David Lynch’s work is not for everybody. That being said, to many of us Lynch is a master of the cinema, translating odd and often impenetrable images from his subconscious to the big screen and usually scaring the hell out of us while he’s at it. I saw Inland Empire in the theatre’s in 2007 during its initial (and limited) run and it blew my mind. Since then I’ve re-watched it probably about seven or eight times but the last few I always seem to conk out somewhere just over the two hour mark. The other night I finally sat down at a decent hour and made myself get through Lynch’s most recent nightmare. What follows is my interpretation of the film.
I love Inland Empire. That might sound strange considering I just spoke about repeatedly falling asleep during it and having to ‘make’ myself finish it, but make no mistake – it is not an easy film to love. A massive running time of 179 minutes combined with a long and snaking continuity do not make for an easy late night viewing*. And yet is there a better time to watch a Lynch film? If you’ve ever read any interviews with the man that touch on his philosophies on film making and, perhaps even more interesting, experiencing then you know how seriously he takes the craft, from construction down through and including presentation. This is the man that views Chapter stops on a DVD as absolute detriments. The man who includes a feature on some releases that helps you calibrate your television for optimum color and saturation. Lynch does this with good reason – the textures he employs are often very, very dark and are absolutely made to be viewed in a darkened room.
The darkness is a major part of the palette with which he paints, so to speak. Don’t believe me? The man went so far as to remodel one of his own houses for those long, dark corridor shots in Lost Highway. If that’s not serious craft I don’t know what is.
So maybe you’ll believe me when I say that David Lynch essentially works to control the darkness we live in – darkness that can be quite difficult to capture on film. This is especially true of many scenes in Inland Empire. IN Empire however the darkness we experience is, I believe, different than what we encounter in his some of his previous films. In Inland Empire it almost feels as if Lynch is trying to reflect our own experiences back on us, using the darkness to create a kind of ‘mirror’ effect that, admittedly, must confuse the hell out of some viewers. The film still confuses me after more than half a dozen full or partial viewings. That is of course why I’ve spent so much time trying to get a grasp on it. I understand those who get frustrated with the film and write it off but for me there are still secrets to be unlocked within its Stygian depths.
Those who go into a film experience like Inland Empire looking for escapism don’t necessarily expect or want the lens turned back on themselves; to have an introspective hell surface in the middle of a narrative can be quite jarring and rather disruptive. Maybe this is why Empire seems perhaps Lynch’s most confused story since Eraserhead. Not confused as in he was confused when he made it but confused in that it snakes in and out of several different levels of fiction, some Meta-like and some more traditional. The viewer arguably goes through as many different ‘levels’ of understanding as the characters do, and in this one that’s saying quite a bit.
I remember my reaction to Empire in the theatre: going in with nothing but the enigmatic ‘A woman in trouble‘ logline. Stoned out of my gourd I sat through the film and ended up having a minor epiphany. Obviously I like to analyze and talk about movies but Lynch’s have always eluded a certain degree of ‘oh, and another thing…‘. But at some point during Empire the spell snapped for a moment and I became lucid that I was indeed watching a movie. At that moment I realized I had exactly no idea where I was in the film – I didn’t know if I’d been sitting there for forty minutes or three hours; didn’t know if we were approaching the dénouement or if we were still in the middle of the second act. Lynch’s films are made to hammer the senses we have been taught to approach ordinary cinema with and as such they are free falls through time and space – you go through such a marathon assault on how you perceive time, story, logic and identity during the course of his films that, if you are open to the experience, you leave the theatre a different person than when you came in. Again, this is especially true for Inland Empire and as such it is not an easy film to endure, even for a fan. You have to be completely in the mood and absoltuely free from distractions. If you go into it with those criteria met and an open mind the experience is like wandering through a dark and twisted maze where you’re not sure around what’s every corner or if you are ever going to get out. Which, again, is essentially mirroring the characters’ experience (especially Laura Dern and Karlina Gruszka’s characters).
Another point of remarkable feat with Empire is the acting. There is a scene relatively early on where Justine Theroux and Laura Dern sit down with the Jeremy Irons character; two actors and their director orchestrating their first run through on a scene. Here is another one of the cases where Lynch deals in levels of reality, although this is a comparably tame one when you consider what is to come. Nonetheless, in this scene we have actors portraying actors portraying characters. And it is in such a scene as this that we see the absolutely AMAZING abilities of these actors. There is such a marked, dramatic switch when Theroux and Dern slip into their characters’ characters. It takes my breathe away. It has been said that truly great acting lies in subtlety and nuance and this scene is as good an example of that as I’ve ever seen.
Inland Empire is difficult. So is much of the work of Krzysztof Penderecki or a point of Maibock. But what all of these things have in common is the layers of fascination and pleasure they can bring those who approach them wanting something more than lethargic surrender in their entertainment. In film, as in life, there are snacks and there are meals. Inland Empire, like all of David Lynch’s films, is a four-course meal complete with brandy snifter in the library afterward.
* For the most part I only watch movies late at night. If I go to the theatre that’s one thing but I’m an environment freak and I want it dark. My home has a lot of windows and pretty crappy blinds to block out the daylight, so unless I want to stare at reflections of myself or my things, especially with work shot as darkly as most of Lynch’s stuff, I wait until night. Then there’s the sound aspect – I don’t want a lot of distraction from neighborhood kids, the ice cream man, kicking bass or whatnot so it’s usually just better to wait until late. This however often comes at the end of exhaustion and leads to my wife waking me up on the couch.