Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On the DL: Why Lynch's Latest is the One we’ve been Waiting For

by Leile One

I had prepared myself for the worst. Rumors had been circulating within the local media and amongst my friends that INLAND EMPIRE was David Lynch’s toughest film to watch yet. Avowed lifetime Lynch fans were saying that unlike his other movies from the past 15 years, which are, for the most part, complicated experiments into the unconscious and surreal; this one perhaps has no payoff in its conclusion, whereas the other films have a brilliant “method to their madness”, so to speak. To which my response came effortlessly, well-rehearsed after many discussions on Mr. Lynch: “Whatevs. Everything the guy’s done since Twin Peaks is a fucking piece of shit. This should come as no surprise.” And inevitably an argument on the undeniable artistic merit of every single project His Majesty David Lynch has laid a finger upon would ensue.

Finally, I thought, with the opportunity to review his newest film, I could systematically break down why Lynch is a hack. To me, every film the dude has put out since 1991 amounts to nothing more than a couple visually appealing scenes tucked inside a mess of bad dialogue, lighting, and music, with no payoff at the end. INLAND EMPIRE seemed the perfect victim upon which to launch my assault, especially at three hours length--and given the mixed reviews I’d been hearing. When I found out that the film had already concluded its two-week run in the Boston area, and that I would have to travel to Manhattan to see the film, I was all the more secretly delighted. It was to be the perfect conditions under which to write the ultimate scathing review: a long, grainy, shaky camcorder movie with no linear plot to speak of, along with a ten-hour round trip on a stuffy Greyhound bus as prelude and epilogue. I could feel my blood boiling just thinking about the day-long process I was committing to.

Upon completion of phase one (the bus ride down), I approached the box office of the IFC Center like a rabid bulldog. I was ready to rip this film to shreds, to pull it off the projection platter with my teeth and destroy it frame by celluloid frame. I took note of a promotion taped to the glass window which surely could only be considered by theater management in the case of a David Lynch film: “Buy Nine Admissions to INLAND EMPIRE and Get the Tenth One Free! Just show us nine ticket stubs and the next one’s on us!” Seriously? Yes, confirmed the cashier, she’s printed some freebies herself. When I walked into the main lobby and saw that they are exclusively selling “David Lynch Signature Cup Whole Bean Organic Coffee”, presumably the only stuff good enough to drink for a director of his magnitude, at 30 bucks per 12-ounce tin, I had to bite my tongue to keep from doubling over with cackles. This shit was getting unbelievable.

At long last, I took my seat in theater two, pulled out the pen and pad, and prepared to do some venomous scribblin’. It had not yet occurred to me that it can be really hard to take legible notes in a pitch-black theater, but I knew I wanted to be as specific as possible when jotting down different things to hate on in my final analysis. Locating what I believed would be my first example didn’t take long. The IFC Center has included as an introduction to INLAND EMPIRE a short featuring a Q-and-A session with David Lynch, from the night of the film’s premiere back in early December. In it, an audience member asks something to the effect of, “What are you trying to say with this movie?” Lynch’s response is cryptic at best, and he basically says he’d rather not go into that; he wants people to draw their own interpretations of the film. Aha! I thought. It’s just like old DL not to step up and justify his sloppy ass finished product ... I am going to be in for a real nightmare here ...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A nightmare indeed, although I am astonished to report that INLAND EMPIRE is a truly enjoyable "bad trip" when it’s all said and done. This is the film that David Lynch has been trying (and failing) to pull off since Blue Velvet, but in this puzzle the pieces finally fall into place to make a compelling work of art. Some will argue that its sister films Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. offer more coherent, complete visions of a darkly surreal mindfuck within the ever present Los Angeles landscape. I will go out on a limb and say that the opposite is true. INLAND EMPIRE is the real deal.

If you like bugged-out shit, as any Lynch fan must, there is no shortage of it here. INLAND EMPIRE features some of the most straight-up scary audio-visual juxtapositions ever committed to film, including a genuinely chilling sex scene featuring leads Laura Dern and Justin Theroux. This is one area in particular where INLAND EMPIRE triumphs over its brethren: much of the sexual content in Lynch’s other films seems gratuitous or overly directed in order to achieve a certain response from the viewer. The sex scenes in this film, however, truly add to the overall craziness. All of the more bizarre imagery in the surrealist scenes stands not in isolation as merely a neat thing to look at (a la “dumpster man” in Mulholland Dr.), but as building up to a truly complete conceptual vision.

Gone are the cheesy synthesizer audio score backgrounds which fail to properly set the mood for each scene in Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway. Aurally, INLAND EMPIRE deals more in bass-heavy frequencies and subtle strings, which succeed in subliminally enhancing the cinematic experience. In fact, nearly everything on the audio side is incorporated effectively: even if it’s just the sound of a hooker’s fingers snapping it seems epic, and proper. Decisions for musical accompaniments from actual bands for the soundtrack seem less ill-advised than in past Lynch projects as well, even in an unlikely slow-motion scenario scored to Beck’s “Black Tambourine” featuring the prostitutes of Hollywood Boulevard.

