Lost in the Movies: Inland Empire

Inland Empire

Near the end of Inland Empire - or rather, near the end of one of its many endings - Laura Dern hurls, puking blood all over the sidewalk. Permit me to do the same. I could let the movie sit for several days, digesting it, thinking it over, perhaps reading up on it. Instead I'm going to sort through all my initial thoughts and reactions here in real time, for your entertainment. Anyway, I think the movie deserves that sort of response.

Inland Empire takes the promise of David Lynch's other films, the hidden secrets, and vomits them out. The shaky frameworks of his stories, which have grown shakier over the years, here seems but the flimsiest pretense and at times the structure dissolves altogether. The effect is often frustrating because the director's greatest gift is the gift of suggestion. This is the closest he's come to making an experimental feature - well, this and Eraserhead but that was so much more contained. He has a sensibility which reacts off of conventions and narrative structures and without that safety net his thread can get lost.

Of course to talk about Lynch at all is misleading - during the film the director is only fleetingly on your mind, as the mad world he has conveyed puts up a wall between him and you. David Lynch is the most roundabout of auteurs: his universe is utterly distinctive yet his traces are like God's: without knowing the process behind filmmaking, if we just discovered his films as objects, we might assume they created themselves and that no one intelligence is behind them. You can't catch Lynch at work - it's as if he was just in the room before you came in. What do I mean by this? It's partly Lynch's public persona, the aw-shucks "Boy Scout From Mars" who is often comically at odds with the darkness of his works. But also how the work seems to escapes the hold of any dominant mindframe, especially here in this film, jumping into the subconscious as if from the ether, with the filmmaker as a mere conduit.

But the director isn't just a conduit and this is where some of the complications set in. We're aware all the time of some sort of intelligence at work and guessing what it's up to becomes distracting. One could just sit back and let the dream logic unfold, but Lynch never quite facilitates this reaction. He's constantly dropping clues, alluding to a mystery to be solved; and anyone familiar with his previous work knows that there's always some sort of underpinning story. Lynch seldom does surrealism for surrealism's sake, or if he does, he tries to hide his purpose with "explanations." Usually I find this intriguing: the rational amplifies the irrational without cheapening it. Despite its hints and nudges towards answers, Inland Empire takes the irrational to the extreme - there are sequences which defy any possible explanation and don't resonate on an emotional level either, they're just there yet they leave one asking, is there a there there?

I thought about opening this entry with a version of Pauline Kael's famous bon mot: if you hold this review up to the light you can read H-E-L-P. But, self-deprecation aside, I don't want to let Lynch off the hook that easily. Besides, I wasn't totally lost at sea - certain passages effected me. Anytime those rabbits were onscreen I felt a disquieting chill. As Laura Dern sat in the dingy little room, telling the man about her sexual exploits and mental confusion, I finally felt myself being drawn into the movie's labyrinth. The scene in which Laura Dern vomits and two street women find an inexplicably effective rapport made me reconsider my underwhelming response to the movie thus far. And one final moment sent an involuntary shudder through me and I had absolutely no choice but to jerk my head away from the screen: only Lynch can create a reaction this unconditionally visceral.

Yet I was left with the uneasy feeling that Lynch was trying to do two things at once, cheating in a sense. I can go with the flow of the completely irrational, but it needs to be completely irrational. Associations are par for the course but expectations of specific and singular meaning must be cast by the wayside. It bears mentioning here that Lynch has shot Inland Empire on video, with the last vestiges of classicism stripped from his cinematic vernacular (save for a kind of rough continuity editing, which at this historical juncture has transcended and superseded classicism anyway). So the style does not beautify the material and let you become distracted by the attractiveness of the composition. Though the visuals are often striking, they are elemental and stripped down.

Sometimes this style evokes reality television, at others video art. But Lynch is not a reflexive artist. He can sometimes be mistaken for one, because his narratives tend to loop back on themselves, and because he knowingly makes use of cliches and conventions, while simultaneously subverting them. Yet he doesn't ever really make us aware of the process - his aim is always to immerse us in the world on the screen and even if his subject is filmmaking he doesn't clue us in to the fact that he himself is behind the camera. This penchant of Lynch's for ultra-immersion is problematic here because Inland Empire intends to be as self-referential and aware as they come: one of its primary subjects it the making and watching of movies, and the process of getting lost in the picture and forgetting that it's all artifice.

