EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Oh boy! Where do I even start with David Lynch's insane new magnum opus Inland Empire (**** out of ****)?
Well, let me start by stating a given: that one viewing isn't nearly enough to grasp this movie. Once again, Lynch is experimenting with narrative, trying to play with our expectations and reconfiguring stories in ways that will, to put it crudely, fuck with our heads. But while the Möbius strip narrative of Lost Highway (1997) and the splintered movie fantasy/cruel reality narrative of Mulholland Drive (2001) certainly worked to confuse the hell out of us, Lynch---if one can believe it---actually manages to go even further here in Inland Empire. At first, this seems like your typical movie-within-a-movie...and then you start questioning what's "real" and what's the movie...and then it starts to feel like another movie within that movie-within-a-movie...and so on for three mesmerizing hours.
But the narrative puzzle box of Inland Empire is hardly the only story here. As with Mulholland Drive, Lynch has created a surrealistic, corrosive portrait of Hollywood---even more corrosive, in fact. Mulholland Drive focused its narrative machinations on dreamers who discover the harsh realities of Hollywood life; Inland Empire goes deeper into those harsh realities, dispensing with genre conventions and training its fucked-up eye on an already established star (Laura Dern) who, through the course of the film, seems to undergo a fall that's even more tragic than that which befalls Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. (Mulholland Drive is named after a street in Hollywood; Inland Empire is a totally made-up name for Lynch's vision of the seedy underbelly of Southern California. Perhaps that should tell you something about the differences between the cumulative visions of the two films right there.) Does that make this a depressing movie, you may ask? It's dark and it's dingy (thanks in part to Lynch's use of miniDV technology instead of film; more on that later), and yet somehow Inland Empire remains oddly playful and bleakly funny, even at its most baffling. (A Greek chorus of floozies doing the "Locomotion" out of nowhere? And I thought Godard and Tarantino were the only masters of such sublime "random" moments in movies!)
Thematically, there's so much that one could latch onto in this beast of a film that I'd probably go crazy in trying to articulate all of the ones I noticed. So I'll just take the time here to mention one thing that I took away from the film: its self-reflexivity. Inland Empire, on a grand scale, seems to be a movie as much about itself as it is about Hollywood. And one of its movie-related targets is acting: just how far an actress is willing to go for her art. Laura Dern has been justly praised for her fearlessness and her fierce intelligence in approaching this monstrously complicated role---does she even know which character she's supposed to be playing at certain points?---but perhaps the key to her startling success in the film comes from the fact Inland Empire is, in part, about her fearlessness, about the depths she would plunge for the sake of approaching a character. As Inland Empire goes on, Lynch starts confusing you as to who exactly we're seeing on the screen: Nikki Grace, the bright-eyed ingenue actress, or Susan Blue, the character she's playing in some cheesy melodrama entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows. That confusion, in fact, is a witty surrealistic take on the idea of actors "inhabiting" a role to the point that it nearly consumes them. (It's often said that Michael Redgrave was never quite the same after playing the haunted ventriloquist in Dead of Night, or Faye Dunaway the same after playing the control freak Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest; heck, among modern actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman has publicly expressed relief that he no longer had to think about Truman Capote after impersonating the hell out of the late writer---and winning an Oscar for his trouble in Capote.)
Of course, what do Polish gangsters, singing and dancing prostitutes, and a television show populated with giant rabbits have to do with Nikki, Sue, or the supposedly cursed script of On High in Blue Tomorrows? Not sure I could tell you with any certainty. Perhaps this is another case of Lynch mixing one character's movie-influenced dreams with sad reality. Maybe Lynch is looking back at his own career through a distorted mirror. Or it may well be that Lynch is just being silly, throwing whatever strikes his subconscious onto the screen with no particular logic to speak of, narrative or emotional.
Maybe I'm just too much of a sucker for experimental stuff, but I'm inclined to give Lynch the benefit of the doubt and believe that Inland Empire will eventually reveal most of its secrets to me in subsequent viewings. (Call me pretentious or cowardly or whatever, but I'd like to remain hopeful on that prospect, especially based on what I've seen and on my past experiences with Lynch.)
This brings me to one of the more controversial aspects of Lynch's films: his use of a consumer-grade digital video camera to shoot Inland Empire as opposed to film. First things first: unlike Michael Mann, Lynch didn't use a high-definition video format to shoot the film (apparently, he found HD too clear for his taste), so Inland Empire almost defiantly looks like amateur digital video, with heavy video grain and washed-out colors and many instances of visual murk. Yes, it isn't always pretty to look at, and one can't really call this movie "beautiful" in any conventional sense---at least, not in the sense that earlier Lynch films like Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive, among others, could be considered beautiful and artistic.
But Inland Empire is very much a film in which Lynch attempts to throw out convention, and in this experimental atmosphere, it seems almost fitting that his experimentation would include his method of filming. In a movie that seems as much about it's movie-ness as it is about the characters and wild situations onscreen, it's almost oddly appropriate---and certainly provocative---that he would chronicle the shooting of a film as some kind of amateur home movie, and attempt to see whether his surrealistic style would take on the new format. You would think that Lynch's art would suffer immensely from the limits of the digital medium, especially a lower-grade one; film seems to be the medium most suited to him, with not only its clarity but also the dreamlike atmosphere film can evoke. But I dunno: for the most part, I wasn't too bothered by the change in format, and while I certainly think people have the right to call it crappy-looking and just leave it at that, I think a more instructive approach would be to think about whether Lynch puts digital video---warts and all---to any interesting uses. I think he does: it seems to me he's forcing us to question whether what we are looking at is necessarily cinema or not. Is cinema cinema just because it's shot on film? Or can Inland Empire be considered cinematic simply because it takes place in a seemingly unfamiliar world and has fictional characters and situations?
For all its narrative complications (if there's an actual narrative to speak of), and for all of the mystique that David Lynch has built up for himself (the IFC Center screening was preceded not only by amusing, random clips from the IFC's "Movie Night with David Lynch" on December 4, but also a clip of actor Justin Theroux reading a poem written by Lynch himself), perhaps that's the most fascinating and valuable thing I get from my first (and certainly not my only) viewing of Inland Empire: it's a movie that, in addition to painting a fairly sour portrait of Hollywood, provokes you into thinking about movies and perhaps even the people behind the making of movies in ways that Mulholland Drive didn't even attempt. Sweeeeet.