-five, it seemed juvenile, excessive and rather silly. I kept asking myself, why don't these guys just grow up?

February 03, 2006 12:36 AM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

It's not enough to say that this happens to me. It literally happens to me 10 or more times a year. And I'm a frickin' critic! Sometimes I completely change my mind about a movie, shifting it from the LOVED IT to HATED IT column, but more often the gradations are subtler, or it's just a matter of noticing details I did not notice the first time because I was too busy absorbing the whole.

To give just one example, I had to turn around a WAR OF THE WORLDS review within 12 hours of having seen it. It was positive but somewhat qualified, and I twinned it with Romero's LAND OF THE DEAD and indicated that while Spielberg's film was a more fluent, technically and visually sophisticated work, Romero's was bolder and more relevant. A second viewing of both films made me wish I had not filed that original review. WAR OF THE WORLDS now seems like one of the great Spielberg movies, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS' evil twin but more simple and spare and unsettling, almost abstract in some ways. Like Hitchcock's THE BIRDS, a series of setpieces, charged with Freudian/Jungian/political energy, a list of suggestions for dreaming. I've seen the movie four times now and each time I watch it, it gets deeper and more perfect, and the out of nowhere happy ending bothers me less.

One of my recurring regrets is that I am not able to see every movie twice before fixing a verdict in print. There are many films that really have to be seen twice, the first time to get over what you thought you were going to be seeing, the second time to engage with and appreciate the actual work.

I wrote a woolgathery column about this a couple years back. The link is here. Warning: It's been a few years and a few more viewings of the films mentioned, so my opinions might have shifted slightly from what you see fixed in prose.

February 03, 2006 1:58 AM  
Anonymous dvd said...

Girish, this post has increased my insatiable desire to see this film again; I haven't seen it since it was in theaters (where I saw it multiple times, it being my introduction to Lynch), and have staunchly refused to watch it on home video because it does indeed demand 2:35 presentation. In addition to the amazing composition in the film, Lynch's use of blackness here is unparalleled, and I'm waiting for a DVD release that preserves that, at least a bit. The American release is a travesty (I say without having seen it). There have been a number of things preventing a decent release, ranging from the collapse of Polyrgram to (purportedly) the Robert Blake case.


A French DVD was just released in the proper aspect ratio late last year, but I haven't picked it up because the word on the street was that Lynch was finally working on a director-approved special edition DVD, with a new transfer. Who knows when that will come out, though...

Until then, I have the soundtrack, which (aside from the Rammstein tracks, which I really just don't like) is one of the best soundtrack compilation albums ever. And yes, that sax solo is killer.

And to answer your question about films that get better with a second viewing - I was ambivalent about Jarmusch's Dead Man the first time I saw it, but one viewing later and it was secure on my Top Ten Of All Time list.

February 03, 2006 3:26 AM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

Well, Showgirls would have to be the latest example...

Another couple of the vivid examples for me: 1941, which I found unbearable in 1979, but which is now one of Spielberg's films of which I am most fond; and Nashville-- like Flickhead and Last Tango, I was just way too young (15) and had not seen nearly enough of life to even have a way into this movie. When I rediscovered it about five years later, it was a revelation to me, and I hold it as a prime example of why it's a good idea to remain open to revisiting movies that I felt particularly hostile or vituperative toward upon initially seeing them, especially ones I saw at a very young age.

But, like Matt said, this kind of flip-flopping, if you will, happens even more frequently now, especially with those films that I haven't seen in 20 or 30 years. For a while, in college and in the 10 or so years on the other side of it, I had a running "argument" with A Clockwork Orange-- it would seem nearly perfect in tone and approach to me on one viewing, and then the next time riddled with elements of performance or directorial choices that I would find maddening. And then the next time I would somehow come to terms with it and appreciate it all over again. It went back and forth like that over the course of seven or eight viewings.

