Friday, January 18, 2019

Weird on Top: A Discussion of David Lynch

by Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob DiCristino
Week Nine: Inland Empire

Rob: Welcome to Weird on Top, the story of a woman in trouble. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Alejandra: And I’m Alejandra Gonzalez.

Rob: Week nine in our David Lynch series brings us to his latest theatrical effort, 2006’s Inland Empire. Shot on consumer-grade digital video and completed in fits and starts over the course of two years, Inland Empire is the longest, most abstract, and most inscrutable entry in Lynch’s long, abstract, and inscrutable filmography. I’ve tried and failed several times to summarize it, so I’m going to throw things over to The Guardian’s Danny Leigh: Inland Empire begins when “a vanilla-wholesome actress (played by Laura Dern) is cast in and then begins shooting a remake of an unfinished Polish melodrama, one apparently stricken by some kind of curse. What follows (to reduce a three-hour slab of experimenta to a sentence) is a dizzying welter of rabbit sitcoms, addled hookers, Polish killers, ominous spaces, unseen observers, and dual, triple and finally ever-more-multiple identities, a miasma of scenes and motifs that on paper sound self-parodic, but which prove hypnotic and almost physically overwhelming.”

This was my first viewing of Inland Empire, so I’ve had only hours to chew over its labyrinthine construction and startling imagery. Unlike Eraserhead or Mulholland Dr. (films I’ve loved and loved analyzing for more than a decade), I know very little about the circumstances of Inland Empire’s conception or the various theories and speculations about its “true” meaning. In some ways, though, that almost feels like an asset for our discussion. The film is a hallucination, an ugly and invasive stream of unconsciousness that I’ll need to feel for a while before I dissect. This is my typical response to Lynch — his work invites interpretation and tends to come together logically once you give yourself over to the language of surrealism — but something about this one feels different. It feels less like a narrative and more like a pastiche of themes and ideas from previous films. Maybe it’s about filmmaking itself? When asked to explain Inland Empire, Lynch offered only this ancient hymn: “We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.”
It’s the second part that I latched onto when trying to suss out my thoughts on Inland Empire. More than anything, it stood out to me as a story about roles, about players and plays, watchers and watching. The line between Laura Dern’s actress Nikki Grace and Susan Blue (the role she’s playing in On High in Blue Tomorrows, itself a remake of another film) blurs as the nonlinear narrative progresses. Though they’re distinguishable by their accents, we can’t ever be sure where one ends and the other begins — what’s a scene and what’s real life. Hell, they might both be figments of the Lost Girl’s (Karolina Gruszka) imagination. Like in Mulholland Dr., Lynch is constantly making us aware of the fourth wall: The Lost Girl watching television. The turntable playing “Axxon-N.” The rabbit sitcom with canned laughter. The Neighbor’s (Grace Zabriskie) questions about Nikki’s script. The director (Jeremy Irons). The co-star (Justin Theroux). The sets. The dance numbers. It goes on and on.

And then there are the formal choices, namely the decision to shoot the film on low-resolution digital camcorders. Lore suggests that Inland Empire’s haphazard creative process — Lynch’s desire to write scenes at random and shoot them as they coalesced — necessitated a handheld, low-fi approach. That tracks, but did Lynch know that this choice would also result in some of the most frightening images of his career? I think he did. I think he knew that the grainy, washed-out footage would evoke an alternate reality, that the camcorder’s limitations in focal length and depth of field would distort the frame in terrifying ways. The result is, well, one of the ugliest major motion pictures I’ve ever seen. But it works! I’m into it! So what does that say about the way form meets content, the way Lynch’s particular brand of surrealism interacts with the medium of film? The answers seem to be in understanding how Inland Empire’s sour, jagged look communicates its soul. I’m still working on that.

Anyway. I’ve blathered on enough. Ale, what are your thoughts on Inland Empire?
Alejandra: For a very long time, I understood Inland Empire to be Lynch’s most notoriously difficult movie to watch. I had seen most of it only once before, but I was only just being introduced to Lynch at the time and wasn’t able to get through the whole thing. I thought that now, having a pretty solid understanding of Lynch and the themes he typically explores, I would not only comprehend but really like Inland Empire, which would have felt like a real accomplishment to me as a devotee of Lynch’s work. Unfortunately, neither of those two things happened. This was a disaster for my brain, my senses, and my patience. I found that I was becoming incredibly frustrated with myself for not really understanding what was going on, even once the film was over. I know you and I have talked about how sometimes we give up on trying to understand the narrative and just let it take us, but I found it extremely hard to do that with Inland Empire. Maybe it had something to with how ugly it looked (which I’ll talk about later), or with the fact that over two hours straight of such exaggerated absurdism can only be “WTF” inducing for so long before it gets boring.

