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Inland Empire revisited

If you are looking for solutions, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Inland Empire: Wabbit wedux.
Inland Empire: Wabbit wedux.

The best film of 2006 held its local premiere in my living room.

Inland Empire (2006)

It wasn’t my first viewing: a journey up the 5 to Los Angeles had already been undertaken, seeing how Inland Empire seemed destined never to receive a big-screen playdate in San Diego. During the film’s opening week, Hot Rod hogged something like 25 screens across the county. A new film by David Lynch, one of American cinema’s preeminent visionaries, opened strong in Estonia and Slovakia, but couldn’t get so much as a midnight showing in the #5 Hillcrest. As for the Ken — remember the Ken? — it was still operating under a strict “if it’s gay, it plays” policy. The unwatchable Cut-Sleeve Boys (one of the rare times that I didn’t make it through the first cue mark) earned a week, while Inland Empire made a beeline to home video. I’d rather be Lynch-ed. But the passage of 16 years finds Landmark finally agreeing to hand over one of its screens to what amounts to Lynch’s last theatrical release. If you are looking for solutions, you’ve come to the wrong place. Everything that follows is intended to enlighten or, even better, further confound. It is in honor of Landmark’s belated playdate that I take perverse delight in covering the film in this week’s entry of Movies at Home.

San Diego was not alone in ignoring Inland Empire: poor Lynch couldn’t even convince a major video distributor to bite. The film was initially released by Rhino, at the time a low-end nostalgia merchant responsible for DVD pressings of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, and Ed Wood’s bouncy Orgy of the Dead. As the film progressed, it raised more questions than it could ever possibly answer. I’d wager Lynch himself would be hard pressed to explain everything that takes place. And why should he? What’s a David Lynch film without a healthy dose of perplexity? A psychoanalyst or a hypno-therapist armed with a two-liter bottle of sodium pentothal would find it difficult to dislodge much from Lynch’s inner landscape.

Lynch never envisioned Inland Empire as a feature. Initially, he wanted nothing more than to tinker around with digital video, and so he picked up a high-end consumer DVcam and began shooting a series of unconnected stories. Working without a script, the director nevertheless noticed an interrelation between individual scenes beginning to form, and forged ahead until nothing short of a three-hour running time could encompass his vision. One of the film’s recurring images is that of a spinning 78 rpm record. Instead of your traditional diamond needle, the tightly-framed disc dances under the weight of what appears to be a hairy railroad tie stuck in one, long endless groove. Geographically speaking, the title refers to that plot of earth just east of Los Angeles that houses Riverside and San Bernardino County. Metaphorically, it represented the ever-darkening inner landscape of its lead character, played by Laura Dern. During a conversation with the director, Ms. Dern had mentioned that her husband hailed from the Inland Empire. Lynch was quite taken by the term; when asked why he chose it as a title, he replied, “I like the word ‘Inland.’ And I like the word ‘Empire.’”

Every David Lynch film has the appearance of a story, if for no other reason than the necessity of something on which to hang all the weirdness. Here, we have a modern day Alice in Wonderland, complete with a family of personified sitcom rabbits (accompanied by canned applause and an uproarious laugh track) — and, in place of a looking glass, a cigarette hole burned through a pair of silk undergarments, through which Nikki Grace (Dern) may peer. A new neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) making the rounds pays a visit to Nikki’s palatial Hollywood home. The heavily accented Maria Ouspenskia substitute foretells doom: she assures the on-the-skids movie actress that a “new role” in an upcoming blockbuster is a lock, but there’s a curse attached. Nikki’s director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) comes clean and confesses that On High Blue Tomorrows (how’s that for a marquee-filler?) is a remake of a Polish film that was never completed because both leads were murdered. Once that’s all seen to, Lynch dispenses with melodramatic surprise: there is no doubt that Nikki and her leading man (Justin Theroux) are destined to hook up. Everyone who comes in contact with them, from Kingsley to the hostess of a daytime TV gabfest (played by Dern’s mom Diane Ladd) points to a romance waiting in the wings.

Nikki gradually begins to notice parallels between her life and that of her onscreen character, and in quick time, the two begin to dangerously overlap. Acknowledging the fact that you can’t get a film made in Hollywood without including a bevy of busty young starlets, Lynch gives Dern a third incarnation, that of a prostitute making the rounds of Hollywood Blvd. The addition of hookers not only provides Lynch the opportunity to get out some genuinely funny tit-talk (good enough to put Tarantino to shame), it also leads to the dynamite musical number that closes the show. To make a long nightmare short, Nikki is stabbed with a screwdriver by a fellow street walker (Julia Ormond) who earlier was stabbed with a screwdriver by a character from the original Polish version of On High Blue Tomorrows…I think. The film’s most enduring (and endearing) image is that of Dern on her knees hacking up a river of blood on Hollywood’s much-loved Walk of Fame.

