Monday, February 12, 2007

This is Not the Girl: David Lynch's Bad Choice

by Steven Boone

“[David] Lynch's Hollywood is a grand old girl, but she's one with some very treacherous curves. To trace the contours of her sensuality, you need a camera as sensitive as a set of fingertips. Lynch's is.” -- Stephanie Zacharek Salon magazine

Zacharek was referring to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, but the hypersensitive “camera” she mentions works overtime in all of Lynch’s feature films. With INLAND EMPIRE, those fingertips appear to have gone numb. Actually, they’re imprisoned in thick rubber gloves: Lynch’s figurative “camera,” his inimitable eye, is sabotaged by his literal choice of movie camera, the Sony DSR PD-150. As in Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE lingers over Hollywood’s supple curves (and dank crevices) , but because Lynch captured them with a camera better suited to gonzo porn and video depositions, the viewer’s sensual experience is akin to running one’s open palm over a Venus sculpted in sandpaper.

There’s nothing wrong with Lynch’s decision to shoot his latest film on standard resolution digital video; there’s nothing as romantic as the image of Lynch the painter wielding a camcorder the way he would take up a brush. He simply picked the wrong brush for this particular job. He also switched media without substantially altering his methods (and, yes, I’m aware that he shot in an improvisatory style for three years). This refusal to adapt to dv’s limitations paradoxically sets the movie far apart from his other feature films. The power of Lynch’s film art lies in the inscrutability of an indelible image—a frame that lingers upon a disorienting array of familiar objects, decor, tonal variations and human beings.

The recording medium should be capable of rendering these subtle gradations and nuances just as surely as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s literary magic realism relies upon an utterly convincing conjuration of time, place and physical properties. The magic arises confidently out of the realism. Lynch’s great films, shot on widescreen 35mm, make mystery live and expand in the mind by being perfectly crystalline before the eye. They are often awash in shadows and negative space interrupted by a swath of fabric or flesh, a pinprick of color, a barrage of strobing light.


Lynch applies these dollops of cinematic paint to suggest a keyhole glimpse of vast, alien, familiar terrain. An ambient, ambiguous soundscape further reinforces the sense of a depthless abyss. In INLAND EMPIRE, the image is so flimsy, so evocative of other kinds of realism (reality TV, local news, industrials, etc.) that the curious events it captures lose their phantasmagoric allure. Lynch’s design is there; captured on DVCAM, it simply plays like elaborate video storyboards. Blown up to 35mm for theatrical projection, the dissipated image simply punishes scrutiny. Whereas Mulholland Drive warned us not to trust our senses (nor, consequently, our emotions, our lovers, our media conglomerates...) by slowly, delicately tearing at its opulent surface, INLAND EMPIRE’s home movie visual texture is untrustworthy from the start. Not only is it the first unsightly David Lynch film; it is the only one that, despite its surreal content, is stranded in mundane reality.

There are plenty of films that made interlaced DV’s limitations work. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle pushed the format using a flimsy one-chip camera for the Dogme 95-enforced verite of The Celebration and Canon’s PAL-standard, 25-frame XL-1 for Julien Donkey Boyand 28 Days Later. The latter film’s low-res master shots of abandoned London simply fell apart on the big screen, but the close, crazed dynamism of its zombie attacks, with their skittish, high-speed shutter strobing, are the essence of DV as pure cinema. The lesson: With prosumer DV intended for 35mm blowup, shoot close, cut before an image betrays itself. Bamboozled (shot on the PD-150’s mini-dv siblings, the TRV-900 and VX-1000) cut frenetically between dozens of static cameras to achieve propulsion you’d expect from a roaming steadicam—quite appropriate for this machine-gun satire; using an arsenal of Sony DVCAM models fitted with anamorphic lenses, Dancer in the Dark’s dance numbers looked like an MGM musical caught by a network of surveillance cameras—but with Busby Berkely himself at the switcher; preempted by Michael Mann’s Collateral and Miami Vice, the microbudget Streets of Legend (PD-150) nevertheless upstages them in the nighttime action-poetry slam. Tarnation showed how MTV blender cutting, applied with sensitivity, intelligence and, most important, rhythm can lend the grungiest 80’s home movies the kind of haunted grandeur that’s always been Lynch’s department. Shooting tight and cutting often, James Longley made a tone poem out of the documentary Gaza Strip using a bulky Sony DSR-500, a camera more often associated with callous electronic news gathering. Unlike the filmmakers in the situations cited above, Lynch seems to have plunged into INLAND EMPIRE with the notion that his little camera could do it all. With a $17.5 million budget and a shoot divided between Poland and Los Angeles, the film is hardly a threadbare, guerilla art project. But the PD-150 is not a million-dollar Panavision 35mm or HD camera. Lynch’s improvised saga of “a woman in trouble” moves like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. The mise en scene and lighting deliver mysteries that the PD-150’s anemic colors and absence of progressive scan turn into useless conundrums.

