Girl Meets Context: As of January 2013, David Lynch hasn’t made a movie since Inland Empire. The film found Lynch returning to the full-on surrealism that began his career with 1977′s Eraserhead, though Inland Empire is far more discursive and impenetrable than Eraserhead. The three-hour long film concerns an actress named Nikki Grace who hopes to revive her stagnant career by getting cast in On High in Blue Tomorrows, a new project by director Kingsley Stewart (played by Jeremy Irons). But once Nikki signs on to the project, Stewart reveals that the script is actually an adaptation of an unfinished Polish film from long ago named 47. Before the Polish version could be finished, the two leads were murdered. Soon Nikki and her co-star Devon (played by Justin Theroux) begin to suspect the production is haunted by some kind of alien presence, as they find themselves increasingly unable to differentiate between themselves and their roles, between the world of the movie and the real world. Most of the film takes place in a shifting, unstable state of narrative collapse, as Nikki becomes her character Sue Blue and navigates a dreamlike terrain populated by Polish carnies, whores and gangsters, an abusive husband, a spectre-like man known only as The Phantom and many other odd, Lynchian characters. Kristine and I sat down to try to make sense of the movie and to put it in the context of both Lynch’s filmography and the genre of the horror movie in general. I’m not sure that this film can be spoiled, but we’ll be discussing all kinds of details so go watch the movie and come back!!
Kristine: Sean, if you had told me that David Lynch made a movie about giant rabbits and a movie-within-a-movie and an actress having a nervous breakdown wherein her big death scene takes place on Hollywood Boulevard with her blood running across one of the stars in the Walk of Fame as a Magical Negro street lady ushers her into the heavenly kingdom, I might have refused to watch.
Sean: Ha! I was proud that you made it through Inland Empire.
Kristine: Why do you say you were proud? You think I have an insanely short attention span for anything avant-garde! I am INSULTED!
Sean: No! I’m sorry, I just say “proud” because it is three hours long and we started it very late at the end of a very long day, and it was a work night, and it just felt like the space/time continuum folded in on itself in the course of the movie. And it IS a challenging movie to watch, I think.
Kristine: I agree, certainly. It is never boring but it is challenging. Also, it is a well-known fact that meandering and non-linear narratives are not my favorite. But I need to ask you something about your selection of this movie and DO NOT LIE.
Sean: I will not lie.
Kristine: Did you pick it because of my POLISH heritage? Are you aligning me with the Polish whore women of Inland Empire and the ancient folk myths of the marketplace????
Kristine: OMG really!?
Kristine: Yes to all the questions?
Sean: I was like, ‘Movies about Polish whores are made for Kristine.’
Kristine: You’re cute.
Sean: I know.
Kristine: Laura Dern is really a rock star in this movie, don’t you think? I was blown away by her performance, similarly to how much I was impressed by Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist.
Sean: Oh god YES. I agree.
Kristine: I forgot how much I love Laura Dern. Or rather, maybe this movie made me REALLY fall in love with her for the first time. I have always liked her.
Sean: If I wasn’t all ready her biggest fan and OBSESSED with her HBO show, this movie would have made me a convert.
Kristine: Oh, I forgot you watch Enlightened.
Sean: Have you seen Citizen Ruth?
Kristine: Yes! I really liked it. I was just telling the boyfriend about it.
Sean: I think her performances in Citizen Ruth and Enlightened are among her best. But I agree with you that I would add her turn in Inland Empire to her greatest hits list. She is astonishing in it.
Kristine: She is… amazing! Balls out.
Sean: It must be so weird to be like…. David Lynch’s leading muse.
Kristine: Oh, totally. Remember the weird Best Actress Oscar campaign he mounted for her for Inland Empire? It involved a live cow.
Sean: I think she deserved it. Dern in this, Gainsbourg in Antichrist and Kim Ok-bin in Thirst all should have won Best Actress Oscars in their respective years. They’re the three best performances we’ve enjoyed for the blog, don’t you think?
Kristine: Oh, I agree. Do you realize this movie was released exactly 30 years after Blue Velvet?
Sean: I didn’t know that! That’s crazy. And that actually leads me to the first point I wanted to make about Inland Empire. Two things I would never have called David Lynch before this movie are “self-referential” and “meta.” But I think this movie is BOTH those things. It is about all his other movies and also about movies and movie-making in general.
Kristine: I agree. Though I think Mulholland Drive was more metafictional than his previous movies… Inland Empire is a totally different animal than Mulholland, of course, but don’t you think Mulholland is a precursor to this?
Sean: That’s what I was going to say!
Kristine: Hive mind.
Sean: Mulholland starts a train of thought that this movie picks up and totally immerses itself in.
Kristine: I see lots of parallels between Dern’s Nikki Grace in this movie and Naomi Watts’ Betty Elms in Mulholland Drive. Right? Including the fact that both of those women have alter egos (Diane Selwyn for Watts; Sue Blue for Dern).
