Thursday, May 17, 2007

Understanding Inland Empire

This is not the direction I had expected to take for Culture Snob's Misunderstood blogathon, but in the last couple weeks I have come across a couple complaints about Inland Empire that made me think. Well - that distracted me from parsing out the relevance of the pharmakon to Ikiru, at any rate. But thinking about it - being misunderstood certainly seems to be a fundamental condition of Lynch's films, and Inland Empire courts incomprehension as aggressively as films do. I say - many of Lynch's films are misunderstood from all sides: those who say they make no sense, those who look for a clear, stable explanation of the story. I think of the explications of Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway - the articles explaining who's dreaming who. I have little truck with such things. Those explanations quite clearly miss the point. So far, Inland Empire seems to have resisted such explication. No one's managed to reduce it to one character's dream yet. Thank goodness.

But that does not mean it doesn't make sense. For one thing - there is a plot. A rather simple and identifiable plot, actually, told in a reasonably straightforward manner. The plot of the film in the film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, is, in fact, basically the plot of Inland Empire. A woman with a jealous husband gets involved with a man with a jealous wife, and actions do have consequences, and bad actions have bad consequences. That's it - and what happens in the film fits the plot line consistently. I suspect, further, that the plot has a fairly standard structure - rising action, turning points, the subplots and parallels that go into making a good story are all there, more or less in their proper places. I think you can trace the plot's structure through what happens in the film without much difficulty. What makes this film Strange, though, is that this plot line is not enacted in anything like a unified story world. Instead, characters change, actors sometimes change, settings change, the ontological status of what we see changes (as we move from the Hollywood frame story, to the film within the film, to the world of the film in the film, to the flashbacks or scenes from 4-7 or a radio play or whatever the Polish scenes are meant to be), the ontological relationship between different scenes change (as we move from seeing actors playing in On High in Blue Tomorrows to following the story "directly" to scenes like Laura Dern watching herself on a movie screen, as she lives the story), with all of it filtered through unspecified layers of subjectivity - dreams, visions, memories, thoughts, etc....

Lynch does not stabilize these different worlds. He does not maintain stable levels of reality. Nikki and Devon are not more real than Billy and Sue - Lynch moves back and forth between the different worlds, an uncertainty the characters share - they often seem unsure of which world they are in at any given moment. Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway both received a good deal of attention on that question - critics made claims about what was real, who was real, they tried to stabilize the ontological relationships between Diane and Betty or Fred and Pete. It didn't really add anything to those films, and it would truly be a fool's errand with Inland Empire. It probably can't be done, and spending time on it tends to obscure the formal systems actually at work in the film.

Because there are certainly consistent principals at work. Most of them resolve around the structure I've been writing about: the way (using linguistic terms) the syntax of the film is relatively stable, while the semantics is relatively free. That is - the plot, at an abstract, structural level (a married woman and a married man have an affair with dire consequences) is stable; the story - the people things happen to, the places they happen in, the way things happen, the way the characters seem to experience things happening - is mutable. It's a structure that relates to the outside world: it relates, I think (and have said before), to the mechanics of dreams. Comparing Lynch's films to dreams may be a commonplace, but it's justified - they work like dreams: the way images, words, situations, places, cycle through dreams, and are put together into stories by the subconscious. Lynch's formal strategies also relate to other art forms and traditions. Dada, for example - we could compare it to Max Ernst's collage work, for one. Ernst often built collages out of similar principals - take an identifiable form (the body, say), and while maintaining its basic shape, change its "contents", as here, Ubu Imperator:



In that example - the "form" of the body remains - the parts are arranged in a recognizable pattern: but he "content" has been switched out - the torso turned into a building, the legs and feet into the point of a top.

