Thursday, December 4, 2008

David Lynch's Inland Empire

Inland Empire (2006)
When you watch a David Lynch movie for the first time, there's always that scene or moment when the film takes the plunge down the rabbit hole, so to speak. You tell yourself that you're going to keep a mental catalog of all the characters, events, locations, and story elements that have taken place so far, and you're not going to let the plot lose you this time. But then, before you know it, characters are suddenly entirely different people, or seem to be. Or you're in scenes with characters you've never seen before who talk about cryptic subjects. You lose track of whether this is a dream or a fantasy or a nightmare. And then you give up any chance of puzzling it all out, content to let the images, emotions, and scenes wash over you. Moreover, I'm not sure there's any overriding plot to Inland Empire that one is supposed to decode. I'm not even sure David Lynch knows precisely what is always taking place. But then again, that's never been the point of his movies.
Film is primarily a visual medium. How the shots are composed and lit, how the camera moves, what the camera focuses on, where the actors and the sets are and how they move and interact...all these concepts are ways of conveying not only story to the viewer, but also meaning. Some directors are well known for being incredible with their style and unique vision. Others are content to let film be another way of telling a story which could just as easily be a book. I love Kevin Smith, but even he will admit that he's not an ambitious director. Yet his 'style' fits his films well. What I'm getting at here is, David Lynch is one of those auteur directors who make masterful use of film as a visual medium. To watch his work is to see his vision and his vision alone. He almost always writes the screenplay and either writes himself or handpicks the music that is used. As someone who writes fiction, I know how hard it can be to get down exactly what you see/feel in your head. Even if you dislike what David Lynch films are, you can at least admire that he's able to get things from his head unto film as well as he does.
Inland Empire is a three hour epic and feels equally like a summation of Lynch's career up until that point as it raises new possibilities for his future. It starts out as the story of the filming of a cursed movie before becoming a strange series of somehow interconnected scenes centered around the various personas of lead actress Laura Dern. It seems to weave a spiderweb of realities in which, after a point, we're never sure if what we're watching is the actors in real life, the actors in the movie, a movie about the making of a movie, or the fantasies/dreams of the different characters. Inland Empire is a dense, difficult work but I find myself returning to it, as I do all of Lynch's films, because it's like nothing I've ever experienced.
The most interesting visual aspect of Inland Empire is the use of digital film. This gives it a glossy, hyper-realistic look which helps underscore the movie's themes of reality vs. fiction and how films affect the actors. It's as if you're watching the behind-the-scenes footage of a movie while also watching the movie at the same time. The 'movie' being made in Inland Empire--something about adultery in the south--bleeds over into the actors' lives. One scene has Dern laughing and saying "this sounds like a line from the movie" and then we see that she thought they were in reality but were filming a scene. There's a another scene early in the film where a mysterious old Polish woman comes calling on Laura Dern's actress persona. I always get the feeling that they were never in the same room together. Dern's responses and reactions don't quite match the woman's, as if Lynch were interviewing her and then cut in the old woman later. Again, it's like behind-the-scenes footage mixing with the film itself. Meanwhile, Inland Empire occasionally cuts to seemingly unrelated scenes with three people in rabbit heads who have stilted, vague dialogue. And there's a crying girl who watches those rabbits and the ongoing film and who ends up murdering one of Dern's personas with a screwdriver...but then that turns out to be a scene from the movie being made and...yeah, it's all very confusing.
While watching the movie for the third time the other night, a phrase kept repeating in my head: "watching someone else's dreams." The film's tagline is "a woman in trouble", which is barely adequate to describe the "plot." More helpful and relevant to my phrase is a quote that Lynch offered, taken from one of the Upanishads, a sacred Hindu text: "We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe." Going along with my dreamlike interpretation, David Lynch is a well known practitioner of Transcendental Meditation. Less informed viewers might watch his films and think their bizarre, absurdist plots were the work of a drug addled mind. Rather, I feel like Lynch brings back images, ideas, and feelings from his dream-life and what he experiences in meditative trips. How else to explain the hypnotic, beautiful, and terrifying look of this film and the events that take place??
Is Inland Empire a good movie?? I'm not sure. It sounds presumptuous to say this, but I don't know that you can apply typical critical metrics to it. Three hours sounds like a lot of time yet it passes so quickly and you still won't really "know" what happened. While I may like some of Lynch's films better than others, I think the success or failure of his work rests less on the usual meters of a movie's success or failure and more on how much they stick with you. I'm drawn into Lynch's world (or whichever world he's made this time) for two hours or more and, when I'm through, how much of that world sticks with me, and has me thinking about it, is my measure of success. For the majority of the population, Inland Empire will be a baffling, pretentious, overlong art film that makes no sense and never goes anywhere. But I'm still thinking about the movie, and the characters, and the arresting, hypnotic images it presents. Inland Empire might just be Lynch's magnum opus. Highly recommended.

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