Thursday, April 17, 2008

Inland Empire: Lynch and Dern crawl deep inside to break out, crack up, throw down the gauntlet for exploring the new digital landscape

A new neighbour with a Martian-like head drops in on actress Nikki Grace (the fearless, inimitable, marvelous Laura Dern). She accurately predicts that Nikki will be selected for a much-sought-after role and then recalls a folktale about a boy who, leaving his house one day, catches sight of himself in a mirror, inadvertently releasing evil unto the world.

The notion of evil residing in one’s reflection exists in many myths; in
Inland Empire it brilliantly manifests as the fearful fascination one finds when one’s image looks back at them from a movie screen.

Polish mobsters, Hollywood prostitutes, movie people, a Balkan circus troupe, anthropomorphic rabbits confined to a room like the trio in
No Exit: each of these milieus intersect, refracting off each other over the course of Inland Empire. Things shift from menacing, basically realistic intrigue into a layered world of overlapping anxieties and violence. Causality becomes overwhelmingly tenuous, lucidity evaporates and fantasy takes hold, clenching the fabric of the established reality in its bared teeth. Nikki’s new movie, it’s discovered, has secret, cursed roots in an earlier, unfinished production. She comes to identify with her adulterous role, so closely that her persona blurs into it completely.

While aligning to his previous tropes and unbridled appetite for portent, the self-distributed 
Inland Empire breaks much new ground for David Lynch. It’s an epic set—not on some vast landscape but in a largely insular, even interior region. It’s visually dynamic, hauntingly image-saturated, yet shot with low-grade DV cameras. It’s more resistant to simple summation than anything since Eraserhead, and so rich with a sense of discovery, goofy humour (enter a panhandling Harry Dean Stanton) and billowing strangeness as to be considered among Lynch’s masterworks.

Exiting a press screening for Inland Empire, I overheard one critic say, “Good thing they didn’t cut that down to only two-hours; then it wouldn’t have many any sense!” A clever quip, but misleading commentary. Yes, Inland Empire is three hours long, much of it audaciously perplexing, rippling with ambiguity even in its resolution. Admittedly, there’s the sense of Lynch being somewhat indecisive, inviting one too many freaks for dinner, but still I’d argue that the movie’s protracted duration itself is a key factor in how it works on you.

Like Hitchcock, Lynch is interested in “putting the audience through it,” the “it” signifying normally unpleasant sensations such as terror and unease.
Inland Empire is extremely successful at inflicting unease and one of the ways in which it does so is through sheer hallucinatory relentlessness. Spend enough time in Nikki’s nightmare and you’ll leave the theatre feeling very much like you’ve been through something—and I don’t know about you, but this sort of transporting experience is precisely what I go to the movies hoping to have.

At a crucial juncture, Nikki is putting some groceries in her car when she spots some cryptic writing on a wall. She’s compelled to enter a darkened door and, in a memorably chilling sequence sees—in a manner of speaking—her reflection. From here, Nikki tumbles down the rabbit hole, where she’s lost for a very long time. She enters what appears to be a two-dimensional set. Once she’s inside, however, it proves to be a real, furnished bungalow, one Dorothy Vallens might have inhabited if she moved to the Los Angeles suburbs. She’s entered the labyrinth of
Inland Empire, crossing over into a realm where identity, place and even time assume a tempestuous fluidity.

And Lynch himself has crossed over into new territory. His grainy DV creates unstable, textured shadows, looming close-ups, distorting rays of light and the most ghostly hand-held camerawork I think I’ve ever seen. (Lynch says what he loves about these cameras is that he can hold the image in the palm of his hand—accordingly, the camerawork assumes an unusually physical, choreographic quality.) He’s renovated his sensibility to embrace a now primitive technology, ironically employed to capture images of glamour; in doing so, he’s revealed glamour’s darkest underbelly, picking up where
Mulholland Drive left off and moving even deeper into the empire of our movie-infected subconscious. 

As a post script, I think it's also worth mentioning that Inland Empire pretty much has my new favourite closing credit sequence ever, employing Nina Simone's rendition of 'Sinnerman' to a very different yet equally tremendous effect as Golden Door did the same year. It's wonderful, flashy, loopy, sort of delirious, featuring numerous cast members, friends, lip-synching performers, a monkey. It's also a shrewd move, a way to keep exasperated audiences in their seats (if they've made it this far...) rather than jolt up or run out screaming, to come down a bit from a long, frequently insane ride. 

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