Maybe the most surprising thing about Inland Empire wasn't that it was complex (intercutting, repeating, transmuting plotlines, images, characters), ambitious (at almost three hours one of the longest works the director has ever attempted (outside of his massive adaptation of Dune)) or incomprehensible (Lynch?), but that it was actually satisfying--and all the more memorable for being so, despite (or even because of) the former three qualities.
The film follows Laura Dern as she plays three or perhaps four different characters, belonging to at least three different social classes (spoiled rich actress; tough but bruised housewife; unfaithful middle-class wife) and milieus (Hollywood, Poland, and what I can only call Lynchland). It's difficult to describe what she does as a performance--Dern herself admits she didn't know what the hell is going on, and the characters change, bleed into, and at times comment or observe one another, so you're not presented with any recognizable development arc--but Dern is perhaps used like one of Bresson's models, a thinking, feeling palimpsest on which Lynch can record the infinitely varied reactions she has to his nightmare imagery. Lynch's fine arts background, comes into play here, I think; he lights and films Dern's face like a piece of sculpture that mutates over time, from glamorous film star to ravaged slattern; of all his effects, her huge close-ups as she registers wonder, terror, anger, despair are easily the most haunting.
Lynch's use of a video camera in Inland Empire has been noted many times elsewhere--he found the Sony DSR PD-150, an old digital video camera (a fumbling attempt at a Google search reveals mention of the camera as far back as 2004, and no new cameras of the same model available for sale), and loved the pixilated images for their "beauty"--words in quotes because instead of vivid colors and movie-theater clarity (as you might find in Michael Mann's high-definition DV efforts) you have its opposite: a grainy, desaturated stylization that renders the footage both distanced (seen through the lens of obsolete video equipment) and immediate (it looks as if it had been caught on the fly a minute ago, by someone standing right next to you). Lynch may be onto something--he recognizes that video is the future, the eye through which we observe reality most often, either through TV, the internet, or our own handheld equipment. It could very well be the eye of choice through which we record memories, people, events--whatever and whomever we consider important enough or interesting enough to point our lens and press the record button.
Interesting, though, that if the visuals are intentionally crude, the sound (except when music or noises are heard through an old phonograph, or speakers, or a radio) is almost always crystal clear. Lynch's visual effects are remarkable, but I submit that his sounds are easily the most powerful--when his camera moves down yet another darkened corridor, with some indescribable throb heard over the theater speakers (one thinks of boilers at the point of overheating, or a great creature's heart racing, or even the dull roar of hellfire, burning away a few concrete floors below), one knows a thrill of fear no recent horror filmmaker (Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Victor Salva, eat your collectively uninspired hearts out) can match. Lynch knows the power of sound, knows how it skewers the subconscious and provokes emotions at a deep level; Inland Empire is a hundred and seventy-two minutes of Lynch playing your inner canal like a fine instrument.
I saw the film with fellow blogger Andy Horbal (apparently he's closing down this blog and planning a new one ), who also found the film fascinating (Along with the film and filmmaking techniques, Lynch's method of distribution is unusual--three prints making their slow way through America's major cities. I had to drive some three hours to Pittsburgh to catch this particular screening). Andy mentions an upcoming film program that pairs Lynch with Surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, and while he admits that this film may be Lynch's most openly surreal to date, he finds the combination puzzling--Surrealist art (of which Bunuel was participant and practitioner) is basically the expression of thought unmediated by reason, morality, or aesthetics--the evocation of the dream state, in short. Lynch's films, on the other hand, may be strange and on occasion shocking, but they basically portray the real world as Lynch sees it.
Which is an interesting idea--there's always been a solidity and texture to even Lynch's most fantastic sequences, and the sounds you hear (a more important component, I submit, than what you actually see), often have the echoing quality of massive objects trapped in underground rooms. I don't know how far we can go with this train of thought--is Inland Empire a direct apprehension of reality--of his reality--only with fewer attempts to present the material in some more easily comprehensible form? For that matter, has Lynch's entire career been an attempt to present his view of the world, only more and more on his terms than ours?
