“Classics”: The Machinist (2004)

The following was delivered as part of a panel discussion for the Geelong-based Cinema Paideia. If you’re in the area, you should definitely check it out!

Trevor Reznick can’t sleep, and is quite thin. He’s not so good at remembering, but he’s quite good at forgetting. The director of The Machinist, Brad Anderson, hopes that you’re good at forgetting too – forgetting Fight Club, forgetting Memento, forgetting Lost Highway and so on. My name’s Mitch Cunningham, and I want to talk about The Machinist as a thriller, a ‘psycho-noir’ – in fact, a very familiar kind of film. I want to talk tonight about what the film borrows, what it does right, and why the psychological thriller works the way it does.

I was going to come in here tonight and tell you that The Machinist is a crappy rehash of the kind of psychological thriller that I’ve seen too much of. Post-industrial noirs that reveal themselves to be products of a delusional mind, some kind of cathartic working-through – you know, like The Wizard of Oz. “It was all in his head” is simply a modernist variation on “It was all a dream”, and if you start seeing it too much it’ll very quickly lose its punch. I re-watched the film recently, with this snarky critique in mind, and I was kind of pleasantly surprised. Though The Machinist does borrow heavily from classic and contemporary thrillers, every so often it comes into its own with some well-done, if not entirely fresh, variations on the genre.

For viewers familiar with Fincher’s Fight Club and Memento, or David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, The Machinist can’t help but come off a bit cheesy, especially on a second viewing. Of course Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznick is leaving himself post-it notes. Of course those lingering shots of fish and cars and little kids are ‘clues’. Of course Reznick is forgetting something important. The pop psychology and aesthetic, which one reviewer calls “a prematurely retro exercise in mid-90s industrial goth-grunge abjection”, is like a desaturated version of Lost Highway or Fight Club.

Thankfully, the music is pure Hitchcock, all spooky bells and whistles. Just imagine The Machinist with a soundtrack that matched its aesthetic – hyper-serious industrial guitar stuff – and count yourself lucky we got to hear the film we did. If Trevor Reznick were anything closer to Trent Reznor, we wouldn’t be talking about this film, we’d be laughing at the kind of people who did.

So, what is it about the thrillers of Brad Anderson, David Fincher, David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock that pack that psychological punch? Why is it kind of cool or affecting to realise, time and time again, that what we’ve been seeing is somebody’s delusion? Well, film is a highly subjective medium. Not in the “art is subjective, man” sense of the term, but in the way it taps into the idea of subjectivity – how we see, feel and know the world. As critics like Laura Mulvey and Todd McGowan point out, the appeal of Hollywood storytelling rests on being made to forget that you’re watching a film. You disappear, instead, into the film’s subjective world, as if it weren’t made for your consumption. Art film goes the other way, making damn sure to keep you out of the loop, reminding you that the whole thing is fake with a capital ‘F’.

But the best thing about psychological thrillers is that they can do both – the fact that they’re fictions is what drives their narratives. Every little thing in The Machinist works towards the construction of a delusion –trauma, repetition, re-imagination. Everything is almost mathematically plotted to refer to Reznick’s trauma – fish heads, car chases, hit and runs. Everything appears twice, everything is doubled – Reznick and Ivan, Stevie and Marie etcetera. But most importantly, in order for Reznick to work through his delusions he has to forget that they’re fictions, and to forget why. When the film pulls the ripcord on the whole “It was all in his head” thing, it suddenly resolves too quickly. But the build-up, and the tenor of Reznick’s delusional world, is worth remembering.

So The Machinist plays like Lynch without the silliness or Fincher without the savvy. The narrative, as I’ve suggest, is kind of pedestrian if you’ve seen one too many thrillers. But the cinematography and sound design are highly competent, drawing on the psycho-noir textbook to create a modern world where nasty things can happen. We get a lot of little shots that establish a very contemporary mindset  – street signs with ironic double meanings, fixations of coffee cups and glass bowls, pretentious use of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. But the film goes the full Kafka in its industrial sequences, set inside Reznick’s workplace – we get a very Lynchian sense of the danger and uncanniness that haunt machine and machinist alike.

As in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the hero finds personal salvation by imprisoning himself. As in Kafka, his world is already full of little prisons – mental, technological, cultural. We’ve seen this kind of film before. But it is fun to forget.


