INLAND EMPIRE, 2006. Written (I guess) and directed (definitely) by David Lynch. Starring Laura Dern, Peter J. Lucas, Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons, Harry Dean Stanton, Karolina Gruszka, Jan Hencz, Grace Zabriske, Julia Ormond, Diane Ladd, Ian Abercrombie, Bellina Logan, William H. Macy and the augmented Emily Stofle.
Now showing exclusively at the Oak Street Cinema.
We are like the spider,
We weave our life and then move along in it.
We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream.
This is true for the entire universe.
There’s a moment in INLAND EMPIRE, almost three hours in, when Laura Dern’s Nikki is confronted by a menacing figure with a face that appears to be made of wax. By now we are exhausted, and scared, having walked the sticky tightrope of Lynch’s spiderweb, which seems to have no end. Nikki is equally worn out. Terrified, she empties a revolver at the wax face, which accomplishes nothing, his face melting and filling the screen. Like the man behind the dumpster in Mulholland Dr., he is an unstoppable force, not a force of nature, but a pinpoint in the fabric of the reality, a tiny hole through that which protects us and hides the simmering unconscious. David Lynch enjoys punching through the screen that shields us, be it the image of a small town, the dream of Hollywood, or simply the appearance of reality.
David Lynch has been studying Transcendental Meditation (TM) for over thirty years now. It seems time to come to terms with the fact that, like artists whose religion informs their work–be it Catholicism or Islam or Buddhism–David Lynch is a filmmaker who relies heavily on the visions that TM has offered him. TM is as real for Lynch as the Dalai Lama and Christ are for Scorsese, except that INLAND EMPIRE, in spite of its length and incomprehensibility, is eminently more watchable than Kundun or The Last Temptation of Christ. Where in the past many of Lynch’s efforts seemed purposefully incoherent, I’m starting to believe that, while still incoherent, they are accurate representations of a world distilled through the mind of an artist supremely in touch with his inner being.
And at first INLAND EMPIRE seems to belie the criticism that the film is absurd and impossible to follow. A woman, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) has signed on to play the part in a film ridiculously titled On High With Blue Tomorrows, directed by the pompous Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) and co-starring alleged hunk Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). Problems arise, in the person of the cryptic neighbor (Grace Zabriske), who promises Nikki that she will get the part, and yet warns the younger woman about unleashing evil into the world. Also, the leading man is constantly threatened by Janek, Nikki’s husband, played by the Jan Hencz with steely intensity and little else. If Devon sleeps with Nikki, Janek will kill him, or more likely, have him killed. To make matters all the more intriguing, it turns out that Blue Tomorrows is a remake of a Polish film, in which the two leads were murdered. As this is being explained to Nikki and Devon, they discover that someone mysterious is watching them from the shadows. Devon investigates, but the person, persons or spirit has vanished.
That’s the swiftly moving first hour of this three hour film, though there are clues to the depths with which INLAND EMPIRE will dive: the rabbits, for instance. There are segments of Lynch’s online television show, Rabbits, which is nothing more than the interior of a spacious Hollywood pad, with people walking around in dull 50s-style suits, with giant rabbit heads. They talk and the laugh track engages at odd moments. There’s a prostitute with her face blurred out, and a girl crying at the events on her television set, which appears to be the action in the movie we’re watching.
And then cut… to the set of Blue Tomorrows. Of course, Blue Tomorrows is a movie that no one in Hollywood would ever make, not with a title like that and Douglas Sirk dead and gone. Nor would actors with names like Nikki Grace and Devon Berk appear in anything other than mid-grade porn. As usual, Lynch doesn’t give a rip about making his movies-within-movies seem like real things, or his people talk and act in a manner that’s reflective of life as we see it on the streets. The people in Lynch’s films talk in sentences that are clipped, odd statements that are meant to infuriate, confuse, and often menace. Their faces seem pinched, as if the oxygen levels on the set were just shy of what human beings need, or the gravity’s just a bit too strong. David Lynch’s films–INLAND EMPIRE especially–seem shot on a distant planet, after the sun has set but it’s not quite pitch-black. The feeble light gives us just enough to make out and react to before the darkness swallows us whole. This is Hollywood, from Lynch’s point of view.
INLAND EMPIRE loops in and out of the real and the imagined and the deeply imagined life, in which the Blue Tomorrows movie plays itself out, another movie (in which Dern is seen among prostitutes swaying to “The Locomotion” and she is eventually murdered), and some oddball scenes involving ketchup, Polish whores, an interview in a dark room, and, once again, a return to the square family with giant rabbit heads. Characters you’ve come to care about suddenly turn into actors in a film, then a different movie from that one, then back to INLAND EMPIREagain (ostensibly reality), and the fiction within the fiction vanishes and gives way to the rabbits and crying whores once again, each filmed in lonely, empty rooms that seem to have come from outer space. And you know that, deep down, that both the whores and rabbits will return yet again to trouble you later in the film, and probably later at night.
And we ask ourselves: What are the rabbits? Does Lynch even know? Or the references to the circus? The barbecue and ketchup scene? The press notes for the film are as follows: “A Woman In Trouble”. Some help.
Lynch explains (in Catching the Big Fish) that his friend, the actor Krzysztof Majchrzak is given a choice between three props for an isolated and seemingly unrelated scene at a shed. Krzysztof can choose between a broken tile, a rock, a red light bulb. He chose the bulb, which he held in his mouth the duration of the scene. This, according to Lynch, is a reflection of the Unified Field–that a man would come to the set wearing oddball glasses, pick a red bulb, and act in the scene with it in his mouth–they are all related.
What that does for the audience is give us direct access to a world that is utterly different from our own experiences, and in the sense that INLAND EMPIRE gives us something we’ve never seen before, it works beautifully. And even better, the film maintains its menace, and its grim attitude about Hollywood. Between Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE you have two of the most damning films ever made about the way the Dream Factory devours souls. In a startling scene, a ghastly Diane Ladd (Laura Dern’s mom) grills Nikki about having difficulty keeping her paws away from Devon, with whom she’s only just begun work. It’s a sickening, yet funny, parody of the Entertainment Tonight garbage, more real and ultimately more hilarious than Christopher Guest’s jokes in For Your Consideration. Perhaps because it nauseates as well as liberates–by this time already you’re looking for a laugh, and Lynch’s films always have one or two very good ones, and INLAND EMPIRE is no exemption.
Nothing will protect the people of INLAND EMPIRE against the rot that will devour them. They are stuck, fighting against those vile creatures with wax faces who seek to devour their artistic souls, against their desires to make love to one another (prompted, most likely, by the dream world of their acting), and find that once they enter the labyrinth of Hollywood, there is no escape. Lynch pushes his people into the maze, but leaves them no bread crumbs or string with which to help them emerge. The audience can wish it had Chinatown or Hollywoodland to frighten them about Southern California in a funhouse way , but INLAND EMPIRE is the real thing, as real as the movies get. David Lynch dives deep here, has undoubtedly seen the system eat up talent like bon bons, and is out to remind you that your dreams come with a price. The actors, actresses, directors, screenwriters, they’ve all paid… won’t you?