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October 29, 2021

Derangement

Revolting Memories, Deranged Forms, and Lost Highways(s)


By EMMALEA RUSSO

“Night brings formal terrors: an obliteration of the grounding divisor of the horizon, a punctuated vision against an indifferent and unmarked field of duration, unmoored in time and space.” — Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects


“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” – Mystery Man, Lost Highway (1997)






AN EXCHANGE


DETECTIVE: Do you own a video camera?
RENEE: No. Fred hates them.
FRED: I like to remember things my own way.
DETECTIVE: What do you mean by that?
FRED: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happen.
Lost Highway (1997)


THE FORM OF THE HEADLIGHT


It begins and ends at night, David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” playing over the Lost Highway, smudges of white headlights emblazoning the road in fast flickers. The yellow line of road disappears under whatever vehicle we’re inside of. Again and again. A mechanism pushes forward and meets itself, affixing the start to the finish. Almost. Lines fall fast out of frame and into pure night. We appear to be rushing forward. Towards what? Line. Line. Line. The film, a line deranging into an almost-circle, feels like headlights pushing through plastic, illuminating in fuzzy defusions what moves.


DERANGED


To derange is to disarrange. A line thrown into disorder, made to curve and bend into chaos. A Mobius strip, affixed to itself and infinitely looping, cut. The clear plastic curves of videotape wound into reels. When we are beside ourselves. When we split, then multiply. A phosphorescent strip between what happened and what’s recalled.


LOST HIGHWAY


The exchange about memory and video cameras happens near the beginning of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). Fred and Renee are a married couple who’ve been receiving anonymous surveillance videos of themselves and their home. Memory is what returns flecked with forgetting, falsities, and imagination. To watch the film is to read the textured topology of lost highways and how they move, what moves them: fast asphalt, slow red curtain, deliquescent static, bright blue light, silver gleam of intercom.


YELLOW LINES


In Tales of Love, Julia Kristeva writes, “Like an image simultaneously composed and decomposed on videotape, love is only for the time being and forever.” Lost Highway unfurls in this temporal paradox, desire brushing-up against and becoming a horror never quite resolved. Yellow lines deteriorate as they proliferate.


At the start, someone is filming/watching Fred and Renee. Shots of the outside of their home give way to footage from the inside. Fred and Renee, disturbed, watch themselves sleeping from a bird’s eye view. Finally, the footage further invades, replacing or glitching Fred’s own head.


NOISE, STATIC, TRANSMISSION




Lost Highway is filled with technological mediums, recording devices, and bodies acting on each other. Like Francis Bacon’s paintings, where unseen forces stretch bodily forms to their bizarre limits – deform, dissolve, and spasm – Lost Highway reveals the deranging qualities of the medium we’re watching. As viewers, we’re always already on the lost highway.

Watching the film again, I’m struck by how much I’ve forgotten, by those parts I’ve remembered falsely or not at all, and by those elements which have stuck with me. Speaking about Lost Highway, David Lynch said “this is going to be a strange interview because I can’t remember so many things.”

A message delivered through a medium, disembodied, to layer a scene, not always sensical. At the start of the film, the first words we hear (“Dick Laurent is dead”) arrive through an intercom as Fred holds his finger on the LISTEN button. The film dilates the inter: existing between spasms, between transmission sent and message received, between experience and memory.





WAKING OUT OF THAT FORGETFULNESS


Composed and decomposed on videotape. In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes writes: “What does ‘thinking of you’ mean? It means: forgetting ‘you’ (without forgetting, life itself is not possible) and frequently waking out of that forgetfulness. Many things, by association, bring you back into my discourse. ‘Thinking of you’ means precisely this metonymy.”



If forgetting, as Barthes claims, makes life possible, what happens to life under instant digital recall, a phenomenon which Lost Highway calls toward. “The word digital points to the finger (digitus). Above all, the finger counts. Digital culture is based on the counting finger,” writes Byung-Chul Han in In the Swarm. But (human) memory cannot be counted or quantified. It involves the whole body and like Lynch’s film, it is filled with gaps, silences, and oblique on/off ramps.

Lost Highway gives us long unwieldy stretches of not-knowing. Are the terrifying turns that Fred’s life has taken (he doesn’t seem to remember killing his wife but the act is on videotape, for instance) a result of human or supernatural intervention? Memory, with its glitches and curtains mixes with memory (data storage, videotape) and a chaotic play of contiguous universes ensues.


SHORT LOOPS AND SPASMS


“The movement of translation occurs between two spasms,” wrote Gilles Deleuze in The Logic of Sensation about Francis Bacon’s paintings. Lost highways (surreal, spastic, textured, unruly, static-ridden) get truncated and paved over during times of algorithmic digital recall. In The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia, Grafton Tanner writes about this quickening loop, which works to immediately petrify experience into technological memory: “Frozen into data, posts and content can be called up at whim, instead of merely forgotten. Before the age of Big Tech, nostalgic cycles were wider.”

