Movie Night With Urbaniak: Inland Empire

The only things I knew about David Lynch’s Inland Empire, before sitting down to watch it with

 , was that it is a David Lynch movie, it was shot on video, it is three hours long, it has been called quite boring, and it did not enjoy a traditional studio release (in fact, it had not played anywhere near me during its patchy run last year). All of those things pointed toward a movie that could be easily dismissed as the work of an artist with not enough control imposed upon him, who has run amok with his creative energy and gotten lost in his own little aesthetic curlicues.

So it pleases me greatly to say that not only is Inland Empire a very good movie, it is also something of a breakthrough for Lynch, who succeeds in making an essentially plotless three-hour psychodrama riveting cinema.

Something about Inland Empire kept reminding me of Pinter, the oddball scenes full of oblique dialogue about mundane topics, suddenly turning fierce and weird when you least expect it. And the more I thought about it the more apt the comparison became. Pinter was looking to move theater beyond “a show” that has some kind of “meaning,” where the audience could all pat themselves on the back afterward for “getting” whatever “message” the show was trying to impart. He wanted his plays to be a kind of provocation, a deeply unsettling event that didn’t have a “meaning” beyond the absurd, terrifying actions presented on stage.

I think Lynch has accomplished something similar with Inland Empire. More so than any of his earlier movies, which eventually “make sense” after enough viewings, he seems to have finally thrown off the shackles of “meaning” and “plot” to present something like experience itself, outside of “meaning,” and have it not only work on its own aesthetic level but over a period of three hours.

While the movie was running, I kept a running tally of ideas that seemed important at the time, in the hopes of, by the end, “figuring out” what the movie was “about” and thus appearing to be a smarty-pants.

(My list reads, in part: Record, Poles, Polish whore, Rabbits TV show, Blurry video, New neighbor, Wealth, Actress, Mulholland Drive-like moviemaking, Story of little boy, If it were tomorrow, Cursed remake, Purgatory of ex-girlfriends, etc.)

But the longer the list got, the less I feltI understood, and yet I was never less than entertained and always intrigued and sometimes horrified. And I finally thought, well, maybe that’s the point, that ultimately there is no “meaning,” no final “point” to the thing, ie “Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, an actress who gets a part in a big movie and it messes up her mind so much that she doesn’t know who she is anymore.” I mean, that statement certainly covers most of the “action” of the movie, but it doesn’t really explain anything. Nikki (if the movie is, indeed, about Nikki) goes from being an actress to being the character she’s playing in the movie she’s making, to being a lower-class woman married to a Polish man, to being a prostitute who (I think) turns out to also be the character in the movie she’s making, but the way that all this information unfolds is so poetic, mysterious and alarming that it defies not only summation but rational explanation. Why do people keep talking about how they’re “good with animals?” Why is the movie’s producer so broke that he needs to ask crew members for handouts? Who are the people dressed as rabbits and how did they get their own TV show? Who is the Polish whore crying on the bed?

Inland Empire, it seems to me, if it is “about” anything, is about identity, and how extreme emotional circumstances allow/force us to alter our identity. So the actress getting into her role may find herself becoming the character, and the character may echo back to an earlier version of that character, and that earlier version of the character may find herself in the shoes of the “real person” the character is based on, and a distressed woman watching the finished movie on TV may find herself identifying so strongly with the character the actress is playing in the movie that she may imagine herself the actress playing the role. And even this paragraph only “explains” about fifteen percent of what we actually see unfold in Inland Empire.

To put it another way, you could say that Inland Empire is a David Lynch movie for people who thought Mulholland Drive was a little too pat. It’s not that it’s impossible, necessarily, to explain what it’s about, but Lynch shifts perspectives so often and peels back so many layers of perception and possible meanings that I think, in the end, it’s folly to try to nail the damned thing down.  When the movie started, I was bracing myself for a three-hour bore, and by the end of it I thought I could probably see this movie a dozen times and not get to the bottom of it.

Nikki, and Laura Dern’s performance of the character, also reminded me of Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, who was “unstuck in time” and who spent his whole life in a state of anxiety, not knowing from moment to moment what part of his life he was going to be expected to perform.  Dern moves through the movie with a similar level of apprehension, not knowing if, the next time she goes through a door, if she’s going to be herself, the character she’s playing, one of the other characters, or a Polish prostitute, or what, until by the end of the movie she really isn’t sure who she is any more.

Now then: it’s not all peaches-n-cream. Whatever freedom Lynch seems to have found with his video camera has not resulted in a thing beautiful to behold. Which is a shame, because if nothing else, a David Lynch movie is always absolutely gorgeous. But the picture in Inland Empire is blurry and smeary, and Lynch’s shooting style has changed to the point of being almost unrecognizable. Where his scenework is usually graceful and enigmatic, here it is sometimes remarkably clumsy, even amateurish, as though he didn’t have the coverage he needed and had to steal shots from other scenes to compensate. Extreme, distorted close-ups of actors’ faces dominate, and some sections of the movie are so dark as to be essentially invisible. Those technical aspects aside, Inland Empire is a unique, powerful experience.

W.H. Macy appears, for one shot, as a TV announcer for a Hollywood talk show. I’m still puzzling over that one.

Urbaniak and I improvised the following:

LYNCH (loud, flat Midwestern twang). Bill! It’s David!
MACY (ibid). David! How the heck you doin’?
LYNCH. Great! Great! Hey listen, you know I’m doing this crazy Inland Empire thing —
MACY. Yeah, yeah Laura was telling me all about it! Sounds like a gas!
LYNCH. Well listen, I think I’ve got a part for ya!
MACY. You’re kidding! Me?
LYNCH. Yeah, whaddaya doin’ tomorrow?
MACY. Well actually, I’m traveling tomorrow for a shoot in Vanc —
LYNCH. I’m sorry Bill, I’ve got a bunch of static on this end! Can you come by Paramount around ten?
MACY. I — well —
LYNCH. It’s a great part, it’s the star part, it’s practically a second lead to Laura!
MACY. Really? Because I heard Justin —
LYNCH. Can’t hear ya, Bill! No, it’s a key role! You’re gonna steal the picture! You remember Dean in Blue Velvet? It’s like that!
MACY. Sure, he’s great in —
LYNCH. My girl here is telling me eight! Can you be at Paramount at eight instead of ten? We should be able to get you out of there by two!
MACY. Uh, sure David, sure! What — I’m sorry, do you have a script or something?
LYNCH. I’m sorry David, I’m heading into a tunnel! It’s gonna be great! Oh hey!
MACY. Uh huh?
LYNCH. You have a bow tie? Because the character wears a bow tie, and we don’t have the budget for it! Thanks a lot babe, love ya!

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