At their core, all great filmmakers continue to grow and expand through experimentation, each finding new ways to show and explore life through a camera. In the same way Godard saw inbred continuity errors in 35mm filmmaking and transformed them into artful jump cuts, Lynch understands and transcends the imperfections of the digital universe. Confidential Magazine’s identity-concealing black bars have been replaced by the video thumbprint. Long a staple of “caught on video” TV specials, the “technique” blurs the perpetrator’s head while keeping the body in sharp focus. Notice the way Lynch incorporates this “imperfection” into an opening sequence, adding a video surveillance facelift to a period flashback. Considering budget and technical imitations, this viewer was amazed to see how visually extravagant the film looked, particularly the outrageous rabbit sitcom. Thanks to the lighting, set design and camera placement, you’d swear that these were upright bunnies dressed in human attire walking around a miniature set, as opposed to full-grown humans in costume.

Inland Empire feels like a continuation of Lynch’s Mullholland Drive. Both films are set in Hollywood, and both, to a certain degree, focus on two female characters: one blonde, and the other brunette. Each film feels like the aftermath of a nightmare waiting to happen. The main difference is, this time the director is angry. This film is to David Lynch what Psycho was to Alfred Hitchcock: a big, fat “fuck you” aimed at naysayers and nonbelievers. Throughout the ‘50s, critics dogged Hitchcock for what they perceived as budgetary extravagance. In return, The Master hit back with a modest, black-and-white horror film made with second-tier actors and a crew composed of the same technicians who put together his weekly TV show. Nowadays, critics (and viewers) that embrace Hollywood blockbusters are the first to accuse Lynch of being incoherent, yet these same rocket scientists claim to have no problem following the narcotically non-existent effects-driven plot machinations of anything involving superheroes.

Shot entirely on equipment that Lynch purchased at his local Best Buy, this is kamikaze filmmaking at its finest. I have seen it three times and I’m still not sure that I can even begin to claim to have a firm grasp on what it’s about. I take that back. You know what it’s about? It’s about cinema. A boy and his camera filming nightmares that would cause Peeping Tom to flinch. It’s about mood, atmosphere, texture, subtext and equal doses of Porky’s Wackyland and Alice’s Wonderland...and about a gallon of blood to taint the late Johnny Grant’s sacred Walk of Fame. The supplementary DVD is almost as long and equally as good as the feature. Five minutes spent watching David Lynch steam broccoli is stranger and infinitely more fascinating than anything in the MCU.

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Inland Empire: Wabbit wedux.
Inland Empire: Wabbit wedux.

The best film of 2006 held its local premiere in my living room.

Inland Empire (2006)

It wasn’t my first viewing: a journey up the 5 to Los Angeles had already been undertaken, seeing how Inland Empire seemed destined never to receive a big-screen playdate in San Diego. During the film’s opening week, Hot Rod hogged something like 25 screens across the county. A new film by David Lynch, one of American cinema’s preeminent visionaries, opened strong in Estonia and Slovakia, but couldn’t get so much as a midnight showing in the #5 Hillcrest. As for the Ken — remember the Ken? — it was still operating under a strict “if it’s gay, it plays” policy. The unwatchable Cut-Sleeve Boys (one of the rare times that I didn’t make it through the first cue mark) earned a week, while Inland Empire made a beeline to home video. I’d rather be Lynch-ed. But the passage of 16 years finds Landmark finally agreeing to hand over one of its screens to what amounts to Lynch’s last theatrical release. If you are looking for solutions, you’ve come to the wrong place. Everything that follows is intended to enlighten or, even better, further confound. It is in honor of Landmark’s belated playdate that I take perverse delight in covering the film in this week’s entry of Movies at Home.

San Diego was not alone in ignoring Inland Empire: poor Lynch couldn’t even convince a major video distributor to bite. The film was initially released by Rhino, at the time a low-end nostalgia merchant responsible for DVD pressings of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, and Ed Wood’s bouncy Orgy of the Dead. As the film progressed, it raised more questions than it could ever possibly answer. I’d wager Lynch himself would be hard pressed to explain everything that takes place. And why should he? What’s a David Lynch film without a healthy dose of perplexity? A psychoanalyst or a hypno-therapist armed with a two-liter bottle of sodium pentothal would find it difficult to dislodge much from Lynch’s inner landscape.

Lynch never envisioned Inland Empire as a feature. Initially, he wanted nothing more than to tinker around with digital video, and so he picked up a high-end consumer DVcam and began shooting a series of unconnected stories. Working without a script, the director nevertheless noticed an interrelation between individual scenes beginning to form, and forged ahead until nothing short of a three-hour running time could encompass his vision. One of the film’s recurring images is that of a spinning 78 rpm record. Instead of your traditional diamond needle, the tightly-framed disc dances under the weight of what appears to be a hairy railroad tie stuck in one, long endless groove. Geographically speaking, the title refers to that plot of earth just east of Los Angeles that houses Riverside and San Bernardino County. Metaphorically, it represented the ever-darkening inner landscape of its lead character, played by Laura Dern. During a conversation with the director, Ms. Dern had mentioned that her husband hailed from the Inland Empire. Lynch was quite taken by the term; when asked why he chose it as a title, he replied, “I like the word ‘Inland.’ And I like the word ‘Empire.’”

