Sunday, March 18, 2007

INLAND EMPIRE (2006)


Saw INLAND EMPIRE yesterday afternoon at the Cameo. It's David Lynch's first feature to be shot on Digital Video and it incorporates ideas and material from Lynch's own website. Laura Dern, who's also co-producing, plays wealthy actress Nikki Grace who is warned by her Polish neighbour (Grace Zabriskie) that someone will be murdered if she accepts the part in the film On High in Blue Tomorrows that she has been auditioning for. Nikki goes on to star in the picture which transpires to be a remake of an earlier film that had to be shelved after the murder of its two leads, and the curse of that abandoned film begins to exert its influence on Nikki's life.

At this point, INLAND EMPIRE forsakes any semblance of a traditional plot driven framework and narrative coherence in a straightforward sense and delves deep into a fragmented and abstracted tale in which Lynch deftly blurs the lines between past, present and future, reality, dream and the subconscious seemingly to an even greater extent than in any of his other films. Characters take on multiple identities and move back and forth from one reality/narrative to the next to dizzying effect but other than the stylistic differences, INLAND EMPIRE also seems to depart from the thematically related, cyclic narratives in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Where Lost Highway in particular works as the filmic equivalent of a Moebius strip, INLAND EMPIRE achieves proper closure and, surprisingly so, on a joyous and upbeat note.

The film's look has been something of a minor controversy: Lynch shot the picture on an outdated video camera and although having read enough about the film beforehand to anticipate and brace myself for the downgraded look of DV, it was still a bit of a shock to see the sumptuous images and saturated colours (Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive especially are ravishingly beautiful) that made Lynch's films to date such a feast for the eyes replaced by the murky and unrefined visuals on display here. That said, there are two points to make. Lynch has been so unequivocal about his love for digital video and his horror at the prospect of shooting on film again that we ought to be pragmatic and accept that while his films may never look as good again, we get in return an immediacy that in the long term may prove to enrich his work more than some care to admit right now.

Yes, INLAND EMPIRE looks dreary and ugly in comparison but then Lynch's films have also always been about finding the beauty in ugliness, in the same way that the image of the razorblade cut through the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou is morbidly beautiful. Beyond that, and more crucially, it intensifies mood and tone in INLAND EMPIRE more than it might have ever done on film: the close-ups of Laura Dern and Grace Zabriskie are often disconcertingly huge, lending the film even greater intimacy, while the loss of eyecandy meant, to me personally anyway, I felt less at a distance from the film once I'd gotten used to the changes. Since the image is so stripped down to the essentials, it felt more real and tangible and as a result even creepier, and in its best moments, INLAND EMPIRE is absolutely terrifying. The film's coda is easily among the scariest and most freakish moments not just in Lynch's but anybody's work and together with The Fountain's Garden of Eden sequence an early frontrunner for the best scene of the year.

And yet, while the move to digital seems to enrich Lynch's work in unexpected ways and, if INLAND EMPIRE is anything to go by, has the potential to express his obsessions and concerns even more accurately and truthfully, the freedom and greater flexibility that DV has afforded Lynch can also make him prone to self-indulgence. At just short of three hours, INLAND EMPIRE feels inordinately long: it comes to a stuttering halt as frequently as it captivates, for every moment of sheer brilliance, there are, I hate to say, stretches where it left me rather indifferent, impatient even. As with his other films, it's so rich in details, clues and ambiguities that multiple viewings are essential to make the puzzle fall into place (though Lynch's films are so intricate as to always defy complete rationalisation and one common reading) but while I was able to make enough sense of it to interpret it in a way that seemed logical to me, I find INLAND EMPIRE too undisciplined and not compelling enough as a whole to wanting to see it again, at least anytime soon.

Addendum: totally confused by Lynch's latest mindfuck and dying to have a rational explanation for it? here's a good starting point. (beware: major spoilers)

C

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