What Lynch does isn't all that different. He maintains the form, the syntax - the logic of the plot - while abandoning the requirement for ontological unity. But the lost unity (of world, character, etc.) is replaced by the logic of the plot - and of the image, the face, of words and phrases. Wagstaff's crack (in the comments to the post on Edward Copeland's site) that this film is basically about Lynch's obsession with lamps isn't so far off. It's certainly about the other kinds of logic possible in a film: the logic of the plot, as a kind of abstract equation; the logic of objects and spaces and colors and qualities of light; the logic of words as objects (the passage and cycling of words, phrases, sounds, through the story - "look at me, and tell me if you've known me before"; everyone who's "good with animals"). It might be justifiable to say as well - it is about logic itself. Relating back to dreams - our subconscious finds the logic in the disparate images our brains throw up while we are dreaming; Lynch invite us to find and follow threads of logic through his films. They have a contingent logic, a series of substitutions and associations, that lead us from scene to scene, shot to shot - and, at a higher level, tend to resolve into broad, somewhat abstract patterns, like the plot, or the general emotional quality, like that of a woman in trouble.

And even then: it is possible to interpret Lynch's films - they are, usually, grounded in fairly clear emotional and moral positions. Going back to the comments at Edward Copeland's place - Chris Stangl's defense of Inland Empire sounds about right. What does it mean? Something about acting, and something about how life is acting, and something about our complicity with everyone and everything else. (And some good old fashioned moralism, too - the bonds of marriage are real bonds - I think he means it.) But how it works - and whether it's a hodge-podge of unconnected scenes, stitched together randomly after the fact, or, for that matter, whether there's a way to read it as a simple, stable, realistic story - well, you now have my thoughts on the subject...

21 comments:

Edward Copeland said...

My biggest problem with Inland Empire wasn't whether or not it meant something, it was that it the end didn't justify the means. Mulholland Drive probably doesn't make any more literal sense than Inland Empire does, but it's compelling enough to hold your interest whereas Inland Empire seems designed as dare to see if you can stay interested. If it were a dare, I lost because Inland Empire just bored me.

Culture Snob said...

Thanks for contributing to the blog-a-thon. I think you've done a better job explaining the recent Lynch style/method than anything I've seen before. (Full disclosure: I haven't seen Inland Empire.)

But ... my recollection is that Mulholland Drive can have a clear, stable explanation. The movie eluded me the first time I saw it, but Salon's explication clarified it immensely.

Of course, it's been several years since I watched the movie, and several years since I read the Salon piece. Perhaps my impression — that the frame is solid and prominent, while the details are liquid — is simply a less-elegant (and less-thought-out) re-statement of your premise.

weepingsam said...

Edward: I guess there's no answer to boredom. Except, I wasn't bored - it did take a while to get going, it seemed, but by about the hour mark, I was sold, and never looked back.

culture snob: that Salon explanation of Mulholland Drive is a prime example of what bugs me about a lot of Lynch commentary. Not because it doesn't make sense, or doesn't work, or doesn't help understand the film, but because it is presented as if it is the explanation of the film. And because it takes away one of Lynch's distinctive devices, the way he flattens out different levels of a story (dreams/hallucinations and reality, stories and stories in stories) into one level - everything is equally "real". And - the way Lynch turns it around, to be about story telling in general: not as obviously as, say, Rivette (I was tempted to offer my misreading of MD as a remake of Celine and Julie go boating for this blogathon as well...), but it's still there - life as a kind of fiction, improvised in real time...

Anonymous said...

i agree with an earlier post, that about 2/3 of the way in the film it begins to get boring, and the number of random and seemingly unrelated and pointless scenes continue..by the end i didnt even know what the film was actually about, however your explanation is pretty good at dealing with the basic plot.

Anonymous said...

As a big Lynch fan i had high expectations of INLAND EMPIRE. I wanted it to excite and captivate me as much as his previous work. It is probably very clever but it is also very boring. Whether or not it can be explained is beside the point. I may feel different after 5 viewings but i doubt i will live long enough to accomplish this.

flcl1313 said...

