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Feeling Lost

Sweet dreams are made of these? Author Naomi Eppell on Lynch's 'Lost Highway'

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he escorts author Naomi Eppell to see David Lynch's unfathomable new creep show, Lost Highway.

Just ahead of us, a young man is chatting with the ticket taker--apparently steeling his courage before heading in to the theater to see Lost Highway--the latest cinematic oddity from director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks).

"So," he asks brightly, "is it really as weird as I've heard?"

The ticket taker shrugs. "Abandon all reason," he ominously suggests. "Try think of it as a dream. It kinda makes sense that way."

Two hours later, as the film concludes, we know exactly what he means, though in the professional opinion of my guest--author and dream expert Naomi Eppell--the word nightmare might be more accurate.

Eppell is the author of the captivating book Writers Dreaming (Random House, 1994), an exploration of the connection between the dreams and the literary work of writers such as William Styron, Anne Rice, Stephen King, and Isabelle Allende.

"OK. You tell me the story of the movie, as if it were a dream you had. First person. Go on," Eppell says as she and I are seated at a small outdoor cafe. After 30 minutes of intense discussion over coffee and biscotti, we have yet to make any logical sense out of the adulterous mayhem of Lost Highway. Now--having exhausted all traditional means of conversational exploration--we will attempt to interpret the film as if it were a dream. I take a deep breath.

"I dreamed I was a saxophone player," I say slowly. "I was played by Bill Pullman. Everything was wrong and off kilter. My wife was Patricia Arquette, and her lipstick was always smeared."

"Tell it in the present tense," Eppell suggests. "That's the best way to remember a dream."

"I am now talking with the Devil at a party," I continue. "He has no eyebrows. I go home and find another video. This one has me covered in my wife's blood. She's lying in pieces beside me. Suddenly I'm in prison with a terrible headache. I wake up, and I've turned into Balthazar Getty." The details of the movie are beginning to grow fuzzy in my mind. I remember something about a pornography ring and a cabin burning in reverse.

"We're both already forgetting it," Eppell laughs. "It is like a dream. A very paranoid dream, probably about suspicion and not trusting your own instincts."

She nibbles her biscotto, then says, "I think the reason that it works as a dream but not as a movie is that those symbols are personal to David Lynch and [screenwriter] Barry Gifford. They haven't taken the step of translating it into something that we, as viewers, really care about. Its got a lot of provocative imagery, but those symbols are their symbols. They don't add any coherence--which is what art is supposed to do.

"So, as a dream," I ask, stirring my coffee, "would you think the dreamer was working through normal anxieties or is he a dangerous psychotic?"

"Well, we're all psychotic," she laughs, "when we dream, anyway."

"Pardon me? We're all psychotic in our dreams?"

"Sure. What makes someone psychotic is that their filters are off, right? They are not able to filter information, to make sense of it, to sort it out. I think that that's true in dreams, where information and images are coming in raw. You're not filtering things with logic. You're just throwing things out in symbolic form, without the filters. That's how the unconscious works, and I think that's how this movie is structured.

"For example," Eppell continues, "I had a dream the other night that had something to do with fruit. Preserved fruits and ripened fruits. And then I was at a party looking for a dentist to check my teeth. I think it all had to do with transition out of the marriageable stage as a woman. It was an exploration of that theme. I mean--there were cherries and tomatoes, and bananas, right? And it made no logical sense. But it was a useful dream. An interesting dream. As a movie, it would be awful."

"Imagine what Lynch might do with those symbols," I tease.

"But he wouldn't," she counters. "Cherries and bananas and dentists are my symbols. Burning cabins and dismembered women and the Devil with a camcorder--those are his symbols. As far as the dream-movie he's made, I can't guess if it was cathartic for him or not. But it does explore ideas in a very filters-off way, which is interesting, if not very enjoyable."

We've now spent the better part of 90 minutes on Lost Highway. I personally am exhausted and can't help but wonder if conversations like this weren't precisely what Lynch and Gifford hoped to inspire.

"I'm sure that David Lynch finds a lot of beauty in the movie," Eppell adds. "Then again, I think Lynch's idea of beauty is probably different from that of the rest of us, don't you think?"

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