But Lynch is a man in love. Several years after he chose the PD-150 to shoot some commercials and short films, the infatuation persists. He’s not the only one. Such world-class filmmakers as Albert Maysles and Michael Winterbottom have used the PD-150 for important projects. Their case for this inferior, outmoded camera is that it’s lightweight, requires less crew and sports manual controls (aperture, focus, shutter speed) comparable to those on a film camera. It even has XLR audio inputs for patching in topnotch Sennheiser mics—just like the pros. Trouble is, virtually any 3-CCD prosumer camcorder in the PD-150’s class offers the same goodies. Panasonic’s DVX-100 rendered the PD-150 (and Canon’s XL/GL lines) obsolete five years ago by offering the standard 60i video of the Sony alongside true 24 frame progressive scan (24p) imaging with the gamma characteristics of film stock. This is the girl Lynch should’ve married. Her 2003 upgrade, the 100a, delivers an image even richer in contrast, with deep, solid blacks and minimal clipping in the highlights. On a video monitor, well-lit DVX footage in 24p mode is practically indistinguishable from 16mm dailies.

An INLAND EMPIRE shot on the DVX-100a might have been too beautiful for the heart to take. But not since Zacharias Kunuk’s fiercely poetic The Fast Runner, captured in drab Digibeta before the DVX era, has a digital video film cried out so loudly for 24p beauty. Finally, Longley’s Iraq in Fragments and Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross's Road to Guantanomo, both shot with the 100a, showed that with attentive postproduction, a 24p-to-35mm blowup can fool the keenest eye. And isn’t INLAND EMPIRE all about fooling the eye?

Now, let’s shut down the DV fantasy camp and consider the work as it exists: I suspect that the INLAND EMPIRE DVD will be a shockingly different experience from the theatrical presentation. Video’s 525 lines of resolution are made for the TV set. If INLAND EMPIRE is, as some critics assert, more video art than cinema, then the DVD release should be a proper homecoming. Lynch’s offhanded short videos don’t look half bad on an ordinary TV monitor; a three-hour work of such concentrated contemplation as INLAND EMPIRE might be gorgeous and provocative enough to shut me right up. Can't wait.


  1. This is breathless, informed and informative writing that makes a pretty good case. But I still love the look. I think what seperates us is you approach films more as a filmmaker whereas I try to evaluate each work in and of itself; I'm not as good as that sounds yet but it's my goal.

    I'm glad to see you're willing to give it a shot, again, at home come the summer. Then again, somebody who loves Mulholland Dr. as much as you do will probably do his or her damnedest to stab at this beast another time. I think the DVD presentation just may change your mind -- or, at least, help you watch it from a different perspective.

    INLAND EMPIRE may not be as perfect as Mulholland Dr. but I think it may be better as such. And you can see that in the look, too: it's nasty. But so is life -- and so is dying on a sidewalk spitting up blood. But, like I said on the phone, it's that end credit sequence that really cements the picture for me as, if not an answer to, an inversion of Mulholland Dr. The band is gone -- Nina is gone -- but we still hear and see all these lithe, writhing beauties and their beauty is infectious, celebratory. The first truly hopeful, happy ending in a Lynch film. And, in effect, it proffers a paradigm shift towards a new way to look at movies and how they're made and how best to embrace all their limitless possibilities. And what's that?

    Each new venture is an event! We have all the tools to build novel art, even if it uses an old brush to paint, or a dulled chisel to sculpt. What matters is what we do with the efforts and where to go from there, not how we got there. At least, from the critical side. From the filmmaking side, fuck yeah: grubby room to dream, sure, but oil paintings still blow my mind, too. But, you see, that's like saying Jackson Pollock didn't do it right & Paul Klee was the real deal. I think, in the end, the embrace of this 'prosumer' camcorder is the same as laying the canvass on the floor -- the same as Gene Kelley dancing ALONE, without a spotlight, in the gutter (and rain, yeah).

    We live in a moment alive with wellspring potentials.

    Thanks again, my friend, for this committed, lovely essay.

    (Now I may have to write about that dream double bill (for me, at least) of INLAND EMPIRE with Singin in the Rain; wouldn't that be fun?)

  2. Great article. Is Lynch's dyspeptic vision stronger than the transmogrifying optics of his handycam? What if he had shot his opus in 4K and we all had 4K projectors? Imagine. Nice aesthetic points.

  3. Anon,

    4k would be nice, but even the superior color rendition and cine-like gamma of the DVX would have done the trick, seems to me. Where resolution failed, contrast, saturation and 24 frames would have filled in the blanks, fooled the eye.

  4. Steven -

    By now it's been put up in the Lynch Mob links, but here I address some of the reasons that Lynch might have chosen the PD-150 specifically for its ugliness. I think there are thematic reasons - as Ryland touched on in his comment above - but I mainly comment on the political ramifications of his stylistic choices in relation to the new digital auteur. When I expand my IE notes further, I'll be sure to address the links between intentional ugliness and the film's content.

    I love the look of the DXV-100 but it wouldn't have been right for this film. It needed to seem both grungily real and consciously artificial. His camera does the trick.

  5. The film it's very nice and have a quiet nice suspense, even for the comedy part that I guess doesn't fit in anywhere but well the movie it's excellent and that part doesn't distract anyone.

  6. Excellent, I think it's one of the best in this category and most of the readers can support my version, specially when they started the main plot. All is about appreciation and love for the realistic art.