Monday, December 25, 2006

INLAND EMPIRE

String Theory postulates the existence of many more dimensions than are discernible to the human eye. (Currently, majority opinion sets the number at 11, if memory serves.) This includes the three dimensions in which human beings operate, plus the 4th dimension of time, plus a whole bunch of other indescribable, unknown planes of being located right on top of our own.

I believe INLAND EMPIRE may be David Lynch's attempt to bring this notion into the world of cinema. He has directed the world's first and only 11-D film.

The good news is, the physical strain of viewing the film's full 3 hours won't give you a headache and you don't need special glasses. The bad news is, the mental strain of viewing the film's full 3 hours may give you a headache, and you'll need patience.



Though typically referred to as "surreal" or incomprehensible, many Lynch films have a relatively simple "key" that, once detected, translates all the apparently random action into a rational text. Once it becomes clear that the first half of Mulholland Drive is a dreamed recollection of the second half's events, the pieces fit together remarkably well. Lost Highway becomes significantly less distant and puzzling once the mobius-strip end-is-the-beginning-of-the-end mindfuck wears off.

INLAND EMPIRE has a single scene that serves as something of a signpost for where all the overlapping, confused stories are headed. Actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) invites a new Polish neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) into her lavishly appointed home for coffee. The strange woman takes a peculiar interest in Nikki's hopeful new project, a Southern-set romantic drama called On High in Blue Tomorrows. Unbeknowst to Nikki, the film is an adaptation of an obscure Polish gypsy legend, one that inspired an never-finished, doomed German production several years earlier. The new film's director, Kingsley Stewart (an unctuous Jeremy Irons) and his needy screenwriter (Harry Dean Stanton, who gets the film's best monologue) warn their stars that both of prior film's leads were brutally murdered.

The first half-hour or so of INLAND EMPIRE coherently follows Nikki and her co-star Devon (Justin Theroux) as they rehearse and film scenes from the movie. It's something of a Tennessee Williams knock-off in which Nikki's married character, Susan, carries on an affair with Devon's character, Billy. A behind-the-scenes romance between Nikki and Devon begins to mirror the on-screen pairing. Like her character, Nikki suffers in a loveless marriage to a possessive, fearsome brute (Peter Lucas) who will kill her and Devon if he finds out about the infidelity.

Once Nikki and Devon consummate their illicit love, Lynch's film departs from this vague storyline for about 150 minutes of madness. Like our universe's 11 nebulously connected dimensions, several of the film's key sequences of events unfold on top of one another, throwing all notions of chronology and continuity out the window.

Nikki and Devon seem to swap places with their characters. The story of INLAND EMPIRE and the story of On High in Blue Tomorrows coalesce into one sequence of iconic, repeated events - characters who should not fall in love do so anyway, they split apart, they get back together, they get caught and then Dern's character is brutally beaten. Additionally, we cut to Lodz, Poland, to see sequences that could be taken from the unfinished German version of the story or the tragic behind-the-scenes romance that shut down the production in the first place. Then there are scenes in which Nikki appears to be a Hollywood prostitute wasting time with a chorus of wily hooker cohorts. And then, there are the clips from an intensely unnerving sitcom starring actors in rabbit costumes. Scott Coffey, Laura Harring and Naomi Watts from Mulholland Drive star in these deeply disturbing sketches based on short films Lynch had made for his website.

The key, I think, is to watch for beams of light. For the first time, Lynch has shot an entire film on digital video, using a Sony DSR-PD150 to give the film a muddled, grainy look that he punctuates by sporadically bathing everything in bright, all-concealing white light. The film opens with one such beam of light, streaming in front of the side of the screen and looking very much like the product of a film projector.

Of course, with that first image of a projected beam of light, Lynch starts off by adding layers to the cinematic artifice (much as Bergman did in Persona by opening the film with a shot of film spooling into a camera). At other times, flickering light (again, reminiscent of a dark theater while a film is projected) interrupts the on-screen action, often cueing an abrupt change in time, location, subject or all three. The overall aesthetic, with its muted or absent colors, eerie lighting, blatantly artificial mise-en-scene and moody atmosphere, closely resembles silent films, both those of the German Expressionists whom Lynch previously referenced in the classic Eraserhead and some of the abstract neo-silent work of Canadian Guy Maddin.

