Monday, March 26, 2012

Inland Empire (2006)

Ever since his 1977 debut Eraserhead, David Lynch has been baffling audiences and critics worldwide. His unconventional, often very cryptic and non linear narratives, surreal imagery and the general oddness of his films have made him one of the most polarizing filmmakers of the last 40 years. While his unique style has earned him a rabid cult like fan base, it’s also earned him many detractors who dismiss his work as incoherent nonsense. Whatever your stance on Lynch is, you have to at least admit the mans originality. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious fanboy, the man is the true definition of an “artist”. Along with filmmaking, he’s also a producer, musician, painter, writer, and pretty much whatever he want’s to be. Whatever art form he chooses to work it, be it film, music, painting, writing or what have you, you can tell it came from him almost instantly. His style is uniquely his own. Clocking in at a weighty 3 hours, his 2006 opus Inland Empire is perhaps his most challenging film to date.

Actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) has just landed the lead in the film" On High In Blue Tomorrow’s" alongside Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). While rehearsing for the film, the film’s director Kingsly (Jeremy Irons) reveals to Nikki and Devon that the film is in fact a remake of an old German film entitled "47". The original film was based on an old Polish folk talk which was said to have had a Gypsy curse placed on it. Both leads were murdered and the original film was never finished. During the shoot, Nikki’s perception of reality becomes obscured, and as she begins to fall for Devon, the personality of Sue, the character she’s playing in the film becomes dominant, transporting her into a nightmarish world of alternating realities complete with doppelgangers, a crying “lost girl” in a Polish hotel room, Eastern European circus troupes, mocking prostitutes, a “phantom”, anthropomorphic talking rabbits who converse exclusively in non sequiturs followed by a laugh track, and much, much more.

Just go with it. That’s the best advice I can give to anybody going into this film. If you go into it without any preconceived notions the results will be far more satisfying. The same could be said about any Lynch film for that matter. Inland Empire is a monolithic nightmare of a movie, a surrealistic journey into an abstract world that’s quite jarring on the senses. I think at this point in time everyone should know that Lynch’s films are weird and Inland Empire is no different, but even by Lynch standards this one goes off the rails like nothing he’s done since Eraserhead. It starts off on an odd foot, and gets increasingly stranger as it goes along. The motif of duel identities/personalities and different perspectives of reality is nothing new for Lynch, having explored such themes in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, but with Inland Empire he takes those ideas too even more extremes. Throughout the film’s 3 hour running time, we’re stung right along with Dern into this obtuse labyrinth and a good majority of the time it’s never quite clear whether what we’re witnessing is from the perspective of Nikki, of her character Sue, is a scene from On High In Blue Tomorrows or if the crying girl in the hotel room is watching everything unfold from her TV set. Character’s and vignettes intertwine seemingly at times having nothing to do with each other, yet they do. Like most of Lynch’s works, just what exactly it all means in the end is open to interpretation, but all of it does end up coming full circle in a way. I can only speak for myself, but it was all the abstractions that make Inland Empire such an intriguing watch. Even if I had no clue what was going on in terms of narrative, I was still engrossed in what was happening on the screen, and wondering where the hell Lynch was going to take us next, and wondering where all of it was going to end up made it all the more endearing. Lynch has a way of getting you emotionally invested in the material, no matter how strange. One of the films more powerful sequences sees Dern bleeding on the street while three homeless people near her converse about bus tickets and their dying drug addict friend with a hole in the wall of her vagina. It’s a heavy scene, and yes the dialogue seems totally out of the blue but againt it’s the alluring nature of it all.

Inland Empire was sort of an experiment for Lynch who opted to shoot the film on digital video. The digital look has drawn criticism from many, but personally speaking I liked it, but I’ve also seen countless films that have used the medium. Anyway, Lynch again proves he’s still got one of the best eyes to ever look into a camera. The digital look gives the film a more personal feeling, if that makes any sense. There are many point of view shots, and some of the shaky cam effects put you right there in the scene with Dern. The film’s haunting mood is actually enhanced by the digital look. Of course this is also largely in part to Lynch’s gift when it comes to setting and use of color and sound design. Right from the title sequence Lynch serves us up a platter of dread with a side order of unpleasantness, and that same tense vibe never lets up, as you know anything can happen in Lynch world. When we first meet Nikki, she has a very surreal conversation with her eccentric new neighbor (the great Grace Zabriskie), a conversation with ominous connotations. There are tons of close up’s during this sequence that would seem completely out of place in any other film but it works so well here given the context. Matter of fact, everything in this film seems to have ominous connotations. Only Lynch could make something like a lampshade or a back yard barbeque seem threatening. Even stuff like the rabbits, which may seem completely absurd on the surface give off this uneasy feeling when coupled with the disturbing goings on in the film. There are way too many chilling moments to mention all of them, but some of the more freaky ones involve Dern on the streets of LA surrounded by cackling hookers and Nikki’s encounter with the “phantom”, which is most people have referred to as nightmare inducing. That fucking face… If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. I mentioned above the sound design.

