Last Friday, I joined my good friends and bloggers at one of the best-attended press screenings of the 2006 New York Film Festival, David Lynch’s hotly anticipated Inland Empire. I had read a little bit about the project and its reception at Venice, but it was last Sunday’s press screening which set the tone; To quote the ol’ Hüsker Dü song, “Love and hate were in the air/ like pollen from a flower,” and most interestingly, both reactions were usually harbored in a single person. This was a film that was not only dividing audiences, it was fostering schizophrenic reactions from individuals. Finally having seen the film myself, it’s not hard to understand why; One of the most challenging films of this or any year, Inland Empire somehow strikes a deep and logical chord while simultaneously disorienting its characters and audience within its swirling narrative.
Before going too far into the film itself, a little bit of recent analysis might come in handy. In three of his four most recent films (the exception being the lyrical and antithetical The Straight Story), Lynch seems to be dealing with the idea of Hollywood and the process of making films by making films about the process (particularly the interior process) of making films; Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and now Inland Empire all seem to me to be extensions of Lynch’s own interior universe, where ideas, consciousness (both self and global) and narrative impulses combine in exploration of the complicated creative relationships that abound when bringing a film to life. Lynch describes it as a 'magical' process, and his films reflect that philosophy by utilizing narrative tricks, misdirection, sleight of hand and visual magic to tell already complicated and unconventional stories. Whereas I think Slavoj Zizek had it right in The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema when discussing the role of The Mystery Man (played by Robert Blake) in Lost Highway as being an extension of the Director’s role in creating, manipulating and capturing a filmed story, and while Mulholland Drive is clearly about the death of the dream of old Hollywood glamour, Inland Empire seems precisely focused on the relationship between the anxiety of inner life and the burden of film history. Together, all three films utilize similar tactics to achieve a very real and very personal idea about creation; ‘Real’ characters are doubled with their ‘ideal’ or ‘fantasy’ doppelgangers, stories live in the space between the character's fantasy or imagined life, the filmic unreality of those stories are folded within the movie itself, and the top-level filmic reality (or the movie, on all of its levels, that we as the audience experience as whole, that is, Inland Empire itself) is a vessel for conveying the relationships between the layers of story beneath.
In this sense, it is interesting to note that all three films came about after the end of Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me, which seem to be both the birthplace of these almost novelistic complexities but also a transformation in Lynch’s own professional career; The Hollywood studios and companies who had backed films like The Elephant Man (Paramount) and Dune (Universal) and a series like Twin Peaks (ABC) were suddenly gone from his life. This is pure speculation, but I think the experience of making the 'classic' films in particular mark a transition for Lynch; With Blue Velvet (with DeLaurentis), Wild at Heart (Samuel Goldwyn Company) and Fire Walk With Me (New Line), each an excoriation of Hollywood genres and classic cinematic ideals, and with the cancellation of Twin Peaks (which seemingly provided Lynch the proper length and format to explore his ideas about storytelling), I really think that Lynch was freed up to tackle Hollywood as both an ideal and a dark, horrifying reality. This being Lynch, a film about corporate suits imposing their will on creative people is far too banal a topic, but the inner life is far more rich and sublime; The deep anxiety of creative people, their innate understanding of and adherence to the unsustainable fantasy of Hollywood, and the ways in which terror about the validity of the dream in a world that is predicated on maintaining shiny surfaces (and spilling blood beneath them) suddenly becomes the central concern of Lynch’s films.
Director David Lynch
Which leads us to Inland Empire, perhaps the most playful and unified ‘dark Hollywood’ film of Lynch’s career. Starting at the top, Inland Empire as a title is a clear reference to that interior fantasy life we’ve already discussed; A vast landscape of anxiety, history, narrative and the dream. As such, watching the film becomes such a dissociative experience that I think most people, even fans of Lynch’s previous films, will be deeply challenged in trying to assemble a single, master narrative from the onslaught of ideas and stories that fold up and blossom inside of one another within the movie. That said, and with a caveat emptor of having only seen the film once (I need to see it again, certainly, to validate my first understanding of the film), I think that a clear story emerges, one that is structured not unlike Mulholland Drive’s dream world. Nikki (Laura Dern) is a wealthy actress and wife of a very jealous Polish tycoon living in Los Angeles. After a new neighbor comes over for tea and warns Nikki about the dangerous relationship between the past, present and future (in a scene that reads like a high-camp take on the tarot card opening of Cleo from 5 to 7). Nikki wins the starring role of Sue in a film called On High In Blue Tommorrow (my memory fails me, but I think that is correct) and will star in the film with Devon (Justin Theroux), a lothario who is quickly warned against flirting with Nikki by his own friends and Nikki’s jealous husband (reminding me of the Robert Loggia/ Balthazar Getty relationship in Lost Highway). Devon plays the role of Billy in Blue Tomorrow, which is being directed by Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) who, at the first cast reading of the film, tells Nikki and Devon a secret about the film’s development; Ostensibly the story of an affair between two married people, Blue Tomorrow is based on a cursed ‘gypsy’ folk tale called 4/7 which was previously adapted for the screen but never made because its lead actors were murdered. Soon, Nikki and Devon fall into bed with one another, calling one another Sue and Billy and much like the transformative sex scene in Mulholland Drive, Nikki’s anxiety is released as if from Pandora’s Box and all hell breaks loose.
