Matthew Reynolds

Rolling Down the Lost Highway: Los Angeles and the Arrival of Identity

In his book The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, Norman Klein characterizes the Los Angeles cityscape as a "topology of forgetfulness."[1] Klein uses the term "erasure" to denote the city's tendency to displace, deny, or unrecognizably alter its past. His argument attempts to illustrate the manner in which social as well as natural forces promote a disappearance of history. The transformation of farmland to housing, natural disasters which constantly redefine the landscape, and individual efforts to re-shape one's self are several examples Klein uses to illustrate the city's status as a space without a past. His concept of erasure stems from the conscious political and economic stratification of Los Angeles in which certain segments of the population strengthen their hold on existing structures of power at the expense of marginalized communities. But erasure as a defining term cannot adequately address the traces of the past which remain even after buildings, neighborhoods, or landscapes have been demolished. In this paper I will argue that what occurs in Los Angeles is a burial, not a disappearance of past and place. This burial is itself a transformation. Whereas Klein's erasure is a conscious re-definition of the city, in this paper I will assert that the ways in which L.A. is transformed can also be produced by unconscious drives.

To do this, I will use David Lynch's 1996 film Lost Highway as a catalyst for interpreting a much larger canvas; the city of Los Angeles. Through a psychoanalytic reading, I will attempt to show how Lynch's film is a tool for understanding the way in which the city and subjectivity are constantly engaged in a dialogue which always determines but never settles identity. But I will attempt to go beyond a formal analysis of the film by juxtaposing Lost Highway with a number of L.A. cultural markers. In so doing, I will attempt to explore the way other site-specific works serve as texts that both define and are defined by their context. I will argue in this paper that identity is a result of its place of production. Identity serves to define that place in both a metaphorical and metonymical relationship. Using recent cultural and urban theory, I will illustrate the manner in which the notion of a constant, radical shifting of subjectivity asserts itself through all levels of existence in Los Angeles. Change and transformation, here more than anywhere else, are the raison d'être of life. And this uneasy sense of both place and subjectivity asserts itself in the city's history, geography, industry, architecture, art, and film.

Lost Highway tells the story of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a musician living with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette) in the Hollywood Hills. When Fred hears a mysterious message over the intercom at his house informing him that "Dick Laurent is dead," a chain of destructive, life-altering events is set in motion. After his wife is found brutally murdered, Fred is accused of the crime and sentenced to death despite retaining no memory of her killing and proclaiming his innocence. While in jail, Fred is transformed into an entirely different person, a young auto-mechanic named Pete Dayton. Pete, not being Fred, is of course released from jail and returns to his home and work. Once back, he promptly begins a torrid affair with a woman named Alice (also played by Patricia Arquette), who is not only an exact double of Fred's murdered wife but also the girlfriend of an underworld kingpin named Mr. Eddy. After a series of events further links the lives of Pete and Fred, Pete is driven to kill Mr. Eddy in the desert. During the course of Pete's segment, the viewer comes to learn that Mr. Eddy's real name is Dick Laurent. After this second murder Pete is transformed back into Fred who then proceeds to drive to his home, leave the message for himself that "Dick Laurent is Dead" and drive off into the desert with police cars in pursuit.

Lost Highway, with its protagonists melding into and out of each other, is about the arrival of identity. The doubling of its two main characters (who may or may not be the same person) and the alternating structure and style of the film in which people and places take on an eerie, otherworldly aura can be approached through Freud's work on the Uncanny. The English term uncanny comes from the German word "unheimlich", or literally translated, "unhomely." Freud was referring to the perpetual sense of unease, anxiety, or even horror an individual feels when confronted by his or her own sense of unfamiliarity amidst what is normally familiar. For Freud, the familiar becomes unfamiliar through a process of repression in which the consciousness buries a past event or trauma. He writes: "The essence of repression lies in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the [surface]."[2] But the repressed element never remains fully interred. It always stays close to the surface of consciousness, appearing in dreams, or producing a sense of almost supernatural dread. As Freud notes, the uncanny "is nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old; established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression."[3]

