|By Joshua Zyber
January 2, 2000
David Lynch was reportedly so hurt by the scathingly negative reaction to his harrowing, astonishing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me that it took him several years before he was ready to direct again. His subsequent film, Lost Highway, is in many ways one of his most complex, dazzling, alienating, frustrating, and yes brilliant films to date.
It was also received with mixed critical reaction and no box office.
C’est la vie.
The film reunites Lynch with his Hotel Room collaborator Barry Gifford, who had also written the novel that was the basis for Lynch’s Wild at Heart. This film works a little better than that one. The story concerns enigmatic saxophone player Fred Madison, who may or may not have murdered his wife one night (he doesn’t remember properly) after receiving a series of mysterious videotapes showing him committing the crime in advance. He is convicted (they have him on tape, after all) and sent to death row, where he may or may not morph into young auto mechanic Pete, who went missing due to an inexplicable event (he doesn’t remember properly either). Pete tries to settle back into his old life but finds pieces of Fred’s life, including his wife’s double, intruding along the way. And oh yes, both Fred and Pete are haunted by a mysterious devil man in paleface makeup who can apparently be two places at once.
The film is as surreal as anything Lynch has directed, but without the forced weirdness that was so detrimental to Wild at Heart. The narrative is almost impenetrably convoluted on first viewing, but so fascinating that repeated screenings are a must. Eventually things fall into place and you find that the storyline is in fact tightly structured, though figuring out the meaning can be the subject of endless debate. Are Fred and Pete the same person? Is the Mystery Man some kind of supernatural figure driving Fred crazy, or is he in fact a physical manifestation of those aspects of his personality that Fred has been trying to suppress? What the hell is the deal with those freaky people in the hotel?
The movie is loaded with the themes of fractured identity, of the doppelganger, and of false perception of reality that Lynch had been previously exploring in both Hotel Room and Twin Peaks. No one is exactly who they seem, nor does anything really happen the way it appears to. It has been argued by the film’s critics that the story is misogynistic, a charge leveled against many of Lynch’s films, and if read in a certain context it may appear that way. Patricia Arquette’s character(s) are forced into some degrading acts by domineering men. On the other hand, it is questionable exactly how much power she holds in those scenes, and whose tainted point of view we are witnessing the events from. I tend to give Lynch credit for being smarter than many of his critics would have us believe.
As would be expected, the film is quite a visual treat. The movie is filled with dazzling imagery (the cabin exploding in reverse, Pete and Alice making love in the car headlights) and intricately complex widescreen cinematography. This was its greatest asset on the cinema screen, but also creates the greatest problem when transferring to home video.
Lost Highway was released on laserdisc in both the United States and Japan, and the quality of both releases is almost as complicated and controversial as the film itself.
Reviewed in three separate publications, the domestic laserdisc release garnered wildly different responses. The Laserdisc Newsletter said that, “the framing is exquisite” and “the color transfer outstanding”. Video Watchdog claimed that the image quality was reproduced faithfully, but that the letterboxed framing was atrociously overmatted. Then Widescreen Review stated that the letterboxing was accurate but gave the disc its lowest possible rating for picture quality, claiming that it “exhibits very ugly, dark scenes that are orange with brownish-black shadow detail” and that “color fidelity never looks natural.” These are all reviews of the exact same disc!
To make matters more confusing, once the film was released overseas rumors started flying that the Japanese laserdisc was a substantial improvement over the domestic issue. Video Watchdog reported (before having seen the disc) that it was rumored to be “noticeably brighter, more colorful, and more correctly framed.”
Well, I own that Japanese laserdisc and have had the opportunity to compare the two releases side by side.
The two discs are most definitely derived from the same film-to-video transfer. The have the exact same 2.35:1 letterboxing which is tight in a few scenes but faithful to my memories of the theatrical screening, the same weak focus, and the same color quality. They are different pressings, however. If anything, the domestic disc has slightly more light output and a little more detail visibility during especially dark scenes. For example, you can see the Mystery Man put the knife in Fred's hand on the US disc, but on the import it is difficult to tell what is happening. This is a very minor difference, however, and mostly they look identical with the obvious exception of Japanese subtitles (which appear completely within the lower black letterbox bar). It has been suggested that some Japanese laserdiscs are mastered for a 0 IRE black level. This seems consistent with a few of my other Japanese releases which are darker than their American counterparts, and might explain the differences between the two editions of this film. Bumping up the brightness on my television monitor a few notches while watching the import does seem to even out the variance between the two discs.
Though many people contend that this was a terrible transfer for the film, I really don't think so. It was shot in underexposed dark areas with warm colors that don't translate to NTSC very well, and I think the telecine operators did a decent job. The sharpness could use a lot of improvement and these discs are by no means reference quality, but neither are they particularly noisy or grainy. The movie could certainly look a lot worse.
The import was pressed by Pioneer Japan. The US disc was pressed by Sony DADC, which has a notorious reputation for laser rot infecting their discs. I think claims of laser rot are largely exaggerated by those who do not understand what the term really means, and the copy I viewed was speckle-free.
The audio on both discs is also the same. The movie has a wonderfully elaborate sound design, going from periods of total silence to great explosions of noise. The discs capture this with precision, though it is imperative that the volume be turned up rather high or else much of the whispered dialogue early in the film may be inaudible. The loud portions are supposed to be extra loud, so just go with it. Both discs also contain Dolby Digital encoding.
The domestic disc presents Side 3 in CAV format. There is no CAV on the import, but it has better side breaks. I swear that with my auto-flip player sometimes I can't even tell that the first one has happened. However, there is one important fact about this that must be noted. The disc has apparently been mastered with a blue frame naming the side number at the end of each side. This is programmed onto the disc after the flags identifying normal viewing content. I have watched this disc on two different laserdisc players. My Pioneer player has a fast side change and evidently knows enough not to display anything after the program content, because I was never even aware of this blue frame for a long time. A machine with a slower side change, however, does annoyingly display the frame for several seconds. This is something a buyer may wish to take into consideration before purchasing.
The American disc comes in an attractive jacket but the
import has an even nicer gatefold. The Japanese disc also contains three
theatrical trailers, including a terrific one that uses the Nine Inch Nails
song The Perfect Drug and gleefully proclaims "LYNCH IS BACK!".
The movie is also available on a non-anamorphic DVD in Japan which utilizes
the same transfer, but you obviously must have a DVD player whose region-blocking
capability has been disabled in order to watch it.
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