Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lynch Week- INLAND EMPIRE Discussion

We want to start off this final post by again thanking everyone for joining us this week and making Lynch week such a success. Next time, we'll plan a little more advance to get even more posts and more writers involved, but all of us here were thrilled at the response and hope to keep seeing more comments, questions, and discussions in the comments – whether in Lynch posts or other reviews.

For our final post in the official Lynch week, we decided to do something we've never done here before: a real conversation! Well, real enough. Although our proximities to one another do not allow for podcasting, an email conversation is the best we could do. But we are writers, so we probably put our ideas down on paper a little better anyways. After the break, our discussion of Lynch's most recent work INLAND EMPIRE. A lot of people (including all of us) were/are baffled by the movie in many respects, so we tried our best to work through what this movie is, how it works, and why we all responded to it how we did.

More than any of the posts this week, though, we really want to keep this conversation going in the comments. Post your questions, your thoughts, your responses. Hopefully we can get a solid discussion going! So chime in, enjoy the discussion, and come back and visit! Become a follower (link is on the side)!

What the fuck is this movie?

JACOB: Good question! It's sort of a love story/Hollywood exposé/history of Polish sideshows/cranial map/prostitutes a-go-go/revenge thriller...with a heart. I can't really say what it is. But it seems more like a study of tone than a film with a "real” narrative. There's such a palpable dread hanging over most of the film. Even if the "story" stops making sense, the tone is always there to guide the viewer further into the darkness.

JAMES: I sort of ask this question as a joke (and stole it from the most recent issue of Cinema Scope) but I think its sort of the daunting question that lingers over most analysis of the movie. I won’t call it a “film” because that implies the format and one of the leading questions in academic film studies is one of format. Thus begins the questions that this movie brings to the surface, whether through its narrative or production process. What makes INLAND EMPIRE wonderful, whatever it is, is that it dares to be as expansive as it is. I know this probably causes a lot of frustration for viewers who aren’t into the aesthetic or don’t give themselves to the experience. This isn’t a hit at those viewers, or the movie even, but its something that makes the movie constantly challenging and difficult to get a complete grasp on. For the most part, I tend to decide for myself what I think the movie is, and then love hearing other theories, but its never a point of annoyance. Just part of the fun. I actually disagree with Jacob that its all about tone though and that there isn’t a real narrative. For me, its just as invested in narrative as any of Lynch’s film works. There are more narrative threads here (its like a 3 hour version of the last 30 minutes of Mulholland Drive, in many ways) but I think there is plenty to follow, buy into, and become invested in outside of the demonstrative tone.

BRANDON: For me, INLAND EMPIRE is like a Gestalt optical illusion – you know, the ones where the drawing looks like a rabbit AND a duck at the same time, depending on emphasis. All of the parallel narrative and crisscrossing plotlines beg the question, "Which one is the actual reality?" Unlike Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE never reveals this information. Instead, the audience is left with a puzzle in which what might seem like an allegory for one reality might actually be THE reality, which finds its metaphorical expression in a complimentary narrative layer. The movie presents a sort of narratological ouroboros in which every subplot contains strains of other subplots and in which the distinction between one subplot and another is a matter of leaning to one side or squinting harder – the plot doubles over on itself, examining itself, undoing itself, like the mythological serpent. INLAND EMPIRE is in constant rotation and the only way to pin it down is for the viewer to stabilize him/herself, creating a sort of North Star by which to navigate. However, the tricky part is that there are just as many versions of INLAND EMPIRE as there are places to stand still; from every vantage point, the film is altered, different, enriched or refocused or skewed.

JACOB: Brandon, what was the viewing experiment you tried with IE at the Belcourt when I made you watch it twice in a row? Something along the lines of dozing off to wake up during random scenes?

JAMES: If that actually occured, its very classically Godardian. I think he said that he preferred watching movies out of order (just another way to break from the capitalist structures pushed upon him by The Man, man!) If I remember the story correctly, he preferred to watch a couple reels in a row (say 3 and 4) and then come back later to see 1 and 2, and onward with 5 and 6 at a later time. There’s also a famous story from the history of NYFF where Godard sent reels of a film unmarked just so the projectionist would play them in a random order. Can’t remember which film... Anyways, it'd be an interesting experiment to try with IE, but I think after you've seen it a few times that might lose some of its effect. If you did that at the Belcourt, though, I'd love to hear how it made the film work...