Sean: Oh, there are TONS of parallels. Like the audition scene in Mulholland, where Betty Elms suddenly drops her sunny demeanor and totally goes for it, was really present in my mind during the scene where Nikki and her co-star run through dialogue from their script in front of Jeremy Irons. Lynch’s obsession with the facility of his actresses, and their abilities to put on and then shed personas at a moment’s notice, is really interesting. I think that somehow connects with how both women have dual roles (or dual “personalities”) in the movies. I think Lynch is both excited and terrified by women (of course, that is the oldest observation about Lynch that there is) and is riveted by what he sees a fundamental schism or disruption in their sense of self. Now, Lynch could easily see his leading ladies as stand-ins for himself (as both Lars von Trier and Pascal Laugier claim about their movies – those are also two male directors frequently accused of misogyny) but I think one of his abiding interests is in looking at and observing how there is no monolithic “self” that is stable. His work has always had some element of that, though the gender politics of how that plays out in the actual movies he makes is something else altogether. But back to the point about Laugier and von Trier, do you think Lynch sees his lady leads as versions of “himself”?
Kristine: That I do not know. My guess is that he does not. What do you think? His depiction of ladies is interesting. They are always front and center in his films, but I also can usually spot a male “stand-in” for Lynch in his work. In Twin Peaks it’s Agent Dale Cooper. In this I thought it was the Jeremy Irons character. Wasn’t he supposed to be a Lynch stand-in, directing a movie with two stars from Lynch’s own table of actors, with Harry Dean Stanton as his sidekick?
Sean: I definitely thought Jeremy Irons was playing Lynch, or a version of Lynch.
Kristine: Me, too.
Sean: But I also think Lynch is working out his issues via Laura Dern’s character. Women are often identified as the site of those disruptions/schisms in the “self” that I mentioned earlier – the classic Lynchian example of this would be Laura Palmer, the murdered girl in Twin Peaks, who was a classic “girl with a double life.” But also remember how Laura Harring’s amnesiac character in Mulholland Drive takes the name Rita after seeing Rita Hayworth’s name on a poster for Gilda? It’s interesting to me how Lynch’s own psychological interests intersect with the conventions of classic (and classicly sexist) Hollywood cinema. How the “girl with a double life” is an archetypal character from film noir. You’re right that there’s a meta-ness to Mulholland Drive that prefigures Inland Empire. That moment when Laura Harring’s unnamed character sees the Gilda poster might be the moment when Inland Empire is born, actually.
Kristine: I totally agree. Except what do you mean when you say Lynch has “issues”? Do you think he is personally bothered by the sexist conventions of classic cinema? Or he is just fascinated and obsessed with how those conventions contain these destructive dualities and so he just needs to depict them over and over? What are Lynch’s “issues,” in your mind?
Sean: Oh god, I am not exactly sure. Masochism, control, pain, psychological schisms… Being in terror and held in thrall by the chaos and violence of the world.
Kristine: That is the 100% best description of Lynch, EVER! You are a genius!
Kristine: So why do you think he has women embody those feelings?
Sean: Well, that’s why I was making the point about the Gilda poster in Mulholland. Classic Hollywood always slotted women into masochistic roles, and Lynch is really invested in recreating classic tropes of Hollywood…
Kristine: I think another layer of meta-ness to Inland in particular are just the simple parallels between Laura Dern herself and the character she is playing. They’re around the same age, and perhaps at similar moments in their careers. Remember that Nikki is really excited to get cast in On High in Blue Tomorrows because it will be something of a comeback for her. Over the last twenty years, Dern herself has gone from starring in Jurassic Park, one of the biggest popcorn blockbusters ever, to playing parts in much smaller movies. In fact, her performance in Inland Empire led to a whole round of film festival awards nominations and critical acclaim, the most buzz she’s had for a performance since… what? Rambling Rose in 1991? I also find it interesting that Dern – who is, in my mind, one of our most talented actresses – has turned to television (with HBO’s Enlightened) for a great role for a woman of her age. Given that much of Inland Empire’s weird imagery surrounds televisions and tv shows, there’s some strange parallelism in that.
Sean: Can I just pause to ask: How perfect is the title On High in Blue Tomorrows for the movie-within-the-movie here? One of the things I’ve always loved about Lynch is that he’s always been in dialogue with a wide variety of genres, from traditionally “male genres” (like film noir and the thriller) to “female genres” (like the melodrama and the soap opera). Twin Peaks was just as much about playing around with the conventions of the soap opera as it was playing around with the conventions of the murder mystery. Maybe even more so. Remember Invitation to Love, the television soap opera that the people of Twin Peaks watched in Twin Peaks? Lynch draws as much on Douglas Sirk movies as he does Otto Preminger movies. In fact, On High in Blue Tomorrows is the best faux-Sirkian title imaginable – it’s satirical but also accurate in capturing the weirdly histrionic tenor of 1950s melodrama. I remember how the musical cues on Twin Peaks often felt like insane riffs on the music of soap opera, like Days of Our Lives-on-meth or something. I could never tell if Lynch was making fun of the genre, or paying tribute to it.