The figure of the double is the key incarnation of the uncanny in literature and film. The uncanny is "marked by the fact that the subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which his self is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own. In other words, there is a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self."[4] In Lost Highway, the theme of doubling is made manifest through the characters of Fred/Pete and Renee/Alice. Renee's murder remains an unknowable event within the text of the film. It is an act which is repressed by Fred and for the viewer. It is this repression which triggers the transformation, doubling, and repetition within the plot. The film alters in style and tone depending on which character occupies the screen. In this way the film itself confronts the viewer with a disunity of style that mirrors uncanniness. The long takes, muted colors, and unnerving sound effects of Fred's sequences seems unfamiliar with the quick cuts, bright imagery, and loud soundtrack which characterizes Pete's world. It is as if Pete and Fred embody separate movies within the same film. But despite the film's uncanny qualities, there remains something unidentifiably ambiguous about the text, as if the circular pattern Lynch tries to connect cannot quite be stitched together. After all, Pete and Fred are played by different actors whereas Alice and Renee are not. And even though Fred and Pete may be doubles they never actually recognize or resolve the alienation they seem to feel within their own lives. As critics of the film noted, Lost Highway never finds a cohesive unity. But I would suggest this is the film's intent. It remains an unsettling work formed of disparate elements which may say as much about difference within the urban space as it does about the uncanny.

Fred and Pete's transformation is the central event of the film. But this transformation is conditioned by and mirrored in the sudden changes of Los Angeles itself. Numerous cultural and urban theorists have noted that, as a rule, every city is always subject to radical alterations. Paraphrasing Walter Benjamin, James Hay writes: "Modern cities are palimpsests, comprised of remnants from earlier landscapes, always susceptible to erasure or brought into different relations with emerging structures."[5] But the emergences and new formations Hay refers to as conditions of all urban life are more immediate in Los Angeles. L.A. is witness to radical and constant reconfigurations at the levels of geography, community, and the built environment. In 1913 the California Aqueduct system was completed allowing water from the Sierra Nevada's to be diverted to the Los Angeles basin which produced an explosion of housing and industry. (The issue of water and the production of political and social power structures was explored and mythologized in the 1974 film Chinatown.) The engineering feats which transformed the landscape also allowed for a change in the communal make-up of the city. Los Angeles has been the repository of numerous, on-going waves of immigration. Massive influxes of peoples constantly mould and reshape the city in profound and very visible ways, transforming communities and neighborhoods, along with business and social relations. Like immigration, the automobile has exerted profound force on the physical and psychical make-up of the city. The construction of L.A.'s notorious and ever-expanding freeway system since the 1950s has positioned the car as a powerful symbol of an urban imaginary aligned with speed and travel. It was Reyner Banham who granted the freeway its own ecology in his landmark 1972 study of the city and he who noted that Los Angeles "spoke the language of movement, not monument."[6]

The images of water, immigrants, and cars give Banham's observation an added connotation. In his scenario, movement refers to the automobile. But movement can also imply the continuous development of the city at a number of different levels. Contained within his quote is an acknowledgment of a repressive force; one which moves over and alters landscapes whether in the form of suburban housing developments, the arrival and/or displacement of ethnic groups to certain spaces, or endless eight-lane highways built up, over, or even through city spaces.

While environmental tinkering, a creation of infrastructure, and immigration are all characteristic of urban growth, in LA these elements are accelerated to the region's own individual and highly visible pace. But LA has other traits which mark it as a place of radical metamorphosis. Its landscape and geography continually confront its residents with a sense of uneasiness and disruption. Mike Davis' new book Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster is devoted to the apocalyptic qualities of life in L.A. He chronicles the prolific occurrences of major calamities to strike the city since the late 19th century and positions disasters as a defining characteristic of life in Los Angeles. From earthquakes to fires, mud slides to floods, the landscape of the city can and does change with an often terrifying suddenness. He labels the region a "geo-morphic geography"[7] and notes that "Violent instability in the local landscape and culture is taken to be constitutive of Southern California's peculiar social ontology."[8]