See, I genuinely did enjoy the first hour or so of the film. The air of mystery lingered with just the right amount of intensity. The movie still felt wildly uncomfortable and dark because of how distorted the digital video made extreme close ups of the characters look. There was this severe tension between the intimacy that close ups like that are supposed to wield and the emotional distance created between viewers and the characters because of the look of the digital video. Those first 40 minutes were still at least followable for me, but once the film breaks off into these bananas multiple narratives, it just becomes increasingly less palatable as Inland Empire progresses over its three-hour run time. I typically enjoy when Lynch presents us with sequences that might not make a lick of sense in the moment, because the sequences still look awe inspiring and gorgeous. The best example of this is Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. I But Inland Empire looks like shit, and I know that Lynch knows it, and that it’s entirely the point, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. It simply made the last two hours of the film insufferable for me.

I will say that the digital video thing really reminded me of the tapes Fred watches in Lost Highway, which cause him to question what really happened and what didn’t. The case is extremely similar in Inland Empire, except that the entire film is presented as the tape and the audience is left to wonder what is really happening to Nikki and what is only happening to her character. Or are these things happening to both? Are they even really separate identities? These themes of perception vs. reality, or, even more specifically, perceptions of reality, are major in both Lost Highway and Inland Empire, and, as we will discuss in a later column, Mulholland Dr. as well. The three films have been popularly coined as Lynch’s "L.A. Trilogy" and have so many thematic elements in common that someone who wasn’t super familiar with each of the films might have a hard time discerning them at times. For instance, Lynch’s famous doppelgänger thing. Also (probably my favorite of the Lynch trademarks), the blonde and brunette contrast that exists among his female protagonists, especially in those three movies. I don’t want to go too far into it until we cover Mulholland Dr., but we see it in Inland Empire with blonde Nikki and the Brunette Lost Girl, who are revealed to be imperative to each other once we reach the end of the film. What do you make of that? Both Lynch’s blonde/brunette fascination and the scene where the girls find each other?
Rob: Your points are all well taken, and first let me say that it would be dishonest of me to argue that Inland Empire is a pleasant viewing experience. It’s not. It’s a chore, and it’s only my complete and utter devotion to Lynch as a creative force that keeps my hostility toward masturbatory art school abstraction at bay. But my instinct is to defer to Lynch and treat watching Inland Empire like a game of “Expert” level sudoku. It’s hard work. It’s a graduate-level David Lynch class that challenges everything we know about conventional cinematic storytelling, even if it’s not always for the better. It’s a risk, a hallucination, an experiment. And though I don’t have that abstract mind, I want to be game for it. We can make logical sense of Inland Empire in parts (namely, the first forty or so minutes you mentioned), but so much more of it is about accepting that Lynch is trying to replicate through narrative the feeling of a dream. Dreams are disorienting, disconnected. Full of half-scenes and odd juxtapositions. So while I am equally frustrated that I can’t enjoy Inland Empire as a movie fan, I’m much more emboldened by the idea that someone is out there pushing the boundaries of what this art form can do. If nothing else, I’ll take that.

As to your questions: I agree that Nikki and the Lost Girl are clear continuations of Lynch’s blonde/brunette motif, but my reading of their role in Inland Empire is less Betty-and-Rita-in-Mulholland Dr. and more Fred-and-Pete-in-Lost Highway: Two sides of the same coin, and so on. The scene where they find each other results in a kind of physical “combination” that really confirmed (for me, anyway) that Inland Empire is about acting, roles, and personas. Maybe Nikki and Sue are both versions of the Lost Girl? Maybe each of the various story threads is her exploring her cavalcade of traumas through the disjointed dream scenarios — including and excluding anthropomorphized rabbits — Nikki lives through? I’m sure it’s more complex than that, but that’s where my best Lynchian guesses have landed me so far.

