by Jason Shamai
Sitting in the theater the other night, it was with both great relief and great sadness that I realized I felt zero obligation to work out what was going on in David Lynch's Inland Empire. The movie practically dares you to be stupid enough to try, so I didn't. At first all I felt was the relief -- what a pleasure to let the movie's New Orleans funeral procession of words, sounds, images, and performances roll along without having to ask the left side of my brain to do anything. By the halfway point, though, I was starting to feel cheated, either by my lack of a certain kind of attention, or whatever was missing from the film that justified that lack, or both.
Hey Lynch -- Shamai has you on notice.
Though I saw Mulholland Drive as something of a David Lynch greatest hits, I still very much cared about the movie and its splintered progression of causes and effects. It petitioned me, I thought, to piece together the puzzle, and much of my brain power that season was given over to the effort. What I now think I know about that movie hardly satisfies my once-intense curiosity, but I settled pretty easily into a relationship with it that felt like half understanding and half appreciation of a good mystery preserved.
Laura Dern and Justin Theroux hang out on Inland Empire's fake movie set ... or is it?
But I'm six years older and wiser now and, before seeing Inland Empire, had read too many critics throwing their hands up over the "plot" of the film to expect anything but an inscrutable pleasure cruise. I was totally game -- it's a brave thing for a director to give us a movie where nothing, you know, actually happens. I've left many a plotless film feeling satisfied that I'd gotten what was advertised. But it wasn't so with Inland Empire. I didn't have the emotional investment in it that I'd had in Mulholland Drive and I felt a real loss there. Because whatever Lynch says is his intention with this movie, he's selling us a mystery and not coming through with the full experience. His descriptions of his working method (writing as he went along, letting tone strongarm story) make it pretty clear that trying to figure this puppy out won't yield much.
Okay, fine. Except that there are traditional cues in the movie right and left (Grace Zabriskie's ribbon-cutting monologue, which was good but nudges so long and hard with its cleverness that it gave me bruises; or the phone call to the man who is interviewing Laura Dern's "confessing lady" incarnation; or countless other jumping-off points), that disappoint when they don't add up to as much as we think they will. Certainly there are other Lynch projects that reek of such disappointment -- ask any Twin Peaks fan. I've been pretty forgiving in the past because of my conviction that he intentionally screws with our expectations, that dead ends and half-formed ideas are the point. But he's been screwing with our expectations for a long time now, and it's getting harder and harder to be impressed by such an easily staged coup.
Beware Laura Palmer's nutty mama: Grace Zabriskie in Inland Empire.
It must sound cranky and cultishly loyal to A-B-C-D storytelling to make the above complaints about a film as fantastically evocative as this one. So what if the obviously low stakes of the plot developments leave you unresponsive to their emotional cues, right? Well, that'd be easier to accept if Lynch were able to more effectively deliver that primary export from his universe, the thing we care about in his films so much more than storyline, that particular frequency of madness no one else seems to be able to tune in to. He is tuned in for much of the movie, it's true. Those grainy shots, like spilled graphite shavings, of dark corridors and doorways, opening into any number of nightmares in a great Rubik's Cube of the mind, more perfectly suggest an agitated dream state than almost anything I've ever seen. And the big ticket imagery -- the near-abstract needle scratching a spinning record, the slimy-fishy clown face, the bunny-rabbit sitcom, Zabriskie's cheekbones -- all falls in line with the madness perfectly, if haphazardly.
But sustaining the frequency for much of the movie is a long way from sustaining it for the entire movie, especially a movie as long as Inland Empire. To achieve what Lynch wants to achieve here, the film has to be flawlessly oneiric, with no intimations of Mr. Sandman hard at work behind the camera. Far too many scenes actually made me conjure an image of Lynch at his desk at home cynically/naively (I think it's both) constructing monologues and tableaux (I submit the "Locomotion" scene) that too forcefully instruct the viewer's mind to grab its ankles and prepare to be fucked. There's a difference between dream logic and flat-out arbitrariness, and Lynch is constantly ripping us out of a reverie with some aggressively bizarre space-filler.
If you're gonna manipulate us like the marionettes we so desperately want to be, Mr. Lynch, make sure to hide the strings, or at least keep them taut. Like everyone else, I loved the scene on Hollywood Blvd. (um, I suppose this would be considered a spoiler) where a dying Dern is flanked by two women, unimpressed by the hemorrhaging mass of acting chops between them, chatting about the bus to Pomona. As great as the setup is, it was obvious from their very first exchange of dialogue that it was a bit "big idea." I was willing to indulge it for a while because it was cute, and it was so Lynch. But he outstayed his welcome here, making the affectless conversation go on and on and on until one of them even whips out an anecdote about that old absurdist standby, a monkey, the patron saint of smug and detached humor.
Everybody's doing a brand new dance now.
I've often thought of Lynch as a frustrated comedian and nowhere is it more apparent than in Inland Empire. Take another scene, presided over by creepy Freddie (Harry Dean Stanton), the assistant to the director of the cursed movie that is the backbone of Inland Empire's sick and squirming animal. Freddie is sitting with the movie's leads (Dern and Justin Theroux) and yammering on about nothing, non sequitur after non sequitur. His auditors are thoroughly -ished out by the time he abruptly gets to the point, which is that he could really use a couple of bucks to pay his rent. The scene isn't a mindfuck -- it's just another comedy bit that doesn't work. Lynch does this all the time, hedging his bets by positioning a scene between cheap clowning and deadpan weirdness, committing to neither so that it's impossible to judge the scene a failed attempt at any particular thing. He can be funny as hell, as in everything about the cursed film itself. The script for the gloriously titled On High in Blue Tomorrows, for instance, is pitch-perfect stupid (and Dern's read-through on the sound stage is so great it hardly matters that Naomi Watts pulled the same shtick in Mulholland Drive). But too often does the yuck-yucking get in the way of the actual fun. Too often does the fever dream have to compete for attention with some smirky, overachieving distraction.
My impatience with Inland Empire put me in mind of Claire Denis's recent film The Intruder, a similarly slippery story that avoids pissing away our good will by knowing just how long her audience can take a particular ride before getting ill. Sure, at 120 minutes it's not exactly a haiku, but every scene feels necessary. You trust the movie, trust that, even if her world isn't necessarily as seductive as Lynch's, it's a fully thought out world. It's narrative disjunction for grownups. And yet, for me, Lynch is where the real party is, which is why his ample missteps are so frustrating. He's already the favorite child -- he doesn't need to pull so damned hard at my sleeve.
I guess my point, more or less, is that there's a big difference between 100 minutes of compelling arbitrariness and 172 minutes of it. I say a 100 minutes because that's how much of this movie I'd like to have seen. About twenty fewer doors, five fewer Poles, 1500 fewer words of creepy monologue, and just waaay fewer dancing whores all around. Because at the end of the day this movie is about cumulative effect, and that effect is achieved long before the tiresome credits sequence, another of the rotely weird set pieces that I'm not yet willing to concede are Lynch's full stock in trade.
Jeremy Irons plays On High in Blue Tomorrows' director -- a character based on Lynch? Who knows.
And as a postscript, can we talk for a minute about those rabbit people? Is it just me or are anthropomorphic bunnies kinda old hat at this point? I'm not talking about the fact that Lynch's bunnies were on his website before he incorporated (for lack of a more exact word) them into his film. I'm talking about Sexy Beast. Donnie Darko (another film you trust even if you can't follow it). Harvey. Not to mention the recent mania for people in furry animal outfits, as seen in the likes of Kontroll and countless music videos. It's gotten almost as bad as vacant-eyed doll imagery. Okay, end curmudgeonly transmission.