Midway through the deliberately confounding new David Lynch film "Lost Highway," the audience gains a much-needed foothold.
A femme fatale (Patricia Arquette) strolls up to a pay phone whose metal frame reflects the wan neon glow of the surrounding working-class urban scene. The laconic car mechanic, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), follows her with his eyes as late-night traffic flows down a naggingly familiar street.
"Van Nuys," she tells the 411 operator--and suddenly there is a locus for Lynch's self-described "21st century noir horror." While never overtly identified as the setting, the San Fernando Valley emerges through consistent visual clues as the shadowy backdrop for much of this murderous tale of shifting identities, double-crosses and sexual obsession.
"Lost Highway," opening Friday, is Lynch's first feature since 1992. He subverts the sun-drenched Valley of "The Brady Bunch" and Moon Unit Zappa, creating an oppressive landscape flecked with what the screenplay calls "girls in short, tight dresses" and "muscle cars and low-riders filled with kids looking for action." Hollow-eyed convicts and seductive sadists cruise Ventura Boulevard and Mulholland Highway, stopping only to watch television and to make urgent love in cheap motels.
Lynch is hardly the first director to depict the Valley's underside. Films such as Todd Haynes' unnerving "Safe" in 1995 and John Herzfeld's "2 Days in the Valley" last year both staked out what the latter terms the area's "line of desperation."
But few are better suited to this setting than the creative force behind the movie "Blue Velvet" and television's "Twin Peaks," both of which showed that sordid behavior not only exists in small-town and suburban America--it thrives.
"You can't put distance between yourself and the film," said Deepak Nayar, co-producer of "Lost Highway" and an associate of Lynch's since "Twin Peaks." "The Dayton house could be somewhere different and the audience could say, 'Hell, it's not my neighborhood.' But this is my neighborhood. Pete Dayton lives next door to me. He works at the garage we all know."
The plot to "Lost Highway," which Lynch has likened to a mobius strip because of the story's circuitous twists and turns, is impossible to succinctly summarize. "When I first read the script, I told David, 'I don't get it,' " recalled Nayar. "He said, 'Good!' "
It intertwines the stories of Pete, whose work on the expensive cars of Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) takes a nefarious turn, and Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a jazz saxophonist who winds up accused of murdering his wife. Arquette plays both the doomed brunet Renee Madison and the blond Alice Wakefield, who cheats on Mr. Eddy by seducing Pete Dayton.
Lynch weaves those strands together with his usual dreamlike visions, typified by a scene at the Van Nuys house where Dayton lives with his parents, described in the script as a "bleached-out, '60s ranch-style house on a street lined with many more of the same."
After Dayton inexplicably ends up in a Death Row prison cell formerly occupied by Fred Madison, he is freed on a technicality. Dayton's parents bring him back home so he can recuperate from a vicious head wound.
As he lounges in the bright backyard, the soothing bossa nova tune "Insensatez" plays. Dayton gets up and walks toward the fence dividing the tiny yards and gazes across at a kiddie pool and a dog, symbols of the American Dream.
Lynch has said: "The place, the light and the feel--all these things come with the knowledge that you are looking for things to flesh out your ideas, make them more right. For me, L.A. was the right place." In many cases, Nayar said, that meant the Valley.
"The Dayton house almost became my Waterloo," he said with a chuckle. "I thought there were plenty of houses in the Valley like that. They're a dime a dozen! But we'd go to a location and David would say, 'I don't think this is Pete Dayton's house.' " Scouting continued even after shooting began.
Once Lynch had settled on Valley locations, including the Madisons' angular home near Griffith Park and the Van Nuys garage where Richard Pryor appears as Pete Dayton's boss, "we started to see the dirt coming out," Nayar said, describing the emerging underside of a seemingly bland setting.
Writer-director John Herzfeld, a 12-year Valley resident, knows that dirt. He has observed the area's evolution from a bastion of perceived wholesomeness to its complex current state, drawing inspiration from its widening ethnic mix and increasing crime.
"It's not so much of the white, middle-class Valley-speak as it once was," he said. "There's a lot of things hatched out here. . . . People who used to congregate in L.A. and seek out the spotlight now want to get over the hill and into the shade."