Friday, October 11, 2019

Inland Empire (2006)

France / Poland / USA, 180 minutes
Director / writer / photography / editor: David Lynch
Music: David Lynch, Krzysztof Penderecki, Marek Zebrowski
Cast: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Therous, Harry Dean Stanton, Karolina Gruszka, Peter J. Lucas, Krzysztof Majchrzak, Julia Ormond, Grace Zabriskie

The reluctant reviewer: I kept meaning to pick up a copy of this some years ago when I noticed the price drop below $10, but then I kept putting it off for the same reason I dreaded looking at it again recently. It wasn't much fun the first time. Now that it's out of print in DVD and inevitably commanding collector prices, it turned out to be Netflix DVD, of all places, that foiled my attempt to skip it—no waiting and the disc played fine. As projects by director David Lynch go (in this case, he's also the writer, cinematographer, and editor, plus provides music), it's an extreme example of the discontinuity inserted at the end of Mulholland Dr. and the middle of Lost Highway, with a tantalizing if hard to follow thriller giving way to a somewhat senseless explosion of semi-related images and scenes. Even dreams are more organized than Inland Empire. The part that almost makes sense is one hour. The rest is two hours.

My expectations were low so I ended up liking it more the second time and/or I had more patience for it. Lynch's films are always funny but I noticed and enjoyed it more this time. He's also expert at ratcheting tension out of very little. In the first 15 minutes there's an extremely worrisome conversation between Laura Dern and Grace Zabriskie. I forgo giving character names. Why even try? Dern is credited on IMDb as playing two characters but at least one of them is an actress playing other roles. In many ways Inland Empire defies time and gravity and exists as a map of Laura Dern's face. I found it useful, when my mind began to wander, to think of the picture as a kind of extended John Coltrane solo and Laura Dern as David Lynch's instrument.

But I'm also pedestrian enough to wish he'd stuck with the story in the first hour, a nifty tale of a haunted or cursed film production. It has gypsies lurking in the background (Zabriskie) and a star-studded cast in support: Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton, etc., who are excellent, trying very hard to make career pictures with David Lynch. The story about a production in which the two leading players are murdered with every attempt to film or stage it rang bells like crazy for me with my recent reading of horror stories but I can't place it. It feels like a very old story that might have had a modern treatment. Here it's explained as a Polish folk tale but of course that's not to be trusted, even if one of the most mysterious aspects of Inland Empire is its resort to Polish folk culture.

I noticed the picture is exactly three hours, which reminded me that Blue Velvet is exactly two hours. It gives me the sense Lynch does some cutting to length for these round numbers and once I had that idea in my head it seemed like there were marked shifts in Inland Empire that happened in patches of discontinuity at the 1:00 mark and then, to a lesser degree, at 2:00. I wanted to suggest a Moebius strip of time as a structure but I see, via Wikipedia, another critic got there ahead of me and denies it. Certainly it is David Lynchian irrational space (as opposed to, say, Phildickian irrational space), a place where impossible things happen.

The rabbit sitcom material, whose images often accompany write-ups of Inland Empire, actually doesn't take up that much time in the movie. They are almost perfectly senseless scenes and what I like about them is the way Lynch makes them work on us like TV. Though these barely moving bunny rabbit dolls in human garb sound like a dour existential play when they speak, the canned applause and canned laughter punctuate the action and work on us reflexively. "This isn't the way it was" appears to be a reliable laugh line, for example, even though it sounds like someone who is confused and anxious.

I like these scenes even as I recognize their potential to annoy—they don't have anything to do with the "main" story. What actually annoys me here are the music video scenes in the second hour, with nine or 12 ripe adolescent young women (as prostitutes in makeup and lingerie, a recurring Greek chorus into the third hour) riffing by choreography on Little Eva's "Loco-Motion" and Etta James's "At Last." While admittedly they brighten an arguably drab picture to levels of music video dazzle, I wouldn't want to argue this movie is drab and the dazzle felt to me more like commercial breaks in a football game. I'm willing to give Lynch some room on these things, because he seems to work so credibly at unconscious levels, but the lasciviousness coupled with Dern's various punching bag scenes make me uncomfortable beyond the bounds of the picture. I'm not sure Lynch has this material under control.

Is it all a TV in some cheap hotel room watched by a weeping young woman in bed, and the various modalities represent changing channels? Is it the afterlife, with Laura Dern cast into hell after the first hour under the terms of the cursed film project? Is it dreams within dreams within dreams, more score settling with the Hollywood dream factory, or David Lynch's Histoire(s) du cinema, a deeply personal meditation on movies and reality and making movies and making reality? Does it even matter? You tell me. Or better yet, help me track down the source story for the haunted production. First hour on the verge of essential, the rest optional.

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