I have just completed watching Inland Empire, I as the past poster am a huge Lynch fan. I am an avid watcher of Twin Peaks even as it is off the air and have seen most of his major works. However, this movie as good as it is just is too long and complicated after about an hour and a half. I became lost and as i watched the rest I started to drift off into space. I thought the ideas and concepts used within the scenes were terrific, but I was unable to place it withing the context of the plot and this might just have to do with my loss of interest.
I am only writing here because I came across this blog, while searching for answers to this movie. Thank you for your explanation as it helps me a bit to understand what is going on within Inland Empire.

Mariano Peralta, T PROD Films said...

Sorry for my writing mistakes, but spanish is my first language.
I have seen Inland Empire today, I´m a HUGE fan of D. Lynch (specially Mulholland Dr).
I found VERY profound, interesting and creative, this new film, but i really agree that it almost is a "test" to see if you can endure boredom...
Even I could "understand" the logic of the message... but i get frustrated by the boredom.
Even with this criticism, I enjoy when movies remarcably distinctive are released... and this one, is brilliant.

weepingsam said...

I still can't argue with boredom, or the lack of it. Whether Inland Empire makes any sense or not, I found it absolutely mesmerizing from beginning to end - and more enthralling every time I've seen it since. What's on the screen - the pictures, the light, the spaces show, the people, what they say, what they do, everything about it is completely engaging. Making sense of it is secondary. But I don't see much hope of convincing anyone who's bored not to be bored, or of any of you convincing me I should be bored.

I should add: lots of films get hyped as being love it or hate it experiences - way too many of them turn out to be bland, take it or leave it affairs - Inland Empire though really does seem to inspire people to extremes. Judging from the posts and comments I keep seeing, it really is as divisive as it's hyped to be. I don't know why - I could watch three hours of Lynch's lamp footage and be happy.

Anonymous said...

Hi thanks for trying to explain this movie. I say trying because I think in all honesty, thats all anyone can do. I have never give up on trying to watch a movie entirely but this one was different. I must say i love the parallels, between the two characters Dern and Lynch play each, but I could not stand the rabbit stage puppetry. If anything the movie is brilliant in that it not just keeps us baited for more, but because it gives a confusing storyline, the viewer is made to scratch his or her head to what could be the possible connections between the scene, and more importantly, if there is something that they may have missed out. Beyond that all I can say is that given a choice ANYONE with a camera and a reel can make 'fantasy' a confused state of mind. Credit for that does not needingly go to Lynch for that.

Anonymous said...

This film is probably the most self-indulgent of Lynch's work. At around the two hour mark I got increasingly agitated as another series of seemingly random and unconnected scenes flashed by. The question that comes to my mind is, "why subject the viewing public to this?" if the plot and themes are so subjective, convoluted and abstract that nobody can really get that much out of the film then surely Lynch must come to the realisation that he has truly disappeared up his own a** and is screenwriting for himself and a small cabal of backpatters.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

A really interesting review of the movie, I will have to watch it again now that I've read it. Actually I've always understood in his movies that it didn't have to be entirely coherent, but on this one I really had problems understanding the thread of story as I was asking myself too many questions (what's real, etc. ). But I hadn't got it in the surrealism way, that subconscient changes characters and places but keeps developping the same idea (it's a shame that I didn't get this as I'm a big surrealist fan). Thanks a lot for this article. Timorite

Donald said...

