Skip to main content

It's a story that happened yesterday, but I know it's tomorrow.


Inland Empire
(2006)

David Lynch’s last feature film (to date) begins in typically Lynchian fashion; a scratchy record plays, subtitled Polish is heard. Figures are seen in a hotel room, their faces blurred; one of them, a woman (a prostitute), is then seen crying as she watches a peculiar “sitcom” involving the domestic lives of characters with rabbit heads. The music on the soundtrack suggests the kind of melancholy Julee Cruise evoked in decades past, while the eerie sound effects are the director’s calling card.

Even more than the most obscure of the filmmaker’s previous pictures, there appears to be an almost willful attempt this time to elude any grasp of what is going on. This is most evident in the rejection of a tangible narrative line. For the first third or so, there appears to be an identifiable theme. Laura Dern’s Hollywood star is visited by a gypsy woman (Grace Zabriskie) who proves to be typically unnerving and semi-threatening. There are strange shifts in perspective and time. Zabriskie informs Dern that she has the part she wants, before this is announced to Dern, and Dern sees “herself” talking with friends on a sofa across the room.

As scenes unfold, Lynch makes it unclear whether what we are experiencing relates to Dern or the role she is playing in director Jeremy Irons’ film. In addition, we learn that the film is a remake of a Polish film (47), based on an old folk tale, which went unfinished when the leads were murdered. Entering into the storyline is Dern’s jealous and threatening husband and Justin Theroux’s lothario male lead.

Many of the early scenes have a sense of the surreal fracturing perspective and reality that are signature Lynch; one memorable moment has Dern walk in on the other side of the stage, only to realise that she represents the noise and intrusion that caused a disturbance some days earlier. One can’t help but think of The Shining in the references to urban myths, significant numbers and confusing architectural geography. But the problem this time is that Lynch’s choices become increasingly random. Not in a pleasurable way, but in one that causes the film itself to lose overall cohesion. And, at three hours, it just goes on… and on… and on…

Dern is outstanding, an actress who, possibly due to insubstantial roles, I had never paid much attention to before. And Justin Theroux, in his second film with Lynch, brings some much-needed charisma to the screen (tellingly, he is absent for most of the second half). Harry Dean Stanton makes a brief impression but the rest of the known actors are in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances (Diane Ladd, William H Macy, Julia Ormond, Mary Steenburgen).

There’s clearly an extent to which this is a meditation on the beast that is Hollywood and the fakery and artifice of its function; the blurring of lines between playing a role and becoming it, to the point that no one is sure what the truth is (so picking up from Mulholland Dr.). At around the halfway mark events appear to veer off into a succession of abstracted encounters concerning Polish types and prostitutes and Polish prostitutes. And then Lynch brings it back round to his main theme. Eventually.

But there’s no sense of discipline here, something that could be found in even his most oblique earlier work (Lost Highway). It’s almost as if he didn’t have a finished script (he didn’t). There’s a point where a disturbing scene or image or sound no longer has any impact because you are no longer engaged.

There’s little doubt that the restrictions of finance frequently add to the unsettling nature of what we are seeing. There is a raw quality resulting from the choice of hi-def photography that creates immediacy and a verité sense. But it also results in an absence of the beautiful and seductive qualities that vied with the darkness and distortion in his previous works.

It’s almost as the freedom of a micro-budget (filmed on hi-def) caused Lynch to think, “Fuck it!” (I’m sure he would have been much more polite) and decide to be as inscrutable and unyielding as possible. Apparently Lynch is has referred audiences to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad with the following quote:

We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.

Which is all very well as a guiding principle behind a piece of work, but a lofty idea doesn’t automatically translate successfully. 

There can be a tendency for those who don’t speak glowingly of a celebrated work or auteur to be dismissed with, “You just don’t get it”. And may be that’s so in this case. I don’t know; perhaps I will revisit this one in time and do an about turn. The director’s work is particularly ripe for re-evaluations and fresh perspectives. But, right now, Inland Empire is a bit of a chore. One with flashes of the genius that made Lynch so invigorating but without the guiding principles that made him compelling.

*** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Just a little whiplash is all.

Duel (1971) (SPOILERS) I don’t know if it’s just me, but Spielberg’s ’70s efforts seem, perversely, much more mature, or “adult” at any rate, than his subsequent phase – from the mid-’80s onwards – of straining tremulously for critical acceptance. Perhaps because there’s less thrall to sentiment on display, or indulgence in character exploration that veered into unswerving melodrama. Duel , famously made for TV but more than good enough to garner a European cinema release the following year after the raves came flooding in, is the starkest, most undiluted example of the director as a purveyor of pure technical expertise, honed as it is to essentials in terms of narrative and plotting. Consequently, that’s both Duel ’s strength and weakness.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

You are not brought upon this world to get it!

John Carpenter  Ranked For anyone’s formative film viewing experience during the 1980s, certain directors held undeniable, persuasive genre (SF/fantasy/horror genre) cachet. James Cameron. Ridley Scott ( when he was tackling genre). Joe Dante. David Cronenberg. John Carpenter. Thanks to Halloween , Carpenter’s name became synonymous with horror, but he made relatively few undiluted movies in that vein (the aforementioned, The Fog , Christine , Prince of Darkness (although it has an SF/fantasy streak), In the Mouth of Madness , The Ward ). Certainly, the pictures that cemented my appreciation for his work – Dark Star , The Thing – had only a foot or not at all in that mode.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Sleep well, my friend, and forget us. Tomorrow you will wake up a new man.

The Prisoner 13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling We want information. In an effort to locate Professor Seltzman, a scientist who has perfected a means of transferring one person’s mind to another person’s body, Number Two has Number Six’s mind installed in the body of the Colonel (a loyal servant of the Powers that Be). Six was the last person to have contact with Seltzman and, if he is to stand any chance of being returned to his own body, he must find him (the Village possesses only the means to make the switch, they cannot reverse the process). Awaking in London, Six encounters old acquaintances including his fiancée and her father Sir Charles Portland (Six’s superior and shown in the teaser sequence fretting over how to find Seltzman). Six discovers Seltzman’s hideout by decoding a series of photographs, and sets off to find him in Austria. He achieves this, but both men are captured and returned to the Village. Restoring Six and the Colonel to their respective bodie

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.