Moriarty Visits David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE And Lives To Tell About It!!
Published at: Oct. 29, 2006, 6:03 a.m. CST by Moriarty
It’s funny. If I had to name my favorite working filmmaker, I’m not sure I could do it.
But my co-writer Scott tells me that he knows who my favorite filmmaker is, even if I don’t. He is confident that David Lynch is my favorite filmmaker based on watching my responses to Lynch’s work over the years. The weird part about that is that half the time, I hate Lynch films the first time I see them. I remember being apoplectic walking out of WILD AT HEART after eagerly awaiting it for months and months. And upon first viewing, FIRE WALK WITH ME felt like a complete betrayal of TWIN PEAKS, and I left the theater red-faced and ranting. But when I revisited those films without the weight of expectation, I fell head over heels for them.
Not all of his films sneak up on me, though. BLUE VELVET floored me the first time I saw it, and I consider it one of the very best films of the ‘80s. ERASERHEAD, THE ELEPHANT MAN, THE STRAIGHT STORY... he makes diverse and remarkable films that get inside your head and never really shake out. Yet for some reason, his films are never the ones that I put at the top of my “most-anticipated” lists. Maybe it’s because he so resolutely refuses to play the hype game. His movies just sort of... arrive. And when they do, they’re almost always beyond description.
Which makes them a little tricky to review.
There’s another consideration here that could affect whether you want to read any further in this review, so let’s go ahead and get the disclosure out of the way. In this case, it’s too much fun not to share.
When or if you see this film, you’ll notice my name shows up in the closing credits under the “Special Thanks To” section.
A few years ago, when I was still living in my apartment in Hollywood, I got a call from a friend of mine named Jeremy Alter. Jeremy’s one of those guys who seems to have worked every possible gig in this business, and even though he’s had some remarkable experiences, I’ve never detected a hint of ego in all the time I’ve known him. He’s just a hard-working family guy who seems to know everybody.
When he called initially, he said he was scouting locations for something and he wanted to drop by and take some pictures of my apartment. He didn’t say why, but he called me again a few hours after he came by and told me that he wanted to bring a crew by the following evening. Sure enough, the next night he showed up.
With David Lynch and Laura Dern.
They told me that they’d be shooting something for Lynch’s website, a short film. I was shocked to see that all they had with them was DV equipment. One of my favorite things about Lynch has traditionally been the lush cinematography of his films. Altogether, Lynch had about four people with him, along with Dern and a young Polish actress who seemed to speak very little English. My roommate, Henchman Mongo, had just moved out, and Mrs. Moriarty and I were in the process of changing everything in the apartment, so one of the bedrooms was empty. That allowed Lynch to set it up any way he wanted. He had the Polish actress lay on the floor of the room, smoking, while Dern sat with her back against the wall. Altogether, they probably took two hours to work a scene, and at the end of it, Lynch carried his own equipment back out to the car. Jeremy told me that he had no idea if the footage would be used in anything, or if it would just be an experiment in the format for Lynch, but either way, they thanked me. A few weeks later, signed DVD copies of THE SHORT FILMS OF DAVID LYNCH and ERASERHEAD showed up at my door as a thank you.
If that strange momentary intersection with the director means that you no longer trust my opinion of the film that, several years later, features all of about fifteen seconds from the footage shot that night, then I understand, and I would rather you skip the rest of the review than read any further. Personally, I wasn’t influenced by that so much as I was intrigued. Every now and then, I’d get word from Jeremy about some other last-minute shoot, some laundry list of requests that he would fill for Lynch at a moment’s notice, and he told me how the project just kept growing... and growing... and it sounded to me like whatever the end result would be, it would be unfiltered Lynch.
And indeed it is. In fact, I’d go so far as to call this a masterpiece, a word I don’t throw around lightly. It feels like a summation of an artist’s full career.
Having said that, I also hesitate to recommend this film to anyone but the adventurous. This movie eschews the conventions of narrative with glee, and the result is a three-hour nightmare machine spiked with moments of Lynch’s absurdist wit and more genuine humanity than anything he’s done since THE STRAIGHT STORY.
This is perhaps the most elaborate game Lynch has ever built for an audience. From the moment it begins, INLAND EMPIRE is constantly folding in on itself, daring you to follow its dream logic. The film opens with a woman and a man in a hallway. Obviously, a deal has been made, and sex is about to occur. Both of their faces are digitally blurred out, obscured. They step inside, quickly conduct their business, and then he leaves. It’s only as the whore sits up into the light of a television in the room that we see her face for the first time. She’s puffy, tear-stained. And as she watches the TV, the flicker of it reflected in her eyes, Lynch takes us into the television, into whatever it is she’s watching.
Onscreen, people in rabbit-suits walk through a strange oblique scene that is underscored by canned laughter. Is this how Lynch sees sitcoms? Laughter at nothing? People who are barely recognizable as people? Whatever it is, we move through a few more images on TV, including one of Grace Zabriskie, a Lynch regular, walking up a sidewalk in high speed. When we see that image again, she’s walking at regular speed, and she follows the sidewalk to a huge house. Knocking at the door, she’s admitted by a butler who calls the lady of the house, Nikki (Laura Dern) down to speak with her. Pay close attention to the conversation that unfolds between them. Most of the clues you’ll need to decode everything that follows are contained in that exchange, and Zabriskie seems to know everything that’s going to happen to Nikki over the next 160 minutes of film time. If only Nikki was able to understand what she’s being told, maybe she would be able to avoid the descent into madness that consumes her.
Instead, she focuses on one piece of information in particular. Zabriskie tells her that she’s going to win a role in a movie that she wants. Sure enough, she does, and very quickly, she’s at her first day of rehearsals for a love story co-starring Devon (Justin Theroux) and directed by Kingsley (Jeremy Irons).