Kristine: I think it’s both. I think he critiques the conventions of the genres that he is simultaneously attracted to – melodramas and tales of surburban ennui. I think he points out the basic absurdities at the heart of a given genre and likes to exaggerate things for comic effect. In Mulholland Drive, remember the Hollywood gangster who spits out the espresso he is given during a meeting? That’s Lynch’s comic riff on gangster movies. Or the inept hitman who accidentally shoots the fat woman through the wall and then has to wrestle her to death and then also has to kill the janitor… Comic riff on the hitman movie. But I wouldn’t say that what Lynch does is straight satire because, again, I think he also loves these conventions. Does that make sense?
Sean: Absolutely. I mean, if Lynch’s later work is always in dialogue with the medium he’s working in, do you think he is trying to say something about movie-making with Inland Empire? Something coherent? And just to give you an example of how the movie could be seen to be making some larger comment, I’d point to Dern’s big death scene at the end that turns out to have been a scene from On High in Blue Tomorrows (again, how hilarious that a movie with that title ends with its lead dying from a stab wound in some dirty alley).
Kristine: I think this movie is talking about the act of filmmaking, but I don’t think I know what Lynch is trying to say about it! I really think it is important to note that Inland Empire is Lynch’s first foray into digital filmmaking, when the plot of the movie revolves around the shooting of a traditionally-made Hollywood film (well as much as it can revolve around anything when it is constantly pulsing and morphing). There’s some kind of tension between the “new” style of filmmaking and the “classic” style of filmmaking. May I be controversial and say I wasn’t wild about the digital look of this movie?
Sean: How did shooting the movie digitally marr its aesthetic for you? Because I didn’t think about it at all, even though I did know it was shot on digital.
Kristine: Mostly just the grainier quality of the visuals and the audio. I mean, it’s funny because this is a movie that sometimes looks like tv, when to some degree I think the movie is about tv. It just has a certain ugliness to it. I think you can shoot a movie like 28 Days Later on digital and it ultimately serves the movie because it lends this grimier feel to the movie, makes it more look “realistic” by presenting a less aestheticized universe. But Lynch is all about highly aestheticized universes. I mean, he’s the proto-Wes Anderson in terms of how controlled and manufactured and deliberate his frames feel. So it is a weird disconnect to have this highly aesthetic Lynchian universe being rendered in this grimier manner. I also think the medium limits Lynch’s ability to do some of the elaborate staging I associate with him. I don’t think the digital format made zero sense. I can see how digital captures the frenzied, confused spirit of the film, but it frustrated me when I couldn’t make out what the characters were saying or when images that I would expect, in a Lynchian universe, to be perfectly crisp and clear, were instead hazy and indistinct.
Sean: Right. It’s interesting that Lynch is using this new, more “pedestrian” medium for a movie in which he brings his camera to places we’ve never seen him go before. I mean, Lynch does not ever photograph urban spaces, cities and back alleys and ghettos and tenements. He’s always been a documentarian of small-town America, of suburban and rural spaces: Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, even The Straight Story! Wild at Heart takes place mostly on highways or in run-down motels and weird, remote small towns. Inland Empire is the first time he’s ever really been interested in urban spaces.
Kristine: Hmmm, that’s interesting. Though, again, I’d argue that Mulholland Drive went there first. Remember the grimy back alley where the Thing Behind the Dumpster was located? Horrifying! When you think about it, small-town-girl Betty Elms getting off the plane and arriving in big bad Los Angeles is a good stand-in for Lynch himself moving from suburbia to the urban.
Sean: Ok, so one the thing that hangs over the experience of watching Inland Empire is just knowing about Lynch’s crazy obsession with TM [Transcendental Meditation]. There’s a direct, causal relationship between Lynch’s TM practices and his move into more experimental, non-narrative cinema.
Kristine: That’s right. I was trying to remember what his weird cult trip was. Explain TM quickly to me.
Sean: It’s just this practice of hallucinatory meditation where you “open yourself up” to whatever images come in to your mind. And you allegedly have acid-trip-like experiences when you do it “right.” I think it’s about trying to open the “door” to the subconscious mind. But I guess that’s part of why Inland Empire’s meta-ness surprised me, because I associate TM with the subconscious. It requires conscious decision-making to incorporate references to your own work into your movie.
