Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Inland Empire - Totally Audacious!

Last Sunday I was thrilled to view David Lynch's latest cinematic freakout: Inland Empire. Having seen nearly all of Lynch's output since Erasurehead (except for that TV show that all the critics hated, no, not Twin Peaks, silly; the other one; and most of Dune since I can't take Sting for more than three minutes at a time), I was willing to go into it with an open, accepting attitude. Blow me away Mr. Lynch! I inwardly demanded, happy to plunk down $7 to see mid-range digital imagery blown up to what is usually pristine 35mm film footage. As many critics have noted: much of it looks "bad," dark and grainy where it would normally (on film) look rich and velvety. You find yourself peering into the gloom, squinting to make out who (or what) is running around in there, much like Laura Dern's actress character(s), Nikki/Susan/Southern-accented woman.

Dern plays a woman who's personality seems to fragment the more she works on a gypsy-cursed re-make of a film where the original lead characters were brutally murdered. Yes, it's a little confusing. OK, it's the most weirdly edited thing I've ever seen. And it revisits so many of the themes Lynch has covered before: love triangles, ominous demon figures, personal fragmentation, deadpan non-expository dialogue, mind-altering use of sound and music, uh, etc. Since it took over two years to film and had no script, other than what Lynch typed up the day of shooting, it really is quite the collage of disorienting images.

For all the frustration I felt at the lack of narrative thread, I was intrigued beyond measure by the way this guy can make the most mundane objects seem threatening; such as old screwdrivers, hammers and a lamp with a red lightbulb. Some of the images of Dern are the most frightening things I've ever seen and they only last a few seconds. He really is a creepy fellow. Here are some images and my take on it all. It makes about as much sense as the film, which is non-sense. Uh, spoilers ahead...?
Grace Zabriskie shows up in Laura Dern's (Nikki's) mansion and tells her she's going to get this killer role in an upcoming movie. Nikki's all, "Well, I haven't got the part yet." And Grace is all (in a heavy eastern European accent), "Yesss, I think you villl." And she says it's about murder and Nikki is all, "Wha-? Nuh-uh," but whatever, you get the drift. Nikki has a possessive wealthy husband who's always snooping around the stairs, looking down on her.
So, yeah, Nikki gets the role. A lead where she plays a woman about to have an affair with a married man. She's married too. It's all happening narratively at this point. As an audience-member, things haven't got too tricky. Yet.
But I noticed that things got a little "fractured" around the time Harry Dean Stanton shows up as the director's assistant to forever-suave Jeremy Irons. Like Dern, who is too rubbery-faced and let's face it, by Hollywood standards, too old to play a lead in anything BUT a horror film (I didn't say it, Hollywood did), Stanton does not come across as a proper director's assistant. For one thing, he's seedy and always cadging loans from the rest of the cast and crew. Around this time, there's someone running around on the dark, unfinished film set and no one can figure out who it was or where he or she got to. Hmmm.Meanwhile Nikki and her co-star, Devon (Justin Theroux), are getting pretty close. Her husband threatens him to stay away from her, but it looks like things between them will start happening anyway. That's right: sex. In Lynch's world, that can't be good.
So Laura Dern looks like this a lot in this film.
She keeps shuttling back and forth between her mansion-based Nikki character, and her white-trash film character, Susan. Then all these ladies of the night show up and start gabbing and doing the Loco-motion.
I found them kind of a relief because they're young and dewy, despite the heavy make-up. In my film upbringing, they're what I'm used to seeing on the big screen, young dewy girls, with good figures, filling up the screen with their luciousness. Hey, I can't help the way I was cinematically brought up. After looking at Laura Dern's facial contortions for over an hour, the hookers were a treat for sore eyes.
Critics love when they do the Loco-motion. I think it's just because they can't say they find the sexy ladies a blessed relief after all the grainy confusion beforehand.
Then there's these life-sized rabbits, hanging out in their home while a sitcom laugh-track plays every time they talk. Don't ask. Don't tell.
Aieeeeeee! One of those REALLY scary moments. This photo doesn't do it justice. You just have to see it for youself.
CHRIST on the CROSS! Even weirder and scarier. I saw a great exhibit on the east coast a few years ago (can't remember where or who did it--sorry), with a room full of white dummies and balloons and kitchen appliances, all with projected video faces on them, talking and doing whatever faces do. Very effective. This was similar. But Jesum, what the f...? I forgot to mention all the Polish carnies and the doomed filmmakers of the past, and the radio play. Can't...make...the...connections...
Yes, I appreciate his crazy ways. But man, he's starting to fragment like one of his films. Don't make me work too hard, Mr. Lynch. Life's hard enough. Give me a narrative thread to hang onto. That said, I enjoyed the afternoon very much. Note: Make sure you drink nothing before the film starts. It's three hours long. It's not like you'll miss any of the story if you get up to use the restroom, but you might miss that seventeenth ominous screwdriver scene, or William H. Macy's cameo, or yet another puzzled expression from Laura Dern.

Something funny always happens to me after I see a Lynch film. The Northwest Film Center Theater is in the bowels of the Portland Art Museum, a very confusing building to navigate. Lots of staircases, hallways and little rooms leading seemingly nowhere. After leaving the theater, I decided to head upstairs to the recent acquisitions gallery to see their latest score, Van Gogh's "The Ox-Cart," probably one of the gloomiest paintings ever to be shown in a major museum. As I headed up, I noticed that no one else was in the gallery, not even a guard. That's funny, I thought, since the rooms were full of impressionist art from floor to ceiling. I made my way to the painting and thought, that is SO depressing and dark. And just as I thought that, the lights overhead dimmed down to blackness and I realized the museum was closing. It literally was dark. I scuttled back down the stairs, through the lobby and up some other stairs before finally finding a bathroom (back down the stairs). It being Portland, nobody yelled at me. In fact, they smiled and wished me well as I went off into the rainy night.
Top this, Lynch.

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