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October 7, 2006

Three Hours of Sleep: Lynch Unveils Inland Empire In New York

The vulgar courts the sublime in director's epic Hollywood fever dream

In case you haven't heard, David Lynch is in town this weekend for the New York Film Festival, and he brought his three-hour Hollywood-folding-in-on-itself epic Inland Empire with him. As provocative and experimental as anything he has ever done (perhaps undercutting even Eraserhead in terms of enervated narrative momentum), the film invites hours of study and vexation that belies its robust punchline: For all of their beauty and magnanimity, movies are the evolved chemical combustion of hallucinations, self-awareness and general illogic. As viewers, we train ourselves to make sense of them. And whereas Lynch's 2001 masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, symbolized his fine-grain appreciation of this process, Inland Empire represents something of a clinical, shot-on-video footnote.

For the record, Lynch invites the comparisons. Not that he wants to talk about it. "The only thing I'd say is that cinema is a magic medium," he told the press following a preview screening Friday afternoon. "And I love Los Angeles, and I love the idea -- because I wasn't alive in the Golden Age of cinema -- I love the whole thing of Hollywood. And Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire have something to do with that."

"Magic," I get -- the dynamics are undefinable, despite Inland Empire's best efforts to decode them in visual terms. "Medium," not so much -- at the risk of reductionism (and, I guess, of taking Lynch too literally, a fatal mistake in any analysis of his work), cinema is a language more than an application, with dialects and vernacular and the historic comfort of something familiar. When subject to Inland Empire's etymological scrutiny -- the basic "story" of which concerns a blond actress (Laura Dern) tumbling down a literal Hollywood rabbit hole of sex, absurdity and dread -- the Golden Age co-exists with surrealism and the vulgar courts the sublime. Dern's terrorized dreams pledge vengeance and vulnerability, while an array of prostitutes chants around her like a shipwrecked Greek chorus. Meanwhile, Lynch eradicates any remaining glint of sympathy for his men that might have broken the surface in Mulholland Drive, crafting whole arias of abuse from their lazy, oversexed anomie.

The problem is that is all there is -- there is no magic in Inland Empire, and the language is subjugated to the medium, with an often magnificent Dern squirming in the pixelated, primordial texture of Lynch's images and, below that, the director's smirking knowledge of a stunt only he could get away with. At its best, Inland Empire is Lynch franchising himself to the point of self-ridicule. At its worst, the joke is on you. And if the mood following Friday's screening was any indication, pretty much everybody is falling for it.

But such is life, and I had to get over it fast if I was to have any hope of enjoying one of my few genuine filmmaking heroes in person. Even that proved challenging as Lynch responded to Richard Pena's inquiry if he ever saw himself returning to shooting film. "Never," he said, as devastatingly clear and emphatic as a severed limb. "For me, film is completely dead. We love film, and the quality is so beautiful, and the lure and all that's gone before it is so beautiful. But film gets dirty and film breaks and scratches and the color drifts. The equipment is very, very large and heavy. It's like swimming through cold molasses. Digital is the future and it's getting better everyday."

Responding that Inland Empire looks like shit is really beside the point, because in the end, you have to assume that it looks the way the consummate formalist wanted it to look -- like celluloid about to fall apart, a rough-hewn student-film patina supplying its own metaphor.

"I kind of fell in love with the digital look in early tests of digital-to-film," Lynch said. "I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. I really believe in the story, but as I said before, I really believe in a story that holds abstractions, or can slip this way and that."

Dern found her own advantages in shooting on video. "The one thing I learned form the experience working with digital the way that we did was the way it complements what David wanted to celebrate," she said. "That we had such freedom. That we could do a scene, and then do another one, etcetera, etcetera. There is such a beauty in having the luxury to just keep filming. We were never waiting. It was quite a gift."

Anyway, both Sunday's and Monday's screenings of Inland Empire are sold out, and the film still awaits a US distribution deal (NB: I spotted at least two local indie distributors fleeing Alice Tully Hall early in the film's third hour), so it could be a while before you get a look at this in theaters. If you must. But it bears noting that even the worst thing Lynch has ever made is probably superior to the best multiplex swill you'll find, so maybe a Columbus Day present to yourself -- in the form of scalped $40 tickets or whatever fair trade you can summon -- would be worth a go. Just pack a pillow and don't say I didn't warn you.

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Comments (1)

You liked it!?! I thought I saw you at the press conference looking really pissed at having to sit through that movie for the press conference... but maybe it was just exhaustion from the experience. :)

I HATED the movie... the first hour was amusing, the second hour was annoying...and I didn't even stay for the third hour because it was obvious that it wasn't going anywhere. I would have thrown things at the screen if I paid to see it.

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David Lynch reasserts himself as a DV star to the NYFF press conference, as reported by The Reeler: "Lynch responded to Richard Pena's inquiry if he ever saw himself returning to shooting film. "Never," he said, as devastatingly clear and... [Read More]

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