Every David Lynch film has the appearance of a story, if for no other reason than the necessity of something on which to hang all the weirdness. Here, we have a modern day Alice in Wonderland, complete with a family of personified sitcom rabbits (accompanied by canned applause and an uproarious laugh track) — and, in place of a looking glass, a cigarette hole burned through a pair of silk undergarments, through which Nikki Grace (Dern) may peer. A new neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) making the rounds pays a visit to Nikki’s palatial Hollywood home. The heavily accented Maria Ouspenskia substitute foretells doom: she assures the on-the-skids movie actress that a “new role” in an upcoming blockbuster is a lock, but there’s a curse attached. Nikki’s director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) comes clean and confesses that On High Blue Tomorrows (how’s that for a marquee-filler?) is a remake of a Polish film that was never completed because both leads were murdered. Once that’s all seen to, Lynch dispenses with melodramatic surprise: there is no doubt that Nikki and her leading man (Justin Theroux) are destined to hook up. Everyone who comes in contact with them, from Kingsley to the hostess of a daytime TV gabfest (played by Dern’s mom Diane Ladd) points to a romance waiting in the wings.

Nikki gradually begins to notice parallels between her life and that of her onscreen character, and in quick time, the two begin to dangerously overlap. Acknowledging the fact that you can’t get a film made in Hollywood without including a bevy of busty young starlets, Lynch gives Dern a third incarnation, that of a prostitute making the rounds of Hollywood Blvd. The addition of hookers not only provides Lynch the opportunity to get out some genuinely funny tit-talk (good enough to put Tarantino to shame), it also leads to the dynamite musical number that closes the show. To make a long nightmare short, Nikki is stabbed with a screwdriver by a fellow street walker (Julia Ormond) who earlier was stabbed with a screwdriver by a character from the original Polish version of On High Blue Tomorrows…I think. The film’s most enduring (and endearing) image is that of Dern on her knees hacking up a river of blood on Hollywood’s much-loved Walk of Fame.

At their core, all great filmmakers continue to grow and expand through experimentation, each finding new ways to show and explore life through a camera. In the same way Godard saw inbred continuity errors in 35mm filmmaking and transformed them into artful jump cuts, Lynch understands and transcends the imperfections of the digital universe. Confidential Magazine’s identity-concealing black bars have been replaced by the video thumbprint. Long a staple of “caught on video” TV specials, the “technique” blurs the perpetrator’s head while keeping the body in sharp focus. Notice the way Lynch incorporates this “imperfection” into an opening sequence, adding a video surveillance facelift to a period flashback. Considering budget and technical imitations, this viewer was amazed to see how visually extravagant the film looked, particularly the outrageous rabbit sitcom. Thanks to the lighting, set design and camera placement, you’d swear that these were upright bunnies dressed in human attire walking around a miniature set, as opposed to full-grown humans in costume.

Inland Empire feels like a continuation of Lynch’s Mullholland Drive. Both films are set in Hollywood, and both, to a certain degree, focus on two female characters: one blonde, and the other brunette. Each film feels like the aftermath of a nightmare waiting to happen. The main difference is, this time the director is angry. This film is to David Lynch what Psycho was to Alfred Hitchcock: a big, fat “fuck you” aimed at naysayers and nonbelievers. Throughout the ‘50s, critics dogged Hitchcock for what they perceived as budgetary extravagance. In return, The Master hit back with a modest, black-and-white horror film made with second-tier actors and a crew composed of the same technicians who put together his weekly TV show. Nowadays, critics (and viewers) that embrace Hollywood blockbusters are the first to accuse Lynch of being incoherent, yet these same rocket scientists claim to have no problem following the narcotically non-existent effects-driven plot machinations of anything involving superheroes.

Shot entirely on equipment that Lynch purchased at his local Best Buy, this is kamikaze filmmaking at its finest. I have seen it three times and I’m still not sure that I can even begin to claim to have a firm grasp on what it’s about. I take that back. You know what it’s about? It’s about cinema. A boy and his camera filming nightmares that would cause Peeping Tom to flinch. It’s about mood, atmosphere, texture, subtext and equal doses of Porky’s Wackyland and Alice’s Wonderland...and about a gallon of blood to taint the late Johnny Grant’s sacred Walk of Fame. The supplementary DVD is almost as long and equally as good as the feature. Five minutes spent watching David Lynch steam broccoli is stranger and infinitely more fascinating than anything in the MCU.

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