L.A.'s art and industry are also indicators of a culture of transformation. Architecture and film are modes of production which have become synonymous with the city. The history of architecture in L.A. has helped to define and shape both modernism and post-modernism. In the first half of the century, architects such as Irving Gill and Frank Lloyd Wright were both groundbreaking designers who used Los Angeles to experiment with new forms of building and construction. Later, European émigrés such as R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra, as well as such figures as Charles Eames and John Lautner, left their mark on the built city. But it is the architects of today who most embrace this notion of the region's morphological character. Frank Israel, Eric Moss, and Frank Gehry have produced a body of work that might be seen as indicative of an "L.A. style." Eric Moss, whom architectural historian Chris Jencks calls the "ultimate L.A. designer" is noted for the manner in which he "excavates pre-existing structures to cut out and accentuate their qualities."[9] In addition, one of L.A.'s most visible architectural firms playfully acknowledges the city's penchant for change and transformation in its own name, "Morphosis."

But it is, of course, Frank Gehry who has a unique association with the city. He used Los Angeles as a testing ground for the development of his own uncompromising design style. Gehry had struggled for years in the architectural world of Los Angeles. But in 1979 he completed work on a radical re-design of his own 1930s-era bungalow home in Santa Monica, a coastal suburb of L.A. Gehry began his work by incorporating a number of unconventional building materials into, on top of, and around the pre-existing home. What emerged was a bizarre spectacle amongst the conventional homes that lined this quiet street. Corrugated steel, chain-link fences, exposed studs, beams, and rafters all merged with the older house at strange angles, creating something unique that seemed to form a shell around the existing bungalow. Architectural critic Thomas Hines noted that "the old interior, as well as the new exterior, was made to look raw and unfinished and in the process of being built."[10] Hines goes on to label Gehry's overall aesthetic as one invested in the notion of "buildings under construction," and that his work suggests "'unfinished business' or the poignant incompleteness of all human existence."[11]

In many ways the Gehry home has come to be regarded as representative both of the architect and his style, as well as the city in which it stands. The hodge-podge of materials jutting out in seemingly random directions became the hallmark of Gehry's aesthetic and a metaphor for the city itself. Los Angeles is frequently described as a city without a center, an amalgamation of communities and ethnicities that orbit and expand indefinitely around the general region known as L.A. All of this housed amidst the ever-expanding metropolis gives L.A. a quality of impermanence, constant metamorphosis, and transformation.

Along with its architecture the film industry, embodied by Hollywood, serves as a defining cultural marker; one which situates change and transformation as a consistent common denominator of life in Los Angeles. As David James notes, "the city's unique appropriation of an entire medium is reciprocated by that medium's similarly unique influence on the city, on its industrial base, its architecture and its overall cultural tenor."[12] The mythology of Hollywood is itself imbued with the concepts of the creation and construction of images. The city of Los Angeles is continually represented (and mis-represented) in film and television. The region became home to the movies because of its climate which was conducive to year-round shooting and its ability to stand in for other locales. In the movies, Los Angeles is easily transformed. A map of the region produced by Paramount studios in the twenties suggests Malibu as a convincing double for the coast of Spain, Long Beach can become Long Island, or Palos Verdes can stand in for Wales.[13] Additionally, the notion of stardom is dependent on the pliability of personality. The machinery of Hollywood creates new personas from so-called ordinary people who then ideally appeal to mass audiences and draw large numbers of viewers to movie theaters or TV screens. L.A. as space of transformation is also a transformative space.

In contemporary urban theory The City is often characterized as a context through which subjectivity is defined. Elisabeth Mahoney notes that individual subjectivity is "'a product of the urban experience'; it is performative, de-centered, and fluid, the result of a rupture of the [borders] between identity and the urban."[14] Individual subjectivity is determined in part by the character of the space in which one inhabits. The space and the individual each have their own subjectivities which co-exist in a perpetual interaction.