For one thing, as the protagonist shifts from scene to scene without explanation it feels like we're flipping channels. Combined with the shots of a weeping Polish girl watching a movie (this movie) on television, and also the reflections of reality TV (stars tooling around behind the scenes, all those girls gone wild) and the use of video, this suggests that Lynch is dealing with the way viewership has changed over the past few decades. The style of the film is highly distracted but creates a kind of rhythm in its jerkiness and fluidity.

Meanwhile, the closest the movie comes to tipping its hand is in Laura Dern's "death scene" when we pull out to see a camera in the foreground and then the crew applauds her "acting" even though a moment before the sequence was presented as reality. Dern walks off the set, ends up in a theater and stares at a big screen which is reflecting her appearance: her life and the movies have become inextricably intertwined. But is this merely the character realizing she lives in a movie in her own head, or is it the character recognizing that she's a character in the movie Inland Empire? Because if Lynch can't even acknowledge the fantasy and artifice of his own creation, how can he expect us to take his revelations of the character's multiple realities seriously?

I think he's trying to - and occasionally he comes close (as with that shot of the camera and some awkward editing in the early scenes) but generally he's too much of a fantasist to draw the curtain on himself. The pullout reveal of a camera reminds one of Persona and Ingmar Bergman's own peculiar attempt at reflexivity. Bergman too was a control freak; like Hitchcock and Lynch, and unlike Godard and Rivette, his films strove towards perfection in expression. When he allowed self-awareness into his movies, it was a very controlled (one might say contrived) self-awareness: those rips in the film were precisely placed, that shot of the camera crane artfully lit (and, furthermore, it can be written off as a camera on the set of Liv Ullman's movie; hasn't she returned to acting?). But it works because the gesture is sincere: even though he has to be OCD about it, Bergman is still making a conscious effort to remind us that we're watching a movie.

It goes without saying that no director has to make this statement. But if your subject is the fluidity and illusionism and artifice of the medium, you'd better be willing to. Otherwise, the "it's all a movie" shenanigans feel slight and dishonest. And that goes hand in hand with another dishonesty: quite often it seems that Lynch's scenes have been chosen entirely at random. This by itself can make a distinctive impression on the viewer, but it's as if Lynch feels the need to justify them and tie them into a larger structure. So we keep getting hints about a dead child, a Polish woman, a doppelganger played by Julia Ormond who stabs people with screwdrivers, a remake which is cursed. Lynch drugs us with the conventions of a mystery, but unlike in Mulholland Drive the dosage isn't correct and we're left wanting more - or less.

I've barely scratched the surface of the movie but that will have to wait for another day, if revisitings of the film warrant it (and I suspect they will). No film this complex and bold should be dismissed after one viewing and, for what it's worth, even with all my problems I would never dismiss it. Besides the truly great images (I'll never forget those rabbits), the movie has many striking and moving motifs which I've only started to grasp the first time around. Foremost is the connection between Laura Dern and the Polish girl, established through the television and eventually climaxing with an embrace between the two - as if the suffering viewer has achieved a rapturous escape from her cold existence, enveloped in the warm, lush mystery of the world onscreen. I couldn't connect all, or even most, of the dots this time around; I'm still not sure how Laura Dern's dead child relates to everything, nor exactly what the "curse" of the Polish film entails. All the more reason to eagerly await my return to the inland empire.

One last note: why the music video under the end credits? It creates the impression of a loose, improvisatory shoot, as if all was fun and games in the making of Inland Empire. However, I found the juxtaposition of this music-for-music's sake spontaneity and low-fi video with the movie star cameos, myriad copyrights and company logos more than a bit unpalatable - another bit of having your cake and eating it too.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice analysis. After being simultaneously confused, annoyed, and impressed by aspects of Inland Empire, I'm guessing that the movie basically consists of Lynch's disconnected hypnagogic imaginings loosely cobbled together. The film is relentlessly uncommercial (which might earn our respect alone). Laura Dern seems to suffer quite a bit, since much of the film seems to trace her gradual debasement. Perhaps, the film caters to critics who like to find puzzles in incoherency, but the rabbit scenes were brilliant and suggestive, and I liked the way the movie would loop back on itself and return to earlier scenes from different points of view. Insofar as Inland Empire teases us to think there is some coherency underlying its fragments, then on that level the film succeeds.

Tony Dayoub said...

"Bergman too was a control freak; like Hitchcock and Lynch, and unlike Godard and Rivette, his films strove towards perfection in expression."