Kristine: Although I agree with you that Inland Empire is an example Lynch in dialogue with Lynch, from his casting choices to some of the movie’s larger themes, I’m not clear on how you differentiate metafictional references from simply exploring or re-exploring an idea or an image. I mean, visual artists (and I consider Lynch to be a visual artist in the fine arts sense of the term as much as I consider him a “commercial” filmmaker) do this all the time, some throughout their whole careers. Their work routinely explores similar themes or circumstances, but they are not necessarily “referencing” themselves. If Lynch is willingly “at the mercy” of his own hallucinations, can he really be referencing himself? Isn’t it all “of the moment”?
Sean: I get what you’re saying. On the one hand, a lot of the imagery and action in Inland does seem to spring from a stream-of-consciousness. But when I say Lynch is referencing himself, I am talking about things like having the voice actors for the rabbits be Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and and Scott Coffey (the three leads from Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s last feature), casting Jeremy Irons as “himself,” the Asian prostitute’s highly-accented English at the end being subtitled and functioning very much like the “backwards speech” of the Dwarf in the Red Room in Twin Peaks, the room at the end of the movie being filled with references to his past films, including like the lumberjack sawing the log (a reference to the Log Lady in Twin Peaks)…
Sean: But the movie’s “meta” qualities do rescue some of the more trite aspects, for me. Like, I read Dern’s “breakdown” as being more about the idea of narrative breakdown and the insufficiency of narratives to “work” from Lynch’s point of view. Remember that the movie’s narrative logic only fully breaks down when the cameras start to roll and Nikki must start playing the role of Sue. When the cameras stop, the movie begins its (very Lynchian) attempts at narrative “resolution.” Can I just add that this movie had about twelve different endings?! It was as bad as Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King where there are like a dozen “farewell” ending moments but then the movie just keeps going. That’s what Inland Empire is like. Fifty endings.
Kristine: I don’t understand your nerd-references to a movie about orcs.
Sean: I do see all of that as Lynch trying to express something about moviemaking and storytelling… Though I am not sure I could articulate what that is exactly. Clearly the ending is about transcendence, and about previously fractured or disparate parts of the psyche reconstituting, coming back together. Like when Nikki/Sue kisses the Lost Girl and fades out of existence. There is a dark, fractured nature to the reality between when the camera begins to film and stops filming, plus remember all the moments in which Nikki or the Lost Girl look at a screen and see a distorted or ominous version of reality. If cinema is a dream, according to Lynch it is a dark dream, a dangerous place. The self falls apart in there. Nothing makes sense.
Sean: Let me ask you a more pertinent question for our blog – Did any of the imagery/sequences in the movie scare or unsettle you?
Kristine: YES! The globbety-glock man who talks with his finger. Harry Dean Stanton in the weedy back yard when Laura Dern first picks up the screwdriver that “kills” her. The Lost Girl crying in that terrible hotel room with the staticky TV. Grace Zabriskie being a nervous, twitchy, bulging-eyed freak. Various menacing menfolk skulking in hallways and punching women. The Polish carnies. All those things scared me and made me feel horrible. Especially the Lost Girl. And you?
Sean: Oh yes. I agree with all of that. Plus, I’d point to the crazy distorted Laura Dern-face that fills the screen after she “kills” The Phantom at the end. As is usual for a David Lynch movie, just the intensity of the sound design scares me. Lynch does more with sound than almost any filmmaker – and certainly most horror moviemakers – that I can think of. One of my favorite visual tropes is the cigarette burn-hole in the silk slip that, when looked through, reveals another dimension or version of reality. There was something about looking through the hole in the fabric and seeing weird shit that scared me.
Kristine: Oh my god, the face at the end! Laura Dern’s face is INSANE in this in general. Sean, I am totally obsessed with her now.
Sean: Yay! Go Laura! She is the “real” Laura [Palmer].
Kristine: The burned hole in the silk thing is totally something you are going to integrate into your witchcraft ceremonies. I read that as another reference to the process of filmmaking, in which you look through some kind of aperture or opening in order to see a new reality, right?
Sean: YES. The politics of looking/watching are at the heart of the movie. The film starts with the weeping Lost Girl watching the television and the rabbit sequences approximate the inanity of television sitcoms.
Kristine: Sure. It seems like mostly the men are watching the women perform (whether as whores or actresses – does Lynch see those as similar positions?).
Sean: I think you were onto something with that question….
Kristine: The little girl lost in the market, right? You mentioned the audition in Mulholland Drive – I remember that scene as being so uncomfortable and so hypersexual. I could NEVER audition for anything, ever.
Sean: The thing that’s so bracing about that scene is you realize that Betty, who has seemed so guileless up till then, is a total operator.
Kristine: Right. Not unlike a prostitute who is playing a role in a John’s fantasy.
Sean: I re-watched Mulholland Drive a couple of days ago, because I wanted to see how watching Inland Empire would reshape my understanding of it. I was really struck by how Mulholland Drive is, at its core, a movie about female annihilation. I think Inland Empire, in contrast, is about female transcendence.