But what you said in the opening of your re-viewing of Lost Highway is, I think, exactly right-- I can only account for my wildly divergent experience with the Kubrick film by seeing it as marking various stages of my own maturation. Literally, there was a different me to meet the waiting film almost every time out. My wife has been encouraging me to revisit Lost Highway as well, to which I reacted very badly when it first was released. And I've often wondered if seeing it through the prism of Mulholland Dr. would make some kind of difference. Your suggesting that it just might has made me hopeful for another illuminating experience with a film that I suspect deserves better than I was willng to bring to it last time out.

February 03, 2006 5:33 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow.
What a tasty treat of reading to wake up to.
Thank you all. It's so generous of you to take the time.

Forgot to mention: the DVD screen captures are, as you noticed, 2.35:1, and not from the US DVD.

February 03, 2006 7:00 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

One film that comes to mind as looking better seeing it again after many years is The Third Man. One thing that struck me was that Reed's use of tilted angles was what influenced similar shots in Bertolucci's The Conformist.

February 03, 2006 9:08 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Guest post by Gabe Klinger at Zach's place:
Interview with HHH.

February 03, 2006 11:09 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Girish -- I did NOT need to see that. I hate myself. I was drunk. Ugh. Extra therapy session this week.

But to the post itself -- I remember hating Alphaville when I first saw it in 1984. Blame it on youth, no frame of reference, no idea who Eddie Constantine was (let alone my muse Anna Karina), and an inability to understand why this was considered a Sci-Fi flick.

February 03, 2006 11:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain, you're being way too hard on yourself.
Believe me when I tell you that you come off as being utterly sober, and radiating infectious enthusiasm for writing about film.

February 03, 2006 11:16 AM  
Anonymous ratzkywatzky said...

All the Italians. The first movies I saw on the day I moved to the Big City was a double bill of Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita. Loved Cabiria, but thought La Dolce Vita was pretentious rubbish. Later saw, and hated, Amarcord, Juliet of the Spirits, The Conformist, The Leopard, Last Tango, 1900, and many more minor films. Hated virtually all of them. I think it was a combination of an adolescent resistance to anything symbolic and the weirdly disturbing Italian practice of postdubbing everything. About a decade later I was forced to watch Amarcord again, and it was a revelation. Gradually been re-viewing all of the great Italian films of the 60s and 70s, remembering things like my smartass comments to friends in the 80s about the "ridiculous" Analogy of the Cave scene in The Conformist, and cringing. Virtually everything I've seen again has been revealed as a treasure. How could I ever have called The Leopard "trashy"? I don't plan to re-view Last Tango. I think I would hate it even more, now.

February 03, 2006 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Beautiful post, Girish. As for me, even though Godard is easily my favorite director, I really disliked Breathless when I first saw it. I found it to be amoral, uninteresting in a narrative sense, and less than compelling, even though I thrilled to the sight of Jean Seberg walking down the Champs d'Elysees, selling the Herald Tribue. Only when I revisited it did I really learn to appreciate what a phenomenally wonderful film it is. Now some of its moments are among my favorites: the long conversation between Belmondo and Seberg in her bedroom; Raoul Coutard's use of a handheld camera, held at a low angle, while Seberg walks the streets of Paris; that mind-blowing 360-degree tracking shot of her walking through a room and a hallway in an apartment late in the film. After revisiting it, I was also able to appreciate the way Godard so successfully appropriates other forms of culture (literary texts, music, philosophy, etc.) into a sort of fragmented alliance with his cinematic inventions. And I love much of its dialogue, including this great postmodern exchange: "I think informing is wrong," Seberg tells Belmondo. "No," he replies. "It is life. Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love." And this as well: Seberg says, "I don't know if I am unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy."

February 03, 2006 1:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh nice. More fun reading. Thanks, peops.
Michael, I must've seen Breathless six or seven times over the years but not for a while now. I like how you remember the film in such detail. Wish I could do that with more of the films I love.
As for Last Tango, I saw it many years ago, and like Flickhead's first viewing, felt nothing. I've been meaning to revisit it but am not in any great hurry.
Revisiting The Conformist, on the other hand, which I did last year, was pretty mind-blowing. A textbook case of the vast gulf between pan-scan dubbed VHS and the big screen.

