Reading the Cut in Character in Lost Highway (PCA/ACA, 2005)

Pop Culture Association/ American Culture Association, San Diego, CA – 2005

Film is a medium of montage, of juxtaposition of interconnected or disparate elements. The very basis of film—still frames that follow each other with enough speed that the eye perceives objects within them as moving—is itself a montage, prior to any editorial influence. Further, directors use montage deliberately; David Lynch in his 1997 Lost Highway creates, through the framing of individual shots and the use of filmic cuts, settings and situations that undermine and destabilize the reliability of the visual as representation. To create this destabilizing effect, Lynch works both within and against traditional theories of what makes “good” montage, as articulated by Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock. In addition to the filmic cut, his use of light, especially of the strobe effect, often creates an aesthetic similar to the cut, as the strobe light momentarily darkens the screen below the viewers’ ability to perceive shapes. Lynch’s visual effects even annihilate: at different points in the movie, in a series of cuts, a face is effaced and replaced by another face, a video of a murder becomes an actual murder, one character transforms into another, one character’s head is split in two by a coffee table, and a character disappears from a photograph. Lost Highway works to assure the viewer that what is seen will not make sense in ways that will lead to a comforting, neat, or even comprehensible narrative stream.

By reading the framing of shots, the montage of the shots, and also the cuts themselves this paper demonstrates that, for Lynch, the story and the technique are allied and how he uses technique to strike out his characters in unexpected ways, calling into question the stability, or even the possibility, of character. The experience of guessing at the meanings of our perceptions, which Lynch both represents his characters doing and forces us to do, is the experience of the struggle to understand the self as coherent in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Lynch makes evident both the struggle for a survival which would be predicated on this sense of coherence and the evidence to the contrary. Leading the viewer down a “lost” highway to narrative incoherence, Lynch demonstrates that incoherence inheres in all representation, and only our willingness to ignore incoherence allows narrative to emerge at all.