Kristine: Because Laura Dern “frees” the Lost Girl and ends up in some kind of heaven?
Sean: Yes because she seems to “reconstitute” the schismed parts of her persona in the end and becomes “whole.” I think Inland is the closest Lynch has come to making a movie with feminist content, even if it’s still problematic.
Kristine: I like that read. Because remember that Laura Dern also possess the power to look, and it seems like the act of “seeing” is what causes her “breakdown” or whatever you want to call it.
Sean: Yeah. This is where Lynch’s own convoluted sadistic/masochistic relationship with his female characters comes into play. I think that Lynch concurrently empathizes and identifies with his Laura Palmers and Sue Blues, even as he enjoys objectifying them. He turns the entire weight of his cinematic apparatus against his female characters again and again. And yet those moments always have the subtext that they are meant to be critiques, that they comment on the objectification of actresses/women. He tries to have it both ways.
Kristine: Did you love the girl gang of Polish whores?
Sean: OMG! I was JUST about to say that the one thing that shocked me about Inland Empire was that it is the first time I’ve ever noticed Lynch being interested in “sisterhood.” I found that surprising (and more than a little problematic). There’s a bit too many phony “lesbian” shenanigans in his recent work – the Watts/Harring love scene in Mulholland, the scene amongst the Polish girls where one of them exposes her breasts and they all comment on them. Even the Lost Girl/Nikki kiss at the end made me roll my eyes. This is one way in which David Lynch is really no better than the Rob Zombies of the world.
Kristine: In his RECENT work? He has ALWAYS done the lezbo thing, which has always struck me as him trying to be sooooo “naughty” and softcore. Dumb David. I think the girl gang functions as a kind of Greek chorus for the film, but they’re also just there to satisfy Lynch’s need for lady flesh, frankly. I did love how Laura Dern “rescues” the Lost Girl through an act of sisterhood. But then after Dern’s character has set the Lost Girl “free,” the version of happiness that we’re shown is the Lost Girl being all heteronormatively reunited with her husband and child? Though maybe that husband figure was her father – Lynch has toyed around with father/daughter incest a ton, especially in Twin Peaks with the Leland/Laura Palmer and Audrey/Ben Horne relationships. But I didn’t love how that was what Lynch imagined as the Lost Girl’s “escape.” I wanted her to just run into the sunlight and be free. That would have been way more transcendent.
Sean: Well, Lynch has always fetishized weird white-picket-fence 1950s Americana normality.
Kristine: Another aside – one of my favorite things about the movie was the use of the sound stage. When Dern kills the man and the rabbits on the next sound stage look over.
Sean: YES. And also how various “realistic” sets in the film would sort of bleed into these backstage spaces. I really love the way the settings in the movie underscore how blurry the line is between the fictional and the non-fictional. Remember all the haunted shadows surrounding the characters during the readthrough scene? Lynch is really masterful at suggesting offscreen space through shadow and sound design. I also LOVED that it turned out to be Laura Dern herself in the shadows that Justin Theroux went chasing after. Laura Dern in the shadows watching that scene play out was another moment of her character being able to “look” and observe in a way usually reserved for male characters in Lynch’s films.
Kristine: Oh absolutely! And how she could see Theroux but he couldn’t see her. Can I say that my boyfriend and I came to the conclusion that Justin Theroux is not convincing as a greaser bad boy?
Sean: Theroux’s most iconic role, for me, is Joe, Brenda’s limp-dicked boyfriend on Six Feet Under.
Kristine: The limp-dicked trumpet player!! Ha ha ha! How scary was the outdoor cookout when the Polish carnies show up? I was like, oh HELL no.
Sean: Totally awesome and riveting.
Kristine: “I have a way with animals.” There were SO MANY THINGS in this movie, Sean. But it is hard to beat Grace Zabriskie’s opening scene, isn’t it? WHAT A FREAK! What would you do if she showed up at your house, gibbering about Polack myths?
Sean: Here’s the more pressing question: Does Zabriskie’s character remind you of your own Polish grandma?
Kristine: Yes, she does, somewhat. In her spookiness. Here’s a question for you: Mulholland Drive is famously left unresolved in the end. Does this film, with the inclusion of Laura Harring (who could still be playing Rita/Camilla here), present Mulholland Drive as just ONE of the stories happening in the bigger world of the Inland Empire? Does that question make sense?
Sean: Yes, it makes sense. That’s a provocative idea, that the Inland Empire in some sense refers to this teeming morass of narratives, wrapping around each other and swirling around without resolution.
Kristine: A never-ending Lynchapalooza.
