For Day 4 of the Milwaukee Film Festival I found myself drawn to a retrospective screening of David Lynch’s Inland Empire presented by former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman. Hoberman gave a brief introduction to the film, describing it as both “trying” and “rewarding” and gave some general thoughts on what may be the key to deciphering the film. Hoberman has recently written a book, Film After Film, about the digital revolution and filmmaking in the 21st century and you can see how Inland Empire represents the throwing off the shackles of the studio and the myriad possibilities of film experimentation when you don’t have to answer to the bean counters.
Inland Empire is certainly Lynch’s least accessible film, and that’s saying something. It’s a pure stream of subconciousness and post-modernism, often feeling like something that Samuel Beckett could have influenced. It feels like it’s all a pure extension of David Lynch’s id and I doubt there’s going to be a Rosetta Stone interpretation that will ever have it all make sense. I only have vague interpretations myself.
Storywise, it appears to concern an actress (Laura Dern) whose life gets mixed up with her character. Or a character whose life gets mixed up with her actress. Or the drugged out imaginings of a prostitute. Or perhaps it’s all just the imaginings of a young Eastern European woman wrapped up in watching a movie. Or it’s about the production of a cursed film. Or perhaps it’s just the wacky happenings going on next door to a family of anthropomorphic rabbits.
Confusing, isn’t it? But, while I’ll agree that it’s not a readily accessible film, I found myself engaged with the film throughout. A lot of that goes to a great central performance by Laura Dern who plays multiple characters in the film, none of whom may be real, but immediately communicates what these characters are going through and creates a strong sense of empathy. There are moments of wisdom that bubble up through the film from time to time, none which explain everything, but all of the ideas engaging. One that caught my attention was the moral of a talke that “the way to the palace is through the alley behind the marketplace”. Patterns keep repeating (like common stories?) which sparks your attention. It also helps that although it’s a serious, experimental film, it’s not a humorless film. Lynch has to understand by now that when characters comment on coffee in one of his movies the audience will be in on the joke. The dada-esque rabbit sitcom is strangely funny. There are several great turns of phrase. And Lynch doesn’t spare the Hollywood absurdity, the characters are all disappointed when they discover the script that they all love is a remake of a film that was never completed.
Lynch, despite his reputation, has always been a Hollywood filmmaker, and this is him throwing off all of the four quadrant targeting in favor of something purely experimental. Lynch shot it on video over the course of three years for basically no money, so it obviously was a labor of love from him and Laura Dern. It was only near the very end that I felt Lynch piled on the surrealism and layers of unreality a little too deep, but nothing that broke the film as far as I was concerned. And, of course, with no money the quality of the film is extremely variable from shot to shot. There are some beautiful shots here, but also some that reveal the poverty of the production and the limitations of the video equipment.
As for interpretation, I go back to the first images of the film which were of a movie projector’s light and an lp record. The question really isn’t “what was real” but “was anything not cinema trickery”? If anything, the film seems to me to be about how easy it is to lose oneself, one’s own identity, into the movies and how it can move, effect, and reveal a person. To themselves, if no one else. The Inland Empire is the imagination and subconscious if the title means anything. Which may all be film nerd wankery, but it’s a movie I’ve been turning over in my head, not dismissing outright. It’s an easy film to get lost within, which may be the whole point.