I find this conclusion rather surprising coming from you, who've seen and analyzed so much of Lynch's work. Lynch is decidedly not a control freak by any stretch. For example, his creation of BOB in TP stemmed from a happy accident where Frank Silva, then simply a propmaster in the pilot, got caught in a reflection in a picture hanging at the Palmer house in one of the shots. He frequently allows actors to interpret scenes their own way. He even uses alternate blooper takes where actors crack up, such as the one in FWWM ahere Laura abandons James at the light at Sparkwood and 21.

" It bears mentioning here that Lynch has shot Inland Empire on video, with the last vestiges of classicism stripped from his cinematic vernacular... But Lynch is not a reflexive artist."

I've always considered Lynch to be more a formalist, that is someone very conscious of a certain dark style and abandoning the traditional lighting, shot coverage, etc. that make up classicism.

As to his being reflexive, I think that is again one of the hallmarks of his formalism. Yes, he may not be as reflexive as, "Hey ma, look, it's me David Lynch filming this movie," but he does call attention to the artifice of film often throughout his work. Examples: "Blue Velvet", a scene where we see a backlit Jeffrey emerge from a door at the top of a dark stairway at home, while his aunt watches a B&W movie of a man walking in shadows as the score swells to a crescendo, blurring the line between the noir on TV, and the noir we are watching; the knowing casting of Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn in TP, both actors in "West Side Story", and eventually being teamed up in a rather lengthy plotline exploiting that rapport; TP's abundant use of names first used in other more famous films like Gordon Cole ("Sunset Boulevard"), a role which notably demonstrates some reflexivity by featuring Lynch himself as the FBI agent; "Lost Highway's" Mystery Man capturing most of the climactic evildoings on a video camera, making the filmmaker and director complicit in the events of the film. There are many more examples.

"Inland Empire" started as a series of camera tests as Lynch learned the nuances offered by Digital Video. The very fact that he was able to string together separate experimental scenes to form a mostly coherent film shows a certain flexibility and reflexivity, that is already prevalent in his work, coming to the fore in a way we may not see again.

Joel Bocko said...


Sounds like you had a reaction similar to mine. I guess what bothered me in the end was that the film teased us into finding some coherency in the fragments; I think I would have preferred that for once, Lynch let the dream experience speak for itself.

Tony notes in the comment below yours an interesting fact - that Inland Empire started off as a series of camera tests. I think Lynch's method is often to pluck pearls of subconscious inspiration from the ether and then subsequently try to fit them into a loose structure. Parts stick out here and there, but usually the gel together as in Mulholland Drive (which started life as a TV show). Here I didn't really think they did and the structure ended up distracting from the essence. But that's debatable, and I'm going to watch Inland Empire again as soon as possible, so clearly Lynch succeeded in making it interesting, if nothing else!


I wrote that sentence worried that people might be confused, but hoped the semicolon would clear them up. I may need to go back and tweak it. The "like Hitchcock and Lynch" is supposed to refer to "strove towards perfection in expression" not "was a control freak."

You are absolutely correct to note that Lynch will incorporate spontaneous elements in his mise en scene or story - it's not as if he's afraid to stray from set of storyboards or something! But my point was that once these miscellaneous elements were included he, like Hitchcock and Bergman, was perfectionist about the delivery. This sounds like a no-brainer - what director isn't? But there are some filmmakers, like Godard or Rivette, or also Cassavetes, who let a rawness creep into their work - sometimes because they have to in order to capture what they want in performance or visuals, sometimes because that rawness itself is the point. Lynch has an emotional rawness, but his world is very sequestered, at least in terms of formal elements (your point about the actors cracking up is well-noted; I did notice a few moments like that in his work).

As for the reflexivity, the examples you raise are interesting, but I think they confirm that "he doesn't really make us aware of the process." His reflexivity is slipped into the world of the movie itself; it occurs in preproduction rather than during shooting or post. This isn't 100% true of course (as I noted there's some peculiar editing in the early passage of Inland Empire which reminds us of the artifice of what we're watching) and I've seen Lynch labeled reflexive before - I may have even done so myself once or twice.

Yet when I really think reflexivity, I think a director who unambiguously pulls the curtain back, not one who gives us clues within the world of the film but whose world is essentially sealed off.

I've been struggling for a while with categories of movies - not that any one film fits into any one classification, but there are useful guideposts to have in mind. There's the fantasist school in which the viewer is absorbed in the world of the film like a surface dream; the Bazinian school where the viewer is made aware of the reality - absorbed but not by a cinematic language so much as the essence of what's being captured; a "Marxist" school (for lack of a better term) which tries to rupture the ilusionism and make the viewer aware of the process going on. And also, again for lack of a better term, a Jungian approach - like the fantasist style, it draws the viewer completely into the world of the film, but in a subversive manner which calls up deep subconscious associations. But this should probably be fleshed out in its own post - suffice it to say Lynch pretty much falls into the final category, though unlike a lot of artists who do he doesn't use formal dissonance so much.

