‘Inland Empire’: The Purest David Lynch Experience Since ‘Eraserhead’

David Lynch, a name that is for many film enthusiasts the epitome for weird, surreal, and bizarre, surprised many people when he had characterised himself as a Boy Scout from Missoula, Montana. He is also known as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” or “Jimmy Stewart on acid”—a very polite, happy-go-lucky, enthusiastic individual, who unironically uses words and phrases like “Golly!,” “Holy jumping George!,” “Howdy!” etc., and who just happens to have a vivid imagination that has been the basis of nightmares for many of his viewers. Contrary to popular belief, Lynch is not the type of a guy who, for instance, chops off his fingernails in his grandmother’s basement and then puts them in his dinner salad, but is somebody who is actually trying, through foundations, meditation recommendations and charity work, to promote, and achieve without a hint of irony, peace and prosperity. But Lynch’s worlds are full of such contradictions, full of idealists who also happen to be scoundrels below the surface, and Lynch is fascinated with the dark and perverse facet of the human condition, but also on the profound and gentle side of humanity, a soulful aspect of his work that doesn’t get nearly mentioned as the former one. The oblique and mysterious nature of Lynch’s work draws many to become obsessed with finding a universal explanation or an enlightened meaning to his films. But Lynch insists on never revealing what the abstractions in his films “mean,” and he suggests to his viewers that they also try to find out for themselves more on an intuitive than a rational level as to what the disturbing visuals, the labyrinthian plots and the unreliable characters truly convey. Lynch claims that everybody is a detective, but it is also important to note that Lynch’s movies are not merely a puzzle to be solved: they are to be experienced, after which a powerful cinema-going epiphany may come out of his best work. This set of essays will try and derive certain interpretations and explanations of Lynch’s ideas, but they are in no way to be understood as definitive or let alone indicative of what the director himself was thinking. Every reader should be an autonomous detective indeed.

After an 11-year break from filmmaking, Lynch returns for, as he puts it, an 18-hour feature divided into 18 parts, called Twin Peaks, which sounds familiar to pretty much anyone remotely acquainted with the man’s work. Lynch’s cult television show that originally aired in 1990 and 1991 and revolutionized television storytelling returns, against all odds, for a special event series starring Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper. Very little is known about the plot or the characters, apart from the fact that it is indeed happening again, 25 years after the murder of Laura Palmer, the teenage homecoming queen whose death has set the plot of the old Twin Peaks into motion. A 200+ cast list has been released, including newcomers such as Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Tom Sizemore. This mammoth project for a 71-year-old Lynch will, therefore, serve as a jumping point for Cinephilia & Beyond to go to the past and explore his ten feature films, starting from the debut film Eraserhead in 1977, all the way to Inland Empire in 2006. His short film, web, commercial and television work will not be included, with the clear and notable exception of Twin Peaks itself, which is an essential component for this retrospective.

With Inland Empire, his final feature film to date, Lynch went back to his Eraserhead roots, making a film that is the “purest” David Lynch since his debut, a film that he had written, produced, directed, edited and scored. It was also his most loosely filmed work, since the script wasn’t near finished when Lynch started production. New script pages came every day for the cast and crew to work on it, and the improvisational feel is reflected in the impenetrable plot of Inland Empire, making it a far bigger challenge to interpret and make sense of, even on the intuitive side, than either Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, the other parts of the unofficial L.A. trilogy.

Laura Dern plays an actress playing a role in a movie that is bound to be cursed– and the psychological descent into role-switching madness and harassment ensues. For a Lynch veteran such as Dern, the challenge of taking on a role whose character arc is not known from the beginning—since there was no complete movie script—was immense, and the result is one of the strongest performances in any Lynch film. Dern is playing at least two roles here—one of the actresses Nikki Blue and the other of a molested wife Sue, the character Nikki is playing in the film—and she does it with exceptional skill and prowess. It’s a magnificently dedicated performance, and the weird crying faces and general over-the-topness that plagued her work in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart are long gone. Whether it is the sweet, charming actress, or the battered, worn down wife—the latter part being especially convincing and powerful during a scene where, in a set of profane monologues, the wife elaborates on her violent marriage and the consequences arising from that—Dern is in absolute control of the work that could have gone into parody territory, considering the way the movie was shot. Dern’s performance stands tall in a pantheon of amazing female performances in David Lynch films, right next to Naomi Watts’ Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive and Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet. In order to show his gratitude to Dern’s dedication to the role, Lynch went on a Hollywood crossing with a chair and a cow in broad daylight, trying to promote Dern’s performance for a recognition by the Academy, with a sign saying “Without cheese there would be no Inland Empire.” This most original type of marketing did not go well with the conservative Academy voters, and Dern was alas not nominated for an Oscar.

The always reliable Jeremy Irons, having his first David Lynch experience with this movie, excels in the role of the flamboyant director of the film, while Justin Theroux brings out the combination of charm and humor to put the character of Devon to life. Harry Dean Stanton provides his funniest performance in a David Lynch film to date as the director’s assistant, but the real surprises lie in the emotional performances of Polish actors such as Peter J. Lucas, Karolina Gruszka and Krzysztof Majchrzak. Krzysztof Majchrzak proves himself to be quite comfortable with the role of the chief antagonist of Inland Empire, only known as “The Phantom,” a character that has his fair share of disturbing scenes, bringing horror and terror to the world of Inland Empire, another one of those unforgettable Lynchian evil-as-a-force bearers. Never has a man with a lightbulb in his mouth been more frightening. Peter J. Lucas does not disappoint with his intimidating performance as the abusive, threatening husband, but also bringing certain pathos to the role which could have easily been one-dimensional.