Is there anything you’d say you do like about the film? It’s hard to deny the power of the Laura Dern performance, at least. Also, you asked me in conversation if I’d prefer the film as a series of shorts. Given Lynch’s history of reformatting his work (Mulholland Dr. beginning as a television pilot and Inland Empire itself reusing some episodic work from Lynch’s website), it’s a reasonable question. Would that have worked better for you? Personally, I think that the film’s exhaustive length is part of what makes it unique, but I’m not sure if that’s a strength or a weakness.
Alejandra: Well, first I’d like to say that I do appreciate and respect how deeply Lynch explores things like dream logic in Inland Empire, but I think he does a better job at it in his other work. With Inland Empire, it feels like I am gaining way less from it than I should be considering the energy that it takes to get through the whole thing in one sitting. When I wake up from a strange dream, it still makes a huge impression on me that lingers around for a few moments after waking up. Even if I’m only dreaming, it’s like I can actually feel the emotions that I am feeling only in my sleep, sometimes more intensely than I would feel them in my time awake. It’s why I am so passionate about Lynch, because that is exactly what it feels like when I’m done watching his movies. They trigger such an intense emotional reaction from me the way a deep dream would, and I guess I just didn’t feel that with Inland Empire, so the three hours felt a bit wasteful on that front. I do think his actual experimentation with the filmmaking process is interesting to consider, but that’s all I can really get from it personally.

I do agree with you about Dern’s performance and I think this might even be her best...ever? Can I even say that and still stand by saying that the movie making me feel nothing? I liked how much this felt like a horror movie, and I’ll confess that it produced some of the most terrifying imagery I’ve seen in any of Lynch’s films. I also really did like the rabbit stuff that came directly from his 2002 series of shorts. I never saw "Rabbits," but I’m curious now! As for whether or not I think this would work best as a series of shorts itself, I think I could make an argument for both. I agree with you that Inland Empire’s length is entirely deliberate as an experiment in filmmaking on Lynch’s part, so to say that I would prefer for this to have been divided into smaller parts feels unfair just because I wish it were more palatable. But perhaps making it that much more palatable would have worked to Inland Empire’s benefit, because I might have been able to focus more on what was happening/not happening instead of on my frustration and eagerness for it to end. Where would Inland Empire fall on your list of favorites so far?

Rob: I like what you said about the lasting power of dreams, and I definitely want to clarify that just because I’ve worked out a response and appreciation for Inland Empire, that doesn’t mean I think it’s good, palatable, or entertaining, nor that it requires some kind of higher understanding of anything at all to appreciate. I can’t even begin to understand the film yet, and all I’m trying to do is catch up to it. And I absolutely agree with you that Lynch’s usual sensuous, emotional side is missing here. Like Lost Highway, I find this movie to be a cold formal exercise. I respect it more than I like it.

I think the only film that would rank lower on my straight objective Lynch List would be Dune. Still, because it’s such a mindfuck (and part of the aforementioned L.A. Trilogy), I think I may put it on before The Elephant Man or The Straight Story, too. Especially if I just finished Mulholland Dr. and wanted more unbridled insanity. It depends on what kind of Lynch mood I’m in.
Alejandra: To be honest, I am completely devastated that I didn’t love Inland Empire because now I can’t say that there isn’t a David Lynch movie I don’t like. Do you hear that? It’s Lynch wiping his tears away with his millions of dollars. Maybe I will be able to better appreciate it in the future, or maybe as we revisit Mulholland Dr. in a few weeks I will be able to run new threads through the L.A. Trilogy that will give me a newfound love for Inland Empire. Either way, I am thankful to have had to revisit it for this column because now I can say that I’ve actually finished it and I also got to witness Theroux’s incredible eyebrows. In all seriousness, if you have the time, I think Inland Empire is worth watching at least once for really witnessing how far Lynch is willing to push viewers for the sake of his art.

Rob: I hope those eyebrows eased your suffering, and I hope Inland Empire resonates with both of us a little more as the years go on. Next time, we’re going to tackle the aforementioned Dune, Lynch’s biggest (and most ill-advised) foray into Hollywood filmmaking. It should prove interesting. Until next time, remember: This world is wild at heart…

Alejandra: And weird on top.

1 comment:

  1. 'physical “combination” that really confirmed (for me, anyway) that Inland Empire is about acting, roles, and personas' u are way off's about the deepest, mysteries of exsistence + good and evil....ur own conscience, holding u accountable for the hurt uve caused the form of insanity. how cam u not feel a thing guys.....what the he'll....i can't believe u watched the same movie as I did....I did take lsd beforehand....but still. I rate this movie the best movie that will ever be made, for everlasting...didn#t feel a thing? Were u not absolutely fucking terrified. i felt such sympathy for her, that I experience it the insanity as if i was her. I was petrifying.....i fucking loved it!