USA / Poland / France, 2006
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 03 October 2006
Source Asymetrical / Studio Canal Plus 35mm print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
An actress and a new role. Marriage and infidelity. An unpaid bill. TV and the movies. A sitcom about rabbits. An old tale and its variation; an old film and its remake. Prostitutes. A star is born, re-born, half-born. Today, two days from now, yesterday. Brutal fucking murder. The Locomotion. “This is the kind of shit I’m talking about.”
The initial viewing of a new David Lynch film poses some obvious problems. Faced with a torrent of non sequiturs, frame tales, and multiple planes of reality and consciousness, the viewer strives in vain to assemble the disparate fragments into a singular, coherent whole, one that the Lynch-savvy viewer knows will only become apparent after much hindsight and many future viewings, if at all.
This is particularly, audaciously true in the case of Inland Empire, a film that, like Eraserhead, Lynch shot piecemeal over the span of a few years. He started production on the film as early as 2001, shooting the “Rabbits” sitcom right after (and with some cast members of) Mulholland Drive, and completed it in Poland as late as January of this year. Largely bankrolling the production of the film himself, Lynch purportedly would wait for inspiration to write and shoot scenes that he would later shoehorn into the whole. In this way, the task of the spectator becomes similar to that of the filmmaker, assembling peculiar, seemingly unrelated elements into coherence over a long duration.
Inland Empire leads us down pathways, through doorways, along currents, impulses, grooves, and trains of thought, and we are left to scramble for and create our own meaning, to wonder at the significance of letters scratched on walls or written on the protagonist’s hand, to piece together tentative chronologies, to parse real-life from the movies, and, above all, to strive for the proper reaction — horror or hilarity. In the screening I attended, peals of laughter accompanied an expletive-peppered monologue in which one of Laura Dern’s characters relates a tale about gouging out the eye and clawing the genitals of a potential rapist. But this laughter was as much a result of helplessness as it was of giddy bewilderment. It was the laughter of mild derision on the one hand, and of discomfort on the other, uncertain about where the artifice ends and the real “brutal fucking murder” begins. The audience’s reaction is therefore somewhat like that of the laugh-track in Lynch’s already-mythical family sitcom, bursting intermittently and inappropriately from off-camera while rabbit-headed characters speak in mixed-up dialogue, reference undisclosed secrets, and iron clothing monotonously.
In Inland Empire, more than ever, Lynch wishes to establish a connection between a world that is astonishingly familiar and deceptively immediate and one that is utterly, horribly alien. And, more than ever, these two worlds are interchangeable, like prostitutes and starlets, actors and their roles. This is to say also that Lynch wishes to implicate us in his film, not only as observers, but as participants. As in any film, we receive signs and images that purportedly fit together, but here Lynch gives us the sole responsibility of assembling them into a pattern of meaning. In Inland Empire, the spectator is also interchangeable with the characters and the actors playing them.
The most aggressive means of drawing in the viewer that Lynch has at his disposal is ironically the most immediately repellent. Lynch’s use of digital video in the film has already been the source of much head-scratching in early reviews and festival reports; many have wondered, rather petulantly, why the director of such crystalline, defined celluloid images as those in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive — vibrant, striking images of deep red curtains and lipstick, clear blue fluorescence, and impenetrable blackness — should opt in his new film for the gritty, fuzzy, and amorphous quality of DV. Indeed, Lynch has not simply jettisoned celluloid, he has completely negated it, choosing to shoot on a Sony PD-150, a relatively lower grade digital format, that when projected, jolts the image into life with thousands of tiny, wriggling pixels. Scenes shot in near-darkness, of which there are many, are swimming with surface interference as though Lynch is not so much interested in what he is shooting as intent on conveying the thick smog of the Inland Empire or the very skin of the video itself. What appears onscreen is thus consistently ugly and endlessly fascinating, lending texture and noise to every object in the frame and applying great, unflattering splotches of rouge and green pallor to every face in close-up.
What Lynch demands of his viewers is therefore not only a narratological muscularity, but also a visual acuity of Brakhagian proportions. As a cinematic stylist, he has always been interested in testing the viewer’s vision, through violent focusing and re-focusing, jerky camera movement, and stroboscopic lighting, as well as its hearing, with indecipherable and even inaudible dialogue, shocking waves of electronic noise, and unidentified, disembodied voices and sounds. All of these figure in Inland Empire, but they are extended and completed by the full, nasty force of the DV that Lynch brings to bear on his film. Few directors have attempted to probe, even transgress the boundaries of technology and visuality as Lynch does here, and even those who have — like Sokurov in last year’s The Sun — have seldom done so in such an aggressive and systematic manner. As with the scattered splinters of plot and mood, the film almost demands that one assemble the individual pixels onscreen, squirming like snow on a television or ants on a severed ear, into a clear, bright image.
Late in the film, one of Laura Dern’s characters likens her situation to that of a spectator in a movie theater, watching things happening on the screen in front of her without being able to change or participate in them. She eventually finds herself there, watching herself onscreen as things happen around her, and we are of course right there with her. And if we don’t exactly gain agency in the film, Lynch accords us a space of great mental, sensual, and critical creativity, replaying and circulating images clues and streams of thought. Like the characters in the film, or the actors performing it, we relive these moments over and over again until we get them straight.