Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Who Dunnit?

Some thoughts on David Lynch's Inland Empire

First up, a subjective confession: David Lynch is one of my favourite film-makers. I like the fact that his films can be elliptical, unclear and cryptic and that the very point of them may in fact be that they are pointless. I reject the charge of misogyny that many authoritative and respected writers have brought against him, most notably the Chicago Sun Times' Roger Ebert, who savagely demolished Blue Velvet on its original release. Just because you make films in which nasty things happen to women does not logically imply that you hate women, or that you view that degradation as morally justifiable. Lynch explores dark, nightmarish worlds - and with his last three pictures particularly (Lost Highway, the masterpiece Mulholland Drive and now this three hour epic), these worlds are becoming increasingly subconscious and internalised. His films have plenty of forebearers in the art of cinematic obfuscation - Alain Resnais' 'Last Year in Marienbad' springs most immediately to mind, but his style is so singular as to render most comparisons worthless.

Yet, in the case of Inland Empire, for much of its protracted duration a clear parallel formed in my mind. 'Inland Empire' repeats so many of the tropes and ideas of Mulholland Drive that it feels very much like a more indulgent companion piece to that movie, and the relationship between the two films is remarkably similar to that between Wong Kar-Wai's '2046' and its more focussed, masterful predecessor 'In The Mood For Love'. I remember watching the London Film Festival premiere of '2046' with a similarly paradoxical sense of awe and frustration. Visually, I was compelled - but the melding together of scenes across locations and the absense of any coherent narrative drive left me fundamentally confused. Such is the way with 'Inland Empire', and it's clearly Lynch's main intention. Whilst Inland Empire doesn't quite recycle characters from Mulholland Drive in the way that 2046 did with its predecessor (although Naomi Watts and Laura Harring both contribute to the film), its Hollywood setting, manipulation of time and space, erotic undercurrents and surreal mindgames all seem to refer back to that weirdly beautiful film. As with Mulholland Drive, locations are crucial and there are echoes of one place somewhere completely different (which fuels those Lynch followers keen to search for clues to the non-existent solution of a non-existent puzzle), and grand mansions are reinvented in alternate worlds as run down hovels. Most specifically, the cigarette hole through silk material in Inland Empire has a clear parallel with the box that changes everything in Mulholland Drive. Yet where Mulholland Drive did make an unusual kind of sense, if you yielded to its embracing of alternative realities and dream states, I'm not sure there's a real hidden meaning (and certainly not a solution) behind Inland Empire's inherent mysteries.

This film is so much like a dream, or more accurately, a ragingly discomforting, confounding nightmare, that it is undeniably something to be experienced rather than understood. Any attempt at summarising the plot is reductive and banal, and Lynch ratchets up the synaesthetic sensory tricks for which he is justly lauded. Like all Lynch films, Inland Empire has an outstanding soundtrack, with original compositions from Lynch standing alongside great European composers such as Wiltold Lutoslawski. Music is always used to devastating effect in Lynch films - and there's always one scene which will completely transform a famous pop song forever. It's impossible to hear Roy Orbison's 'In Dreams' as a simple unrequited love song after Blue Velvet - it's now laced with an irrevocably sinister poison. Similarly, you won't be able to hear Little Eva singing 'The Locomotion' at a wedding disco anymore without feeling palpably unnerved.

Lynch has spoken of how shooting the film entirely on Digital Video has liberated him, and the film is certainly visually fascinating, relying heavily on peculiar, warped close-ups. The opening shot is bravura, and demonstrates Lynch's admiration for the pure cinematic image - a shaft of dramatic light before a needle is shown descending on a vinyl record's grooves. Laura Dern's expressive, agitated performance carries the film through its entire three hours (whilst I was frequently baffled, I'm not sure I was ever bored), and the deliberately stilted conversation between her and her Polish gypsy neighbour near the outset of the film is audacious but also really quite funny. Dern progresses to master several performances in one, although it's hard to believe even she knew what it was all about when Lynch was directing her. Through her confusion, she elevates her role to something more than just another Lynchian 'woman in trouble' - she's the emotional and theoretical core of the film. There are some brilliant and powerful moments, some genuinely terrifying, others simply mesmerising. There's a real emotional power to the ending too, even if its underlying logic is completely opaque.

