REVIEW: Inland Empire (Dir. by DAVID LYNCH, 2006)

inland-empire.jpgBY MATT PRIGGE FILM CRITIC Inland Empire looks like ass. It is also one of the best films released last year — and yet, for reasons that continue to elude me, this film has yet to be booked into an area theater. Maybe it’s the three hour running time, incomprehensible plot or the fact that it’s shot on video and, again, looks like ass. You could almost hear one of Malcolm Gladwell’s fabled Tipping Points make a thud when David Lynch — one of celluloid’s all-time bestest friends — declared a few months ago that not only was his latest movie shot on video, but all his future cinematic efforts would be as well. You’re a ballsy one, Mr. Lynch. And now that another David — Fincher, whose Se7en and The Game are things of pure celluloid beauty — has succumbed to the tricked-out, fancy-shmancy Thomson Viper digital cam for the upcoming Zodiac, that really just about does it for film. When a format’s major practitioners begin abandoning it, how much time does it have left? Celluloid is dead; long live celluloid.

That said, it’s not like Lynch went over to the Dark Side of George Lucas’ high-end DV videography. Inland Empire — Lynch’s latest, longest (at three hours) and most head-spinning mental upchuck yet (which, with this guy, is really saying something) — was shot on no less than the Sony DSR-PD150, an outdated miniDV camcorder that usually costs somewhere around a consumer-friendly $3K. Of course, you get what you pay for: Of the 139 titles on the IMDb that were filmed with the good old DSR-PD 150, only two others stick out from the ghetto of no-name indies: Tadpole and Personal Velocity — two films so sludgy and cheap, visually, that they no doubt bought celluloid a couple extra years of shelf life.

However, those were made by relative no names — what in the name of hell is David Lynch, esteemed auteur of the odd, doing with a cruddy, consumer-grade video cam lensing the the future of his oeuvre? That Lynch calls Inland Empire’s smudgy videography ‘beautiful’ is enough to make any cineaste sob. Never again the exquisite black and white chiaroscuros of Eraserhead’s hellish industrial wasteland, never again the lurid bordello red of Dorothy’s apartment in Blue Velvet.

By any standard, Inland Empire ain’t pretty, but its empirical ugliness is striking in a lot of ways. Lynch is enough of a techie to know his new format’s limitations, even on a first go. In dark rooms, characters creepily dissolve into a series of distorting ones and zeroes. And if they’re Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie — who pops up early on as a woman who’s supposed to be Polish but sounds distinctly Transylvanian — the chintziness of the video makes her look arguably more grotesque than ever before. The aesthetic takes some getting used to, but like anything you spend three hours with, the barriers come down — call it the cinematic equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome.

But the speed and ease of video does something else to Lynch’s art, something that some believe is far more damaging than lo-fi visuals: It nearly eliminates the gap between idea and execution — the downtime while producers work the phones trying to scare up money when weird ideas can mellow with compromise or grow raw and angry with neglect, or reveal themselves for the best-forgotten trifles they always were. Lynch has long been considered one of the few living artists with a direct pipeline to his id and without this gestation period, some say, his dream logic blurs into incoherence and bottomless, unfathomable subjectivity with about as much narrative resolution as a Rorschach ink blot.

Inland Empire is the closest Lynch (or any mainstream director, really) has ever come to filmmaking-as-paint-dripping, shot over three years with neither a finished screenplay nor an overall plan of attack. When an idea struck, he would simply go out and shoot. Anyone who’s been a regular to his site has seen the shorts he periodically uploads, among them a sitcom involving people with rabbit heads. Whether they fit or not, these crop up again, woven into the film’s already dense fabric.

So, what’s Inland Empire about? Got me. After all, I’ve only seen it once. This much is certain: Laura Dern plays an actress filming a Southern melodrama directed by Jeremy Irons. Pretty soon, she starts melding with the character she’s playing. Mulholland Dr. featured characters changing personalities, but Inland Empire raises the stakes several-fold, having Dern adopt a couple more personas: the beset-upon wife of a Polish immigrant; a tough, monologuing Southern woman; and a prostitute who winds up running around Hollywood Blvd. (“Look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before,” Dern inquires to the film’s passersby every now and then.) Meanwhile, we occasionally cut to the aforementioned rabbit-people scenes in Lodz, Poland (the source of some of the film’s budget, as it were) and close-ups of an unidentified woman crying as she watches what appears to be . . . Inland Empire. Which one is the “real” Dern? It’s possible all of them are — or none of them.
What Lynch does with Inland Empire is erase the border between dream state and reality, essentially by never establishing the real. Everything is as real as it is unreal, and eventually you stop pondering the difference.

Naturally, Lynch claims that it does all makes sense, as did Steven Soderbergh in the mock-confrontational opening to his gleefully obscure 1996 Schizopolis: “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.” Indeed, that’s what Inland Empire’s fans have been doing. The film has been occupying one screen for four showings a day in Greenwich Village’s IFC Center since early December, and doing record business. You’d have to go back to the El Topo days to find a challenging “art” film that’s refused to budge for months.

It’s entirely possible that my why-analyze-when-it’s-all-weird stance will change with repeated viewings; hell, I’m still not sure if my theory for Mulholland Dr. will stick. (TV Pilot material = Naomi Watts’ dream; kaleidoscopic final 45 minutes = Naomi Watts’ reality, right? Right?!) Inland Empire may be a feast best consumed over several sittings, but even on a single go, there’s a lot to chew on. For one thing, the film’s fluid surrealism is girded by a kind of feminist manifesto. Rather than play some kind of noble Everywoman, Dern plays, well, every woman. It’s tempting to read Inland Empire’s incoherence as a mirroring the psychic implosion of an aging Hollywood actress not unlike Dern. On the verge of aging out of the leading lady pool, and spurned by younger co-star Justin Theroux, Dern finds herself identifying with every other kicked-to-the-curb woman out there. Not for nothing do the epic end credits feature a room full of aging and elegant women (among them Laura Harring and Natassja Kinski) as Nina Simone’s insanely infectious “Sinnerman” blares on the soundtrack — a soaring testament to the power and allure of women of A Certain Age.

But really, the only certainty about this film we all agree on — after one or one thousand viewings — is this: Laura Dern is one fucking great thespian. In interviews, she claims to not even know how many roles she plays in the film — and nor do we — but that’s no slight on her talent. Quite the opposite. Even when her roles are disparate — her actress isn’t much like her prostitute — she finds a certain unity, a conviction that joins them together. She’s the eye of the film’s storm, and even if the film goes out of its way to feel like hundreds of random pieces of a far larger puzzle, she holds the jigsaws together, if just barely. She makes you believe the film’s about something, even if you never quite figure out what that something is.

(Inland Empire has no distributor. A single cut of the film begins a tour of major American cities today. To date, there are no local screenings of the film scheduled.)

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