As for "classicism" vs. "formalism" I guess I should explain my terminology. By "classicism" I mean roughly what film historian Mark Cousins terms "closed romantic realism" (he reserves "classicism" for artists like Ozu). It's kind of a catch-all for the composed, structured way of making a movie, usually dependent on master shots and editing which respects space and steady framing.

I think Lynch embraced this approach in Blue Velvet and much of Twin Peaks, with Lost Highway representing the beginning of a turning point. Each film beginning with that has been less tied to the conventional rules of Hollywood filmmaking - whose limitations Lynch was fond of bouncing off of. Again, I could/should probably flesh this out in another post.

This was probably a very long response. Hopefully it provided some food for thought.

I'm heartened to see that the "review" (of course it's not a review but I've yet to find the appropriate term for what I'm doing here) engendered a couple responses so quickly.

T.S. said...

I feel like I've had a world-class film school education in 15 minutes. MovieMan, as always, great review... FilmDr and Tony (and MovieMan, in response), your comments are always very intellectually illuminating. I don't know know nearly enough about Lynch to make an informed comment, so I'm scared to post anything beyond compliments.

Joel Bocko said...

T.S. - have you seen Inland Empire? As I attempted to convey in my response, Lynch himself is almost beside the point: the world he creates exists on its own terms. Of course, I kind of undermined this by going on to talk about Lynch himself for most of the piece. What was your impression of the movie if you did see it?

James Hansen said...

I LOVE Inland Empire. Saw it twice in theaters and have watched it once on DVD since then. Every time I'm enamored by it and find it emotionally resonant. I was trying to think of how to engage with your post, but I'll again cop out to a couple of my favorite critics (Hoberman and R who sum up the film and, oddly enough, my feelings about the film pretty directly.

I will say that I really appreciate how you deal with your (internal) feelings quite directly in regard to the film (something that is not always easy to do) but I think you overlook the importance of this being Lynch's first digital work and the incorporation of his experiments on his website (the origin of Rabbits, as well as the Axxon N. reference on the door frame.) Both reviews touch on that somewhat. I'll be thrilled to continue this discussion though! I'll try and rewatch the film this weekend to have some fresher thoughts in my head. But, as far as I'm concerned, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire are Lynch's three best works.

James Hansen said...

Whoops...forgot to post the links.



James Hansen said...

Looks like it won't post the Rosenbaum link correctly...just do a quick search on Google. Should be easy enough to find.


Great post and great comments.

I saw this at the MUSIC BOX THEATRE in Chicago, with Lynch in person answering questions following. It was.....interesting.

As you know movieman, I love Lynch in all his forms. I've seen all his work, other than DUNE and I must say, at first I thought this movie was a little on the flimsy side.

While I found MULLHOLAND DRIVE to be horrifying, heart-breaking and fun, I thought this seemed too scattered to find any sort of emotional connection.

But like you said, no movie this ballsy should be dismissed, so I gave it another shot and appreciated it more.

Maybe in 5-10 years I'll think it's his masterpiece.

Since you're such a big fan of Lynch, I suggest you get his audio reading of CATCHING THE BIG FISH. It's insightful and ridiculously funny.

He talks a lot about digital video and meditation and you really get a sense of his process.

Joel Bocko said...

James and Joseph, thanks for the responses - I can't wait to read those analyses. I tried to watch Inland Empire again but it couldn't hold my interest a mere 24 hrs. later (plus I was very tired) - a lot of what kept me fascinated on first viewing was pure curiosity. But I will probably check it out again in the near future (the Inland Empire bonus disc is also in my queue) and may/may not write up my later reactions.

Thanks everyone for making this a very interesting discussion (not that it's over if you have more you want to say...)

T.S. said...

I did get the sense that Lynch is beside the point for the film, but still, the legions of thinkers who have tackled Lynch's works are very intimidating to me. :) I haven't seen it, although I've been curious about it since I first read Jeffrey Anderson's enthusiastic appraisal at Combustible Celluloid. All the buzz here has certainly made it seem more interesting. I was lukewarm to Mulholland Drive, so maybe I'll re-rent that from the library along with Inland Empire and come back with my (twisted? warped?) impressions.

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