Sean: I had a question about the movie’s relationship to adaptation – On High in Blue Tomorrows is a remake of an unfinished Polish movie called 47 – and the Lost Girl could be the actress who formerly played the role of Sue Blue…. I was wondering what the movie’s relationship just to idea of an “adaptation” is. I thought maybe some of the narrative dislocation in the movie was related to that concept.
Kristine: ARE YOU ASKING ME THIS BECAUSE I AM POLISH??????? Remember Grace Zabriskie’s fable about the boy and the girl who went out into the world? The boys unleashes Evil, whereas the girl gets lost “in the market.” The girl’s story was easier for me to decode – it’s clearly about how women come to Hollywood and get lost in the “market” of the film industry or in the flesh market of the prostitutes on Sunset Boulevard, right? But the boy’s story… I am going to be provocative. I think Lynch is saying that men are the root of all evil! This relates to your question because all the people involved with making On High in Blue Tomorrows are men – remember all the scenes when Laura Dern is surrounded by the director, the “advisor” (Harry Dean Stanton), the agent, and Theroux? Her sole femaleness seemed very significant to me. I think Lynch is hinting that these men are operating on a much darker and more predetermined level, that it is somehow their destiny to make this movie happen and to destroy “the girl that got lost in the marketplace.” So, if your read is true about the Lost Girl being connected to the role of Sue Blue, then the narrative of the film is being perpetuated by men. They’re invested in creating a fictive/metafictive space in which the woman gets destroyed.
Sean: Right. But I am also intrigued by the idea that the character of Sue Blue becomes some kind of metaphysical entity that links Nikki and the Lost Girl over time and space.
Kristine: Oh, absolutely. In other words, myths and archetypes transcend individuals. Sue Blue is simply one of those archetypes, springing from the world of cinematic myth.
Sean: I’m just thinking of like, Ingrid Bergman and some modern actress being linked because they played the same part in a movie that had two different iterations… The idea that “the role” can bridge impossible gaps in space and time to connect two unique beings together. I think there’s a certain amount of romanticization on Lynch’s part of this idea.
Kristine: A quick aside: I love Hollywood legends about how certain sets and movies were haunted or cursed…
Sean: Welcome to horror movies! Poltergeist = cursed. The Omen = cursed. Twilight Zone: The Movie = cursed. There are TONS of those stories in the backstage lore of horror cinema. So, I have seen every David Lynch film since Wild at Heart in the theater. But I didn’t go see this one there – it felt under-marketed and under-reported at the time…. It lingered at the Loft for a week or so and was gone. Why didn’t you go see this in the theater, as a Lynch fan?
Kristine: I don’t quite remember, but I suspect the same thing – lack of access in podunk Tucson. Though it’s possible that the long running-time also scared me away from the theatre. That’s the reason I still haven’t seen Magnolia.
Sean: If Lynch makes another feature, will you go see it? Did this movie reaffirm your love for Lynch’s movies or problematize it?
Kristine: Yes, I will go see his next movie in the theatre. Ultimately, this reaffirmed my admiration of him. What about you? Reaffirm or problematize?
Kristine: Oooooh! Really? How so?
Sean: I mean, this was the same problem I had with Mulholland Drive. I loved and admired that movie for many reasons, but the third act – where it descends totally into narrative breakdown – REALLY frustrated me and bummed me out at the time. Inland Empire didn’t have that effect on me because it doesn’t gesture towards an actual story as much as Mulholland does. Mulholland mostly sets us up for a narrative, albeit a Lynchian, postmodern one, but then veers wildly into the surreal and the non-narrative. I realize that Mulholland Drive was conceived as a kind of pilot for a television show, and when Lynch realized the tv show wasn’t going to happen he concocted an “ending” for it. And whether for those reasons or some other set of reasons, it has always felt half-finished to me and, ultimately, a bit unsatisfying. Even though Inland Empire is much more upfront about what kind of movie is it from the get-go, I have to say that the thirty minutes where it IS a more “traditional” story were also the most enjoyable 30 minutes, when Nikki first gets cast in the film and begins rehearsals. I can’t say I “enjoyed” the rest of it, though I was often moved, terrified or provoked by what I was seeing…. I feel like Lynch sometimes has a sadistic relationship not just to the women in his movies, but to his audience. He likes seeing us squirm, and he has no intention of satisfying us in certain ways. I think he’s a bit callous, actually.
Kristine: I agree with all that. I feel the same way about the end of Mulholland, which affirms that, at heart, I am most responsive to traditional narratives. But Inland Empire was still so damn compelling to me. I was surprised I wasn’t a lot more frustrated by it. I think Mulholland Drive prepped me for it. Can you address the bizarre yet pleasing closing song? WTF with the African-American dancers singin’ the blues?
Sean: That was a Nina Simone song right?
Kristine: I think so.
Sean: I was just shocked that I was seeing an actual black person’s face in a David Lynch movie.
Sean: His racial politics feel very 1950s to me.
