Wednesday, October 31, 2007
10/31: Inland Empire
The first time I saw David Lynch's much-discussed newest feature Inland Empire, a few months ago, I was convinced that the narrative threads of this complex, twisting film were all just outside my grasp. I felt sure that another viewing or two would clarify things, make the connections between the film's obvious multiple layers of reality and fantasy clearer, just as they had when I watched Mulholland Drive a few additional times. Revisiting it now, a few new things did indeed click, associations and connections that I'd missed the first time in the film's dense layering of stories and images and echoes upon echoes. On the whole, though, my experience of the film was remarkably similar to the first time I watched it dark, strangely compelling, mesmerizing in the flow of its imagery and the sudden transitions between locales and realities. And I felt, once again, that the overall thread of its narrative was somewhere just beyond my grasp. In fact, I'm starting to think that it's something of a mistake to even approach the film in a narrative mindset. Lynch's films of late have often been thought of as "puzzle films," but really this only works even slightly for Mulholland Drive. The labyrinthine Lost Highway twists and turns away from the kind of narrative analysis that Salon performed on Mulholland in their now-famous feature, and even that interesting explanation leaves plenty of mysteries unresolved and loose threads untied when the film is over.
This is even more true of Inland Empire, which resists even the least attempt at plot summary. The film is a three-hour fever dream, a dense collage of alternate realities in which Laura Dern plays an actress, a Southern belle committing adultery, a Los Angeles prostitute, and an abused wife telling her story to a shadowy man who may be out to help her or hurt her. These stories weave into each other without warning or explanation, and some seemingly unconnected fragments may actually be part of the same story. And all this is connected, somehow, to a young girl sitting alone in a room watching TV. She's a Polish prostitute from an earlier era, who may have been killed by the mysterious carnival barker known only as the Phantom, who may in turn be connected to Dern's husband in all her various iterations, played by Peter Lucas. There are, of course, numerous explanations for all this, and some of them are fairly compelling, but none that I've seen or thought up seem to hold together quite as well as the through-line in Mulholland Drive. To some extent, the film is the story of the actress Nikki, who in playing the part of the adulteress Susan, begins to fall for her co-star (Justin Theroux) in real life as well. As she begins to conflate the film with reality, her mind becomes unhinged, and she's drawn into both the film and the much earlier, more violent Polish folk tale that inspired the film's supposedly cursed script. On the face of it, this is an interesting idea, but it hardly begins to explain more than a few of the film's many facets, and leaves plenty of loose ends dangling.
This second viewing has convinced me, for now, that this film may be better approached as a pure avant-garde work, without looking for or expecting any such narrative coherence. I've come to see that what holds my attention in the film is not the shards of narrative that swirl around Laura Dern's shifting identities, but the terrifying atmosphere created by Lynch's disorienting visuals. Much has been made of his decision to turn away from film for digital video, and not just DV but a particularly lo-fi, consumer-grade digital camera. In fact, this is a perfect fit for such hallucinatory material, and the dark, hazy visuals frequently call to mind Derek Jarman's super-8 work, which achieved a similarly smeared, ugly aesthetic by reducing the grade of film and then blowing it up to 35mm for projection. Here, Lynch also pushes his technology to its limits, and the result is a very distinctive look. Large segments of the film are almost entirely encased in blackness, with flashes of light and blurry, barely glimpsed faces floating in the dark. As with the last viewing, I took a while to get adjusted to the DV in the opening scenes, especially during Dern's freaky encounter with a prophesying Grace Zabriskie. But once I'd settled into the film, the darkness and distorted, artificial quality of the DV proved to lend themselves very well to Lynch's never-ending series of funhouse mirrors disguised as a narrative.
Inland Empire is, as befits its length, many things. It is, first and foremost, an exhaustive catalogue of David Lynch's ideas and obsessions, a kind of meta-text to his previous films. His favored themes show up yet again, especially his exploration of the Hollywood star machine, which is ridiculed and skewered here, along with Hollywood's recycling of other cultures' ideas, its treatment of women, and its reliance on cliché. These are of course familiar themes from Mulholland Drive, and the exploration of identity and playing roles dates back at least to Lost Highway. But Inland Empire is not so much a retread as a distillation, a development of his signature themes into their ultimate expression. Laura Dern, back in a Lynch film for the first time since Wild At Heart, gives a powerhouse performance, acting a lot of the time in unsparingly tight close-ups that require her to act intensively with her facial expressions, while also handling the shifts between an array of different characters all played by her. She's the centerpiece of a film that's brimming with ideas and images, enthralling from its first image to its last.
[Note: I have more comments about this film in my write-up of its mini-feature "sequel" made up of deleted scenes, More Things That Happened.]