Inland Empire

Grace Zabriskie in Inland Empire (dir. David Lynch, 2006).

Inland Empire is as much an installation piece as a narrative film--a sense heightened by Lynch's (allegedly permanent) switch from celluloid to digital video. Think a murky marriage of a subdued Cindy Sherman and a more expressive Bill Viola. It is still a narrative film as well, however, however blanched-out and discandied that narrative may be. To be precise, it's both a narrative film in the usual sense and in the sense that it's "concerned with," if not obsessively "about," narrative and its discontents. A hyper-naturalistic monologue by Laura Dern could be seen as the closest thing the film has to a center, though Dern plays more than one self, and the self that performs the monologue is not the first one we meet. Also, more than one actor seems to occupy the same structural position inhabited by Dern's personae (a trick Lynch fans should be fairly used to by now). It's presented as a mystery, but it's a mystery that the viewer can only "solve" through recourse to absurd supernatural anti-logics. It's never reducible to "whodunnit," or even "what happened." Events must be treated as coded symbols, persons must be read as interchangeable signs--and about halfway through the film, the story as such dwindles to a vanishing, played-out speck under the mass of this cryptographic disemplotment. The story is essentially supplied in its entirety after about an hour and a half, and what emerges in its place is crushing barrage of sound and color--or the absence of color and light altogether, save for dim flares and sudden flashes. At the outer limits of whatever investment in representational continuity and coherence Lynch maintains, through the dark hole of a television tube, a family of stylized rabbit-people assume near-static posts in a square proscenium, their minimalist dialogue occasionally punctuated by incongruous bursts of canned laughter emanating from the occluded space of ... where we ourselves sit. Of all the uncanny suggestions in the film--and there are many--this may be the most unsettling: that the purest source of the terror that fuels Lynch's imagination is the inaccessibility to us (the deictic us defined by the configuration of the screen/viewer relationship) of our own responsive motivations and sympathies.


Stan Apps said...

Nice. But do you think the "absurd supernatural anti-logics" represent the possibility of the earnestness of these films? In other words, Lynch's last three or so films (excepting the Disney one) all had this quality of requiring the viewer to make up (or, more accurately, imaginatively elaborate suggestions of) a supernatural scenario to interpret the narrative. Is the "new" Lynch (post his conversion into a meditation advocate) trying to evoke some sort of spiritual activity or speculation on the viewer's part, using these disconnections as bait?

Ken Rumble said...

Hmm, yeah, to follow up Stan's post, but how does the spiritual activity requested in LH, MD & IE differ from the activity of Twin Peaks, for example? In that all four are pretty intensely obsessed with the question of the possible existence and potential quality of humanity's "core." Those questions seem to be pretty firmly planted in the spiritual/philosophical realm. So I dunno -- interesting to consider a way of viewing the films against the shift (?) in Lynch's spiritual practice. The difference I see between TP & the others is that in TP there were forces moving from person to person that had some existence beyond the possessed (Bob.) In the trilogy, the thing that exists "outside" of the characters is, much more innocuous and unavoidable (?), narrative -- stories (and the ubiquity of particular stories) are the undoing of Lynch's characters now.

But my other question/thought, I agree that the bunnies in the TV and the audience's inaccessibility are key in the film, but I also read this film as an almost blatantly optimistic film. Terrifying, yes, and about terror, horror, etc. But as opposed to almost (?) every other Lynch film I've seen -- there is an almost happy ending to this film. And it's put together by perhaps the only scene of Lynch's in which human bodies come together in a loving and compassionate way. (Compare the earlier sex scenes in IE or anything sexual in LH to the final scene in IE.) In his other films, sex, bodies interacting always seems to be just a big fucking car-wreck -- horrifying and demented at best, the source (?) of most of his films' conflicts. And yet the end of IE ***SPOILER*** has that oddly beautiful scene where the couple and child come back together, and as I remember it, the light is pleasant and not jarring as it is in most of the film -- the scene almost completely lacks the kind of horror that pervades the rest of the film, and plus the scene is preceded by that other oddly tender scene of Dern's character dying on the sidewalk, surrounded by her "angels." (My memory of the film is a little hazy -- I saw it several months ago.) And then the final credits rolling over that also seemingly un-ironic, joyful (?) dance scene with all the characters dancing in what appears to be harmony.

So I loved the film and saw, of course, huge connections and repetitions of Lynch's other films, but the thing that surprised (and moved) me were those final scenes -- really the last thing in the world I would've expected to happen.

I'm really excited to see where he goes next.