Thanks for that insight about the film. I've been trying to figure it out for ages, and this is really helpful to me. My only qualm about the movie really is the DVD and the use of sound; some things are too loud, some things are too silent. (Note: This is talking about the US DVD of the film)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your keen thoughts on Inland Empire. Watching Lynch and thinking about his movies is akin to having a strange and emotionally charged dream that makes you think throughout the following morning.
I agree with everything you say in your blog, except that I don't really mind those who would unravel M. Drive. I agree with another poster that doing this CAN detract from one of Lynch's key strengths---the treating of several realities as equally "real"----but I don't see the exercise of trying to "explain" the movie by subordinating certain portions and making one "dreamer" drive the narrative as a necessarily useless activity. The mistake would be to think you are "done" after doing this. You've merely shown the pliability and possibilities available in the wonderful network that Lynch has created, and you've done it only by subjecting it to certain conventions and preconceptions. But that people can do this at all reminds me of the "network" that Freddy talks about in Inland Empire, which he says is full of infinite possibilities, just before asking for a couple of bucks (I think his name was Freddy). "Enjoyable," he says, is "exactly" the word for all this role playing. And one of the joys that people have is trying to make a narrative out of it---just one of many that the films can be manipulated into sustaining. They are not the "solutions" to his films by any means, but they are still helpful as angles through which the films can be approached for discussion's sake.
As for Inland Empire, I really loved it. I just saw it last night, and your comments sound really, really right. I didn't see anyone else mention that the Blue Tomorrows film is explained in the movie as a "remake" for which the original could never reach completion (apologies if someone else commented on this)---in many ways, Inland E. seems like a remake of all of Lynch's previous films (which significantly also resist pat explanations and unifying theories). This, in addition to the "consequences for adultery" conflict, seems to be a hub around which much of the film revolves. Thanks for all of your posts.

Tuesday said...

if you though Inland Empire was boring then it just went way over your head

Anonymous said...

his movies are strange, FACT!

this film is about infidelity.

if your unfaithful, you suffer!

if your faithful you still suffer, thinking what might have been!

its just his unique reflexion...

ps just loved seeing Lodz on film!

Theo Kipnis said...

I am currently watching this movie in the way one might read a book. A section at a time, and sometimes repeating individual scenes for pleasure. I couldn't enjoy it more. Lynch's facility with film-making is incredible as he tells stories within stories, constructs moments that other people could never imagine, and gets unbelievable performances out of the cast. So beyond the plot and prowess I'm interested in seeing what Lynch is saying, and look forward to getting there.

I initially found the movie high-pitched and disorienting but enjoyable for its challenges, and then found that (as the reviewer for this site has pointed out) the plot is really very straightforward, and the signposts to see it through foreshadowing of infidelity, jumbled time, unpaid debts, dual identities, and an old, Polish curse - are all provided. So there is a game to see which character an actor is playing at a given scene, and where in their story the scene is placed. The challenge therein is satisfying, but is also true to the experience that would result for the cursed characters having the experience that we witness.

I am very excited about this movie, and am a bigger fan of Lynch's than ever having seen it. It's amazing. I'm going to keep watching it to pull more out of the experience.

Anonymous said...

Inland Empire was terrible... just don't waste your time with it. I mean literally its a waste of 3 hrs. However, Mulholland Dr. does have a meaning to it you idiots(except CultureSnob). watch it again. Mulholland Dr. is about a girl who fantasizes about, "what could've been".

Anonymous said...

New eBook reveals Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE. Check it out on Amazon.com. Old World Politics, New World Prophecy: Understanding David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE by Michael Lidstone. Here is the link:

http://www.amazon.com/World-Politics-Prophecy-Understanding-ebook/dp/B004LGS7I6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=AZC9TZ4UC9CFC&s=books&qid=1299972782&sr=8-1

Anonymous said...

I think David Lynch is pretty innovative as a director and a writer because of his ability to make the audience play detective. It's their job to make sense of the images they're seeing, which seems to be one of the bigger issues being discussed here. It seems that certain viewers are trying to figure out how the film should come across to everyone as opposed to holding their own opinion of it, which is what David wants out of his work. That's why he very seldom, if at all, gives any insight into his work.

Xamuel said...

Can't believe so few analysts say anything about what to me is the true climax of the film: the scene when Nikki sees the door labeled 47, then confronts the mysterious attacker and kills him. The reason I say this is the climax is because it's the emotional peak: when THAT FACE is seen, I felt more terror than I've ever felt from any other movie...

But just seeing the image in its lonesome (say on Google Images) does not inspire terror, somehow Lynch sets it up with all his symbolism and stuff. If the whole film is just 3 hours of hypnosis to make that one scene more terrifying, it's well worth it.