This movie needs a diagram.
So I beat the internet like it stole, Googling everyday and checking Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, but I found nothing on when David Lynch’s latest opus “INLAND EMPIRE” was getting a theatrical release. I wasn’t gonna let the sumbitch get away from me. Not gonna be a moviesnob-sissy-waiting-for-DVD on this one. Then – Austin Film Society, one day only, at the old-school Paramount Theatre, with special guest – Mr. David Lynch himself.
So what if it was on a Wednesday. So what if the good seats were $50 and sold out immediately. So what if nosebleed seats cost $17.50 and made the screen about the size of a TV at a friend’s house. So what if we had to re-arrange our work schedules, drive up there in the middle of the day, stay with an Austin friend, stay out until 1:30 carousing, then get up at 5:15 to get back to work on time Thursday. This is David Lynch!
And they make good pie in Austin (aka the Little Blue Dot in the Big Red State). It was cold when we got to the theatre in “downtown.” “I like your downtown,” I said, “it’s cute.”
The man himself came out and introduced it. Sharp dresser – black suit, white shirt, black tie. Classic. Like so many great directors he has a goofy voice. Scorsese sounds like a 45 going at 78. Malick has been described as “Kermit the Frog with a Southern accent.” Not a bad description for Lynch either. He brought a woman who sang in the movie to do a creepy mood-setting improvisation. Then he read a poem. Something about how spiders weave webs and then live in them. Similarly our dreams are webs. We weave them, then live in them. Then the screen went black and INLAND EMPIRE came up in giant letters.
Here’s a scene. A director and his two leads (one male, one female) rehearse outside a set. In mid-sentence, the director’s assistant says “someone’s watching us from the set!” A figure vanishes. The actor follows him but the strange figure seems to have vanished, as if through one of the fake doors on the set. Later, the actress is getting groceries. Behind her car is a door she’s never seen before. She goes through it. She finds herself on the set, watching herself outside the set rehearse with the actor and the director. The assistant spots her. The actor chases her. She opens a door that shouldn’t be able to open and enters a house that shouldn’t be there.
It’s a dream-within-dream-within-film-within-movie-within-dream-within-hallucination, wrapped in a cheese sandwich sprinkled with bacon bits. As near as I can figure there are three or four or ten distinct threads. The easiest to understand is that a director (Jeremy Irons) has cast an actress (Laura Dern of “Blue Velvet” and “Wild at Heart”) and an actor (Justin Theroux of “Mulholland Dr.” and “Miami Vice”) as the leads in his latest film. Dern plays Nikki Grace, who is playing Susan Blue. Theroux plays Devon Berk, who is playing Billy Side. During the course of rehearsing, they discover the script is cursed – it’s not an original screenplay as they all believed, but a remake of a Polish film that was never finished because the male and female leads were both MURDERED before filming was completed.
Another thread includes random scenes from the Polish version that was never completed. Nearly indistinguishable from it are the scenes of the Polish film crew going through many of the same motions – even same dialogue – as the American film crew. Including getting murdered.
And then starts to kind of go crazy. Nikki Grace and Devon Berk have an affair just like the characters they’re playing – or do they? Is Nikki Grace getting so far into character that she thinks she IS white-trash housewife-turned-hooker Susan Blue? Or is housewife-turned-hooked Susan Blue’s life so intolerable that she imagines that she’s really an actress playing it? Is Nikki’s jealous husband (Peter J. Lucas) a wealthy Hollywood player, or is he a scummy white-trash wife-beater who joins a traveling Polish circus?
Dialogue repeats. Hookers abound. Scenes are re-cast and seen from different angles. An unidentified woman watches a TV sitcom about a household of giant bunnies who speak entirely in non-sequiturs that obliquely comment on the action. Then there’s the woman with the screwdriver lodged in her torso. The threads bump into each other, we wonder if the chronology is being manipulated, and a thousand theories drift through our brains – everything seems on the verge of adding up, but it never quite does.
Remember the scene from earlier, in which the actress watches herself rehearse? When she’s dropping off groceries, it seems like she’s Nikki filming a scene as Susan the housewife – but where is the camera and the crew? When she disappears inside the house that shouldn’t be there, is that when she moves from one reality to the next?
I love “INLAND EMPIRE.” I wanted to see it again before it was even done. Mostly I love its mounting aura of menace. Laughs interrupt the menace, but only so that we can have the briefest moments of respite to keep from exploding. Lynch gives Nikki / Susan entirely plausible reactions to the appearance of a gaggle of reclining hookers in her living room. In a way laughs actually help the suspense; a place to take a breath gives us a chance to keep from being completely exhausted.
Dern is the equal or superior to every 2006 Oscar nominee for actress I’ve seen so far. Lynch campaigned for her, without success. Theroux’s great contribution to the world of acting is to press his lip together harder than any other, while the rest of his face doesn’t emote at all. Cameos abound – William H. Macy is in ONE SHOT, Harry Dean Stanton is Irons’s world-weary assistant, Julia “What happened to her after ‘Legends of the Fall’?” Ormond is Billy Side’s long-suffering wife, and so on.
Visually “INLAND EMPIRE” is mostly warped close-ups with no establishing shots. Figures get lost in shadows and strange indoor (inland?) spaces that keep connecting in impossible ways – someone’s house leads backstage in a club, backstage in the club leads up a flight of stairs to a detective / shrink’s office, which leads into a movie theater, which leads into a hotel corridor, etc. (I wonder if Lynch was consciously aping Welles’s “The Trial” or if great minds just think alike.)
As of three days since seeing it, I would say that “INLAND EMPIRE” is just shy of the level of “Mulholland Dr.” Maybe that's because the last act of “Mulholland” is so richly visually compared to haunting and muted DV tones of “INLAND.” Or maybe that's because the early “realistic” grounding in “Mulholland” lasts longer and makes the descent into madness more stirring, whereas “INLAND” is almost immediately of another world. The only potential strike against “INLAND” is to ask, is Lynch up to the same old tricks again, with the circling double women of “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Dr.,” with questions of “which is the dream and which is the reality, and what does each say about each?” If he is, I don’t mind.
Lynch has enormous faith in his subconscious and, in the Q-and-A, reiterated his great enthusiasm for transcendental meditation as a means for tapping ideas. He says there’s a man in the room next to him with the big ideas, but he’s turned them into a puzzle, and he’s giving Lynch one piece at a time. This has happened to me with some of my creative projects – I’ll do something without knowing why, but it feels right, only to discover weeks to month’s later that it was the right thing to do.
Lynch shot “INLAND EMPIRE” on a Sony PD-150, which I could buy off the Internet right now for about $2700, which is roughly a tenth of the cost of the Viper Hi-Def DV cameras used on “Miami Vice.” This medium was invaluable for Lynch, who never had a completed “INLAND EMPIRE” script – he came with an idea for a scene or scenes, shot them, then waited until something else came to him. The result is rough and unpolished, but that’s its charm, and I can only imagine the agonizing joy of digging through piles of DV tapes, like records of a hundred different dreams, and discovering that one can piece them together into a meaning of some kind.
(And what does it mean? It’s some kind of love-hate Hollywood bitch-slap, I think, in which the glory and danger of fantasies are juxtaposed…or something.)
It’s strange. What love does. Anyway, do the Loco-Motion.
Finished Saturday, January 27, 2007
Copyright © 2007 Friday & Saturday Night
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