February 03, 2006 4:50 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead--What a cool autobio post. (You should do more of those. I can't get enough of 'em.)

February 03, 2006 4:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Superb essay on Kanye by Mark Anthony Neal.
[via Quiet Bubble].

February 03, 2006 4:55 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Out of sheer laziness, I don't usually re-watch a film that I completely disliked on initial viewing (although I will re-watch films that I liked or felt ambivalent about and sometimes I'll appreciate those more or less the second time around).

One of the exceptions though is Last Year at Marienbad which I really didn't care for on first viewing (in my teens); I thought it was the epitome of what people use as an excuse for why they don't watch "art films". The next time I saw it (in my 20s), I admired it aesthetically, but I still couldn't connect with it. But somewhere along the way, I saw more of Resnais' films, got used to his syntax, and one day, his sense of humor (which I didn't see before) clicked. Now, I'm one of those annoying people who won't leave things to "agree to disagree" when it comes to discussing the film. :)

February 03, 2006 4:56 PM  
Blogger girish said...

If there's a forbidding film for a teen, it would be Marienbad. You're right; Resnais does have an unexpected playfulness and humor (also evidenced in Je T'Aime, Je T'Aime, and of course in the outright giddiness of his recent work.) I know they're almost off the critical radar in terms of being written about, but I'm a great admirer of his 80s/early 90s work (Mon Oncle D'Amerique, Melo, L'Amour A Mort, Smoking/No Smoking), everything but the English-language Jules Feiffer film I Want To Go Home, which was a head-scratcher.
And On Connait La Chanson is one of my most reliable comfort movies when I'm in bed with the flu and in the pits.

February 03, 2006 8:26 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I had a similar thing happen to me with Lost Highway, girish. Though for me the first viewing was the one in the wrong aspect ratio (back in the VHS days) and the second one was a theatrical screening as a midnight movie (of the no yelling at screen variety) with Barry Gifford in attendance.

The scene that still runs chills up my spine when I think of it is the one where Pullman moves into the corner of the room in his apartment, and in engulfed in blackness. At least that's how I remember it; I can't even remember the context of the scene in terms of the rest of the film, though.

I wonder if watching Mulholland Dr. helped me appreciate Lost Highway more on a second viewing. Sometimes it feels like the appropriate way to tackle an autuer's body of work is chronologically backwards.

The Lost Highway trailer is incredible.

February 03, 2006 9:23 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Great film, Girish, that I also revisited very recently, although I was clueless the first time I loved it anyway, but more so this time around.
Interesting comments that risk to generate endless arguments... ;)
Such a complex structure, that could be compared to Haneke's rupture of the narration-audience relationship.

Hey Filmbrain, is there a transcript of this blogger conference somewhere? Looks very interesting. (And I like what you said!)

February 03, 2006 9:25 PM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

The first Bergman film I ever saw was PERSONA. It was junior year, I think, in a playwrighting and screenwriting class I took at my arts high school. The movie was so uncompromising, so quiet, so symbolically intricate and so impenetrable on first viewing (the white-on-white subtitles didn't help) that I felt as if I was encountering evidence of alien intelligence. To this day I have not seen it a second time, though of course I've seen untold numbers of other films that are just as uncompromising.

February 04, 2006 1:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian: "The scene that still runs chills up my spine when I think of it is the one where Pullman moves into the corner of the room in his apartment, and in engulfed in blackness. At least that's how I remember it."
Unforgettable. I've never felt more dread evoked by lesser means.
George Eastman House in Rochester (an hour away) screened the film not long ago, and I'm kicking myself for missing it. But if I had known that the DVD wasn't widescreen, I'd have surely made the trip.

And Matt, I've got a Bergman story that sort of rhymes with yours. I saw my first Bergman when I was a junior too: Smiles Of A Summer Night. It was so funny and sophisticated that I immediately told myself, "I need to hunt down everything this guy's made; I'm sure it's a laff riot."