We're watching a movie begin within the movie that has already begun, and the film will just continue to pile on more "cameras," more "audiences" and more levels of "reality" as it continues. Characters watch TV's on which characters look through windows that reveal movie screens that contain mirrors in which the reflections of the original character's faces can be made out. Nikki describes her state of mind as akin to a darkened theater with images passing by on a screen, then later she finds herself in just such a theater, watching her own story play out in front of her like a movie. (Could INLAND EMPIRE be a genuine attempt to catalogue her mental process in cinema form?)

At one point, Nikki's invisible Polish counterpart shows her how to use a cigarette to burn a hole in a silk sheet, through which she can pierce the fabric of space-time and behold the future. As Lynch's camera swoops through the hole itself, we're confronted with a difficult question: are we seeing Nikki's point of view? Is this her future? Or did we just zoom in for a close-up on a silk sheet before cutting to the next scene? The film gets so bewildering because there's no correct answer to these sorts of questions.

Consider, as well, the conditions of the shoot. Lynch worked without a script and without permits. He would pick his actors, give them their dialogue for the day on the way to the shoot and then just begin wherever and whenever he pleased. Live performances are captured in the moment with as little mediation as possible, and no rehearsal. (The awkward rehearsal scenes Kingsley orchestrates for On High in Blue Tomorrows give you a sense for Lynch's attitudes towards actorly preparation.)

Therefore, what you are constantly seeing not just the realities of Nikki and Susan collapsing on one another, but Nikki and Susan and Laura Dern, all at once, occupying the same space but not necessarily the same body. (After all, through the use of artful cutting, Laura Dern can sometimes disappear from the shot while Nikki appears to remain.)

It all begins to feel intentioanlly repetitive because Lynch's characters are stuck in a feedback loop. They observe things and then relate anecdotes about the observations in a way that makes sense to their experience, but they cannot escape the endless cycle of watching and then retelling, watching and then retelling. Could this be the curse placed on this old gypsy story? Once it has been told, it must be retold continually until the storyteller dies?

In one reality, a bruised Nikki/Susan relates a series of sad stories about personal abuse she has suffered at the hands of different men to a cold, unfeeling bureaucrat with crooked glasses. In another, a weeping girl (Karolina Gruszka) watches earlier scenes from INLAND EMPRIE, and the anthropomorphized rabbit sitcom, from a hotel room. In another, a dying Nikki/Susan coughs up blood on Hollywood Boulevard while transients discuss the fastest route to Pomona via public transportation.

So the light comes in and illuminates one small portion of the story at a time, as a spotlight turning on as Nikki tip-toes through a room transforms her from a stalker into the center of attention. Focus is thus taken away from all the other concurrent events that influence the action but don't make up its center.

The light all emanates from a single source, Lynch's camera, but by the time it is done turning corners and invading nooks, all kinds of oddities have turned up and thus have been folded into the finished film. The credits play out over a house party that includes most of the film's characters, as well as actress Laura Harring playing herself out of the bunny suit and Nastassja Kinski. Cause they were there.

If I had to offer my overall theory as to the film's plot, it would be based around this notion of inclusion. We are seeing the effect that filming this story has on Nikki the actress. By investing so much raw emotion into this cursed story of woe, she allows it to invade her own private life, and in the process becomes unstuck in time. (Almost like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughter-House Five.) Hence the film's constant shots of Dern wandering down poorly-lit corridors, hallways and alleys. She's constantly struggling to "right herself," to wind up back in the normal world of the present day by purging this evil from her mind, but she can't ever get re-settled.

Thus she experiences the trauma suffered by the original German cast of the first film, the present-day pain of her own failed marriage and the worrisome future affair with Devon/Billy all at the same time. This constant, grinding sadness and frustration, the utter inability to reconcile herself to a single state of being or come to full terms with her inner pain, comes through with striking clarity in the Laura Dern performance. It's clearly one of the year's best, made all the more remarkable considering Dern was given no time to study the material beforehand and so little insight into conceptualization and tone of the finished film.

