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David Lynch’s Inland Empire

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

David Lynch's Latest Opus is Here. Is the World Ready?

ImageWhat makes David Lynch one of the most fascinating filmmakers in the history of the medium is the tightrope walk over the abyss that is his career. It’s a walk no director can avoid, but most directors have a six-lane road they walk and are in no danger of falling. Lynch, by choice, only gives himself a very narrow but taut rope, and when you watch him walk it, you can’t help but look down at the fall that awaits him. On the one side lies the stodgy predictability of genre, of pulp, of damsels in distress and the bad men who do bad things to them. Filmmakers who fall down this path are called hacks, are given B minuses and two and half stars for their movies, and are damned to death with faint praise. On the other side is the eternal freefall of the avant garde. To fall down this side is to discover tools that allow you to surprise and engage audiences again…but these tools are also their own undoing. Cast adrift from the tethers of narrative and causality, the result is usually a freefall into the inner workings of the artist’s mind; a freefall, unfortunately, that’s only interesting for the artist. Commercial (read: feature) filmmakers who fall on this side of the abyss are crucified for the sin of hubris, ridiculed by both audiences and critics alike, and are usually greeted onto this path by the sounds of an auditorium filled with boos at the Cannes Film Festival. Just ask Vincent Gallo.

What’s so fascinating about how Lynch negotiates this tightrope is that he’s always teetering over the brink of one of these two abysses (usually the latter). He’s swinging his arms, he’s leaning way over it, his wallet is falling out and plunging earthward; it seems impossible he’s going to stop himself from falling…and then, miraculously, he clings to the rope long enough for his small audience to get drunk on the excitement of nearly seeing a man plummet to his death.

Then again, sometimes he does fall. Inland Empire is basically a three hour fall to the dark side of the feature film.

This is not wholly unexpected from Lynch. In fact, upon reading a few articles that described the movie, I myself basically predicted what this movie would be like with a surprising degree of accuracy. Lynch has a history of following up his hits (Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for Mulholland Drive. David Lynch: nominated for an Oscar!) with real chin-scratchers, and this may be the biggest chin scratcher of them all.

To describe the plot is an exercise in futility. Laura Dern starts the movie as a kept woman who, after a long semi-retirement, lands a starring role in a movie directed by Jeremy Irons, co-starring a lothario played by Lynch regular Justin Theroux. Dern’s husband, like most of Lynch’s male characters, is definitely the jealous type (to put it mildly). The film follows this plotline for a good forty-five minutes before devolving into a series of Parallel Derns, most of them more, shall we say, Hard of Luck than the Movie Star Dern. There’s Prostitute Dern. There’s White Trash Dern. These may be the same Derns, then again, they may not be. There’s creepy characters lurking in dark doorstops aplenty. There’s a short dance sequence to “The Locomotion.” There is a shot of one of the most magnificent set of breasts that I’ve ever seen. There’s a Japanese woman who tells a hilarious, bizarre, disturbing story about her best friend in Pomona. And there’s more Paralle Derns. Those of you familiar with Lynch’s oeuvre know that doppelganger’s are one of the man’s obsessions, and should have a good idea what to expect.

Perhaps the best description I can give you is to say that Inland Empire picks up where the last third of Mulholland Drive left off. Here there is no preceding ninety minutes of plot coherence that sets you up and gets you invested for the Big Plunge into the avant garde. This is straight up surrealism: the elements fit together based on the artist’s subconscious intuition rather than by more familiar causal logic. David Lynch’s most popular films find a way to graft a piece of genre pulp onto the project, and the results can be, frankly, startlingly beautiful (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive). Lynch is no dummy: he understands that most moviegoers, who have jobs and aches and pains and money problems and go to the movies to escape these, want some escapism when they go to the movies. And when his back is to the wall (i.e. after a commercial flop like Lost Highway) he makes sure he gives you just that–and much more besides. He never completely abandons his own agenda, though, to smuggle the avant garde into commercial film, and by the end of the movie these techniques usually comes to the fore. This, not coincidentally, is what makes his films so startling, and is what often leaves you numb as you leave the theater, definitely having just experienced something, but what you’re not sure.


A still from the most disturbing sex scene in a Lynch film yet

Let me be blunt here: this movie is not for the masses. Unless you’re on-board with the High Art project of following the contours and textures of an artist’s subconscious, you’re not going to get much out of Inland Empire. There is no genre skeleton on which this art film is built. This is abstraction and a deep, dark look into the subconscious for three full hours. This is fine for some people (myself included). I’m pretty much on-board for whatever Lynch wants to try, as long as he’s putting his all into it. Even if the story makes no sense, even if it’s shot on DV (which Inland Empire is–that’s what made a film as militantly non-commercial as this fiscally viable to make), Lynch still puts on a clinic on how a master manipulates the elements of cinema. Not surprisingly, the sound design (by Lynch himself) is one of the stars here. Lynch is pretty much indisputably the most skilled user of sound to create feelings and environments in the history of film, and for me, that is worth the price of admission alone. Whether that’ll be worth the price for Cindy in Kansas City, who could give two shits about the history of sound design, is another story.

Cindy might also not appreciate having to do work when she’s at a film. Abstract pictures like this force each member of the audience to create their own interpretation and meaning for what they see. This is about as radically anti-commercial as you can get. Standard feature films–basically, 99.8 percent of what you see in the theaters, on DVD, or on TV, unless you’re an obsessed film nut like myself–tells you exactly what to think and when to think it. A cynical person might call this “fascism,” although looked from another angle it’s just old-fashioned “storytelling.” Everyone wants to be entertained at the movies, and if pondering the philosophical underpinnings of the feature film is not your idea of a Friday night well spent, then there is nothing wrong with you skipping Inland Empire.


Lynch and CC2K staffer The Red Baron enjoy a rare moment with pants on

I enjoy doing this kind of work. So do a lot of my friends. I saw The Last King of Scotland the night before I saw Inland Empire. The Last King of Scotland was competently made and told an interesting story and at the end, when we walked out of the theater, there was absolutely nothing to talk about. “That was good.” “Yep.” That was the extent of our conversation. After Inland Empire, however, my friends and I had a heated, impassioned half hour debate about the movie, what happened in it, whether David Lynch is a selfish, callous asshole or a genius, and the nature of cinema itself. The conversation could have gone on all night if we didn’t have jobs to go to the next day. Granted, one person in the group hated the film, another was ambivalent, and another defended it despite having major reservations about the advisability of spending five years making something so abstract. But there was no denying that we had been deeply engaged emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. 

If this sounds like your idea of a Friday night well-spent, then see Inland Empire (if and when it gets theatrical distribution). If not, well, they’ll plenty of other stuff to see at the multiplex.