Bad Girls: Laura Dern as Nikki as Sue in David Lynch's Inland Empire
Soon, Nikki’s story begins to overlap with that of Sue, whose own story is an extension of the ‘gypsy’ (here, Polish) tale and the unfilmed adaptation of it, which Lynch imagines as a mid-20th Century period piece (and starring a different actress in the Nikki/Sue role). This being a David Lynch movie, we’re never sure if Nikki is Sue, if Sue is Nikki, if the girl in the unfilmed Polish adaptation/story is making the whole story up in a present-day hotel room, or if she herself is merely an extension of something inside Nikki. That said, if we imagine each layer of Lynch’s cinematic onion as simultaneously distinct and part of the whole, being peeled back and reassembled, it is always relatively clear where we are in the movie because, as with Lost Highway and Mulholland, the only level that really counts is the unified level, Inland Empire itself, on which we, as an audience, are experiencing the movie. As a single, unified story, Inland Empire is difficult (yes) and without paying deep attention to the structural relationship between the scenes and characters, it can quickly grow extremely confusing (yes), but a close reading of the film pays countless dividends and makes a great deal of sense while housing elements about which I should probably re-visit before commenting (the Rabbits, the definitive relationship between Kingsley’s film and Nikki’s life). That said, in the film’s final hour, much like in Mulholland, Lynch pulls back the curtain and opens the boxes within boxes, showing us where we have been all along and patient viewers are rewarded with a finale sure to put a smile on every face; a musical a tour de force through the Lynchian universe.
I noticed on IMDB that the film has perhaps found an American distributor in Magnolia Pictures*, and I really can’t imagine how interesting the film’s life as a theatrical release will be; Be warned, Inland Empire is a step or two removed from the relative comforts of even a difficult film like Lost Highway. In addition to its complex story, the film was shot on MiniDV and looks it**; the sumptuous color and visual depth of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive are gone in favor of the grainy immediacy of Dogme-quality video. Of course, through the magic of the post-production process, there are plenty of haunting, Lynchian visuals at play on the screen but, as Lynch has sworn off film “forever” in favor of the flexible video production process, I really did miss the richness of the color palate of film. I am nervous writing about this film at all after a single viewing, but one of the most engaging aspects of the experience is how the recent films all work together, overlap, and talk amongst one another and, as such, Inland Empire seems almost a master narrative for Lynch’s filmmaking career, bringing together all of his concerns as a filmmaker and blowing them apart before reassembling them again, magically, right before our eyes.
*UPDATE 10/11/06: It appears Magnolia is not releasing the film and Lynch will be doing so himself. Kudos for having the economic courage to back up his aesthetic convictions.
**Of course, in the press conference after the film, questions focused almost exclusively on Lynch’s migration to DV as a filmmaking format, and Lynch and Dern were unanimous in their praise of the light, nimble cameras and the flexibility that they provided. This industry fixation on tools and production process was a real shame because the film itself opened so many channels of exploration that, by the time Lynch’s time on the podium was over, the press conference seemed like a huge waste of an opportunity. Despite some very minor questions about content, the fascination with the DV camera (Inland was shot on a PD-150) took us all out of what Lynch himself recognized as the ‘magic’ of watching the film and into the mundane world of camera equipment. This is almost endemic of the press conference format at the NYFF, where people seem to be asking questions not out of a general curiosity about the film, but for the sake of winking at their neighbor and winning approval from their peers. Not to be too salty, but if this is the state of the film press, well, no wonder we’re in the mess we’re in.