In his 36 years of filmmaking, David Lynch has never been more fearless or more fearsome. As many filmmakers age, their obsessions remain the same, and their technique petrifies. Lynch's tenth feature film, Inland Empire, encapsulates many of his compulsive themes and images, but also develops them and his overall filmmaking aesthetic. In a sense, he's no longer filmmaking at all, having repudiated film in favor of digital video (Inland Empire was shot on the consumer-grade Sony PD-150). By pushing himself and his very medium further and further, Lynch risks failure and humiliation, but achieves a purity that plays as a kind of graceful delirium. His films aren't for everyone, but they are unique, creative, and transportive—after the haunting, brain-teasing Inland Empire, every other film looks mundane by comparison.
Many will brand Inland Empire graceless, throw up hands and declare the wildly ranging narrative meaningless, call the Emperor naked...and while it's tempting to call them impatient and unadventurous, one can't entirely blame them for eschewing a three-hour mindfuck. But as crazy quilted as Inland Empire is, in a way, Lynch has never been more direct; to see the film is to mainline his consciousness. Like "The Emperor's New Clothes," Inland Empire constitutes folklore from "the Baltic region"; it also frames—like Lynch's last film, Mulholland Dr.—a story from "Hollywood, California—where stars make dreams and dreams make stars." And as with most of Lynch's films, something very close to a coherent narrative is discernable if the brain can deconstruct Lynch's shuffle play: Inland Empire is another Lynchian supernatural thriller, judiciously spackled with dream logic.
Described in its publicity only as the story of "A woman in trouble," Inland Empire concerns successful actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) and Susan Blue (Laura Dern), the character Nikki comes to embody on the job of her new film, "On High in Blue Tomorrows." Or is it Susan who—in her troubled imagination—comes to embody Nikki? The unified characters go through so many iterations of self and setting that it's difficult to know how many women we're seeing, which is largely the point of the identity-bending trilogy Lynch began with Lost Highway, developed with Mulholland Dr., and blows apart with Inland Empire.
Dern's guises include the classy and upper-class professional actress, a beat-down, Southern-accented housewife trafficking between her cramped Inland Empire(?) home and the upscale manse of her illicit lover (Justin Theroux of Mullholland Dr., also doubled as an Hollywood actor), and a streetwalker on Hollywood Boulevard—presumably Sue's last stop. To paraphrase Chaka Khan, she's every woman--or at least every woman the Hollywood collective unconsciousness will allow. And in narrative terms, it's entirely possible that Dern is only one woman—to deconstruct further, a woman named Laura Dern—wandering through all of these gender roles. The Bard wrote, "one man in his time plays many parts," and indeed Nikki/Laura gives new meaning to "getting lost in a role." (A read-through scene echoes the power of Watts' audition scene in Mulholland Dr..)
Whereas Lynch has been accused of mistreating his actresses (such critics single out Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet) or enjoying the degradation of his female characters (from Rossellini's Dorothy to Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer to Naomi Watts' double-actress Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn), Inland Empire may be Lynch's most empathetic treatment of women. Whether consciously or not, Lynch has answered feminist critics in recent years by getting in touch with his anima instincts, no longer sympathetically depicting blankly victimized women to fuel plots about naive Hardy boys, but now trailing terrified Nancy Drews on their amateur investigations: tragic and redemptive journeys of self-discovery.
Most of the women of Inland Empire—including a Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka) in Poland; Julia Ormond as Theroux's wronged wife; and a chorus of lip-synching, dancing prostitutes who teach Susan to see through a slip darkly—suffer from the machinations of men (though Lynch vets Grace Zabriskie and Diane Ladd briefly turn up as witchy women). Again, Inland Empire advances a principal theme of Mulholland Dr. by implying male-dominated Hollywood's responsibility for "creating" and abusing feminine character, then discarding it after use. At one point, Dern collapses at the Walk of Fame star of Dorothy Lamour—given her name, a good choice to represent the manufactured personality of the screen actress.
Inland Empire also explicates the power of stories, from folktales (or urban legends) to movies to rumors to visions to dreams to the unfolding narratives of our own lives. In recent years, Lynch has adopted the role of a travelling preacher or rainmaker, stumping for TM and his own artistic independence (evinced by DavidLynch.com and the essentially self-distributed new film); all the while, he has reminded his audience to experience his films through trusty intuition. Lynch put his money where his mouth is by filming Inland Empire piecemeal over a period of a couple of years, writing each scene just before running out to film it and trusting the story to take shape.