Certainly everything in Blue Velvet can be considered real, from the severed ear in the grass to the insects battling beneath it to the commonplace objects (flowers against a white fence; mothers talking in a yard) given hues of the most fantastic intensity--yet it's possible to imagine that to Lynch all is real, all is of equal importance and value to him: ear, insects, flowers, fence, mothers, and all. The visions and some of the more baroque touches in Twin Peaks are real--at least to FBI agent Dale Cooper, Lynch's surrogate, who accepts any and all explanation, no matter how fantastic, because he knows better (that's perhaps the crucial difference between Lynch's hero and, say, a UFO fanatic or a man seriously in need of Thorazine. He (and the man who created him) seems less like someone who accepts just any bull handed to him and more like someone capable of believing otherwise unbelievable nuggets of information, because he can fit that fantastic fact into his system of knowledge and experience, and make it work). The Good Fairy touching down at the end of Wild at Heart? Fred turning to Pete in a jail cell in Lost Highway? Betty vanishing and turning into Diane in Mulholland Drive? Well, the latter is problematical--the most popular interpretation is that Betty is Diane's dream of herself as a promising young actress--but that's the popular interpretation; Lynch provides ten enigmatic clues as to what's really happening, and leaves it at that (possibly he--like Chandler, famously clueless as to the plot of The Big Sleep--isn't quite sure, either).
Parts of Inland Empire threaten to make sense--the snatches of aimless conversation we hear from the prostitutes in their hotel rooms, for example (they seem to function much as a Greek chorus does, providing meta-commentary that may or may not have any relevance on the action) could perhaps be understood if we had been able to listen in ten seconds later or earlier or if we had been able to catch one line of dialogue more than we have been allowed; ditto for the three rabbits who walk about in a room shot unsettlingly as if it were the interior of a doll house (reportedly the animals--think of Art Spiegelman's mice talking not of the Holocaust, but of more cryptic matters--are taken from a series of video shorts Lynch created named "Rabbits"). Can one travel a day into the future, observe oneself reading for a film? Perhaps, if you believe in time travel, or in space folding on itself. Can you believe in a roomful of animals speaking in cryptic lines that seem unaccountably funny to some unseen audience? I don't know about funny--like the prostitutes' talk, a joke can be rendered enigmatic with the removal of a single word--but rabbits dressed and talking aren't necessarily dream images (is a comic book a dream image, or reality on the comic book artist's terms?).
Perhaps much of the film's subterranean pull may be due to the hope (however irrational) Lynch awakens and sustains for almost three hours, that the next sound or image or spoken word might actually fall into the realm of comprehensible thought, or hold some key that will unlock the whole mysterious construct. You get this persistent--almost irritatingly so--feeling that somehow, in some way, Lynch's film does make sense, if you can only look at it a certain angle, or listen or think about it in a certain way; it feels more like an accident of circumstance, if not an actual failure of your senses or cognitive faculties, that you don't understand the film.
Be it as it may, I can only come back to the feeling I had walking out: that I had witnessed a narrative, however obtuse, that I had been moved and transported; that I had been shown something--just what, we're not sure. Naysayers throw up their hands and say Lynch has gypped us again; I can't hold the sentiment against them, what with so little available beyond my intuition telling me they're wrong. It's that very intuition, though, that keeps me from throwing up my hands myself; I can't help but wonder if perhaps that's what Lynch wants to impart to us as we leave the theater.
This is but a cursory venture into the realm of Inland Empire--not even a venture, really, but a toe dipped into water, to test the temperature (I doubt if anyone else has gone much further, though). We--I--will need to see this again, either to attempt a more thorough exploration, or to confirm our original suspicions--that it isn't Lynch that's crazy but the world, and that Lynch is just projecting that craziness onto the big screen.