Classics: The Graduate (1967)

Mike Nichols’ The Graduate is a peculiar film, and four decades of pop-culture accretion hasn’t changed that. The film serves as a template for every second-rate indie coming-of-age story you’ve ever seen (including Orange County, Ghost World, and the most insidious offender, Garden State) as well as inspiring classic parodies in Wayne’s World 2, the Naked Gun series, and every single film by Wes Anderson. In fact, I move that the “protagonist gazes at the sky from the bottom of a suburban swimming pool” trope be officially and vigorously banned from all scripts, scriptwriting classes and undergraduate diaries for the next two decades.

Approaching the film in 2011, what is the film’s continuing appeal? Is it a slice of 1960’s socially-aware satire? A particularly well-crafted piece of cinema? Or a film that, by playing with classic Hollywood romance, anxieties of modernity and almost-ridiculously Oedipal energies, becomes a fascinating look at love and subjectivity?

The film is definitely the first two – as the earnest, badly-mixed strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sounds of Silence’ kick in for the first of too-many times, we can’t help but feel suspicious towards those damned adults and their orthodoxies, man. Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock resonates as a kind of disillusioned anti-hero of the sixties, despite the fact that he seems to have never heard the word ‘counterculture’ in his life. Even as ‘Scarborough Fair’ plays for the third fucking time, the film’s story of love affairs and sinister emotions is always couched in politeness, routine, pretence. There’s no such thing as a ‘free love’ in WASP-y Los Angeles. This is not a film about discovering new ways of seeing the world; it’s a film about dealing with the ways in which we already see it.

Ben’s identity crisis is rendered through a range of inventive cinematographic techniques. The idea of ‘seeing-through’ – perspective shots that move from foreground to background, often framed by fish tanks, windows or natural lighting – is highlighted in the film’s most memorable scenes. Ben Braddock behind/inside the fish tank, or staring through the surface tension of the water, or banging on plate glass at the First Presbyterian. Hoffman plays the lead with a detached, narcissistic dissociation from the world around him. But the character is likable because he’s iced in – despite wanting a connection, he can’t form one.

The most playful sequences of this type revolve around Ben’s first hotel rendezvous with MILF par excellence Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). In the hotel bar, she receives a call from Ben, who asks her to look around. As the depth of field increases, we see Ben, through a window, inside a phone box, nervously staring back as if still in his tank. Later, as Ben waits for Mrs Robinson in his hotel room, the camera pans to follow his neurotic efforts to ‘set the scene’ – opening and closing the blinds, turning on the bathroom light, brushing his teeth (with his own toothbrush!). The emotional struggles between Ben and Mrs Robinson, particularly in later bedroom scenes, continue to centre on this battle for the light switch.

In these scenes, too, we recall The Graduate’s greatest strength – an unflinchingly comedic command of dialogue. Adapted for the screen by comedian Buck Henry (co-creator of Get Smart, and Liz Lemon’s father on 30 Rock!), the script crackles today with absurdist punchlines (“Plastics!”), melancholy reveals (“Art!”) and understated social satire (“Agitators!”). The film is best during these extended conversational set-pieces, where the method performances truly pay off. In the “art” scene, for example, the emotion is wrought by an on-again/off-again lamp (half of the conversation occurs in total darkness), the two leads dressing and undressing, and about three camera angles. The dialogue is both candid and theatrical, as Ben searches for some conversational code with which to relate to his lover – whatever it is, it isn’t art. The swing between hilarious and morose is often disorienting, but that’s part of the film’s charm.

The other part, of course, is the web of Oedipal associations and correlations between the main characters. The Robinsons are a permissive, sinister double of the Braddocks, and Ben’s inability to relate to his mother, Mrs Robinson, Elaine and the world are shown to be coextensive. Mr Robinson in particular is a weird inversion of a father figure, all high-spirits and authorisation, at least until his peace and permission turns into passive aggression (emphasis on aggression). And the film’s profoundly ironic climax – in a fit of youthful defiance, Ben Braddock accomplishes exactly what his parents wanted him to do – there is less of a break from nuclear orthodoxies as a melancholy confirmation of them.

