Monday, January 29, 2007

David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE

It's been a few weeks since I've seen David Lynch's latest movie, his self-produced, self-distributed INLAND EMPIRE, and I've wanted to write something on it for a while. However, I've been kind of busy with other things and haven't had a chance to. It looks as though I can now bring up my response to the film.

First off, just how do I describe INLAND EMPIRE (which is apparently supposed to be spelled out in ALL CAPS)? I'll do what I can, even though I'm going to fail. It's a three-hour movie starring Laura Dern as either an affluent film actress, a battered working class housewife, the oppressed housewife of an Eastern European mob boss, or a Hollywood (or Polish) streetwalker. Or she's all of these things, or none of them.

It also features giant rabbits on a sitcom set delivering non sequitur lines to canned laughter, prostitutes dancing to the "Loco-Motion" and a group of backyard barbecue guests who claim to be part of a traveling gypsy circus.

(Actually, there are some scenes and situations to which no one can seem to arrive at a consensus. Ms. Dern delivers a monologue about abuse to a bookish man in some abandoned building. Some critics have described the man as a hit man, others thought he was a casting agent and others still believed him to be a therapist. One critic described the giant rabbits as donkeys. Another critic couldn't determine if the young women in the room with Ms. Dern were streetwalking prostitutes or aspiring young actresses, or both.)

We're introduced to Ms. Dern's character Nikki Grace as she's been given a role in an infidelity melodrama, On High In Blue Tomorrows, opposite Hollywood bad-boy Devon Berk (played by Justin Theroux) and directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Devon's handlers warn him that Nikki's husband is not the kind of man you want to mess with, so Nikki may not be the best leading lady to engage in any hanky-panky with. Devon is later confronted by Nikki's husband (Peter J. Lucas), a suave and intimidating Eastern European man who seems to have mob connections, who warns the Hollywood bad-boy that Nikki is very much his "property."

Meanwhile, the director warns the two stars that the film is actually a remake of a movie that was never finished because its stars were murdered, possibly because a Gypsy curse has been put on the script.

So, Nikki and Devon have an affair. Or, maybe we're just watching scenes from the movie they're making. At one point, after the two talk in hushed tones that they have to stop sneaking about because her husband's on to them, Nikki says, "This sounds like dialogue from that STUPID MOVIE WE'RE DOING!" Afterwards, we hear the director call, "And...cut!" Nikki, obviously, is confused. And so are we.

Eventually, it looks as though Nikki becomes the character she's playing in On High In Blue Tomorrows, Susan Blue. Or maybe Nikki was never real and Susan Blue was always the "real" character. Or maybe the movie is just the fevered fantasy of some dowdy housewife living in the suburbs. Or maybe...okay, never mind. (I should point out that all I've done is kinda sorta describe the first hour of the film.)

Yes, I realize this is no help at all and I'm cutting out numerous scenes and images to try to make the film sound remotely coherent and linear (as you may have guessed, it's not). Mme. Boo, a.k.a. Dorothy Lemoult, offers a much better analogy for the movie in her excellent entry on David Lynch on her blog.

Perhaps the best way to describe INLAND EMPIRE is that it goes as deep into the subconscious mind of its creator (Mr. Lynch apparently made up the script as he went along) than any other work I've experienced. The film deals with the same underlying theme of Mulholland Dr.: that Hollywood chews up actresses and spits them out, but even that is just scratching the surface. It shows a world where the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Blvd. occupies the same geographical space as a snow-covered street in Lodz, Poland and where a sad working class housewife is the same person as the celebrated film star.

I should probably point out for those of you that don't know that I'm one of those dyed-in-the-wool Lynch fans. I was addicted to the Twin Peaks TV series. Mulholland Dr. was one of my favorite movies to come out in 2001 (which in my opinion was a great year for movies). I often get a strong visceral reaction to the images and sounds Mr. Lynch uses (he has a gift for filling the audience with dread over the most banal and innocuous scenes).

But as much of a Lynch fan as I am, while I was watching the movie, it was testing my patience (this from someone who owns - and has watched many, many times - Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr.) in ways that none of his previous films have. Since my phone was turned off in the theatre, I was tempted many times to run out into the lobby, turn on my phone to see what time it was and find out how much longer I had (I didn't). As I had mentioned before, it's three hours long and boy, does it ever feel long. If you thought Mulholland Dr. was incomprehensible and impenetrable, or if you find Mr. Lynch's work in general too frustrating to deal with, then INLAND EMPIRE is most definitely not for you. This is his most non-user-friendly feature to date.

Having said all this, I haven't been able to shake the movie out of my head since I saw it. This is by far the most uncompromised and uncompromising film Mr. Lynch has made since his debut film, Eraserhead, if not more so. It's at turns his most beautiful and most ugly film (he shot it on a Sony PD-150 digicam; an outdated digital video camera), his most mundane and most horrific. I'll agree with Manohla Dargis when she writes in her review of the film: "[this is] one of the few films I've seen this year that deserves to be called art."

And Laura Dern is amazing, absolutely amazing. Even though she's been on record as to saying she doesn't know what the movie is about, she's clearly simpatico with the material (this is the third film by David Lynch she's been in). This is a true collaboration between her and the director.

Weeks after I've seen this movie, lines and images keep popping up in my head (a few in particular: her husband pouring an entire bottle of ketchup on his white shirt and asking in a comically exaggerated accent where the paper towels are; the close-up of Laura Dern's distorted face super-imposed on her character's husband's; the previously-mentioned Walk of Fame transforming into a snow-covered street in Poland). Ideas throughout it have been festering ever since.

(A weird tangential anecdote: last week, I was having a drink in a bar in my neighborhood, which has a large Polish population. I stepped outside for a cigarette. It was very late at night and had just snowed, so all the stores were closed and no one was one the streets, making Bedford Avenue resemble a Polish city street. A few minutes later, a Polish man came up to me, looking very lost, and asked me, "Vere do I find de beers?" I pointed to the 24-hour deli a block away. He thanked me and moved on. I had to laugh, since it seemed as if I had been literally transplanted into the world of INLAND EMPIRE, or at least, mentally transplanted to a snowy street in Lodz. As unreal as the movie appears, it seems to resonate with my real life and my perceptions of the external world more than most movies I've seen of late.)

INLAND EMPIRE, a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie, is pretty damn brilliant; a movie that was (is) unpleasant to watch (no filmmaker can replicate real life nightmare images better than Mr. Lynch and I found INLAND EMPIRE to be genuinely nightmarish in the literal sense of the word), but one that sticks with you long after the credits roll.

Still reeling,

James "Wwwwwwow" Comtois

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2 Comments:

Blogger imtboo said...

Heh James... apparently i need to go fix the title and put it in caps !
Ooh , ooh, you've covered some things I was going to cover in Part II... Ooh, i better get to it soon !
Great post. Loved reading it. I want to know what everyone thinks about the film . So fascinating all around.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thanks! It really is such a fascinating movie; many of its parts keep circling around in my brain. I'm of course really looking forward to Part II to your Lynch entry.

7:17 PM  

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