Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)

Seems like I've been waiting to see Inland Empire for a long time now. It debuted at the AFI Festival late last year, but that was just a one-night gala event with tickets going for $75 or some shit, that sold out immediately. Then it opened at the Nuart several months ago. The Nuart is clear over on the other side of town, and usually after a film debuts there, it ends up playing at one of the two multiplexes in Pasadena that show arthouse films, so I figured I'd just wait for it to come to Pasadena. But then it never did, and months went by, and finally it played last month at The New Beverly, and I was planning on going but then we got a new dog, and blah blah blah, so last week it played at the Aero theater in Santa Monica, over on the other side of town again. Which is a real hassle, but by this time I was just DETERMINED that I was gonna see the thing in the theater.

I wasn't really sure what to expect. I knew it was three hours long, that it was a dificult film even by Lynch's standards, and that even a lot of people who were heavy Lynch fans disliked it. But I just felt like it was something that you'd have to experience in the theater to get the full effect of, and I just needed to experience it. I'm still not sure what I think of it, but I do think it was the right decision. I'm pretty sure that if I had tried to watch this at home, I would never have made it to the end.

It's hard to figure out where to begin talking about this film. Like all David Lynch movies, it seems to be a direct view into Lynch's subconscious, but even moreso. It's at least partially an attempt to recreate the feeling of a dream. Or, I should say, a nightmare. It's absolutely a David Lynch film: there are red curtains, TV static, characters that take on multiple identities (like Bill Pullman in Lost Highway), sex, violence, surreal weirdness. There's...OK, my favorite scene in any David Lynch movie is the one in Fire Walk With Me, where Laura falls asleep staring at a painting of a doorway, and then she's dreaming of walking through this dark room towards the slightly opened doorway, and she's walking very slowly, like she's not sure what's behind the door, and it's just so fucking scary. It just hooks into some primal perception of childhood fear. Well, I'd say about an hour of this film's running time consists of pov shots of characters walking slowly down dark hallways with lots of corners and doorways. It's a recurring theme, just like when you have nightmares, you always dream the same scenarios, right? And it's especially scary in a David Lynch movie, because, just like in dreams, you have no idea what might be around the corner. It might be a killer with a knife, but it might be a family with bunny rabbit heads, and you're not sure which is scarier. And this movie is scary as shit sometimes.

The basic idea is that Laura Dern is this actress, who is making a movie called On High With Blue Tomorrows (which sounds like something out of a dream, doesn't it? Like, on those rare occasions when you're able to read something in a dream, like the title on a book or a script, it's always some weird bunch of words that don't really make sense), and she plays a woman married to a powerful, violent man but fooling around with this younger guy, while in real life the actress is married to a powerful, violent man and seems to be getting into a relationship with the actor playing the younger guy, and obviously this causes some confusion. Then it turns out that Blue Tomorrows is actually a remake of a Polish film that was never completed because the two lead actors were murdered, and it is based on a Polish folk tale which is believed to be cursed (there's "something in the story" that's cursed). As Dern's character goes through complete ego breakdown, she finds herself in several other identities. Sometimes she's in Poland, sometimes she's at a backyard BBQ with a bunch of polish people, sometimes she's in an upstairs room telling her story to a mysterious bureaucrat, speaking in what sounds like a parody of Quentin Tarantino dialogue. The structure reminds me of Finnegan's Wake: characters take on multiple identities and appear in different settings, and the structure is not so much of flashbacks and flashforwards, but more like everything is always happening: a woman is always being stabbed in the stomach with a screwdriver, Laura Dern is always telling her story to the mysterious bureaucrat, she is always receiving a visit from a mysterious polish woman, but these things repeat in different variations.

The movie can be irritating. I'd estimate that, of the 3-hour running time, I was annoyed for at least an hour. But I'm glad I went through it, in the same way that acid heads never regret a bad trip. And especially in the theater, where it felt like we in the audience were all enduring this journey together. It was a strange experience. People laughed a good deal throughout the film, but it seemed as though no two people laughed at the same thing, found the same parts funny (well, one exception, when Dern tells the bureaucrat "I can't remember what happened first, and it's really laid a mind fuck on me." Everyone laughed at that, as if she was expressing what the audience was going through). In the line in the small bathroom afterward, I broke the silence by turning to the guy next to me and saying "that shit's gonna give me nightmares," which got a good chuckle out of just about everyone there.

But the thing is, although it was an intense experience, I'm not finding that many images are sticking with me. Well, there's one scary-as-fuck image involving clown makeup that I'm having a hard time shaking, but if you think about other David Lynch movies, how they have all these scenes that get stuck under your eyelids, I don't think there's much that's quite up to that. Understand that it's still a David Lynch movie, so it's like saying this is a minor Picasso or Rembrandt. It's still worthwhile, but I'd place it pretty low on the Lynch list.

One more thing I have to mention: Laura Dern. She's incredible. She's on screen through almost the entire running time, and she gives an amazing performance, a raw expression of horror, despair and confusion. Sometimes these emotions aren't clearly defined by the story. It's the emotional equivalent of physically acting with cgi dinosaurs that will be added in in post production.

It's interesting to compare this to Terry Gilliam's Tideland. Both films find the directors working in a looser style, and both have been mostly rejected by their audiences (not least, in each case, for lacking the visual beauty of their best respective works), but both may prove important turning points in their careers. In both cases, I'm hoping that they return to material that's closer to things they've done in the past, bringing some of the lessons they've learned on these films with them, but in both cases, this may never happen. Lynch has explicitly stated that he's never going back to shooting on film (Inland Empire is shot on cheap DV, you can look up just about any recent interview with him to hear him talk on the subject), which I can't help feeling is a real shame. But I guess that one of the things I like about Lynch is that he's a guy who does exactly what he wants to do.

This was the first time I went to the Aero, by the way, and while it's not as lavish as the Egyptian, it's a very nice, comfy old movie house. I have to think that being in this old theater, surrounded by red curtains (this is the the theater where Donnie Darko looks over and sees Frank the Bunny sitting next to him) added to the experience.


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