But The Graduate persists as a classic, not only because of its historical, cinematographic and psychological dimensions, but because it is still a fucking funny piece of film. Dustin Hoffman would go on to play an array of classic and comedic characters on the strength of the film’s success. Now preserved by the US National Film Registry, The Graduate’s iconic status to contemporary viewers comes from the way in which its humour seems to call out from another time, inviting us into a sixties both swinging and neurotic.

Classics: Blade Runner (1982)

In a world in which memories are little more than self-structuring dreams, what is the value of a choice? This question plagues the android antagonists of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and ultimately comes to define Harrison Ford’s Deckard, who may/may not be a ‘replicant’ himself. Dreaming permeates the film, infusing the dystopian Los Angeles setting with melancholic fantasy – consider the inscrutable image of a Geisha girl selling Coca-Cola, the recurring motif of the unicorn, and the haunting score by composer Vangelis. In a world as bleak as Deckard’s, dreaming takes on a complex and crucial role – hardly surprising given the source text, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by everyone’s favourite sci-fi schizophrenic, Phillip K Dick. The dream-as-memory traps us, determines our fate, yet the dream-as-fantasy poises us to choose who and what we become.

The narrative of the film, which sees semi-retired ‘Blade Runner’ Deckard track down and ‘retire’ five rogue replicants, thematises the visual image – the opening shot of an eye reflecting the LA skyline, the flashing red eyes of the replicants, even the famous ‘Voight-Kampff’ test which depends on “involuntary dilation of the pupil”. The motif of “seeing”, or seeing-another-seeing (we are, after all, witnessing ourselves this back-and-forth), keeps us on our toes, scanning the mise-en-scene for clues that never materialise.

Because appearances don’t tell us a thing – the androids that mirror humans in appearance and childlike psychology, the sudden permeability of a photograph, even Roy Batty (Rutget Hauer) delivering his famous “Tears in Rain” speech: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” The constant recourse to the outside – off-world, outside of vision, out of the frame – contributes to our imagining of Blade Runner’s world, expansive and complex. Ridley Scott’s famous attention to detail doesn’t hurt, either. We re-watch Blade Runner more than most films, revelling in the little details, as if trying to see all that we can before our time runs out.

But how do we remember this (fictional) world? Infused with Vangelis’ electronic jazz, always soaked in sunlight or rain, with a plot in which Deckard seems to stumble upon his targets by accident? Though the narrative is in fact tightly structured, our movement between sequences is dream-like, unfashionably slow for a Hollywood picture, even unexplained (at least since Scott’s first Director’s Cut, which removed Ford’s underwhelming narration). We are given time to ponder the meaning behind each deceiving image, to consider its counterpoint in the soundtrack, to feel the dread weight of an Earth whose time has run out. The chanting, electronically-distorted voice of an Arabic woman in Vangelis’ “Tales of the Future” seems hollowed, since there are few stories left to tell.

And our tales of the past, recall, are quite possibly fake. The tie between Deckard and his replicant love interest Rachel (Sean Young) is the suddenly external nature of their memories. Rachel’s are implanted by the Tyrell Corporation, Deckard’s are somehow known by his fellow Blade Runner Gaff (Edward James Olmos). The impossible dream/memory of the unicorn, just like Rachel’s memory of a dead spider, are designed to “make them seem more human”, by both the fictional corporation and the director.

The hint of memory, the idea that it shapes the characters we see, is another of Ridley Scott’s self-reflexive techniques – we become so invested in whether Deckard is real or fake that we overlook his status as fictional. Just as the privileging of sight and detail is undermined by indeterminacy, the status of memory is made impossibly problematic. If Deckard’s memories are fictions (they are) they explain his motivations as the protagonist – they make him a killing machine. We assume so much of his history as Blade Runner, as he does, that it structures our understanding of the plot – a plot built around five executions. Just as the replicants are ‘shaped’ by their mortality and relationship to memory, Deckard as protagonist is defined by the dream-as-memory.

His relationship –and ours – to imagined ‘past’ and ‘future’ becomes the driving force behind the film’s conclusion. Gaff remarks: “It’s a shame she won’t live. But then again, who does?” referring to Rachel, with whom Deckard leaves LA in the final shot. The cryptic nature of the comment suggests that Gaff knows what Deckard will do next – if he knows about Deckard’s ‘past’, then perhaps he can predict Deckard’s course of action in the future. But the film (at least, since the first Director’s cut, which removes the “happy ending” wherein Deckard and Rachel elope to the Overlook Hotel) leaves us hanging as to what happens next. Perhaps the Earth of 2019 is a closed system, where psychology and narrative are predetermined. But then, Scott suggests, perhaps not.