During the rehearsal, they’re interrupted by someone on the soundstage, someone they don’t see but only hear. Kingsley explains to them that the film was almost shot once before in Poland, but that the two leads were murdered and the film was shut down. It’s considered cursed now, in part because it’s based on an old gypsy fable. Nikki and Devon don’t care, though. They both see this as an opportunity, and they love the material. In Nikki’s case, she needs this. It’s a comeback for her, a return to the business. She’s married to a very wealthy man, but she seems dissatisfied. She needs to act. She needs the outlet.
He warns her, though, that if she has an affair with Devon during the making of the film, there will be consequences. And there are, but just not the consequences that he seems to suggest. Nikki starts to lose herself in ON HIGH WITH BLUE TOMORROWS, the film she’s making, losing herself in Sue, her character. At first, there’s a fairly clear line between what is taking place in the film and what is taking place in “reality,” but that line begins to blur. Is Nikki sleeping with Devon? Or are we just seeing Sue and Billy sleep together?
All of this description just barely begins to scratch the surface of INLAND EMPIRE, and this is a film that goes much deeper than just the surface. I’m sure some people will dismiss this completely because they are frustrated by the game, but don’t let them tell you that it doesn’t add up to anything. It does. There’s a puzzle here that you’re able to piece together, but it’s not easy, and it’s not going to satisfy every viewer. The thing that surprised me is how funny much of the first hour is, and how almost nothing after that point is even remotely funny. In fact, the longer the film wears on, the darker it gets. Dern becomes so disconnected from time and identity that she loses complete track of herself. Her performance is the glue that holds the film together, though. Other characters drift in and out of the movie, and although I missed Theroux after his last appearance and even though I would have liked more of Harry Dean Stanton, it’s Dern that drives the whole thing. It’s no wonder she ended up with a co-producer credit on the film. She is onscreen almost the entire time, and there’s not a hint of vanity in her work here. She debases herself. She strips herself emotionally for the camera. She crawls along Hollywood Boulevard on her hands and her knees, literally wallowing in the city.
My biggest fear before I saw the film was that I would hate the look of the DV cinematography. This isn’t like Michael Mann’s MIAMI VICE or Singer’s SUPERMAN LIFTS THINGS. This wasn’t shot on a high-end piece of equipment. All of this appears to be regular consumer-grade DV, and for the first ten or fifteen minutes, I was disconcerted by just how cheap it looks. But gradually, as I became engrossed in what I was watching, something happened. Not only did I not mind the aesthetic, but it actually started to grow on me. There are things about video that are completely different than film, and Lynch is canny enough to play to DV’s strengths. He seems obsessed with textures and light in the film, like in the very first few shots of the film, with a needle on a record in extreme close-up, and when he pushes things into near-total darkness in the last hour of the film, it becomes much stranger and dreamier than I would have expected. Laura Dern doesn’t just step into shadows; she merges with them, bleeds into them. It’s like she steps into something tangible, something she can’t quite scrape off.
As low-tech as the visual end of the film is, the sound design is incredibly sophisticated. The film’s score is as much a sound effect as it is music that you actually notice. It’s almost score as subtext, designed to affect you without you actually hearing it. There are a few places where music actually leaps to the foreground, like a dance number set to “The Locomotion” or, most memorably, the incredible end credits that use Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” so well that I will never be able to hear the song without picturing that sequence again. But for the most part, the score just sort of hovers right at the edge of conscious hearing, getting into your head and under your skin, adding to the almost unbearable claustrophobia of the last third of the film.
So what is it about the last hour of the movie that makes it feel like such a nightmare? Why does it disturb me more than even the murder of Laura Palmer in FIRE WALK WITH ME or Sailor’s moment of rage on the steps in WILD AT HEART or anything involving the baby in ERASERHEAD or Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET or even the scenes with Robert Blake in LOST HIGHWAY? Because Dern manages to make us feel every single bit of Nikki’s deterioration. She allows herself to look terrible here, but in those moments, there’s also such strength bubbling just below the surface that she achieves a ragged beauty.
Lynch’s films tap into something primal. With most movies, you watch them the way a rock skips across a lake when thrown, just bouncing along the surface. With the films that Lynch makes, though, you plunge into the film, and no matter how deep you go, they continue to yield new surprises. I’m sure that I’ve just begun to enjoy the way INLAND EMPIRE is constructed. For fans of this director’s idiosyncratic career, this is a delirious high that will take days to wear off. For those of you who don’t enjoy his more willfully surreal work, I’d warn you off. This is not a movie for the casual viewer. But for those who buy the ticket and take the ride, there is an embarrassment of riches on display here. Look for brief appearances by Diane Ladd and Julia Ormond and Mary Steenburgen (who looks so de-glammed in her one scene that I wasn’t sure it was really her). Watch for the incredible ways that certain images and dialogue echoes through the entire film. Enjoy the way Lynch takes the notion of “it’s all a dream” and demolishes it completely. Listen for Lynch’s hilarious cameo as “Bucky,” a lighting grip. But more than anything, indulge yourself in the pure cinema that INLAND EMPIRE has to offer. I always hate when people call smaller films “art” movies, but that word applies here. This is more of an experience, a happening, an event that is designed to swallow you whole, than it is a movie in any conventional sense. It’s electrifying to see what happens when one of our great filmmakers decides to reinvent his very approach to the craft, and when the results are this spectacular, it should serve as encouragement to others.
The film will be playing in Los Angeles this coming week as part of the AFI Film Festival, and for everyone else, it appears that it will be released on December 15th.
And speaking of the AFI Fest, I’ll be covering it this year, and I’ve already seen about 15 movies from the line-up. I’ll have a preview of what you can expect from the fest as well as a number of pieces for you in the next few days.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles