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Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Before I attempt to review David Lynch’s new film INLAND EMPIRE (and yes, it does need to be in all capitals) I think I should make it very clear that I am going to be viewing this film as a piece of surrealist art, not as a source of entertainment. How do we judge movies? Personally, I like to look at what I think a filmmaker is trying to achieve with a piece, and then assessing whether or not that goal was met in their final work. Then, finally, I synthesize that with my personal tastes, and I have a critique. Maybe it’s not the way a film reviewer should work, but until someone starts paying me, I’ll stick with what I like. So what can I say about INLAND EMPIRE? I’ve been trying to figure out for the past two days what David Lynch’s goal was in making this film. It’s a haunting film, filled with disturbing and beautiful imagery. It is the first Lynch film to be completely shot in digital video, shot with a Sony DSR-PD150. He has stated that he will no longer use film to make motion pictures. I can see why—DV seems to work perfectly with his style. Too bad Kubrick died before he got to make the switch, too.

A good friend of mine says “Surrealism is lazy,” meaning it’s pretty easy to put a bunch of random things on a page and hope someone sees meaning in it. I contend that surrealism has a little bit more thought put into than that, and that truly effective surrealist imagery is easy to spot simply because it’s hard to do. I could put a tampon in a teacup (thanks Ghost World) but I doubt it would stand up next to the razor/eyeball shot in Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

A chief aim of surrealism is to revolutionize individual human experience by freeing people from the restrictive customs and structures of society. This freedom is, supposedly, achieved through exploration of the unconscious mind. I write this huge preface because I think it’s an important foundation to Lynch’s work. INLAND EMPIRE is a tiltawhirl surrealist epic that explores every single one of the director’s favorite themes: sexual paranoia, Madonna vs. Whore, Doppelgangers, patriarchal oppression, time distortion, voyeurism, loss of innocence, it’s all in here (somewhere). If I had to sum in up in one sentence, I would have to say that INLAND EMPIRE is a little bit like Alice Through The Looking Glass, if Alice were a Polish whore on crack.

The film doesn’t have much of a cohesive storyline. Every morning, Lynch handed each actor several pages of dialogue that he had written that morning, which says a little bit about how much of it was planned out ahead of time. Planning free association is a bit of a contradiction in terms, however, so I can understand and appreciate his sponaneous approach. I’m going to try to sum up the plot as briefly as possible. The story begins with a preamble explaining the character of the Polish girl, who is sitting in room 47, watching a film that is, possibly, the film we, the audience, are watching. Yes, there is a scene at this point in which three people sit around a room dressed like rabbits. Some people have interpreted this as a reference to Alice in Wonderland, but I think it’s just Lynch quoting and following up on his own previous work; the rabbits scene in INLAND EMPIRE is actually the ninth episode in Lynch’s “Rabbits” series, the rest of which which can be seen online on youtube or at DavidLynch.com. Yeah, it’s a rabbit mystery. Okay, moving on.

Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is an aging Hollywood actress (with the tackiest porn star name in all creation) who is hoping to make a comeback in her new film role. She lives in a this giant house that reminds me a little bit of the evil hotel in The Shining, decorated like my grandmother’s country club and generally incongruous to Nikki’s personality in every way. Her neighbor, a batty old Polish woman, drops by for coffee, over which she prophesizes a few disturbing things. She says, "You will get the part, but beware the consequences of your actions." She then tells Nikki two stories. "A boy goes out to play and evil is born and follows him. A girl goes out to play, but gets lost in the marketplace. She then offers her final warning and clue about the meaning of the entire movie: Sometimes you forget whether it's today, yesterday, or tomorrow, or in other words, “hey audience, this fable is going to confuse the hell out of you, so just remember it’s not necessarily linear.”

Nikki gets the part and begins her loss of identity cycle as she begins to take on the role of Sue. She meets costar Devon (played by a greased up but still undeniably hot Justin Theroux) and has an affair with him. This affair is creepy and it plays out like it’s in a script. Nikki appears to feel the same way as she begins to confuse fantasy and reality, thinking she is acting when she is not and vice versa. Eventually, she is stuck in her own film, her own husband is now Sue’s husband, etc. At the same time, a separate storyline, involving women being smuggled over from Eastern Europe, is sporadically introduced using musical numbers that can only be described recursively as “Lynchian.” The Polish whores are the little girls who got lost in the marketplace. Simultaneously, Nikki is also one of them; what is Hollywood, if not a dangerous place where pretty girls get bought, sold and thrown away? INLAND EMPIRE juxtaposes the physical act of selling one’s body in the red light district to metaphorically selling one’s self for the sake of celebrity. INLAND EMPIRE is the third installment in what I think of as Lynch’s urban underbelly trilogy along with Lost Highway and Mulhollad Drive. All three films examine the splitting of the good and bad parts of human nature into two figures, usually the hero and the hero’s doppelganger. Everyone in INLAND EMPIRE has a double, everyone is pretending to be someone else, and the film threatens at several points to become completely incomprehensible. It redeems itself, however as Laura Dern’s character(s) is killed, is reborn and throws off the shackles of patriarchal oppression (a common theme in Lynch’s work, represented this time around by a fantastic Jeremy Irons) only to discover that she is trapped in a film. She ends up going into the room that we started out in, where she meets the woman who has been watching this whole mess.

My graduate school experience gave me an education with a sickeningly psychodynamic foundation, which means that, for better or for worse, I’ve read a lot of Freud, Jung and Klein. While watching INLAND EMPIRE I couldn’t help but look at the film as an analysis of the process of projective identification and of the birth of the self. That, however, could take two thousand more words to explore…so I think I’ll save that for next week’s installment. That's right, INLAND EMPIRE is so complicated, I need to take a break to finish reviewing it properly. Thanks David Lynch, you've given a whole generation of film students material for their theses. Stay tuned....


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