Kristine: And then when there are black faces in his movies, it’s just a bunch of African-American women shuckin’ and jivin’! Oh, and one homeless crackhead.
Sean: I don’t know why, but that final sequence felt like Lynch retiring from filmmaking to me. This was why I was curious about how the movie left you feeling, in regards to David Lynch as a filmmaker. I keep asking myself, am I happy to say goodbye to Lynch at the end of this? Like, ‘I will always have the wonderful memories, but its time for us to part ways forever’? Or does this movie re-energize my faith in what Lynch does? Cahiers du Cinéma named this movie the Best Film of the 2000s. This was also #2 on Slant’s “25 Best Horror Movies of the Aughts” – just below Pulse, which was at #1.
Kristine: Interesting! So, can we go back to the digital discussion? Because I feel like while the technology liberates Lynch, maybe that is not such a good thing for his audience.
Sean: I would love to return to the digital thing, though I’m not quite sure what to say about it. Like I said earlier, I totally forgot it was digital while I was watching. It didn’t call attention to itself for me.
Kristine: What I mean is, the cheapness and the readiness of digital technology means that Lynch can shoot things the way he sees them in his crazy,TM-influenced brain. He can basically tape his hallucinations as he has them. So this is WONDERFUL for Lynch, he doesn’t have to go through costly and time-consuming camera set-ups and use vast crews to do what he wants. But those cost and time restrictions are what force a director to self-edit. With digital technology, Lynch has no editorial sensibility. Is that good or bad?
Sean: I don’t mean to be so non-committal, but it’s both, right? This movie is certainly Lynch at play, toying around with this new mode of filmmaking like a (very weird, very disturbed) kid in toy store. It’s good because it frees him up to experiment and let all of this unfiltered imagery and design into his work. It’s bad because it fundamentally changes his relationship to the audience. For as much as I admire it, I know this film will never be loved like Blue Velvet is loved. Out of all his movies, Blue Velvet is the one that will always, always be able to find an audience and utterly entrance them. I’m not saying there isn’t an audience for Inland Empire – there definitely is. But that audience has a different set of expectations, a set of expectations more in keeping with the world of fine art than with the world of narrative cinema. I’m happy both Blue Velvet and Inland Empire exist. And I’m about to say something that makes little sense, even to me: If Lynch made another movie, and it was a return to narrative form along the lines of what he did in Blue Velvet, it would make me love and appreciate Inland Empire more. I don’t know why, but there it is. It would feel like the pendulum swinging back towards the center, and would put Inland Empire in a new context that would underscore its charms in my mind
Kristine: Well, don’t hold your breath. I think there is a 99% chance that, if Lynch continues to make features, he will keep “arting out.” But I agree with you. I would like to see him return to linear storytelling, although I did enjoy this film as a very compelling exercise. I was surprised at how much emotion Inland Empire contains, given the lack of narrative structure. I tend to think that you need narrative to build up to true emotion, but Lynch really shatters that idea here. Of course, Laura Dern gets the lion’s share of the credit for that. Without her performance to anchor the movie, I think it would feel much more like an empty series of stylistic exercises.
Sean: I agree that this movie’s true accomplishment is its emotional intensity. Lynch reminds us that you don’t need “plot” and “character” to reveal emotional truths or to send your audience on a journey. Because ultimately, I don’t think this movie could ever be “read” narratively. I mean, is there ANY WAY to make narrative sense out of all the stuff with the hookers and the carnies and Julia Ormond wanting to stab Laura Dern and all the rest of it?
Kristine: You could map it out and come up with something but it wouldn’t encompass everything and I don’t think it is the point of the film, right? Are you asking if Lynch has a master plan?
Kristine: I don’t know. The TM thing would suggest “no,” right?
Sean: Would you watch Inland Empire: The TV Show if this was adapted into an ongoing tv series?
Kristine: Ha ha! Yes! You?
Sean: Yes, but it would make me mad. I will watch anything Laura Dern is in.
Kristine: Have you heard the rumors that there might be a Twin Peaks Season 3?
Sean: What? Would all the oldies return? I want to see a middle-aged Sherilyn Fenn dressing like Audrey Horne.
Kristine: Hee hee. She was on an episode of Law & Order: SVU as a sexy mom and it was upsetting and gross.
Sean: Lara Flynn Boyle WOULD NEVER reprise her role as Donna Hayward.
Kristine: What is Lara even doing now? Remember when she was dating Jack Nicholson and how it was SICK?
Sean: Lara is waiting to be invited on American Horror Story.
Kristine: SHE SO IS!!! SHE IS! Ha ha!!
Sean: Truth talk.
Kristine: I am rolling and cavorting!!!
Sean: Shall we rate this?
Kristine: Oh! I totally forgot that we even rate things. David Lynch blew my mind.
