Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lost in Lynch

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2007)

David Lynch’s Inland Empire opened here, at the College Street Royal, more than four months after it appeared in New York, a very long gap for such an esteemed American auteur. But for once, it’s not clear we can blame the usual odd machinations of studios and distributors, because Lynch is distributing the film himself – according to one article he’s even handpicking the theatres. A while back there were stories about him sitting in an armchair alongside a Los Angeles freeway, to promote the film’s Oscar chances. And he recently published a book on transcendental meditation, which seemed to strike most reviewers as surprisingly airy.


If you go onto, the first thing you see is an ad for David Lynch Signature Cup Gourmet Coffee (it’s 100% organic); the site also has short films, art work, animation, an extensive online store, and a live webcam to a birdfeeder incorporating a “disk of sorrow” designed to keep away marauding squirrels. A caption tells us that this section “is currently under re-development and will return in the fall of 2004” – I guess Lynch hasn’t been keeping on top of that. Sum all of this up, and it’s clear that his preoccupations are pretty widely spread. Which makes it no surprise that it’s been six years since Mulholland Drive. What’s more surprising is how little Inland Empire adds to the achievement of that earlier work.

I liked Mulholland Drive a lot the first time I saw it, then I went back a second time and loved it. In my initial review, I wrote: “the crux of the movie seems to me to be the narcissism and self-absorption at the heart of Hollywood – the image making and self-positioning. If this seems a rather old-fashioned theme, more suited for a Hollywood that’s largely been lost – well, that’s what Lynch gives us here, a faded, seedy milieu where artistry takes second place to staying on the right side of gangsters.” Ultimately, I thought Lynch “captured the complexities of something real and significant while still indulging his considerable idiosyncrasies to the hilt.”

Well, Inland Empire is also about Hollywood, and also centered on an actress, played this time by Laura Dern. This time there’s a greater focus on the filmmaking process itself, with Jeremy Irons playing the director of Dern’s film. For a while, this central plot proceeds in a relatively linear fashion, but then it becomes unclear whether certain sequences belong to the film within a film, or whether they’re dreams, or delusions, or part of an alternative reality. Around the edges there are intrusions of even stranger visions, most notoriously scenes of human-sized rabbits in a dingy room, delivering deadpan lines to the accompaniment of an occasional laugh track.

Codes and Readings

Lynch of course has an unparalleled activity to evoke menace and lurking threats, and to create a sense of some underlying coherence no matter how the films’ raw elements dispute that. Inland Empire, shot on digital video with an often-grainy image quality, is suffused in this tone. The title, although it’s no more capable than anything else in the film of being precisely explained, nevertheless seems perfect, suggesting both claustrophobia and grandeur. The film sustains its project over three hours, suggesting an almost limitless capacity for further revelation, or confusion, the two being much the same in this case.

The rabbits might be the litmus test for categorizing responses to the movie: what the hell is that all about? Eye magazine even highlighted the question on its cover. Lynch himself is about as tough an interview as there is on this kind of thing (the book Lynch on Lynch is almost hilariously unproductive at times). Michael Atkinson in Sight And Sound suggests that the “surest way to find disappointment in Lynch’s Byzantine, exhaustive howl is to hunt for codes and readings, while ignoring the sensual textures of life in the under lit corridors of his imaginary space.” Putting it more bluntly, he adds: “Inland Empire appears to be a film that exists for itself and for its maker, not necessarily for us.”

This may be the inevitable extension of where Lynch has been headed all along (although not necessarily the end point!) But personally I think Mulholland Drive, even if it now seems like more of a transitional work, was more satisfying in its applicability to “us,” although I realize that may seem merely a symptom of unwillingness to accede to the new film’s ethos. Atkinson notes correctly that Inland Empire, even though it seems in some sense to be about a woman’s psyche, shows no signs of traditional psychology: this (and the greater abstraction of its evocation of Hollywood) seems like the key leap from Mulholland Drive. But although this may evidence greater artistic audacity, it also seems almost sadistic at times (I wondered once or twice whether too much of Lynch’s instinct didn’t rest in the basic thrill of taking the initially elegant Dern and converting her into a battered whore).

Nastassia Kinski!

But if you go back to the beginning of this article, it’s plain that Lynch is progressively less a film director, and more – in himself - an evolving work of multimedia performance art, and it’s hard for me to imagine anyone watching Inland Empire in isolation from some sense of the man behind it (his antics seem designed to ensure that no one will). Lynch may be a weirdo, but he’s also plainly in touch with his inner child (even if that inner brat is an uncomfortably close cousin to the mutant offspring in Eraserhead). There’s a wryness about Inland Empire that acts as a hedge against possibly taking it too seriously, and you feel Lynch’s delight in stories, or fragments of stories.

In a scene where Dern appears to be suffering an agonizing death, she crawls to lie among some down and outers in an alley, receiving some token sympathy and acknowledgment before their conversation moves on, largely ignoring the pitiful bleeding woman in their midst, evoking an entirely different movie than the one we’ve been watching. One element of the story we listen to – a pet monkey – turns up in a final scene, along with Nastassia Kinski, sitting on a couch, and a bunch of dancing girls: it seems less like the final scene of the movie than we’ve been watching than, perhaps, the opening of an entirely different one.

And of course, the tantalizing use of Kinski (along with earlier brief cameos by recognizable figures like William H. Macy and Mary Steenburgen) hardly seems like the choice of someone who’s given up on conventional tweaking of the audience. I found this ending remarkably peppy and hopeful, and although Lynch seems to be saying he’s given up on using film (rather than digital video) and on trying to make conventional cinema, I’m not sure what else can possibly lie for him in this direction. I hope to see him back from the inland, perhaps bringing Nastassia Kinski with him, while leaving the monkey (and much else besides) to hang out with the squirrels on the outskirts of the disk of sorrow.

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