Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 07, 2006 6:48 am 
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A nightmare to remember: Lynch back on the edge

Inland Empire: it means Los Angeles, the place of Lynch’s inspiration, but also the inward realm of the mind and of dreams, the surreal world of Lynch’s imagination that uniquely inspires his visual poems. This new work, three hours long but unified by a savage and harrowing performance by Laura Dern channeling three or four or more overlapping personalities growing out of a lengthy free-standing monologue that was the film’s starting point, is proof that the man isn’t playing; hasn't lost his touch; still produces work unlike any other, work to be treasured.

DL explores a universe reachable only by going past the rational mind. It is a realm where a character, in the present case particularly the characters played by Dern (the press cliché is career-defining performance), turns into other characters and turns again. It’s a realm where where another world lies behind the sound stage and that other world is another life, another identity, another set of terrors. And we go there; we come back; and we go there again.

After becoming the desperate monologist, Dern also became "Nikki," a movie star chosen with "Devon" (Justin Theroux) to star in a film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, directed by "Kingsley" (Jeremy Irons). And "Kingsley" works with "Freddie" (Harry Dean Stanton) a co-director who cadges money from stagehands and actors and apologizes saying, "I used to carry my own weight." On High in Blue Tomorrows turns out to be a remake of a doomed film, 4/7, never finished because both stars were murdered, and based on a Polish gypsy folktale. In the film Nikki, as "Sue," is cheating on her husband, and during the shoot Nikki's "real life" husband warns her not to do it for real. But of course she does: the film relationship parallels "real life," and the stars find they’re confusing themselves with their film characters, just as it happens in Giuseppe Piccioni's recent film, La vita che vorrei.

That expletive-strewn 14-page ("single-spaced") ur-monologue that anchors the film was shot in the back of DL’s house with a Sony PD-150 digital video camera he’d started to use in connection with his website, (now"), "a common midrange model" that sells now for $2,724. The monologue became the ground of being and the Sony became the simple visual tool that gave Inland Empire its content and its visual style. Lynch has switched to DV for good, saying a sad farewell to the glorious beauties and cumbersome complexities of celluloid, and for this film embraced DV's limitations. He does not try to make it look like film. DL admits people say the quality is "not so good." "but it’s a different quality. It reminds me," he says, "of early 35- millimeter film. You see different things. It talks to you differently" (Lim).

This reversion, if you will, to a cruder visual medium (but one that's in many ways more fluid, both for the actors – who can work through without pauses – and the editor – who has handy software – and the crew – who can be fewer, and work lighter), has stirred up the director’s creative juices, brought him back in a way to the raw energies and immediacy of Eraserhead. Thus it's a return to youthful beginnings and yet something completely new. It's burning the bridges and rediscovering roots at the same time, which basically is what any artist to stay alive needs to do.

Dern anchors the film, but it has many elements that need anchoring. There is the disreputable husband of the disreputable monologist, who joins a Baltic circus.There’s a woman played by Julia Ormond, who's first seen in a sleazy backyard with a screwdriver in her stomach, and later reappears as Billy’s wife. And there’s a Polish thread – which grew out of Baltic connections DL has forged and in the structure of ideas may trace back to the origins of the film of Devon and Sue and hence be the ur-4/7. There’s a weeping Polish prostitute, watching a TV monitor on which appears a sitcom shot on a stage with people wearing rabbit heads; a laugh track creates a disquieting effect because the laughs come at "meaningless" points, giving the lines a sinister ring. Later the screen shows Sue. Slant magazine's Ed Gonzales alludes to the monitor as one of various "portals" through which characters merge into other worlds (go through the looking-glass; fall through rabbit-holes). Clearly it’s all in the editing, and those who feel DL’s creations are chaotic and portentously meaningless overlook his canny sense of structure.

There’s a group of pretty prostitutes in a motel room, who talk to Laura Dern’s character and sing and dance, "Do the Locomotion," and then at the end lipsynch Nina Simone's "Sinner Man" behind the closing credits -- one of the great closing credits of recent decades, a rollicking, gorgeous episode, which cheers you up but still contains flashes (Laura’s face) that haunt you with memories of the strangeness and terror that’s passed.

These are some of the interlocking boxes of Inland Empire. DL mocks the idea of the “real” while using the concept to slide in between worlds.

All this is gloriously cinematic.

The film "technically" has no US distributor, though it has many European ones and the French Studio Canal signed on early at the stage when DL said he was using DV and didn’t know what he was doing.

The whole of Inland Empire perhaps “resembles the cosmic free fall of the mind-warping final act in Mulholland Drive” (Lim), but on the other hand it has someone to “identify” with (if you can stand the ride) in Laura Dern, who dominates the film and threads it together. Her full-ranged performance is sure to gain much mention at year’s end.

A few more notes. The strange neighbor of Nikki who visits the actress’s palatial mansion early in the film to drop dire hints about her upcoming role: Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer in "Twin Peaks" and a Lynch regular). People may not have seen Rabbits (2002), a 50-minute recent film by Lynch starring people in rabbit suits or the animated series Dumbland, but these are sources. On Lynch’s personal website, he proposed a blog discussion: "If two dog houses are on fire, and dogs are dying, should one automatically set fire to a third dog house and destroy it? Amid the various quirky replies, the perception emerged that Lynch was referring to the response to 9/11. Lynch is concerned about 9/11. He may be open to some of the more bizarre theories about the Pentagon attack.

After fifteen years of disappointment with and doubt about DL, it is possible to love his work again. And hard not to love his own personal jolly, simple manner. The man is clear. From what he says, his 33 years of twice-daily practice of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s "Transcendental Meditation" has made him a serene man, but that only makes it easier to access the horror within. Hence the paradox of a smiling, good-natured fellow with terrifying stories to tell. Recommended as a basic update on things Lynch and used as a source above (along with Lynch's press conference at the NYFF): the NYTimes interview piece about DL by Dennis Lim.

[Links updated and still added 30 Mar. 2017.]

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