I'll probably need some more viewings to put this structure together completely, what with the sitcom rabbits, the prostitutes who randomly break into the Loco-Motion or Nina Simone lip synchs and the creepy subplot with Julia Ormond as a reluctant assassin armed with a screwdriver. (There's three hours of this stuff, folks...Be prepared.)

But I'm pretty sure it all has something to do with the effect of Stories and Drama on the way people perceive the world, how our minds view us as characters in our own story and dictate behavior accordingly. Fictional stories are written and films made that pretend to foretell future events, but they have such an impact on their audiences in the present, they eventually influence that future in a host of unpredictable ways. Jules Verne's stories, in other words, didn't just predict the future, but directly influenced its development. Lynch's story could be rendering this concept more concretely - an old gypsy legend weighs on a woman in the present, possibly even (to borrow a friend's hypothesis) possesses her body, in an attempt to continue recreating itself.

Mulholland Drive, composed of a series of scenes that are entertaining and accessible if taken on their own terms, didn't necessarily make immediate sense when fit together. But it becomes more or less clear after a few viewings. That was a story that didn't quite make complete sense. INLAND EMPIRE, on the other hand, is a film that abandons traditional narrative to take a closer look at the mechanics of storytelling itself.

The experience of actually watching such a film will be draining for most audiences, I suspect. (Several people walked out of tonight's screening at the Sunset 5). In addition to being trippy and non-narrative and long, the movie is fucking frightening. INLAND EMPIRE is an intense, heady experience, almost confrontational in its desire to provoke and disturb. The imagery, lighting, the musical cues and the performances inspired direct emotional, visceral responses in me that I did not anticipate. One shot, presumably taken from the perspective of a corpse, has several members of the slut chorus peering directly into the camera, asking one another "Who is she?" For some reason, having Jordan Ladd's huge head peering at me made me extremely uncomfortable. The way these inhuman faces are made-up and lit just feels worng, somehow. Uncanny.

Ditto the talking rabbits, who speak non-sequiturs in monotone yet seem constantly on the verge of doing something shocking, unnatural and violent. Another image, of a maniacally grinning Dern running toward the camera on an isolated desert road, will give me nightmares tonight GUARANTEED.

After the film, my friend (the one with the good theory) leaned over and said to me that, should Lynch ever decide to make a straight-ahead horror film, it would be the greatest of all time. I'm inclined to agree, even though I think, at this point, that would be a waste of the guy's tremendous talents. He's already made the year's scariest film, but it's so very much more than that.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's pretty incredible. And this really is a case where subsequent viewing will only add to the experience. There's just so much to absorb in every sequence. It's definitely one of the best films this year.

-Ari

Jonathan said...

Yeah, this movie pretty much destroyed me. My friends and I stood around, looked at each other, said that there was no use even discussing it, then we talked about it endlessly. It really is, I think, three hours of what it must be like to be insane. I was completely engrossed in it and thought it was brilliant, but I would never try to convince one of the several people who walked out during the screening that it was a good movie. I would not argue with anyone who said that INLAND EMPIRE is complete nonsense. And yet, I can't stop thinking about it and want to see it again. No major American filmmaker has ever constructed something like this and released it to the general public. It really is miraculous when you think about it.

Lons said...

I'd agree that Lynch's new film is, more than any of his previous work, nonsensical. You could theoretically come up with an explanation that ties every single sequence together (I haven't...) but not one that renders all of these exagerrated theatrics "sensical."

Even "Fire Walk With Me," one seriously odd and convoluted movie, holds together somewhat logically if you've followed all of "Twin Peaks."

But I think it's not just a good movie but a GREAT one, and that the people who walked out of both of our screenings were behaving in a myopic and unadventurous fashion. If I knew them well enough to critique their behavior, I would certainly say so.

steve c. said...

Be sure to check out a great short film currently on youtube: FECES for the FUHRER. It really speaks to our troubled times!

Anonymous said...

I was so excited to read this post, even though it looks like it was posted...8 years ago?! Anyway Inland Empire is my absolute favorite movie of all time, and I also think that it has to do with traveling across dimensions.

You mentioned the scene where they burn a hole through the silk and look through it...I actually think this scene is critical to unlocking the film. You must be wearing "the watch" to do it, and then you fold it over and poke a hole through the layers of fabric--sounds like a pretty good description of a "wormhole".

Everything in the film is happening at the same time.