While I am up against the firing squad here, another unpopular view: INLAND EMPIRE is better looking photographically than its immediate predecessors, despite the digital medium. Firstly, the set design is immaculate, each room containing a given scene providing the perfect backdrop for the characters to illuminate. The furniture, carpet, and even the windows help to lay the groundwork for the desired ultimate effect of a Los Angeles carnival funhouse on acid. The underlying grainy quality of the digital camerawork (not as shitty-looking as you might expect, and at times you can convince yourself it was indeed shot on 35mm) only serves to help further this vision. Perhaps using the digital format has also allowed Lynch to achieve better lighting for his subjects. Looking back on the over-the-top neon blasts of illumination, which presumably help “set the mood” in a film like Lost Highway, I am even more convinced that this is an ultimately prettier film aesthetically than anything Lynch has done in recent memory.

Finally, Lynch gets the dialogue right this time around. Whereas the viewer is forced to reckon with long pauses and corny one-liners as the bulk of the script in most cases of his recent work, INLAND EMPIRE offers some truly interesting abstract prose from its players. From the haunting warning monologue proffered by the spooky neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) at the beginning, to supporting character Freddie’s peculiar speech about dogs (delivered with excellence by Harry Dean Stanton), you will be anything but bored by what’s being said onscreen. In the end, this is where the film most convincingly triumphs and entertains: it’s full of bizarre, thought-provoking lines being delivered by actors at the top of their game. And, yes, Laura Dern deserves the Oscar for best actress for her work here. The fact that she received no nomination is further proof that the Academy Awards are a waste of time.

By the time the curtain was raised three hours later on that chilly Saturday afternoon, I realized that I was not going to be able to write the review that I was planning on for this. But I’m glad – I’m happy to experience once again a project I can respect fully from the man who brought us Blue Velvet. I still think his coffee bean marketing scheme is rather hilarious, and upon fresh viewings of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. I have to say my opinion of those remains the same. In fact, to me they only serve to clarify the long list of what works in INLAND EMPIRE. As for Lynch, I think I agree with his stance on not explaining exactly how he wants you to interpret the film. It’s something you should probably just experience yourself. And, yes, do it while it’s still on the big screen if it is at all within your means.


  1. The notebook scans are great, Leile! It brings you into this piece even more. I'm also glad, of course, that this film worked for you and prompted new viewings of the "older" ones. Have you seen The Straight Story? I think you'd really love that movie. People seem to forget about it coming in between Lost Highway & Mulholland Dr.... I guess it's so, uh, straight-forward in its narrative that it isn't deemed worth a mention in talking about Lynch. I think the opposite is true and I hope to have something on its power and its beauty sometime soon. And, of course, how it relates to the rest of the oeuvre--cuz it does!

  2. I think it's truly the mark of a great movie that so far in what I've read about it, and that is quite a bit, I haven'tfound one person who is simply neutral .. love it or hate it, Lynch always provokes a strong response, so I can't wait to see one whenever I get the chance

  3. Reel Fanatic: Gotta agree with you on this one, the fact that a movie (or any work of art) can elicit any sort of strong reaction means it has something going for it. Like many a time I go to a modern art museum or exhibit, and I look at a solid black rectangle framed within a canvas and say, "this shit isn't art". Actually, on second thought, that shit isn't art. But even if Lynch movies piss me off sometimes, I don't dispute that a lot of work goes into them and that they are indeed art. Whatever that means. But yeah, see it on DVD in the event that it never makes it theatrically to the big GA. I think you won't be disappointed.

    R Dub Knizzle: Thanks, man, the scans are what I was referring to on that day we spoke on the phone and I wasn't sure whether or not the images I had in mind were a good idea. But I'm glad you thought it was cool, as I suspected they might work in the context of the piece. What I really wanted is to put them attached top to bottom, like frame-by-frame celluloid film, in an effort to further make connections. Alas, the image editor on the blog is a bitch and I couldn't figure out a way to make it work. Speaking of bitches, IE is a beast indeed, but I'm quite happy you convinced me to make the pilgrammage. It's making a one-night appearence once more on March 9th here in Beantown, and you know I'll be hitting it up for a second viewing. Never thought I'd be saying that three weeks ago, but...we should all commit to a "Lynch Mob part Deux" after each staff member gives it a second look.

    As for Straight Story...yeh, I done it. I was working at the Albany Twin when it had its theatrical run, so I definitely gave it a free viewing or two. Must say, I was not feeling it, although for completely different reasons then I could list for Lost Highway or Mulholland. Rich Farnsworth gave a dope performance, no doubt. But let's just say in my humble opinion the film would have been better titled "The Straight Boring". Or, "The Straight Snore-y". My apologies...I couldn't resist. INLAND EMPIRE (ALL CAPS) fa life, doe! (the wistle go whoooooooo, and so on)