Even if you’ve only seen one Lynch film you know just how important sound and music is to his movies. Lynch doesn’t just visualize his works, he hears them as well. Longtime Lynch music collaborator Angelo Badalamenti was absent from this project, but that’s hardly any cause for alarm. Inland Empire is peppered with low end frequency drones that only fuel the film’s overwhelming sense of dread. Lynch puts his own music to great use, having his song “Ghost of Love” play as one facet of Nikki’s personality stands in the snowy streets of Poland. The songs sparse, eerie instrumentation, mixed with Lynch’s depraved sounding, slightly pitch shifted vocals drips with atmosphere, providing the perfect, almost noirish soundscape for the cold visuals on the screen. During the film’s final act there is a simply stunning montage (where some of the loose ends involving characters are tightened up) set to the song “Polish Poem”, performed by Chrysta Bell, one of Lynch’s muses. It’s one of the most stunning things Lynch has ever put to the screen, one of the best uses of a song in a film that I’ve ever seen, the ideal melding of sound and image. The song is a lush ballad of sorts, and the combination of what your watching, the music, and the cryptic lyrics coming from this gorgeous voice is actually quite touching. Even after all of the horror Lynch has put you through for the last 3 hours, he still finds a way to fit in a tender moment like that. It goes back to what I said about being emotionally invested. You might not fully understand why you’re seeing what you’re seeing, but it effects you all the same. On the more nonsensical front, there’s a scene where a group of prostitutes randomly dance to “The Locomotion” while Dern looks on, appropriately confused. Even for a film like this it came out of left field. Then of course there’s the closing credits which is basically a music video featuring a huge dance ensemble set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”.

I’m only repeating what many people who have taken on this film before me have said, but Laura Dern put on the definition of a clinic here. She IS the film, so to speak. Every emotion you could possibly want a performer to convey, she displays it and them some. Talk about range. It’s amazing how, in sometimes rapid succession she can go from one personality to another, be it a timid housewife, a white trash jezebel, a wealthy actress, and so on. Whatever hellish situation Lynch throws her into, she owns it. Some of the best segments of the film are where she is shown telling tales of woe to a mysterious detective of sorts, where she utilizes this sleazy, trashy southern accent which she pulls off wonderfully, and the shots of her looking directly into the camera with this insane grin, in the mindset of Sue are chilling. Whether it’s the way she delivers dialogue, uses a facial expression or body language, doesn’t matter. The results are the same. Perfection. One of the best performances ever recorded. Jeremy Irons is always great no matter what he does, and even though doesn’t really have a lot to do here, he’s great all the same. Just like Dern, he can play pretty much anything and pull it off. Justin Theroux does his thing, emitting coolness. It was cool to see Grace Zabriskie as the crazy neighbor, and Harry Dean Stanton as Kingsly’s weird assistant. William H. Macy and Diane Ladd also have brief appearances and there are a slew of cameo’s during the closing credits.

Inland Empire was very much a do it yourself type of production for Lynch. He financed the majority of the film himself and distributed it himself. For a filmmaker like who’s as far into his career as he is, it’s very admirable too see him go guerilla the way he did for this project. The same can be said for the incredible cast. The footage of the Rabbits in the film were from a web series Lynch did in 2002 called, what else, "Rabbits". Two of the rabbits are voiced by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring from Mulholland Drive. Harring is also seen during the closing credits. It’s been six years since Inland Empire was released, as of this writing it’s the most recent feature film Lynch has directed. He’s been involved in numerous other ventures over the last few years. He started up the David Lynch Foundation spreading the word about Transcendental Meditation which he practices, wrote a book, "Catching the Big Fish", produced and performed on the aforementioned Chrysta Bell’s debut album This Train, and late last yer he released his solo debut album Crazy Clown Time. I, along with other fans are more than curious as to what the future will hold for Lynch in terms of film, especially following up a film like Inland Empire. Whatever he chooses for his next project, it’s bound to be like nothing else, as everything else he does. Inland Empire is as original as it is terrifying. It will leave some people mesmerized, a good majority frustrated, and everybody scratching their heads. I definitely would call it one of Lynch’s best features, the perfect example of just how out there a film of his can be.

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