David Lynch Corner: Blue Velvet (1986)

For all the human intrigues and noir mysteries in David Lynch’s work, there is always the intrusion of the otherworldly, and a foreboding sense of that which lurks beneath the story. The most famous examples of this are those supernatural beings which occupy the corners of his films – the dancing Man from Another Place and his Twin Peaks cohort and Lost Highway’s Mystery Man are two paradigm cases. But while the bizarre and uncanny are clearly evident in Blue Velvet, it’s hard to say that anything is truly ‘otherworldly’ going on. How does the straightforward narrative of a young man’s descent into the criminal underside of small-town USA become invested with such menace, such magic?

The answer is sound, the creation and command of acoustics and physical space that goes one further than a visual, classical mode of filmmaking. Of all Lynch’s films, this is most clear in Blue Velvet – in the opening sequence, we are repeatedly made aware of the importance of sound and its relationship to the events to follow. Against the opening, full-colour tableau of flowers, picket fences and sunlit suburbia, we hear the floating tune of Bobby Darin’s ‘Blue Velvet’, and the encroaching sounds of insects, running water and barking dogs. After a schmaltzy radio bite, introducing us to the tone of the town of Lumberton, USA, we meet a silent Geoffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who tosses a stone into whistling grass. Geoffrey does two things before the main plot truly begins – he visits his ailing father, who fails to communicate to him, and then he finds a human ear.

The ear becomes a gateway into the main plot, and the terrifying truths of Lynch’s universe. The mystery of the ear’s owner, leading into the stories of lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and her abusive ‘captor’ Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), is repeatedly moved forward by sound and hearing. From the facts of the case, overheard by Sandy Williams (Laura Dern, in her first of many critical roles in Lynch), to the bizarre coupling of Vallens and Booth, described by Michel Chion as a “an archaic acoustic impression”, that is, a weird image reconstructed from sounds, a great deal of the film’s key scenes arise first in the acoustic register.

Not since the singing, dancing Lady in the Radiator has the performed song been so prominent in Lynch. ‘Blue Velvet’ reappears, sung by Dorothy Vallens at the Slow Club. Her song doubles with the fetish-object of her nightgown, the blue velvet that muffles Frank’s voice, transforming Hopper’s Booth from caricature villain to nightmarish human being. Later, Frank will sing to Geoffrey – Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’, which has earlier been lip-synched by “suave motherfucker” Ben (Dean Stockwell) to magical effect. And in one of the film’s pivotal scenes – Laura Dern recounts her dream of the robins and a “blinding light of love” – Chion writes that “she has the eyes of a blind person”. Though vision and Lynch’s stunning cinematography are prominent parts of Blue Velvet, the ideas of sound and voice are most central to the narrative and Lynch’s thematic treatment.

The result of this acoustic filmmaking is, as in Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, the masterful command of space and time, the creation of a living, breathing location. Lynch’s treatment of small-town America, in Lumberton, Wild at Heart’s Big Tuna, and of course Twin Peaks, gives you the sense of having lived and wandered in these places. This command of space carries onto the map of relationships and psychology that makes Lynch’s characters so memorable, characters that speak, weep and resonate with the world around them. This return to sound is not a regression, as it might seem from the image of the ear as gateway to sin and corruption, but rather a return to the type of understanding that envelops, enfolds its subject. As Geoffrey and Sandy dance together to the sound of Julee Cruise’s “Mysteries of Love”, we see the hopeful signs of a David Lynch that hopes to take us through the dark.

David Lynch Corner: The Elephant Man (1980)

Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned a lot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit. And Im glad I found out all about my family and me. It was like I never had a family til I remembired about them and saw them and now I know I had a family and I was a person just like everyone.

Charlie Gordon in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon


Our command of language, whether we use it to craft an Oscar-nominated film or to order a cup of coffee, is what allows us to function as human beings, alone and in society. Nonetheless, there is always the sense that language regulates, or perhaps covers up, one or two basic facts about ourselves as subjects. Lacan talks about this a lot – he divides human identification into the Imaginary (one-to-one, aggressively narcissistic identification with a threatening other) and the Symbolic (identification mediated through the system of language, the Big Other), with the Real occasionally intruding. But more importantly, David Lynch shows this to us in The Elephant Man, charting the movement of a threatened, voiceless soul into a community of language and friendship, with all the pitfalls in between.