BRANDON: Attempting to maximize the irrational, associative dream logic of the film, I did indeed purposefully take naps during the second part of a back-to-back screening at the Belcourt. I remember hearing the film vividly throughout my slumber, in fact, the intensity of the sound design awoke me multiple times during my experiment. As my eyes would open slightly and I would drift in and out of attentiveness, the movie, which was fresh in my mind, would bleed into my subconscious's permutations of its moods and plotlines. I awoke several times in a dazed stupor, having to re-acclimate myself to the dark and the screen. It was a lot like being lost and then passing into and out of different realities. The whole thing was a lot like how I would imagine it might be to actually exist in the INLAND EMPIRE universe.

CHUCK: I like Brandon’s image of the “narratological ouroboros,” as I believe it gives us a good visual representation of the sort of karmicrecapitulations found in INLAND EMPIRE’s narratives. But this does not mean Lynch’s experimentation should be chalked up as an artistic indulgence, as some critics have suggested. Instead, I would argue that the film’s deconstructive, cyclical, self-reflexive structure meshes well with its investigations of cinema, performance, and spectatorship. Even when the film fails to cohere to the plot-logic causality of classical cinema, it does so not as an aesthetic extravagance but as a means of critique. The film dismantles classical diegesis and the structure of narrative cinema in order to make the seams and sutures of the medium more visible. The film also accomplishes this by breaking down many of the binary structures of cinema and Hollywood: spectator/spectacle, performance/reality, authentic/inauthentic, etc. In this way, the movie matches medium with message. As in Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA, INLAND EMPIRE uses these metatextual tactics for an explicit purpose—not just for shock value.

I would also be remiss in failing to mention Laura Dern’s daring and bravura performance, which anchors the film with a raw, emotive core even during its most chaotic and oblique passages. I would even argue that her performance ranks up there with Maria Falconetti’s work in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC as my favorite female performance in all of cinema. And I assure you, there is no hyperbole in that statement.

What do you think of Lynch's turn to digital? What does it add or take away?

JACOB: Lynch's defense of his switch is generally something along the lines of "Yes, film stock is beautiful but there's a separate kind of beauty inherent in the digital technology." So he seems to be switching one beauty for another. While it may not be as aesthetically pleasing as the lush photography of "Mulholland Dr." it's still beautiful in its own way. Plus, if the digital technology gives Lynch the opportunity to quickly produce more work or try out experiments that would be too costly on celluloid, then he can go forth with my blessing.

CHUCK: As Jacob said, the digital technology used in IE frees Lynch from the expense of celluloid and gives him more room for experimentation. I would also argue that the film’s harsh, grainy digital photography can be viewed as the perfect fusion of form and content. While the lush cinematography of Mulholland Drive simulated the look and feel of a mythic, classical Hollywood (an image the film challenges and critiques), Inland Empire shows us a more raw and fragmentary representation of Los Angeles—a city full of the grunge and grime and darkness shined over with the false narratives of Hollywood cinema. Filled with murky, hazy, dirty nightmare images, IE goes beneath the surface of Hollywood glitz and glamour, presenting an image of L.A. as a near-apocalyptic wasteland. If MD visualizes Hollywood as both mythic and artificial, then IE explores the sordid, decayed underbelly of Hollywood—the dirty world that exists outside the motion pictures and is often hidden away from us. Both films attempt to dismantle the myth of Hollywood, but they do so very differently.

JAMES: Very much agree with Chuck in terms of the look of the film. Even if his doesn’t look as “pretty” (which, I remind you, is a subjective term) as MD, its precisely because what IE is wouldn’t make sense with the look and feel of MD, just as Eraserhead or Elephant Man wouldn’t work in color and Dune, Blue Velvet, etc. wouldn’t work in black and white. As a precise visual artist, the look of the films always match what the film is going after, whether that be the tone, story, whatever. Some people don’t like grain and they want the picture clean and that is perfectly fine. But it is impossible for me to imagine IE working in such a manner. It is so much about the grunge, interiority, and darkness of the spaces and places that it seems totally disparate from the purposefully sunny view of LA in the first two-thirds of MD. That world (and view on life and Hollywood) has no place in IE so why would it be shown that way. Plus, Jacob is right about it opening the possibilities of shooting and experimentation for Lynch. Hopefully the lack of restraint doesn’t lead to an extreme self-indulgence, though, as some have feared. Some people thought that aspect killed IE, but I found the experience abundantly alive and enthralling. As long as that keeps happening and Lynch doesn’t suddenly turn into Clark/Korine/Wes Anderson/Barney, then I’ll be ok. (Jacob- the Barney slam is just for you). While IE certainly has a lot of “personal” indulgence of sorts, it still less than those would-be great directors and their insolent love of themselves. Lynch’s films allow the viewer a leeway that opens so many possibilites and refuse/refute the criticism of self-indulgence.