The finished product appropriately begins with a Muse-like invocation of the auteur's beloved sight and sound: a narrow shaft of projected light and an acetate disk recorder. The refrain "There are consequences to our actions" is both a truism for Susan's real-life dilemmas and a groaner pun for the art of the actress and the director (the thrice-appearing "AXXoN N" graffiti may also be a call to "Action"). Jeremy Irons plays the onscreen director, a man tiptoeing around a purportedly cursed Polish screenplay; "On High in Blue Tomorrows" is a remake...get it?
In Lynch films, screens, stages, and paintings are all doors of perception ("Do you want to go in?" one character asks. "Are you looking for an opening?"). But which door to open, and what will emerge: the lady or the tiger? (In this case, the "tiger" is a Phantom played by Krzysztof Majchrzak.) The escapist role of entertainment emerges as the locked-up Lost Girl sadly watches TV and Susan/Nikki runs face-to-face with a cinematic projection of herself. Mad with mistreatment, neither woman can maintain the illusory distract: the Lost Girl sees herself and Susan/Nikki on the TV, and Susan/Nikki has a showdown with a phantasmic projection of herself, a hall-of-fame fright for Lynch. The unjustly neglected performer of 2006, Dern outdoes herself in a virtuosic display of expressionistic acting.
And did I mention the human-size rabbits starring in a metaphysical sitcom? One is voiced by Naomi Watts and another by Scott Coffey, who directed Watts in the raw digital film Ellie Parker. At first, Lynch's experimental embracement of digital is likewise rough around the edges, but instead of going back and reshooting the awkward bits—the signs of a talented digital amateur at play—Lynch forges on until the viewer is ready to bite his tongue for ever doubting the director would relocate his visual instinct. Inland Empire brims with surprising and scary images. A combination of practical lighting effects, delicate camerawork, and judicious digital "after effects" give Lynch a look that marries the best of his yesterdays in short films and the handmade debut Eraserhead to his today of artful shadow-voids and shrieking strobes. Where will he go tomorrow?
[For Groucho's interview with Laura Dern, click here.]
David Lynch and the folks at Absurda have pulled out the stops for this truly special edition of Inland Empire. Actually, they've put back the stops, when it comes to "chapter stops," an oft-requested, oft-denied feature for Lynch's films on DVD. Lynch understandably insists he intends his films to be watched from start to finish, but acknowledging the length of the film and the habits of home viewers, Lynch has relented and encoded Inland Empire with 39 chapter stops, with no "Scene Access" menu or insert listing. (Lynch explains all this in an interview segment on Disc 2.)
The film's presentation requires some explanation. Because Inland Empire was shot on a consumer-grade camera and blown up to 35mm, the image is purposefully shifty—the untrustworthy picture is part of the experience. For this and future films, Lynch embraces "jaggies" and other digital artifacts, new ways of playing "hide and seek" with visual information. So the DVD transfer accurately renders the image seen on theatre screens, and reflects the director's intent and active approval. Likewise, the DVD soundtrack is impeccable, no surprise since it comes direct from the Lynch compound.
The surprises come on Disc 2, with its treasure trove of bonus footage. Of primary interest to most will be what Lynch calls "More Things That Happened." It's Lynch's way of building a wing on to the film: 75 minutes of cut footage fluidly edited together (with 16 chapter stops). Though the footage holds little in the way of crystallizing plot hints, it yields a lot more of the battered-woman monologue, among other tricks or treats.
As on his homegrown Eraserhead special edition, Lynch sits down to tell "Stories" (41:38), or rather free associate on 19 subjects. The best story on the disc comes during a (smoke) break in the action in the "Quinoa" segment (20:04), in which Lynch instructs viewers on how to rustle up some Quinoa with broccoli and amino acids (that's right: the David Lynch cooking show...). Lynch also includes twelve minutes and twenty-one seconds of "Ballerina" footage, glimpsed briefly in Inland Empire. The disc's most revelatory extra doubles as a teaser for the upcoming documentary Lynch: dubbed Lynch 2 (30:10), the footage reveals Lynch at work on Inland Empire. Though it's edited to obscure many details of the process, there's much to be gleaned by sorting through what we get.
A "Stills" (7:17) compilation plays over an ambient sound loop, with 73 chapter stops to facilitate flipping through the images—many of the pictures are simply screen captures from the film, but many are behind-the-scenes shots. Lastly, Absurda includes three trailers for Inland Empire, each approximately one minute in length. The feature has close-captioning but no English subtitles; the extras, unfortunately, have neither. No self-respecting Lynch fan can live without this two-disc extravaganza, a steal at prices under $20.
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