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RUNNING TIME: 179 Minutes
More Things That Happened
Laura Dern; Justin Theraux; Harry Dean Stanton; Jeremy Irons; William H. Macy; Diane Ladd; Peter J. Lucas; Karolina Gruszka; Grace Zabriske
Actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is waiting to get a big part in a new movie, and receives a foreboding visit from an oddly-mannered woman. Nikki gets the part, in which her character plays lover to a married man (Justin Theroux) and which is both related to a Polish film called 47 and seems to recall the events of Axxon N., a long-running radio play from Eastern Europe. Through her work Nikki falls into elliptical events, fantasies and memories, and her identity rearranges and crumbles. Is Nikki even Nikki at all?
The gloves are off. Maps burned. Signs eradicated. David Lynch has finally gone into himself — his head, his process and his dreams — to produce an undistilled vision. Inland Empire trails feelers that disappear into Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway, but this is something much more. This is Lynch unfettered. Writing as he goes along, taking direct and fleeting inspiration while shooting, composing and editing.
It’s fitting that one of the last films I wrote about before tackling Inland Empire was Stardust. Few authors in popular literature are as overtly concerned as Neil Gaiman with story, and how storytelling turns both inward to itself and outward to audience and author. Similarly, Lynch is among the filmmakers most deliberately concerned with story from a cinematic perspective, though he’d likely articulate it differently.
Inland Empire is no story in any traditional sense. It is a recursion, an exploration. Rather than opening a thing up to be viewed by what’s outside, this is a means of taking something that’s outside — us, and consciousness — and pulling it in. The journey results in something buried deep inside being brought back out to light.
The film is all doorways, passageways and lights that draw us in like moths. If we survive the journey, we’re finally to land, like Laura Dern, in a Polish hotel room where a beautiful girl sits on her bed, mesmerized by grief.
Amy Taubin in Film Comment went so far as to suggest a literal connection between Nikki Grace and Alice, supported by one of Laura Dern’s Tenniel-like costumes and the integration of Lynch’s short film Rabbits, featuring a sparse apartment in which three humanoid rabbits speak to each other in terse disclosures, animal Ids that know a truth, even if they don’t know what it is.
While Taubin overreaches, I think, in her attempt to integrate Rabbits and Nikki, she gets one thing very right by relating Inland Empire to a quote from William Gibson, who was speaking at the time about Burroughs and the cut-up method. "Meaning, ultimately, seemed a matter of adjacent data."
A brief bit of history: Rabbits was part of the second layer of unique content Lynch created for his subscription-based website in 2002. The project to follow Rabbits was called Axxon N., though it never appeared. Inland Empire seems quite evidently to be the significantly expanded version of Axxon N. That name is the first thing spoken in the film, and scrawled on walls and doors it becomes a signpost for Laura Dern’s character(s) Nikki and Susan.
Just because the story isn’t told in any traditional sense doesn’t mean there isn’t one. It’s just more non-linear than most; in Mulholland Dr. Lynch clued us to his timeline and layers of reality with props and set dressing (coffee cups, lamps) and here does something similar. The tale is told wildly out of order, with clues in a red lamp (again) and costume changes. The loose order is determined by a lateral sense of memory and inference instead of a linear recollection. As Grace Zabriske says, "Forgetfulness. It happens to us all. And me, why, I’m the worst one!"
So the Gibson quote is wildly appropriate; this experiment is the product of a new-media enterprise; it grew out of an artistic playground in which Lynch was bound only to his ideas; and it uses modern film technology, now inherently free-associative, to project on a screen as clear a representation of the process of thought, memory and repression as I’ve seen.
Divergent story interpretations have proliferated, though two are most prominent. The most obvious is almost a reversal of Mulholland Dr.; it has the actress Nikki Grace disappearing into herself as she prepares the role of Susan Blue, to the point where she’s lost within herself and/or Susan. The other is in line with Lost Highway; that Nikki doesn’t exist at all, and is the escapist fantasy of Susan Blue, who is guilty of killing at least one of a possible number of people.
I don’t see why these interpretations have to be mutually exclusive. Rather, they’re complimentary. People have expressed distaste for Lynch’s latter-day fondness for actors as story subjects, but I see him using roles as a tool. The ones we create for ourselves (deliberately and less so) and the ones others impose. Anchoring a story with an actor is just a formal way of acknowledging that toolbox, essentially giving it to us in shorthand so he can move on to the things meaningful to us all: those roles as they apply to, transform and transcend consciousness and identity.
William H. Macy. President and Director of the On The Air Fanclub and Recreation Society. .
I opened by suggesting that this is Lynch at his most unbound, and to an audience expecting a regular old narrative, Inland Empire is certainly way out there. But after half a dozen viewings the word that comes to mind is restraint. Whether it’s Laura Dern’s meticulously composed performance (which also veers into the almost unbearably raw) or Lynch’s ability to not deform his ideas and his refusal to mold them into something more recognizable, there’s a great restraint at work here. Inland Empire may appear to be a wild, random collection of clips, but that is very much not the case.
