Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Inland Empire * David Lynch * 2006

There are some who might say that one shouldn’t try to understand Inland Empire, that viewers should simply sit back and immerse themselves in the creepy, dark, strange world that David Lynch has created. But being the stubborn person that I am, I feel as though there is meaning behind this film—besides, trying to decode the mystery is half the fun.

As far as I can tell, there are three stories transpiring within the film: a) that of Nikki (Laura Dern), Devon (Justin Theroux), and Kingsley (Jeremy Irons), the actors and filmmakers about to make a movie called On High in Blue Tomorrows, b) the story of that film, and c) one involving Polish prostitutes, including a tearful woman who watches a sitcom in which three people wearing bunny heads communicate cryptic deadpan messages to canned laughter. (While that last part probably sounds a bit insane, I suspect that the bunny heads will impart more significance with a second viewing; either way, they certainly add to the unsettling atmosphere.) Though these three stories are cut together rather seamlessly, Susan, the character Nikki is playing in Blue Tomorrows, speaks with a Southern accent, making it a bit easier to discern which world we’re viewing at the moment.

And what about the Polish prostitutes? The actors are told that the film they are about to make, which involves a cursed Polish gypsy folktale, is actually a remake, and that the two leads in the original version were mysteriously killed before they could finish filming. My theory is that the Polish scenes are from the original film, and the three worlds—reality, and the two films—keep blending together, simultaneously coexisting. One of the film’s underlying themes seems to be that of dual realities, or the lines between film and reality blurring, tearing. There are parallels between the actors’ lives and the story within the film, so that Nikki begins to confuse the two. While filming a scene, she suddenly stops and says to Devon, “Oh, damn, this is starting to sound like a line out of the movie!” and at one point comes out of a scene looking disoriented, as though she hadn’t realized she’d been acting.

As the film progresses, one begins to realize that the characters in the Polish scenes have American counterparts, both Susan and the teary-eyed Polish woman asking people, “look at me and tell me if you’ve seen me before.” Towards the film’s end, Susan (or is it Nikki?) and the Polish girl come together and embrace, Susan vanishing into thin air, or perhaps melding with her. The Polish girl is ecstatic, and for the first time is able to leave the room she has been confined to. She is then reunited with the two characters from the American film version, ostensibly her family. These scenes only further reinforce my theory that the two women are the same person, and by converging are finally made whole again.

At the beginning of the film, Nikki is visited by an eccentric old woman who claims to be her new neighbor. The woman, speaking in a Slavic accent, asks her strange, seemingly random questions about whether the film in which Nikki is up for a role involves a murder (she insists it does, though Nikki says no—we soon discover the old woman is correct), about an unpaid bill that needs paying, and so on. She recites several old folk tales, one involving a little girl who gets lost in the marketplace—“the alley behind the marketplace leads to the palace but we always forget.” Throughout the film, everything this woman says is referenced, though it is unclear as to its significance, at least upon the first viewing.

Inland Empire marks Lynch’s first film shot on digital video, a medium he says he’ll be using from now on, abandoning celluloid film forever. I’m generally a staunch naysayer concerning digital film (pretty much all digital approaches to making art, really), but here it actually seems fitting. The crudeness enhances the surreal quality—not that it needs any enhancing—lights leaving a trail, people going out of focus. Many scenes involve overexposed lighting, in which, for example, Laura Dern’s neck blends in with the white wall she’s leaning against.

Lynch says he prefers digital filmmaking because it allows for greater freedom: “…the length of the tape, the size of the cameras. It goes right into the computer and you can start working on it in a million different ways.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) I still prefer celluloid, for various reasons, but perhaps Lynch will prove me wrong with subsequent projects, pushing the medium, showing what one can do with it.

Having seen the film eleven days ago, I’m probably leaving a lot of things out, but then, even if I’d rushed home to type this up immediately after watching it, I’d still be leaving things out. This is a bizarre film, I won’t deny that—it features Lynch’s trademark slow motion shot, where we know everything is going to get very strange from here on out—and there are so many details and plot twists, so many rabbit holes, tunnels and weird déjà vu-like feelings that it would take many viewings to really soak up everything.

I found myself following the plot—and there is a plot—better than I expected, making many connections, though the bigger picture still remains fuzzy, and I’m not really sure how all the pieces connect. But I’m not left feeling discouraged, or cheated, but wanting to watch it again and again, equipped with a pen and paper to take notes, diagrams, flow charts, whatever it takes. While I wouldn’t want to have to work this hard to understand every film I saw, I enjoy the challenge when it arises. But even if I never truly understand Inland Empire, the experience of simply watching it, of immersing myself in the strangeness, is enough to satisfy me.

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