BRANDON: I personally have no problem with Lynch being as self-indulgent as he wants. I don’t necessarily watch Lynch for political or social relevance. I watch for something more interior, more universally relevant, which I think he might be able to express more plainly and unabashedly with the freedom of digital filmmaking. I’d rather watch David Lynch hardcore navel-gazing than just about anything. As for the aesthetic limits of the digital shift, I’m kind of wary of it, namely because I feel like Lynch’s commitment to digital work may preclude him from exploring other ideas because they are more suited to film. It’s sad to think that David Lynch will never make another movie on film, though I certainly adore INLAND EMPIRE. Either way, I trust him to make something beautiful.

JACOB: While James removes Matthew Barney's nuts from his vice grip, here are some recent Lynch shorts which might serve as examples of the experimentation Lynch has been involved with as of late.


The Boat

What's up with Lynch's re-use of material from his website?

JACOB: This probably isn't the official answer, but Lynch seems to combine ideas in a piecemeal fashion. I'm pretty sure the "Rabbits" series had already been produced when he started shooting scenes for what would become Inland Empire. Why he decided to combine them I couldn't say (which is a pity, because I've constantly been curious about their inclusion). Maybe his next work will feature an animated segment starring the Angriest Dog in the World.

CHUCK: Although we have this image of Lynch as a calculating perfectionist, he is, in many ways, one of the most improvisational filmmakers around. Like the stuffed, clearly artificial robin puppet in Blue Velvet or the shot of Twin Peaks’ Killer Bob peering through the bed frames, much of IE seems to come from an organic, improvisational process. In many ways, IE reminds me of Burroughs’ cut-up method, where textual fragments are arranged randomly in order to create a new, unexpected, usually anti-rational creation. While I don’t think IE should be seen as pure “cut up”—it is far more unified and cohesive than those experiments—the way Lynch splices his central narrative(s) with images culled from his digital experiments does summon up the same illucid, extemporaneous spirit of a surrealist cut up.

JAMES: "Rabbits" was definitely completed before IE began. I’m not sure when the decision was made to include it, but I really love how it works in IE. I actually prefer it vastly within the realm of IE than on its own. It adds another layering to the levels of viewing/watching someone else (or yourself) that run throughout the work. The canned laughter and sitcom-y style positioned in the first half hour with the crying Polish woman who strives for some kind of connection (as made clear in her ultimate connection with Nikki/Sue near the end). She’s kind of a mini- Man in the Planet. Constantly watching and reacting, but seemingly never completely connected or associated what it otherwise going on. All of this plays back into the extemporaneous spirit that Chuck highlights. Aside from "Rabbits", there is a far less known reference; that being the inclusion of Axxon N. If I recall correctly, it is the room/theater where Nikki/Sue ends up auditioning for the man with big glasses and sees herself on screen. Back when I was a member of Lynch’s site, Axxon N was advertised as an upcoming series and I remember it having quite a similar image to the one that ended up being the smoky lips on the IE poster. Axxon N never was released as a series, so my guess is that it melded into IE when Lynch began to develop it a little further. Lynch has said IE started with the 14-page (single spaced) monologue that Laura Dern was to deliver. Perhaps thats what Axxon N was, and, if so, I was certainly thrilled to see it in full form in IE. That monologue is one (of many) highlights the movie has. Even though this may be a form of toying with something he had previously been playing with, its as fresh as ever.