February 04, 2006 8:43 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, I had no idea there was a connection between Roger Corman and Philip Roth.

February 04, 2006 8:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Jen issues a call to edit the Wikipedia entry on "Experimental Cinema".

February 04, 2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Not that I'm keeping track or anything but the last time Ben posted about a movie he saw was a little while ago (Showgirls), so this is nice.

February 04, 2006 10:04 AM  
Blogger scoot said...

not that it has too much to do with lost highway, but i was wondering if you ever got to check out lynch's website. some of the short works he uploads are really trippy; retains some of the same sort of atmospheric sound and texture that a lot of his films are dominated with.

anyway, as far as second-viewings of films, i'd have to say that it happened with my current favorite, "the thin red line". it's strange, as you pointed out, how your experience can be completely different, but as a high schooler, i was totally bored and completely turned off by it. probably because i was so estatic with speilberg's "saving private ryan" at the time.

anyway, returning back to it after being exposed to a certain kind of cinema, i was moved beyond words.

February 04, 2006 3:03 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I haven't seen Lynch's shorts, but I want to pick up the DVD that just came out.
And I purchased French critic Michel Chion's BFI book on The Thin Red Line last week because I'd like to revisit it when I see The New World. More connections: I was reading bits of Chion's interesting David Lynch book the other day but unfortunately it pre-dates Lost Highway.

February 04, 2006 3:34 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

I wasn't at all ready for Cassavetes the first time I tried to watch him. I think it was Faces. I remember not even sticking with the film long enough to get out of Gena's apartment. Now it's probably among my five all-time favorite films.

Interesting that Acquarello mentioned Marienbad, because I've been meaning for months to revisit it. If I'm not mistaken, Acquarello did his best to convince me of the film's greatness the first time I watched it, which was about five years ago. I remember there being a discussion of it on the Home Theater Forum.

February 04, 2006 5:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Darren, I think I first met Acquarello when I dropped him a little fan e-mail about five years ago. :-)
We started corresponding and he gave me Fiona's name and suggested I offer my services to Senses to cover Toronto.
I had never written about movies before, and was terrified. But he nudged me into doing it.

February 04, 2006 6:03 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

G, I would like for you to know that I am addicted to your blog . . . I must confess that I did not understand 8 1/2 when I first saw it. Years later, after I moved to NY, it crystallized for me. The scene of Seraghina dancing on the beach with the little boys is one of the most beautiful in all of cinema. It makes me smile just to think about it.

February 04, 2006 11:29 PM  
Blogger Richard Gibson said...

This is a great post Girish. I saw 'Lost Highway' on the big screen when it came out and left totally confused but my friend reeled off a theory instantly which he was convinced made sense...

You have given me a great idea for a dream double bill so thanks and have a good weekend.

February 05, 2006 7:55 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

G., an updated version of the Chion book is set to be published any day now. (Amazon has the new cover up, says it was published in 6/05, but isn't selling it yet; BFI says it was released 1/06... so who knows.)

February 05, 2006 12:33 PM  
Blogger girish said...

The master archaeologist strikes again.
Thanks, Ben; great news.

Thank you, J., and Richard.
I haven't seen 8 1/2 in a dog's age.
I bought the Criterion DVD as soon as it came out.
And it's one of those films that just sits there on the shelf because I "know I can revisit it any time I want" but (unintentionally) never do.

February 05, 2006 1:38 PM  
Blogger scoot said...

i've always been a fan of the small bfi books. they're great companions.

one of my favorites is jonathan rosenbaum's critique of jarmusch's "dead man".

plus, the stills they choose from the films are amazing, and almost always, coupled with the text, they reveal something that i may have missed on first viewings.

February 05, 2006 4:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Scoot, I'm sure i'm forgetting some right now but a couple of my favorites from the series are probably: Iain Sinclair on Crash; J. Hoberman on 42nd Street; Camille Pagila on The Birds; Raymond Durgnat on W.R.: Mysteries Of The Organism; and Kent Jones on L'Argent. And the Rosenbaum.

February 05, 2006 6:46 PM  

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