In Rob Lapsley's essay "Mainly in Cities and at Night: Some Notes on Cities and Film" the author uses the Lacanian notion of the mirror stage to discuss the construction of identity. For Lacan, the mirror stage is an analysis of the development of the self through linguistic or semiotic principles. In the early stages of development the child views its image in the mirror. The image, in Lacan's scenario, is likened to an identifiable signifier. In a moment of revelation, the child's psyche undergoes a chain of recognitions. It recognizes that it is a separate being from the mother, thus establishing the mother as an other. In the process its own ego is formulated through the image it sees in the mirror. It recognizes itself as a whole being, an idealized ego. But the subject seen in the mirror becomes a specular image, an unattainable other.[15] Thus this self-recognition is, in fact, a mis-recognition which, in addition to establishing the mother as other, creates an other of oneself. As a result there is a kind of double alienation at work in the formation of the self. The child becomes alienated from its mother, as well as from itself. As Lapsley notes, this alienation is produced as much by the child's own interior development as by the exterior conditions of existence into which the child is born. Thus, while the self can become other there is another Other.

For both Lacan and Lapsley, this second Other is "anterior to the subject"[16] providing the conditions for which the subject is produced. Implicit in the Lacanian concept of the formation of the self is the space through which the subject sees itself. In other words, the subject is also formed by its context. For the urban subject, the city molds and shapes his or her subjectivity. The city can be an Other. As Lapsley writes: "The Other is a set of signifiers, [a representation of] a place not a person. . . The subject, as much as the author of the representation, changes...as the process of representation unfolds."[17] This doubling of the concept of the Other--an other that is both interior and exterior--can also be an uncanny instance within Lacan's own theory. If we are formed by a recognition that is also a mis-recognition, a self that is also Other, a defining space that is both familiar and foreign, then Uncanniness might be a function of the formation of subjectivity.

David Lynch's film does not establish the context of L.A. through traditional means. There are no establishing shots, no sweeping city-scapes that reveal the identifiable cluster of downtown buildings or coastal scenes of lifeguard towers and breaking waves. There are only a few recognizable signs which place the film in Los Angeles. Instead, Lost Highway's Los Angeles is ultimately rooted in the psyches of its characters. The fundamental marker which situates the film is the literal transformation of the main character--an uncanny transformation or metamorphosis fundamental to subjectivity in this city. Lynch does not establish setting and context through a mise-en-scene. Instead, he imagines L.A. via a mise-en-abyme, in this case a smaller cultural text which mirrors and represents the metamorphological character of the region as a whole.

L.A. is the Other through which Fred/Pete exists in a perpetual state of becoming. The circular journey he takes and will continue to take mirrors the becoming-process the city itself will take. Fred/Pete, like the city he/they inhabit is perpetually en route, always already arriving. Fred/Pete's identity, as a result of the conditions of existence in L.A., is perpetually repressing itself. His past is always attempting to hide out in the recesses of his mind yet also always lying underneath the surface, ready to break through again, asserting its own presence, yet, in the process, creating something altogether new out of its own remnants. What is repressed always returns, whether it bubbles up from the individual psyche or from the physical and emotional landscape of regions such as Los Angeles. And this return is an uncanny event.

In the Introduction of his book, Klein uses an anecdote at one point to explain what he means by erasure. He writes about giving "anti-tours" to students in parts of L.A. which had changed over the course of the city's development. "I would stop at locations where no buildings existed any longer, tell them what had been there once: a movie studio, a whorehouse, whatever. We would get out, look around, and agree that it was gone all right."[18] But Klein's Los Angeles is mis-recognized. His "gone" is still there. It exists, as he admits, in the memories of older residents and now in his very own anti-tours. Klein's tours serve to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Buried within his concept of erasure is an uncanniness which transforms his own terms of debate.

For residents in this city, erasure, repression, transformation, and instant change are forced into a co-existence which is never harmonious or cohesive. And yet, these amalgamations somehow form an urban identity. But it is always an identity which mis-recognizes itself, which appears estranged from itself. Like Lost Highway, the journey of Los Angeles is on-going. The city, like the film, can never be stitched together into a single characterization or entity and yet, paradoxically, it does also exist as a whole. Lost Highway's uncanniness, its difference, and its mis-recognitions double a subjectivity constantly ascribed to the city. This subjectivity is itself a disharmonious collection of spaces and identities, alwyas becoming, always mis-recognizing itself, yet also always uncanny. What L.A. and the film may be trying to say is that those who occupy the city are always at home in a place which is rapidly, perpetually unhomely, strange, alien, and uncanny. But perhaps what the uncanny has to say about L.A. is that the city's becoming is also, ultimately, its own mis-recognized arrival.


to the editor