Yet, despite all this, there is the lingering sense that the film is both twitchy and patchy. It is captivating, but not at a sustained level. Whilst Mulholland Drive felt like a substantial piece of work that had the wisdom to be moving as well as confusing, much of Inland Empire just seems too bizarre. With its borrowings from short films originally made for Lynch's website, including some very odd sequences featuring a TV sitcom with a cast of anthropomorphic rabbits, it does feel like Lynch is trying to conflate too many ideas here. Where Mulholland Drive enthralled and hypnotised throughout, Inland Empire feels disjointed and fragmented, and in stylistic (if not thematic) terms actually more closely resembles Lost Highway. The central concept of a film-within-a-film (and possibly even another film within that) is hardly his most original construct either. I also felt slightly uncomfortable with the rather dubious connection of the film's sinister, perhaps even evil elements with a Polish contingent repeatedly attempting to penetrate the film's various universes. Yet whilst Mulholland Drive had plenty to say about parallel worlds and the human reliance on conventional ideas of time and space for meaning and logic, Inland Empire feels like a technically dazzling but perhaps somewhat empty mood piece by comparison. When its characters speak in non-sequiturs (I wondered whether most of Harry Dean Stanton's lines were constructed from Bob Dylan references), its easy to feel that Lynch is simply poking fun at his audience and most ardent admirers. Mind you, they're a pretty serious minded bunch of people, so maybe that's no bad thing.

Lynch remains a master of the modern cinema, simply because there is no other oeuvre in which this kind of experiment could possibly be achieved - it's not literary and it's not purely sonic - Lynch has a peculiar inventiveness that requires the careful marriage of image and sound. The title 'Inland Empire' presumably refers to the Hollywood hinterland, but has the obvious metaphorical reference to the subconscious and the interior monologue. Lynch has taken the psychological, subconscious focus to its utmost extreme with this film, and it's hard to see where he can go next, particularly given this film's recycling of previous ideas and themes. Any Lynch film is worth watching though - and Inland Empire is sometimes beautiful and bold.


Richard M said...

Hi Daniel, long-time reader, first-time poster here. I thought your piece was one of the best I've read on Inland Empire - intelligent and considered. I'm much more convinced of the merits of the film though, and there's one issue I'd raise with your analysis: stunning as the visuals and (especially) the sound are, I'm wary of simply labelling the film as something to be "experienced rather than understood". Inland Empire may be a thrilling demonstration of pure cinema, but on second viewing I don't think it's anywhere near as incomprehensible as some critics suggest. Lynch's films are always greeted by waves of confusion, yet years later Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr don't seem so inexplicable - it takes time for their meanings and ideas to seep through. I'm by no means suggesting there's a (blue) key that unlocks Inland Empire, but the film's multiple strands echo and overlap at enough points to produce a logical narrative of their own. Lynch's seemingly banal explanation - "it's about a woman in trouble" - is also more acute than it first appears: this is a film where ALL women are in trouble, largely because of manipulative men (whether directors, actors or pimps). Nothing new is being said here - "it's an old story" - but has male exploitation ever been depicted in such an extraordinary fashion? In this sense, I found the final meeting between Laura Dern and her Polish doppelganger to be an extremely moving expression of a sort of female solidarity that crosses both geographical and metaphysical boundaries. I agree that it's tough to see where Lynch can possibly go now, but there's so much in Inland Empire to digest in the meantime. Keep up the good work!

Daniel said...

Thanks for the comment Richard - there's lots to think about in there, particularly as you've clearly had the benefit of seeing the film more than once. Mulholland Drive revealed so much more on repeated viewings (although I loved it first time round), and I'm quite prepared for a more enlightening viewing of Inland Empire when it emerges on DVD.

I particularly like your interpretation of the film's confusion. I also found it moving, but wasn't able to pin down quite why. You've summed it up eloquently, and in a way that completely refutes the misogyny charge that still seems to trouble Lynch's harshest critics!