“We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” – William Shakespeare, The Tempest
“Hey pretty girl, time to wake up.”—The Cowboy, Mulholland Drive
Fire, spotlights and strobes; coffee, records and rock 'n' roll; crazy rugs, red curtains and dark hallways; dual personalities and portals to other worlds; doppelgangers and decrepit seniors; female singers and snapping fingers; sex, violence and dreams—these are David Lynch’s pet motifs. Each has its place in his latest offering, Inland Empire, but this one’s a different animal from Oscar-nominated Mulholland Drive. A three-hour experiment,Inland Empire is easily Lynch's most far-out effort since Eraserhead. And with its confounding narrative maze, it ventures even deeper into the world of nightmares.
This new movie distinguishes itself from Lynch’s earlier work in a few key ways. Firstly, it was shot on consumer-grade digital video, with the director himself behind the camera—an experience that led Lynch to declare he’ll never use film or cinematographers again. The format does not diminish the beauty and cruelty of his images—if anything, their rough textures are more evocative. Also, Lynch's indulgence in close-up and handheld camerawork in Inland Empire resembles the aesthetics of the Dogma 95 films more than the lush, clean, smooth style of Hollywood.
Another major difference is setting. Much of Inland Empire was shot and set in Lodz, Poland. One old, snowy street in particular seems to belong to a completely different universe from the verdant lumber townsof Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, or the overtly ominous rooms and factories of Eraserhead.
Inland Empire was shot in spurts with no script—a process that kept the actors in the dark even more than they normally are with Lynch, who himself claims not to know exactly what will become of his films while he's making them. Michael J. Anderson, who played the midget on Twin Peaks, once said that he received nearly no direction insofar as context or motivation, and that he once overheard Lynch in the editing room saying, "Maybe that's what I meant!"
In Lynch on Lynch, the director says he only pursued film to make moving paintings, and that Blue Velvet sprung from a vision of a woman with red lips in a car window, and a Bobby Vinton song. Yet there are Lynch fans who labour over figuring out these movies, watching them countless times for clues, undeterred by the fact there are sometimes no solutions. They will find that Inland Empire takes enigma to a whole new level.
The story follows Hollywood actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), who has scored a role in a movie, On High in Blue Tomorrows. Her co-star will be Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) and her director, Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). The fictive movie is said to be a remake of a Polish film, 47: an adaptation of a cursed gypsy folk tale that was abandoned when the two leads died. As the actors begin production, each receives warnings about on-set affairs from spouses, friends and a tabloid-TV host (a great cameo played by Dern's mom Diane Ladd). Before long, the script about infidelity starts to play out in real life, occasionally leaving the audience—and even Dern's character—confused about whether or not the cameras are rolling.
And as Grace wanders the darkened studio set, doors lead to new faces and locations: from bruised prostitutes in Lodz to their American counterparts on Hollywood and Vine, from abusive mystery men in Poland to Theroux's family in the States. And all the principal characters end up with doubles and alter egos.
There are also recurring appearances by a family of rabbit people on a retro, oddly-lit sitcom set, complete with canned laughter. This is a totally absurd and utterly disturbing series of segments that Lynch refuses to discuss in interviews.
Dern delivers an incredible performance as "a woman in trouble," or, as Film Comment suggests, an adult Alice in Wonderland falling down a series of rabbit holes. Lynch lobbied for an Oscar nomination for her by sitting in a chair on a patch of grass on Hollywood Boulevard for three days, with a live cow, an enormous "For your consideration" poster and a sign that read "Without cheese there wouldn't be an Inland Empire" (there's video documentation on YouTube).
It didn't work, but Lynch likely didn't care—when he lost the Oscar for Mulholland Drive to Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind,in 2001, he and co-nominee Robert Altman reportedly hugged each other, relieved that neither of them had won because, as Altman said, "It's such a load of crap."
The Academy will probably give Lynch a lifetime achievement award when he's got one foot in the grave (as they did with Altman), or an Oscar for some inferior future film to make up for decades of overlooked work (as they did with Scorsese), but only if he's willing to re-visit more mainstream terrain with another Mulholland Drive, or The Elephant Man.
But that seems so unlikely in the wake of Inland Empire, and the equally otherworldly short films and animation that can be seen on the members-only section of Lynch's website, davidlynch.com, where the rabbits of Inland Empire first appeared. The freedom of working with a smaller camera, crew and budget would seem hard to forfeit for the Hollywood way, even though he’s managed to operated freely on the fringes of the system for some time, enjoying its benefits, such as mainstream visibility, and avoiding the pitfalls, such as not having the final cut of your film. Lynch’s new M.O. has meant that Inland Empire has fallen under the radar outside of the art world, due to its slow, quiet distribution, both independently and through the art-house-oriented company 518 Media.
Frustration or pride may prevent Lynch from attempting another TV show—Mulholland Drive was a rejected pilot with a tacked-on ending after all. And considering the stature he's earned as an American auteur, he has access to actors like Dern, Harry Dean Stanton and Grace Zabriskie, who'll work for next to nothing, and to foreign funding. It was French producers and Polish film-fest employees who helped make Inland Empire happen. Such dedicated supporters will likely play a larger role in Lynch’s future if he stays on this path. But in any case, he can always fall back on moving merchandise on his website, or even offering his films there. The ether feels like the right venue for them.