Inland Empire Review (and Notes on David Lynch Q&A)

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)


Wednesday, January 24, the good people of Austin, Texas were given a special gift: a screening of David Lynch's epic, experimental three-hour film Inland Empire, complete with a post-screening Q&A from the director himself. (For those lucky enough to reside in Central Texas, Austin's famous Alamo Drafthouse procured a copy of Inland Empire for screenings beginning at it's Village location this weekend, making it one the only theaters in the country to show the film.) Our friend Wells Dunbar was lucky enough to make it in, filing this review and report.

"It's kinda laid a mindfuck on me," Laura Dern snarls in a bruised drawl, somewhere in the final third of David Lynch's Inland Empire. An impassioned laugh from the audience confirmed she wasn't alone. Hair disheveled, face dirtied and with a bloody bruise edging out from her famously malleable mouth, Dern makes the declaration as one Susan Blue, a beatdown Southern belle fallen on hard times following her marriage to an Eastern Bloc refugee of ill repute. Or something.

We're so far off from where the film started, when a beautiful, radiant Dern is Nikki Grace, a starlet who, it's elliptically alluded to, is in need of a comeback. Tinseltown pervades Inland Empire, beginning with the film's initial image - a projector's ray of light, illuminating the film's title. Clearly Lynch is once again winding round Mulholland Dr. territory - that of artifice, Hollywood, bright light and dark magic, "where stars make dreams and dreams make stars." Grace is cast in On High in Blue Tomorrows, opposite Justin Theroux's Devon Berk (actor)/Billy Side (character) in a film helmed by a suitably nutty Jeremy Irons. With a wonderfully creaky Harry Dean Stanton hunching about as his assistant, we later learn Blue Tomorrows is a remake of a cursed tale from the Polish folk-tradition. Again: Or something.

As you might imagine, to try and encapsulate Inland Empire in a conventional narrative sense is as pointless as it is impossible. Instead, it's best approachable as furious allegory, Lynch's most direct assault yet on Hollywood and traditional film conventions. Aside from the ostensible storyline of Dern's Grace so thoroughly losing herself in her Blue character as to become her, disquietingly conveyed through fourth-wall ruptures like breaks in character, or the unexpected appearance of camera crews, Lynch is obsessed with the power of gaze, the question of who's watching who when we stare towards the silver screen. The rabbits of Lynch's website short-films dot Inland Empire, resplendent in their canned sitcom laugh-tracks, In turn, the bunny show's watched incessantly by a pretty young lady, who may or may not be one of the too-pretty-by-half-to-be-hooking streetwalkers who randomly break into dance numbers in Blue's suburban-retro subconscious. The coterie of Suicidey Girls somehow treks back to the Polish tale Lynch deems to be lingua franca of his entire sordid story, an unfortunate and needlessly confusing move that adds to the random, fragmented dreamlike nature he's famous for, but the quasi-Euro mafia clog Inland Empire with some of its most boring and belabored moments. Ultimately, the girls are required to make his most blatant and sadistic point about the filmmaking process, apparent when a broken Blue staggers down the Sunset Strip, spewing blood on the stars: actors are whores.

Despite protestations of weirdness for weirdness' sake, everything is so imbued with vision so unmistakably Lynch, it is, at the risk of inarticulateness, coherent in its incoherence. It's all the more remarkable he was able to fashion something so gripping and intriguing considering the unscripted, piecemeal fashion in which it was filmed over two-plus years. Despite seemingly winging it, Inland Empire is singular in spirit and tone, with Lynch even sublimating its theme of dreamland disdain in its production. Much has been made of Inland Empire's foray into digital film, and Lynch's intent to abandon celluloid altogether. It would be a shame, as surrendering the deep, sumptuous hues of his red curtains and green forests seems an unwise trade for the sickly, washed-out palette. But it's to an end: seemingly as often as possible, Lynch frames everyone's head extremely tight, a grotesque trick which reaches its ghoulish apex towards the film's end, when Dern/Grace/Blue must destroy her own distorted visage to transcend the celluloid hell she's trapped in. Lynch is playing with the star system and our expectations, asking, 'You want these faces on the screen? Well here you go.'

The joy of a film as self-reflexive as Inland Empire was furthered by our venue - the Paramount, an Austin landmark erected in 1915. The ornate Baroque-revival style of the theater was a perfect setting for the subsequent Q&A with Lynch himself, which, despite a sold-out crowd of 1,200 was disarming and intimate. Austin film fixture John Pierson moderated the event, beginning by lamenting Dern's snub in the recently released Oscar nominations. "I think Laura gave an extraordinary performance," Lynch said in his trademark nasal-scoutmaster timbre. "In a couple years," he said, people would recognize "for sure it was one of the best performances of 2006."

Unfortunately, thanks to this reporter's excitement and his chicken-scratch scribbles, a transcript of the entire session wasn't to be. Still, Lynch sat and answered questions for what seemed like just shy of half an hour, praising the Internet and online video, while passionately speaking of preserving the shared experience of moviegoing. He also spoke eloquently and glowingly of transcendental meditation as a profound influence on his creative process. Here are some legible passages from my notebook:

"We all love cinema, the shared experience. The curtain opens, the lights go down, and we get to go into another world."

On the decision to distribute the film himself: "It is a three hour film. Out there in the world of more commercial cinema, this is the kiss of death."

On financial incentives to work outside the studio system: "Every advance I've ever gotten in the United States of America is the last penny I see (from making a movie)."

On Angelo Badalamenti's absence from Inland Empire: "Angelo I love like a brother. If only he lived next door (a reference to Lynch's home studio).

Asked when a DVD release of Lost Highway will occur: "August...It's ready to go. I think it's with Universal, and they're sitting on it. They think it's not a top priority," Lynch said, urging everyone to write in demanding its release.

After Twin Peaks and the Mulholland Dr. debacle, would he ever work in TV again?: "No...The Internet is the new television."

On transcendental meditation: "I've been meditating for 33 years, twice a day. I've never missed a meditation . . . Consciousness. We all have a certain amount of it and that's it. If you want more you can dive within."

On the naming of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace: "When you think about it, it sounds better and better."

Review and Report by Wells Dunbar

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