When Fredrick Treeves (Anthony Hopkins) wanders deep into the corridors of a Victorian freak show, he passes an array of fragmented, disconnected images – namely midgets and bearded ladies. The Elephant Man that he eventually meets (John Hurt) is caught in a system of humiliation, spectacle and aggression – the audience comes to be terrified of him, and he is rightfully terrified of them for it. Horribly disfigured, the Elephant Man’s only hope of functioning as a human being is contained in the phrase “My name is John Merrick; I’m very pleased to meet you.” Though he speaks with difficulty, hampered by the realities of his body, Merrick’s newly-discovered voice is sweet, even musical. It is through his discovery of language that Merrick is able to articulate his plight, and gain acceptance by the Victorian community.

But in Merrick’s movement, from the carnival to the hospital to bourgeois society, the nature of his embodiment never goes away. There is always a sense, discussed by many of the characters in the film, that the public’s ‘fascination’ with Merrick is no different from the leering, primal horror of the carnival crowd. This is most clear in the fact of Merrick’s ongoing abuse at the hands of the night watchman (Michael Elphick) – the carnival returns, only this time in that dark inversion of language, the market. Once more, Merrick is made into an object, but unlike Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones), who declares of Merrick, “He is my partner… my treasure,” the night porter’s actions work intelligently to destroy our Elephant Man.

The juxtaposition of these scenes – Merrick in language/society and Merrick in language/marketplace – reminds us that, while language must step in to mediate our frightened desires, this mediation is still a source of pain. When we begin to distinguish words and things, we begin to create objects for consumption – the aggression we seek to overcome is in fact sanctioned by the systems we put in place to control it. This is what keeps Fredrick Treeves awake at night, causes him to ask “Am I a good man? Or a bad man?” Are we any better off, given language and community, if the result is to be made a spectacle of in new and cruel ways?

But John Merrick offers an answer to this question: “My life is full because I know I am loved.” In the crucial theatre scene towards the end, Merrick marvels at the movement and shifting patterns of the pantomime theatre. He is at once a child, scared of the unknown, and a man, grateful for it. In a very sincere way, Merrick is a model for all of us, a limit-case of the difficulties we find in reconciling those parts of ourselves – the child threatened by their reflections, and the subject trapped in language. But there is a kind of joy to be found here, when those aspects of ourselves are reconciled, through art, through human connection and through engagement. At The Elephant Man’s conclusion, Merrick has constructed an entire cathedral having only seen its tower from his window. And we have reconstructed his subjectivity, from the outside-in, and found it to be a beautiful place.

David Lynch Corner: Eraserhead (1976)

I put every damn pipe in this neighbourhood. People think that pipes grow in their homes. But they sure as hell don’t! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!

-Mr X, laying some pipe


As part of my Lynch series, now a pilgrimage from start to finish as I pretend to speak authoritatively on my thesis topic, I can’t help but begin at Eraserhead. David Lynch’s debut feature, which rose to infamy alongside Jodorowsky’s El Topo as part of the 1970s ‘Midnight Film’ phenomenon, still holds a powerful place in the Lynch canon. This is partly due to its unforgettable, horrific imagery, but Eraserhead holds its own against the director’s later works in terms of themes, treatment and pure atmosphere.

So let’s all have a look at the film that made Mel Brooks call David Lynch “Jimmy Stewart from Mars.” I won’t be recapping the entire film, but I will begin with a closer reading of the opening sequence:

Henry Spencer (Lynchian hero Jack Nance) begins this film as a horizontal, floating head, superimposed over a moon-sized, grainy ‘planet’. So far so good. Inside this planet, the appropriately-named Man Inside the Planet pulls a few levers and voila! Out of Henry’s mouth there issues the first of many stringlike, swimming white creatures. This intrepid little creature eventually drops into a milky crater on the side of the planet. Shortly after that, we see a tracking shot down a hairy tunnel towards a circular light. It’s impossible to get around – you’ve just witnessed sex, and the birth that sometimes ensues.