One interpretation of Inland Empire is that it all takes place in the mind of The Lost Girl, played by Karolina Gruszka, who is freed of her past abusers by the successful completion of the movie. Inland Empire provides what is possibly the most optimistic ending of Lynch’s career, where Nikki sets the Lost Girl loose to go back to her life without any of the tragedies that have befallen her: this is a step far from the tragedies of Mulholland Drive or Fire Walk with Me, and both the fate of the Lost Girl and of Nikki are wrapped in success and gentle liberation. The ending of Inland Empire seems perfectly deserved and lacking any sense of irony that was prevalent in the finishing scenes of Blue Velvet. It is a long way to get to the ending—the film is exactly three hours long, and there are moments where the film does run out of steam and does not necessarily justify the long running time (did the silly street scene involving homeless people explaining the location of Pomona while Nikki’s character is dying need to be that long?). Nevertheless, Dern’s fearless performance carries the film into many of its uncharted waters and tributaries and keeps it alive and vital until the end.

Many discussions arose due to the way the film was shot, with an inexpensive, cheap-looking Sony DSR-PD150 digital camera, making the look of the film much less polished, more gritty and ugly. Gone is the immaculately photographed style of films like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, replacing it with the style that fits the fractured narrative of Inland Empire, providing Lynch with some disturbing close-ups of actors and terrifying, muddy scenes (Laura Dern’s distorted face or shrieking into the camera never ceases to lose its potency… or the images of the scariest possible clown faces). Lynch was delighted with the freedom of digital video—no need to wait for dailies to see what was filmed, no need to wait for film reloads, freedom to have as many takes as possible in a short amount of time etc. Even though he supposedly fell in love with film again when working on The Missing Pieces, a collection of deleted scenes from Fire Walk with Me which came out on the Blu-ray edition of Twin Peaks, the new series of Twin Peaks was shot on digital, although this time Lynch has the assistance of Peter Deming, whose excellent cinematography work on both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive make him very much qualified for the job.

This was also the first occasion Lynch filmed outside of the States since Dune (and previously The Elephant Man)—where the plot is occurring outside of the U.S.—and the foggy, gloomy and snowy streets of the Polish city of Lodz seem ideal for Lynch to get out a bit of his comfort zone. As a self-confessed fan of factories, Eastern Europe seems like a fertile ground for Lynchland to find its new roots outside of the home country. It is also a question as to where the scenes involving humanoid rabbits, voiced by Mulholland Drive veterans Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Scott Coffey, actually take place, but this Edward Hopper-inspired, spooky realm does not have any geographical background apart from the very weird place that is David Lynch’s brain. Rabbits is a short David Lynch film, whose material the director incorporated later into Inland Empire, pushing his improvisational skills, including majorly redefining a previous work to give it new meaning in this film, to the limit. In what may seem like a parody of sitcoms in a dystopian, rainy, lonely subworld, the three rabbits serve as observers to the maddening events of Inland Empire, Lynchian version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern if there ever was one.

Inland Empire can also be seen as an allegory of the creative process. Nikki goes to amazing, ferocious lengths to bring the character to life, almost sacrificing her mental and physical health during filming, but also “lifting the curse” from a movie that involved real-life murders. For Lynch, creativity is a healing process, where lost girls can be expelled from their prisons of life traumas. But the road to a successful product of creative energy can be paved with good intentions, even as those intentions are materialized in hard work filled with pain and sacrifices.

Lynch had enough confidence when creating Inland Empire that he himself scored the whole film—the Badalamenti-influenced music makes the dramatic moments of the film even more potent (the scene where Laura Dern suddenly finds herself in Lodz, Poland when opening her eyes, accompanied by Lynch-sung and composed track “Strange,” is Lynch at the top of his form; along with the emotional ending where the singer Chrysta Bell launches her own long collaboration with Lynch), and Lynch’s use of Beck’s Black Tambourine in a crucial scene makes this one of his most successful utilizations of pop music in his work.

It has been eleven years since Inland Empire, and only now, with the 18-part Twin Peaks coming, which Lynch definitively calls a long movie, a continuing story and not a TV series, one can only speculate as to how much his more opaque later work will influence the storytelling on Twin Peaks. One thing is for sure—Lynch has never, ever cared about the audience’s expectations or about the wishes of the masses; his storytelling technique has changed a lot since the original run of Twin Peaks, as Inland Empire undeniably shows, and audience members who are bigger fans of Lynch’s entire filmography than of the series might be more comfortable with the material than those who are Twin Peaks fans first, and David Lynch fans second. The latter can be delighted with the fact that the 71-year-old director has successfully finished this mammoth, 18-hour endeavour, featuring more than 200 actors, including Peaks newbies such as Naomi Watts and Laura Dern (if their performances in the new Twin Peaks are half as good as their turns in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, respectively, one will be naturally inclined to celebrate this), and new faces for Lynch’s world such as Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Jim Belushi, and expectations are running sky high. One thing is certain: it will not be dull, but what in the world of David Lynch ever was? One should hope that the director’s return to the saddle will result in another triumph, because he is more than capable of achieving that kind of level of success, as Inland Empire had also shown.

Written by Lovorko Marić

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Still photographers: Michael Roberts & Deverill Weekes © StudioCanal, Fundacja Kultury, Camerimage Festival, Absurda, Asymmetrical Productions, Inland Empire Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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