This isn’t the place where I’m going to dish out some arbitrary qualitative analysis — if you hadn’t noticed already I admire the film greatly and love watching it — but I will suggest that anyone put off by the running time and apparent complexity should give Inland Empire a shot. Laura Dern’s expert, captivating performance — especially in the confessional sequence that is the film’s backbone — is not something to be missed, nor is the playfulness with which David Lynch approaches the moving image and the very idea and meaning of telling a story.
Note: I haven’t been able to find an actual image online that shows the DVD cover I have. As I’m sans scanner, I took a simple digicam shot of the cover. What’s represented up there isn’t quite it, as you can see. (CLICK HERE.)
The video presentation here is noticeably superior to both of the theatrical projections I saw. It’s sharper, more vivid and crisp. The deep shadows, and there are many, will tax cheap LCD displays, but in the right presentation look amazing. You can argue that the sharpness is counterproductive, that the smeary, slightly broken down video in theaters helped draw us into the story, and complimented the jigsaw psyche of Laura Dern’s character. I appreciate that perspective, but I’m also quite impressed with what David Lynch got out of an out of date video camera.
Whether or not you like the video presentation of Inland Empire as clean as this, I can’t brook any argument against the sound, which is sparkling. Minutiae which got lost in theatrical presentations (like the opening announcement/definition of Axxon N.) are easily perceived here. Since the default mix is two-channel stereo, I’d even suggest using a good quality set of headphones if you have them.
More Things That Happened: There’s no way to do a simple rundown of this hour-long collection of deleted scenes. They’re not even ‘deleted’ so much, as while watching you get the idea that they were never intended to be part of the film. As you hear some directors making character bibles and histories for their actors, these clips are like identity building moments in a similar respect. You’ll see more of the blue-collar life of one of Nikki’s identities and many other things, as well. Some moments are illuminating, some are odd and threatening, while others merely are.
Ballerina: Like a dream or a vision, a ballerina dances through fog and smoke, slowly resolving into focus.
Lynch 2: As a prelude to the upcoming Lynch 1 documentary, we’re given this 40-minute look at the creation of Inland Empire. The Lynch we see here looks like a man who is exactly where he wants to be. That he appears to be making a student film more than a major feature is beside the point. This is the hands-on, improvisational filmmaker of Eraserhead and The Alphabet. It’s not far from the guy who cobbled together a moving painting called Six Men Getting Sick – he’s just got a lot more famous friends who are convinced he’s worth working for.
This is Lynch casting the prop screwdriver used in one scene, touching up the paint on a studio floor, and acting as his own script supervisor. (‘DON’T let me forget that blue dress!’ he compels one crewmember.) Even more shocking is the relative youth of his crew. If the back stage of Inland Empire looks like a student film it’s because the director has surrounded himself with people chosen, I would hazard to guess, as much for their indifference to tradition and practice as their skill sets. Having seen Inland Empire a couple times already, their skills are not in doubt.
Lynch 2 is remarkable not only for what it shows, but in that it shows these things at all. Lynch is the director who refuses explanations and answers; the closest you’ll get to a rationalization of any of his plotting is the Mulholland Dr. cheat sheet. He disdains commentaries and even, famously, chapter stops on DVD. So to see him so openly working in front of the camera, rather than behind it, is a revelation.
He’s not giving up every secret, though. There’s a point near the end of Lynch 2 where the man and Laura Dern are standing in a doorway discussing a shot, and when he says something to Dern that could actually communicate his intent to us, he whispers it in her ear, covering his mouth with his hand. Some things never change, and for that I’m thankful.
Quinoa: A dusk dream of cooking the world’s most complete grain. A low bassline dubs along, brushed cymbals tick out the time and David Lynch narrates a lesson in cooking dinner. In those moments while dinner is cooking, he takes a break to smoke and tell a story about stopping for refreshments during a train ride. You’ll remember this story, I guarantee.
There’s something else about this clip. If you ever saw some of Lynch’s early ’90s talk-show appearances, you might remember him expressing a distaste for ‘cooking in the home’ as it resulted in a sort of film on the walls. And here he is, a dozen years later, cookin’ it up in his own home. Lovely.
Stories: If you’ve seen the Eraserhead DVD, this collection of interviews will look very familiar. Once again Lynch sits in an office chair between red curtains and a microphone. Smoke nearly billows from his ever-present cigarette. He discusses Rabbits (which was a one-night production); his first exposure to Poland ("I asked him if he could get me girls to photograph"); the gestation of much of Inland Empire; digital picture and sound editing ("…You gotta know how to run it. And I don’t know how to run it. That’s how come Dean is here. And even though I don’t like Dean, personally, I love him as an engineer."); inspiration; technology ("It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking phone."); DVD chapter stops and more. As all that might imply, this isn’t your typical press kit bullshit. Forty minutes well spent.