Inland Empire, 2006
New York Film Festival
Nasal, bespectacled young men with questionable facial hair fraternized in front of Alice Tully Hall on Monday morning, happy, feral, and a little nervous. For them, the event of the season, if not the year, was about to transpire. We were at the New York Film Festival, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire was about to start.
In the auditorium, the energy was even swampier. It was crawling up the walls, congealing somewhere up in the balcony, and dripping down from the light fixtures. I tried not to let their nerdy giddiness get on my shirt – that stuff doesn’t rub out in the wash, and they were oozing the gooey stuff. I could smell it. A quantifiable nerdout was going down.
Kent Jones, critic at large and New York Film Festival fixture, emerged onstage and the crowd hushed. It was time to get down to business. Jones tried for a joke – “your flight time will be about three hours and there are absolutely no safety regulations” – that created an ear-popping vacuum. He announced that Lynch would be around for a Q & A session after the movie. “Great,” I whispered to my lady, before realizing what had escaped my lips. I leaned back over to her. “I mean, terrible.” She nodded. Q & A sessions tend to be dominated by the literal-minded, and a movie by such a cryptic storyteller as Lynch was sure to inspire some cringe-inducing questioning.
This anticipatory dread of the audience’s response did not leave my mind for a second during the screening of Inland Empire, as the existence of the film is implicitly contingent upon its fan base. It’s clear from watching this movie that Lynch, by cultivating a loyal fan base, has secured himself a place in movie culture that allows him to do absolutely whatever he wants. Lynch’s latest resides almost exclusively inside its executor’s own mind, and seems to have slipped out at the last second and splattered itself on the screen (or on Hollywood—I’ll get to that). It’s an egregious exercise in the art of Getting Away With It, and judging from the cacophonous clapping that Lynch’s coven of viewers rewarded it upon its conclusion, he’s pulled It off.
Of course, most in the audience were on board before the plane (as Jones would have it) even announced its destination. But for those of us who took our time settling in, the trip wasn’t nearly trippy enough. In the film’s first scene, one character asks another, “You know what whores do?” The response is obvious: “They fuck.” That logic, whether simple or superficial, suits Inland Empire just fine. As much as it self-consciously sets out to short circuit the synapses, it takes place on the surface.
In an unfortunate inversion of intent, Inland Empire defies integration, but not description: Laura Dern, an actress who gets a part that’s supposed to catapult her back to stardom. In orbit around her are lascivious Hollywood types, an other-dimension TV show and its teary viewer, two sets of Dern’s girlfriends, and a vague malaise cued by thunderous mood music. While shooting, her character’s identity fuses with that of the role she’s playing. Gradually, her grip loosens on reality, and upon running into a room on a soundstage, Dern’s character transforms into another person altogether, as the fake room is suddenly her grungy, real-life domicile.
Lynch made Inland Empire in pieces, shooting as he wrote, and it shows. The disparate elements of the movie interact, but only by coincidence, only because they came from the same mind, one that finds interminable fascination with unflattering portraits of shallow people pursuant of fame and wealth. The central story traces the same arc as that of Naomi Watts’ character in Mulholland Drive, and for the most part Inland Empire is little more than a footnote to Lynch’s earlier, more masterful film.
Inland Empire gets grotesque as it paints the entertainment world as a hellish wasteland. The relationship between the film’s initial universe of glitz and its Act III den of destitution posits a causal relationship between fakery and failure, even though the successful and the homeless are portrayed as equally demented. As Inland Empire descends concentric circles of the Hollywood inferno, Lynch goes literal with his disdain – Dern vomits blood on the Walk of Fame. The moment is about as complex as it sounds.
One of the problems with Inland Empire is that it’s not heavy enough. This is Lynch’s first foray into digital filmmaking, and the bantam cameras give the dream logic an airiness that detracts from the dash after the dark depths of consciousness. It feels too easy. In an early scene, Dern is visited by a foreboding fortuneteller, and the sequence contains the first instance of within-scene reality-bending, as one temporal field leaps to another. The fortuneteller points to an empty couch. The next shot is a new angle on Dern, a rule-breaking 180 degree switch, then a shot from her perspective, which is of the couch, which she is all of a sudden seated upon with her friends. Were the sequence on film, the relationship of shots would resonate much more deeply. Angle decisions and shot switcheroos carry more weight with heavier equipment because you can feel the decisions being made, and there’s a sense – however subconscious – of something serious happening between shots with strange spatial relationships. On digital, the images are fluttery, and because of the mobility and easy lighting you get with digital, shot relationships seem arbitrary.
As for the promised Q & A session, it wasn’t the audience that made it painful, but Lynch’s sermonizing from his pulpit on behalf of the Cult of the Self-Contained Idea. He’s gotten it in his head that any idea that gets him writing must have something to it, even if he’s not sure what it is, and it’s around this muddy mysticism that he made Inland Empire. There’s another way to read this: David Lynch has decided that he need not set any boundaries or obstacles for himself, that whatever he feels like shooting – even if he doesn’t know why – must have some value to a viewer. He’s abandoned the narrative constraints he played so effectively with in Mulholland Drive and has decided to use the camera as a lens onto his own dreaming id. The result is tennis without a net, the rote repetitions of an aging auteur, a child crying out for boundaries.