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More Than Just Film

Confronting the Mystery Man in Lost Highway

Everything appears normal. I’m upstairs in my old family home. I walk into my parent’s bedroom and hear a strange mooing noise. My throat contracts as I sense something alien, a body lying behind the bed. I can see its legs, its torso. It has no features, it has no face. I’m shaken from the dream but even before I’m awake I realise the mooing was my sleeping-self trying to scream.

I’ve never had a problem with dreams which are classically nightmarish – zombie invasions, rampant monsters, nuclear wars etc. My self-defence mechanism kicks in, the dream takes the form of a horror film and I shift from protagonist to spectator. The bloodier and more disturbing it becomes, the more enjoyable I find it. The dreams that prove genuinely terrifying are those, like the example above, which sneak past my defences by concealing the macabre within the mundane.

When it comes to translating dream logic into the language of film, few directors are as fluent or adept as David Lynch. The protagonists in his triptych of death fantasies – Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006) – are all hopelessly trapped by guilt or tragedy and are moments away from their demise. The only escape route open to them is to dive into the realm of dreams and fantasies and yet, as they replay and attempt to rewrite the events which lead to their downfalls, their dreams are invaded and subverted by sinister forces from within their unconscious minds. The protagonists must face the truth or spend their final moments trying in vain to outrun their inner demons.

Lost Highway‘s dreamer is Fred Madison and his dream takes the form of a Film Noir in which he plays the victim hero whilst his wife, Renee, is cast as the femme fatale. When he attends a party being held by Andy, the man he suspects is having an affair with Renee, Fred is confronted by a strange figure known only as the Mystery Man.

The scene starts with Andy entering the room and Renee drunkenly stumbling into his arms. She sends Fred to the bar and as he passes through the party his alienation from the other guests is signified by the expressionistic use of sound. Apart from when he speaks to the barman, we hear only the music being played in the room; the sound of the crowd has been removed completely.

Fred orders two double whiskeys and drinks them both. It is at this moment the background music is replaced by a rumbling drone and, looking like a vampire from a silent movie, the Mystery Man appears and heads straight for Fred. During the ensuing conversation the Mystery Man is shot in extreme close up, as if he is standing too close for Fred’s liking.

After an uncomfortable pause, the Mystery Man states that they have met before at Fred’s house. Fred, confused and defensive, denies this. The Mystery Man adds that Fred invited him into his home and, furthermore, he is there right now.

Fred chews this over for a few moments before delivering a measured response of ‘that’s fucking crazy, man’. The Mystery Man passes Fred a mobile phone and invites him to call his own number to speak to him. Fred eventually does so and, seemingly, the Mystery Man answers. In a fantastically chilling moment, when Fred asks ‘who are you?’ the Mystery Man and the voice on the phone laugh in perfect sync. The Mystery Man then informs Fred it has been a pleasure. As he walks away, the background music and some crowd noise returns.

In keeping with this being Fred’s subjective re-imagining of the real party, the scene concludes with Fred grabbing Renee, heading for the door and bitterly remarking ‘we never should have come here in the first place’.

By displaying that he was in two places at once, the Mystery Man stresses Fred’s essential duality. The Fred that we see is an innocent incarnation created in a moment of extreme stress by his dreaming self, a process which unwittingly also created the Mystery Man.

The Mystery Man has his roots in the Gothic horror notion of ‘the double’, described by David Bunnell as ‘a reflection or shadow figure’. He is no Dr Jekyll-style murderous incarnation of Fred though. Slavoj Zizek argues that the Mystery Man is a ‘neutral medium-observer, a blank screen which “objectively” registers Fred’s unacknowledged fantasmatic urges’. In psychoanalytical terms, this places the Mystery Man as a combination of the Jungian Shadow Self; the site of all our repressed and suppressed fears, and the Freudian Superego; an internal figure of authority which suppresses the animalistic urges of the id and drives the ego to act morally.

The Mystery Man’s small build and lack of facial hair (not even eyebrows) give him an asexual appearance and yet he plays a paternal role. He confronts Fred at the dreamed version of the party as it was directly after the real party that Fred carried out the terrible crime that he is trying so hard to escape from, the savage and sexualised killing of Renee.

Following on from the Mystery Man’s intervention, reality bleeds into the dream and Fred is arrested, convicted and sentenced to death for his wife’s murder. Most films would have almost run their course by this point but Lost Highway is just getting started. In one of Lynch’s most fantastic moments (and that’s fantastic in both senses of the word), Fred literally morphs into another character, Pete Dayton, whilst waiting on death row.

From here on in, Lost Highway is gloriously loopy and often shockingly violent as the characters cheat, double-cross and plunge ever deeper into the primal horrors of Fred’s unconscious mind. Whilst this is all great fun, it is the restraint of the opening section, and the party scene in particular, which succeeds in communicating the kind of dream in which everything at first appears normal but, on closer inspection, the alien and uncanny are ever present. Or to put it another way, the moo-inducing nightmares in which you encounter the macabre concealed within the mundane.

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March 2013
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