And Henry Spencer? He’s a dick. A swinging dick, for better or worse. He wanders his apocalyptic home like a chubby Charlie Chaplin, his feminine moon-shaped counterpart replaced by the unforgiving architecture of industrial Philadelphia. And Henry will be contrasted against his surroundings and fellow characters for the rest of the film, as his swinging dick-ness becomes the subject matter of Eraserhead.

To clarify, the film revolves around fathering and fatherhood, according to Lynch, to which I would add the question “What is it that the male-as-subject actually does towards fathering?On paper, it would seem that the father (Henry) has helped in creating life, but the child he fathers with Mary X (Charlotte Stewart, who reappears as Don Davis’ wife in Twin Peaks) is an absolute monster, an animatronic prop of movie folklore, gurgling and chuckling his way into the psyche of all concerned. You can’t help feeling, alongside Henry Spencer, that his procreation was really an act of destruction.

Destruction abounds in Eraserhead. From the empty hollows of Philadelphia, to the dead trees that populate pots throughout the various interiors we see, to the tiny portrait of a mushroom cloud in Henry’s room, we are moved to see a world emptied of life, emptied of energy. Notably, by the film’s shocking, apocalyptic end, the mushroom cloud has disappeared from Henry’s wall. Even the apocalypse is swept away by the time Henry finds his scissors. Because Henry decides that his only hope for agency is to be the eraser on the hard tip of the pencil, obliterating his child (and castrating himself in the process, as the film binds the two of them together) and the world that he inhabits.

So yeah, the film has an unhappy ending, and its construction of masculinity is a little bit nihilistic. But David Lynch was an impoverished young artist with a baby on the way – how do you think he felt? Well, we know at least the dark side of what he imagined was to come. In this side of the Lynch universe, pipes don’t grow, they get driven into the earth, turning “pastures” into “hellholes.” Fortunately for his sake, Lynch was to refine and temper his approach to the subject in the three decades that followed. But Eraserhead forever sits at the heart of his (and our) own fears and dreams, and continues to resurface at points of rupture in his work. The results of this are often the most memorable.


Classics: Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Having known me, you’d say I was a David Lynch devotee. I’ve devoted a huge portion of my study and thought to the auteur and his universe, as my Inland Empire review may have hinted at, and I stand behind everything the man has committed to film, paper and bathroom stall scribbling. But I’ve always had difficulties enjoying Lost Highway. Whether it’s because the motifs and material have been handled better before and since, or the differences in form and style that estrange the film from his corpus, but the 1997 effort lacks the uncanny charms of classics like Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive.

Despite this feeling of mine, the film’s execution is typically flawless, its themes of (again) sex, death and illusion are well handled, and each shot and sequence offers memorable glimpses into a classically embodied Lynchian universe. Contrasted to his previous effort, 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which was guillotined and gutted by critics for its awkward pacing, bizarre sentimentality and supposed misogyny, Lost Highway ought to be the better film. But I don’t think it is. Perhaps an examination and contrasting of the two films will help justify this.

Song to the Siren

Compared to Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway has been a better critically received film, but then this wasn’t a hard thing to accomplish. FWWM is Lynch’s conclusion/prequel to the acclaimed TV series Twin Peaks, which centred largely on the death of beloved Laura Palmer (Cheryl Lee) and its subsequent investigation by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan). This driving mystery was solved in the series’ second season and, its raison d’être gone, the show was cancelled shortly thereafter. FWWM returns to the circumstances of Laura Palmer’s death, her last seven days, and the warped relationships between Laura, her father Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) and the malevolent entity known as BOB (Frank Silva).

Lynch’s treatment of what is essentially known information to fans of the TV series could have, in lesser hands, been little more than a retread. But we know better. This expressionistic telemovie is buoyed by Cheryl Lee’s intense characterisation of Laura – oscillating between tortured child, promiscuous femme fatale and certifiable psychotic, Lee’s performance is a standout even among Lynch’s considerable body of work. Laura Palmer, true to her words, freefalls until she bursts into flames, and then falls further. But Lee is able to invest this descent into hell with fierce, almost unconceivably fierce, defiance, and stands with Laura Dern and Naomi Watts as one of Lynch’s unforgettable heroines.

Wrapped Plastic

The same cannot be said for the protagonists of Lost Highway. This is, in part, a product of the script – co-written with Barry Gifford (whose novel Lynch adapted in 1990’s Wild at Heart), Lost Highway’s dialogue and characterisations are deliberately pared-down, keeping in step with the film’s noir atmosphere. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) are a couple with troubles – not only wracked by overt infidelity on Renee’s part, but increasingly unnerved by anonymous videotapes left on their doorstep. When one of these videos reveals Fred howling over Renee’s dismembered corpse, we cut to Fred on death row, awaiting the chair. Hilarity ensues – Fred, unable to cope with his crime, metamorphoses into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty, of TV’s Brothers and Sisters, and little else). Pete, being not Fred, is released to his life as a mechanic, where he meets the girlfriend of Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia), whose name is Alice (Patricia Arquette once more).

Things get complicated, but Lost Highway’s setup is relatively simple compared to Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, and its execution is emotionally drained when compared to Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart. Bill Pullman/ Balthazar Getty make for one of Lynch’s only forgettable protagonists, through stale delivery of minimalist dialogue. Fred Madison’s arc is obscenely signposted early on in the film, with this line: “I like to remember things my own way, not… necessarily how they happened.” Amateur. Patricia Arquette suffers too – though undeniably femme fatale­-ish, one gets the feeling that David Lynch has (uncharacteristically) placed his actress in a series of exploitative filmic situations, with little investment resulting beyond that of the protagonists. Robert Loggia mugs his way through a hammy, Tarantino-derivative set piece on Mulholland Drive, and only becomes remotely threatening when paired briefly with the ghoulish Mystery Man (Robert Blake, but more on him later). As far as this sub-villain is concerned, car chases, LA roads and Dennis Hopper have all been done far better elsewhere. Notably, none of these main actors have been called upon to appear in any further Lynch films.

Nine Inch Fail/ Red Roomies

At every point, Fire Walk with Me is the stronger “David Lynch” film, especially when considered alongside the director’s later, arguably more sophisticated works, while Lost Highway remains anomalous. Lynch maestro Angelo Badalmenti brings an incredible orchestral/jazz score to FWWM, featuring the sublime work of singer Julee Cruise. But where FWWM is timeless, Lost Highway is just dated. The film is punctuated throughout with contemporary singles by Rammstein, Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson and the like. No comment on the merit of those particular artists, BUT their appearances in the film often sour what could’ve been classic scenes. These aren’t the brilliant, defamiliarising music choices Lynch has gifted us with, such as Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ and ‘Crying (Llorondo)’. They just kind of suck.

And perhaps most importantly, Lost Highway just doesn’t bring the crazy. Aside from Fred Madison’s transformations and some isolated stylised scenes, the only true weirdness comes from Robert Blake’s Mystery Man. Like a pale-faced assassin he intones to Madison, “You invited me in. It’s not my custom to go where I’m not wanted.” His presence brings this dull affair to life in brief spurts. A demonic force on par with BOB, the Mystery Man must compete, though, with the most recognisably Lynchian folklore – Twin Peak’s Red Room, home to the backwards-talking, dancing midget (Michael J Anderson). Not a fair contest.

Fat Trout Trailer Peaks

But more significantly, Fire Walk with Me is infused throughout with the Lynchian uncanny. Each scene and characterisation is shot in an archetypal, almost cartoony fashion, and the film is thus able to weather instances of the lamest dialogue since “Why is there so much trouble in this world?” (Blue Velvet). Special mention, too, to the film’s prologue, in which Dale Cooper doppelganger Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) navigates the anti-Twin Peaks town of Deer Meadows, in a glorious summary-by-contrast of the beloved TV series. Lost Highway’s best treatment of the meta-cinematic is probably that lame Fred Madison line from earlier.

To sum up, though, Lost Highway is not a bad film – it’s just definitely the weakest David Lynch film (disregarding Dune, of course). Its superb elements simply do not cohere in an organic fashion – they’re let down by subpar performances of overly-minimalist dialogue and unwise concessions to then-popular culture. Filmmakers need to stop wearing “Marilyn Manson is a fan” as a badge of honour (Jodorowsky, listen). Meanwhile, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is an idiosyncratic, visually gorgeous piece of film, which succeeds in evoking genuine atmosphere and emotion, and in crafting an expressionistic character study of one of the richest characters in TV history. I know which one I’m watching right now.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): 91%

Lost Highway (1997): 76%