Sean: Ha! Mine are: Batshit insanity AND I’m confused (and that’s okay). But also, Quit being a tone poem, start telling stories.
Kristine: True that! I am going to go with Batshit insanity AND Provocative and problematic. I feel like the scenes of the Lost Girl crying alone in the hotel room has been in every single David Lynch thing ever.
Sean: This past month’s theme was highbrow/lowbrow. Inland Empire and Pulse were our “highbrow” choices, The Human Centipede and House of 1000 Corpses were the “lowbrow.” I’m curious what you think the two different categories offer the viewer.
Kristine: I think the obvious answer it the question of how they are different is just their pacing and sense of payoff. Inland Empire and Pulse make you wait for it, whereas The Human Centipede and House of 1000 Corpses can barely contain themselves from dishing it out. Except, as we discussed, The Human Centipede doesn’t deliver on the intensity of its own premise, so that’s why it fails even as a lowbrow film.
Sean: Which do you prefer? Are you a highbrow or a lowbrow girl?
Kristine: This is not meant to be cop-out, but I need a strong high/low mix in my life, and not just in film. In all areas of entertainment and stimulation. I need earthy pleasures and cerebral delights. All intellect and no crude shock makes Kristine a dull girl. And vice versa. You?
Sean: I am with you – the highbrow/lowbrow mix is essential. In my viewing habits I go through distinct phases where I watch a lot of trash and then a lot of artier stuff. I think my ideal evening is an Antonioni movie followed by Cannibal Holocaust.
Kristine: I love it.
Sean: Which is “scarier”? Highbrow or lowbrow horror?
Sean: WOW. Why do you think?
Kristine: Because it sticks in your brain unlike, say, gross-outs or jump scares.
Sean: Is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as culturally significant as say, La Dolce Vita?
Kristine: Yes, certainly. What I think is interesting is that more and more “high” or at least “mid” brow artists are candid about finding their inspiration in lowbrow sources. This applies to non-artists, too. Lowbrow culture has become the predominant culture across income and educational brackets (for instance, how everyone in America is watching the Real Housewives and Honey Boo Boo). So, are we all getting lazier or just more honest about the appeals of lowbrow culture?
Sean: Hahahaha. Lemme ask you this: A long time ago, when we discussed The Host, you accused me of pigeonholing you and telling you that the only movies that could effectively “rattle” you were torture movies. And you challenged me to find a different kind of movie that truly scared you. Remember?
Sean: Your exact words were: “I want you to find something more… ethereal and less crude that will scare me in a spiritual and not a corporeal way.” It sounds like lots of images in Inland Empire scared you. Does this qualify as having really “rattled” you? Did it get to you in a more “spiritual” and less “corporeal” way?
Kristine: Absolutely. And images from Lynch movies of the past STILL scare me, like ALL CEILING FANS, Bob at the end of the bed, Billy Ray Cyrus in his undies, et al.
Sean: HAHAHA! What will be the one image from Inland Empire that will haunt your dreams?
Kristine: The Lost Girl crying. But also just the idea that the world – whether in Poland or Hollywood or wherever – has an endless supply of shadowy, blood-red corridors and an equally endless supply of brutish men to skulk about in them, intending to hurt women. And the idea that the victimization of women will never end. I thought the scene where Laura Dern confronts Justin Theroux and Julia Ormond somehow really spoke to the plight of women almost more so then some of the more overtly “cultural critique-y” whore scenes.
Sean: Wow. That is very well said. I am moved!
Kristine: Yay! Thank you. It’s the truth.
Sean: I have to point out that I do NOT think this movie scared you as much as Wolf Creek did.
Kristine: You are right that it didn’t scare me as much as Wolf Creek - I don’t know if anything could! How do I put this? If I was severely depressed and in risk of offing myself, I think Inland Empire would be a riskier choice to watch than Wolf Creek. Does that make sense? It might not scare me as much at the time, and I might not think Laura Dern is outside my window, wanting to kill me with a screw driver (like I felt about Mick from Wolf Creek), but it is a scarier thing to have IN YOUR MIND because there is the sensation that THE MOVIE ITSELF – not the fictional characters in it – might hurt you. That it might drive you crazy. Kind of like On High in Blue Tomorrows! The artifact itself is the source of the terror, not the “villains.” The existential questions that highbrow movies raise are riskier and more destabilizing, I think, than Leatherface chasing you down with his chainsaw. Leatherface is more of a shock and a thrill; Inland Empire could eat your sense of self from the inside out.
Sean: I love it. I never in a million years would have thought there was a strong parallel between David Lynch and H.P. Lovecraft, but I think you just convinced me that there is.
The Girls Rating: Batshit insanity AND Provocative and problematic
The Freak’s Rating: Batshit insanity AND I’m confused (and that’s okay) AND Quit being a tone poem, start telling stories.