BRANDON: Great call on the Burroughs reference, Chuck. I ALWAYS think about that when I watch INLAND EMPIRE. It’s interesting that we define “Rabbits” and other previously released material as work that is “re-used” rather than considering them as stepping stones on the way to larger projects. I feel as if the work Lynch put on his website and dispersed during his initial digital experiments was never really intended to be viewed as polished or finalized (otherwise, why not put it on a DVD or attempt a more official form of distribution?). Instead, the website work served more as a sort of brainstorming, preliminary dabbling which online subscribers were privy to and which enabled Lynch to receive feedback on his efforts. More than anything, it seems that Lynch was giving greater access to his creative process by utilizing enhanced technology and online tools. As James speculates, some of the earlier projects were potentially included in the INLAND EMPIRE conceptualization or were absorbed into them as the project took shape, growing out of Lynch’s experiments. Additionally, on a meta-textual level, the previous existence of “Rabbits” online links INLAND EMPIRE to a narrative structure that is web-like and associative, playing out like a joyride down the rabbit hole of internet search engines and clickable hyperlinks, weaving in and out of the story. Jim Emerson describes this aspect of the film, writing:

In this sense, you might say, Inland Empire is a digital film, through and through. Not because Lynch shot it with the relatively small Sony PD-150 digicam and fell in love with the smeary, malleable and unstable texture of digital video (where the brightest Los Angeles sunlight can be as void and terrifying as the darkest shadow), or because the first pieces of the movie were digital shorts he made for his Web site before they grew and crystallized into a narrative idea. Inland Empire unfolds in a digital world (a replication of consciousness itself -- hence the title), where events really do transpire in multiple locations at the same time (or multiple times at the same place), observers are anywhere and everywhere at once, and realities are endlessly duplicable, repeatable and tweakable. This is a digital dimension where, to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, there's no difference between ketchup and paint and light and blood: On the screen, it's red.

JAMES: I meant to suggest that re-use is the wrong thing to call it (since the material works so well, and most of it is expanded from its original form). Whether I did or not, you cleared it up and hit the nail on the head. As for Emerson's comments, I'll be interested to see if Lynch continues to work with the PD-150 or if he goes to more advanced digital cameras. We'll have to wait and see. I would tend to think the specific camera may vary depending on the project, but, as always with Lynch, anything can happen.


Anonymous said...

Nice discussion fellas. Very suiting to attack this one altogether, because it certainly feels the most disjointed of the work I've seen from Lynch.

A very nice cap on Lynch week too, I might add, hearing from all the people who've contributed.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I totally had to google karmicrecapitulations before I figured out that it was two words. You should have heard the pronunciations in my head.

Chuck W said...

Oh. Whoops! Ha, ha, ha.

I have no idea how that happened. Honest engine. :)

Neil Fulwood said...

Congratulations, gents. Some of the best writing I've seen on Out 1 so far.

I've joined the party a little late, but my take on 'The Straight Story' (arguably the odd-man-out in Lynch's filmography, but still characteristically Lynchian in certain aspects) is now online at The Agitation of the Mind:

Joel Bocko said...

I don't believe you, Chuck, I think it was intentional (well-played if it was - you tricked me too).

My feelings about Inland Empire are complex. I was never as drawn into it as I was by Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway or Fire Walk With Me.

And I'm a bit skeptical of metatextual, self-reflexive films which obscure the process of production - Lynch's films reveal their own artifice on thematic levels but rarely in the context of their making (in that sense, I think he really IS a perfectionist).

And I kind of wished Inland Empire had eschewed any semblance of narrative coherence, as I found its kinda narrative, kinda not structure fascinating rather than beguiling.

My full thoughts on the movie are on my blog, so rather than paraphrase I invite you all to read it and tell me what you think (it should be linked up on the master Lynch links page).

We can continue the discussion here, so that your thread keeps growing.

Emerson is on to something in that IE seems to most reflect contemporary media (there are rather strong references to reality television and digital multimedia throughout). This is probably the direction he's been moving in throughout his whole career, from the avant-garde classicism of Eraserhead to the mushy, speed-addled, super-surfaced Inland Empire. It's quite the aesthetic journey, which is another reason Lynch's career is so fascinating.

Meeg said...

Interesting discussion.

I thought Inland Empire seemed very much like a trip into David Lynch's brain and a further step down the road he started on in Mulholland Drive.

Likewise, I thought Inland Empire was very much operating a subconscious level (all his films do this, but this one most of all).

I didn't enjoy all of it, but there were a lot of haunting scene that stick with me: the eery moment when Laura Dern's character thinks she sees a figure lurking in the shadows of the film set (and the revelation later of who that was), the conversation with the old lady who comes over to visit... even the part with bum dying on the street corner.

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michaellidstone said...

New Amazon eBook unlocks David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE. "Old World Politics, New World Prophecy: Understanding David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE". Rabbits, AXXoNN, Poland all explained. Here is the link: