Not Coming to a Theater Near You 2000–2009 The Decade in Review

Inland Empire by Timothy Sun

Inland Empire by Timothy Sun What a towering achievement David Lynch’s mesmerizing, confounding, terrifying, maddening Inland Empire is in a time of such institutionalized cinematic mediocrity. In 2006, when Inland Empire was released, even some of the most lauded films of the year – The Departed, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine – were at best nothing more than above-average genre workouts and at worst patronizing “indies” that present for our amusement “quirky” non-characters who traffic in the detritus of ten years of mainstreamed, formulaic Sundance-derived pap. Is it any wonder, then, that a film like Inland Empire played in exactly one theater in America? Or that Children of Men, one of the best of that or any other year this decade, was inevitably shunned by the Academy in favor of the star-driven, didactic Crash – err, I mean, Babel – a film that says less about our sociopolitical climate in its convoluted two-and-a-half hours than Children of Men does with one shell-shocked, blood-splattered tracking shot of Clive Owen desperately struggling to reach a crying baby?

Ironically, it is only in this depressing milieu that a film like Inland Empire could have been made. For along with the loss of personal filmmaking in a commercial industry anxiously trying to reach the broadest audience possible – an audience already bombarded by TV and DVDs, podcasts and Youtube – comes the possible resurgence of personal filmmaking with this decade’s democratizing advent of digital video. Shooting on a consumer-grade camera that you or I could buy for something like $2,000, Lynch could shoot whatever twisted idea came into his head without having to worry about the long set-up time and high costs inherent in shooting with film—he could simply grab the camera and go. Indeed, many of its passages feel completely improvisatory as segments collide, melt, and fade into each other in an orgy of free-association. Like a Jackson Pollock painting, Inland Empire is a film as much about the process of creation as the actual content; indeed, the film’s form is, in many ways, its function. Inland Empire, a film that could only have been made on digital video, is a film about the recorded image – its creators, its consumers, and, like the way video blurs and fuzzes out color and definition, the fusion of the two.

Like Lynch’s other hallucinatory masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire also features a naivé Hollywood actress, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern, in a tour-de-force) who begins to lose herself in a dreamworld where the role she plays and the life she leads violently converge. But whereas Mulholland Drive had a Maya Deren-esque internal logic founded on modernist conceptions of the conscious and subconscious, leading to a possible puzzling together of the seemingly random strands of story and imagery, Inland Empire breaks completely from the realm of narrative coherence; I defy anyone to piece the film together into any sort of cause-and-effect explanation of events. Because of this abandonment of narrative, many critics have, both positively and negatively, described Inland Empire as an “experience,” a trip into David Lynch’s haphazard unconscious. To be sure, much of the power of the film lies in its visceral elements, its ability to unsettle the audience by the filmed image itself, regardless of narrative arc or thematic circumstance. However, to characterize the film as merely an “experience” is to miss the labyrinthine metadiscourse behind its production of primal sensations.

Never have I cowered in such abject fear as I have while watching Inland Empire. Yet while the film seethes with ubiquitous terror, its menace emerges not from monsters or sudden bursts of violence but in its rigorous exploration of the uncanny. The cinema is by nature an uncanny medium: it takes what is familiar – the object of the filmed image – and makes it unfamiliar—the filmed image itself. One of Lynch’s constant obsessions is the exploration of this dynamic, how the uncanniness of the recorded image alters our conceptions of what was once familiar and knowable. Consider for instance a sequence – it seems somehow unfitting to call anything in this film a “scene” – in which Laura Dern’s character finds herself in an ominously ordinary suburban living room looking out through the window and seeing herself in a sequence that we have already seen earlier in the film. Or, similarly, the moment Dern walks into an empty movie theater to see herself projected on the screen. Or take for instance how the film sometimes literally convulses when, strobe-like, sound and image crash against each other in a fury of cuts that decimate any conception of what is real and what is not. Or the numerous times Lynch’s camera pulls and stretches Dern’s face like silly-putty, speed-ramping into a terrifying wide-angle close-up of a face that could only exist in nightmares—or movies.

What is cinema if not the manifestation of our dreams and nightmares? With Mulholland Drive and, particularly, Inland Empire, Lynch clearly conceives of Hollywood as equal parts both. It is a place where, as the film says, “stars become dreams and dreams become stars,” where, to take a popular example, Archie Leach becomes his uncanny doppelganger, Cary Grant. Lynch seems particularly interested in how this dynamic plays out with regard to women, how the Hollywood machine chews up and spits out its female denizens. The film’s tagline of “A woman in trouble” is a gross understatement. Dern is subjected to a series of traumatic situations as she slips and slides her way into overlapping roles as Nikki Grace, a prostitute, a victimized redneck woman, and (is it a different character? one of these three? all of these three?) a murder victim spitting up blood onto the Walk of Fame. For Lynch, the uncanniness of the films that Hollywood produces are not safely caged upon the screen; the dreams and nightmares that constitute our cinematic fantasies are part of a two-way street between the creators’ and spectators’ own identies and the projected fantasies of those identities. In Lynch’s hands, Hollywood becomes a collapsing hall of Lacanian mirrors, where the “ideal ego” we each create for ourselves upon first seeing our reflection in a mirror is magnified and warped via the vast uncanny “mirror” of the movie screen. For Lynch, the Hollywood machine – and, perhaps, the very act of watching movies – twists one’s ideal “I’s” into perverse fun-house versions of one’s identity.

If I have seemed circuitous in my discussion of this film it is because writing about a film like Inland Empire is more or less a futile exercise. My words here are tragically insufficient in describing a work of art that has no relation to the written language; it is an absolutely cinematic work, an experiment – in the truest, most daring sense – in visual and aural synthesis that is inconceivable in any other art form and in fact has few, if any, correlatives even in film. There is no question that many people will not want to be abandoned on a harrowing three-hour formal experiment with not even the flimsiest lifeline to conventional cinematic storytelling. But if you’re willing to surrender yourself to David Lynch’s uncompromising vision, you will wander through his Inland Empire lost, shaken, terrified—and enthralled.

  1. A.O. Scott, “Where Have All the Howlers Gone?” The New York Times, December 18, 2005.


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