At the interstice between experience and memory runs a deranged highway along which forms compose and decompose. As Fred stares at his prison cell door on death row, a burning cabin appears, then reconstitutes itself. A dazzling blue light appears, an intensity portalling Fred somewhere else as he rocks back and forth in pain. A stranger stands at the side of the road. The sequence acts like a Francis Bacon painting, a body becoming a series of forces morphing, escaping its edges.

















DIVERGENCE, SPLITS, BOUNDARIES


The film splits. We enter the world of Pete and Alice, doubles of Fred and Renee. Eventually, near the end of a hallucinogenic love scene lit by car headlights, music mutates from angelic to suspenseful and the thin veil between seduction and horror breaks. Again, a switch. A world born from a broken-open instant, a blue light, the same note played on the same instrument in different weather.

We enter a dynamic sublime, blurs of sensation escaping frame and body. Here and elsewhere. Julia Kristeva, in The Powers of Horror: “Not at all short of but always with and through perception and words, the sublime is a something added that expands us, overstrains us, and causes us to be both here, as dejects, and there, as others and sparkling. A divergence, an impossible bounding. Everything missed, joy—fascination.”


BETWEEN


A divergence, an impossible bounding.
Here and there.
Composed and decomposed on videotape.

An uncanny residue, a line lit by a car we cannot see, moves between viewer and screen. In Cinema 2, Gilles Deleuze writes about interstitial moments in cinema – betweens which generate perceptual shifts, changes in how we see film and world: “Between two actions, between two affections, between two perceptions, between two visual images, between two sound images, between the sound and the visual: make the indiscernible, that is the frontier, visible.”

Interpretations of the film often revolve around the split between reality and dream, noting that Fred (Bill Pullman) enters an illusory space after his feelings of inadequacy and suspicion drive him to kill his wife. Zizek claims that the film is about “the enigma of feminine desire.” But there are also tunnels of visible yet indiscernible communications between viewer and film, bound to each other through plays of lost highways, surface tension, curtain, and static.


REVOLT AND STORAGE


In the blue-lit oneiric sequence between Fred’s prison cell and Pete, there’s revolt. A body in revolt: overturning, overthrowing and a body in revolt: turning, rolling back. A turn of the film, video, Mobius strip, road, body. Condensed pain moves across abstract frames. In Revolt, She Said, Julia Kristeva writes:

It is precisely a technocratic ideology that is supposed to abolish anxiety. But what I am saying is the opposite: anxiety, repulsion, nothingness are essential aspects of freedom. That’s what revolt is. When one abolishes revolt that is linked to anxiety and rejection, there is no reason to change. You store things and keep storing. It’s a banker’s idea, not an idea of a rebel, which spreads this technocratic ideology.

The hallucinatory flicker between scenes houses what cannot be stored, pointing us back to our own surroundings in the flat black silence framing an indiscernible blur, a body twisting in the corner of the frame. A form of revolt slips out from storage, interpretation, representation.


AN EXCHANGE


DETECTIVE: Do you own a video camera?
RENEE: No. Fred hates them.
FRED: I like to remember things my own way.
DETECTIVE: What do you mean by that?
FRED: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happen.
Lost Highway (1997)



BETWEEN SPASMS


With its doubles, almosts, déjà vu, repetitions, curtains, holes, and loops, Lost Highway shows the distortive aspects of technological mediums as both destructive and fruitful. New mysteries and mysticisms emerge, more devices through which messages get delivered, distorted, broken open. Bookended by spasms, an ending which touches the beginning as it escapes, we return to the same road changed, deranged.






WORKS CITED

*All screenshots (from Lost Highway, dir. David Lynch, 1997) are by Emmalea Russo.

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, tr. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, p. 157.

Brinkema, Eugenie. The Forms of the Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014, p. 232.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image, tr. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. 180.

Han, Byung-Chul. In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, tr. Erik Butler. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, tr. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolt, She Said, tr. Brian O’Keefe. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2002, pp. 101-2.

Kristeva, Julia. Tales of Love, tr. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, p. 125.

Tanner, Grafton. The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia. New York: Repeater, 2021.



Emmalea Russo is a writer and artist living at the Jersey shore. Her books are G(Futurepoem, 2018) and Wave Archive (Book*hug, 2019). Recent writing has appeared in Artforum, American Chordata, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She's pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and edits Asphalte Magazine.

For more of Emmalea’s work, go to https://emmalearusso.com/ and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo 

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