Victoria Lu

“I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened.” Spoken from a typical Lynchian smoke, red curtains, femme fatale doppelganger main character, and a strong disturbing soundtrack, these words of Fred from David Lynch’s “Lost Highway (1997), seemed to be Lynch himself narrating his fascination with revealing our secrets and desires through classic cinematic tropes and abstract imagery. Lynch is best known for directing films like Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), and Mulholland Drive (2001). Film critic Pauline Kael celebrates lynch as “the first popular Surrealist” with his unique cinematic style, dream-like film state, and finicky soundtracks. 

A neo-noir film, Lost Highway is very broadly about a musician, Fred Madison, (Bill Pullman) beginning to receive tapes of him and his wife Rene (Patricia Arquette) in their home. The fact that this tape-receiving happening to Fred is particularly striking, given he hates to be recorded and tells the police they consulted for the mystery to be resolved that he likes to remember things in his own way. Yet, another videotape suddenly makes Fred convicted of murdering his wife. Given their problematic marriage, whether or not he did is left to the audience’s interpretation. At the middle, the protagonist suddenly shifts: staying in his prison cell with no contact from the outside world at all, Fred abruptly disappears and is replaced by a young mechanic Pete (Balthazar Getty). No explanation is provided. Innocent of murder, Pete is released and leads a different life though eventually with the same woman carrying a different name: Alice Wakefield (Arquette again).

What touched me in Fred’s words was their pure honesty. Paradoxically opposing the idea of the film itself in a film, Fred refuses to be videotaped because the memory is his ultimate escape from reality. An imaginary character, Fred is perfectly aware of the imaginary world he creates. He doesn’t lie to himself unlike real characters who mostly tend to do. He deliberately makes his reality in his own way. Thankfully, the fascinating cinematic world tears us apart from the neat and tidy truths of our lives — the clothes we wear, the habitual way we talk. An integral part of society, most films are nonetheless frustrating with their perfectly-organized structures, nonexistent awkward pauses, carefully-crafted jokes and arguments, and satisfyingly finite conclusions. Fantasy worlds of fantasy people are quite complicated to enter, given they require escaping and living less realistically. Films are powerful enough to create their own language of signals: we know what to expect when a little child is walking alone in a forest at night. We understand how prosperous a family is if they have two children, a dog, and a two-story house. Maybe, everything shouldn’t be this crystal clear. Nowadays, we are still uncertain about the relationship between words and their meanings since Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, semiotician and philosopher, thought of their arbitrary relationship- the signifier (words) and the signified (meaning)- for the first time in the late 19th century. Any given text still contains irreconcilably contradictory meanings rather than being a unified, logical whole for all of useven though Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher, proposed the idea years ago. How come are we so certain of the cinematic language? It seems either the self-assurance of the relationship between films and their signals is excessive, or our mindsets, shaped by western intellectual traditions, failed us all once again. Are we surprised? Not really. Are we frustrated? Pretty much. Maybe it’s the same frustration that makes people like David Lynch to deconstruct all of that and explore why we feel these things. Examining Freudian themes and sexual desires, Jungian archetypes that are embodied in our minds so deeply, Lynch fearlessly dives into all of these themes, which sets him apart from all Hollywood directors. Manipulating the classical elements of a film to explore how films manipulate us, Lynch deconstructed the cinema in this masterpiece —  though his magnum opus, “Mulholland Drive” (2001), came four years later.

I was inspired by Fred’s handsome words especially after having lost the opportunity to do many things thanks to the outbreak of COVID-19. Sometime during April or May (or was it still March?), I was burrito-wrapped in a blanket in my dark bedroom, a screen constantly displaying a film to entertain me, or merely just to pass the time. Ironically, Fred gave me a new sense of reality —  “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” as Oscar Wilde once said. I confronted the harsh truth of the way I’ll remember my Senior Day: leaving my high school quietly someday in March, never to come back again. At least, not as a high schooler. Thinking back, I slowly registered the things I’ve missed. No traditional Senior Day: coming to school in a wedding-like grandiose car convoy, boasting a parade of rainbow colors, appalling onlookers amusingly with water guns in front of inside-joke posters hung all around, displaying a film shot by our class, listening to poignant speeches full of memories by our peers and teachers… No prom and no ball, which both used to be held in the most splendid places in our school and a hotel by the Bosphorus. Naturally, no after-party only among us students. No class of 2020 holiday. No interrail with my close friendship squad we’ve been planning for years. No…

Even though I was immensely grateful that I and my loved ones were healthy,  these lost opportunities didn’t cease to torment me. Pouring myself into one book after a film, an edX course after a Coursera, visiting online museums, minimizing human contact, I recognized I was numbing myself in order not to face the anxiety of a fatal virus and the things it cost me. Blocking my sorrow deep deep down, I knew but wasn’t conscious of how afflicted I would be if I heard even the slightest mention of any of these. I was tendentiously choosing to perceive and remember things my own way, so when I looked back, all I was going to see was a charade of book and film characters in the settings of magnificent art pieces throughout history. Honestly, it was much more pleasant than the dark shadow of COVID-19 and constantly feeling its dreadful cold breath on my neck. Yet, this didn’t change the fact that Fred — a shifted, runaway personality deliberately trying to escape reality due to feelings of inadequacy in his love life —  mirrored me terrifically. Dropping laggardly back to my emotions, I, for the sake of my life-long pursuit of balance, decided maybe it was better to go with: “I like to remember things my own way. How I self-consciously choose to remember them, not necessarily the way they happened.”

Gamze Kazakoglu | gamze.kazakoglu@yale.edu