The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
Lost Highway: Unveiling Cinema's Yellow Brick Road

Lost Highway:
Unveiling Cinema's Yellow Brick Road

Reni Celeste

Reni Celeste (
University of Rochester
Visual and Cultural Studies Program
Published in Cineaction 43 (Summer 1997)


  1. Introduction
  2. The First Toll
  3. Second Toll
  4. The First Toll Again
  5. The Nameless
  6. 'There's no place like home'
  7. The Mirror Dentata
  8. Grand Cycles of the West
  9. Notes



And do you know what 'the world' is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end... enclosed by 'nothingness' as by a boundary... blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness... this, my Dionysian world, the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying... without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal.

Friedrich Nietzsche, _Will to Power_

Oh, I'd give anything to get out of Oz altogether; but which is the way back to Kansas?

Dorothy in _The Wizard of Oz_

Entering the Lynchian universe is like entering a body. It requires the delicate negotiation of a series of tunnels: throat, hallway, telephone cord, garden hose, umbilical cord, eustachian tube; passageways that link one of his films to the next, that lead from one ear out the other, across film genres and histories, across green lawns and trailer parks. One finds here a hell as familiar as our own, a wax world whose lines and forms are forever melting, where each object slowly transforms into its opposite, and where all things, even the most irreconcilable, are bound by a labyrinth of intricate web-like relations. For years critics have been treating the patient with psychoanalysis and scolding Lynch for his incorrect politics, but little attention has been given to the visual philosophy he has been projecting across the cinema screen. His work has offended equally reactionary conservative and political liberal. My intention is not to venerate Lynch for either of these two dominant positions, for that would be to rob him of one of his highest achievements, rather I would like to interpret his most recent film _Lost Highway_ in relation to narrative and philosophy in order to bring a different lens to bear on the works of Lynch, but more broadly as an occasion to question the relation of narrative to film.

_Lost Highway_ opens and concludes with an image of the road, or more specifically, of the yellow dotted-line, a vertical axis, flickering rapidly by in the darkness. It is in this image, which appears throughout what is otherwise 'not' explicitly a road film, the moment someone enters a car or takes a pertinent passage from one point to another, that the metaphoric play of the film commences. It is in this metaphor that all films become road films. The image is familiar. It has recurred throughout Lynch's films since _Blue Velvet_ (1986), when the reference to America's classic road film _The Wizard of Oz_ (1939) and its yellow brick road first began. [1] This reference comes out of the closet in Lynch's explicit road film _Wild at Heart_ (1990), where the wicked witch travels by broom alongside the escaping lovers and Lulu clicks her ruby slippers in vain in a roadside motel in Big Tuna. Somewhere in the transition from Dorothy to Lulu and from the Emerald City to Big Tuna a hammer blow has landed, a mask cracked, a veil torn away. _Lost Highway_ is the receding reflection of that laughing veil in the rear-view mirror, before its uncanny double emerges ahead in the distance. Driving is the sound of tearing cloth.

In speaking of Lynch's virtuoso use of sound, Michel Chion demands that we listen to Lynch's films, but that we listen with our eyes. [2] In a similar spirit I would like to suggest that we think philosophy when we watch Lynch's films, but that we think it with our eyes and ears. One of the best legacies of the critiques of metaphysics has been the insistence on thinking Being not in the form of an Aristotelian logic of stable identity, a conception which suited the interests of systematic and scientific thinking, but rather as inseparable from temporality and spatiality, a conception more suitable to the interests of addressing experience and creative forms. Lynch's films show not only that the ontological and epistemological appear, but that they must appear in particular styles. Just as painting, film, and literature have been understood within national context, there has always been a very particular American metaphysics, with its very particular American dualisms. There was always something paradoxical about corn fed Dorothy, with the bows straddling her curly brown pigtails and those glittery red pumps loaded with enough power to send her skipping down the yellow highway. It is at this nexus, this position where violence meets tenderness, waking meets dream, blond meets brunette, lipstick meets blood, where something very sweet and innocuous becomes something very sick and degrading, at the very border where opposites becomes both discrete and indistinguishable, that Lynch enters with his particular reading and rewriting of this American metaphysics. Obscenity is one of the key ingredients in turning over the soil.

The American landscape was always well-mapped for metaphysical and theological metaphor. A nation founded on a journey West, an escape through the desert of adversity toward the promised land of a mythic California. The wagons that bulldozed across native soil, stopping only to wipe the blood and flesh off their wheels, marked the highway, and dusty earth became asphalt not long before Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour hit the road and broke into song. [3] The road has always been the chief vehicle of this metaphor of progress, origin and destination. It is only fitting that it should also become the chief vehicle for its unraveling. The many metaphors that meet at these intersections on the road include narrative, desire, interpretation, and the film reels themselves. _Lost Highway_ takes the road film one toll further around the loop to reveal the mad dislocation that was already implicit in that American journey.

The _Lost Highway_ narrative is cyclical as opposed to circular or linear. It takes just over two hours to arrive back at the place where it began, but its second beginning arrives not as final destination or return to center, but as another gesture of transit. It's ideal presentation would be an endless loop, in a theater in which spectators could enter at any moment during the cycle and leave at any point, [4] keenly conscious both that the film will begin again and again and that we can never step twice into the same river. As such, both beginning and ending become arbitrary markers on a narrative road not unlike history, seasonal change, and the body itself. And film and narrative become something inorganically alive.

By foregrounding narrative, _Lost Highway_ also foregrounds the accompanying philosophical problems implicit in the movement of thought and signification: reflexivity and duality, mirroring and doubling. In correspondence with my emphasis on narrative I will first very broadly lay out the three dominant parts of the narrative. Each of these parts and their relations serve to complicate the traditional notion of time as a forward progression consisting of three dimensions – past, present, and future, as well as the traditional notion of narrative as a self enclosed structure consisting of plot, drama, and closure. The present needs the future to determine its own past, which is oddly also its future.

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