The Empire Strikes Back

The next film on my David Lynch revisit turned out to be Inland Empire, which I’ve never seen before. This was largely a fortuitous development: it’s seemingly out of print and not readily available for streaming; but I just so happened to stumble across a relatively cheap used DVD copy in a music store, so there you go.

Anyhow, I can’t remember the last time my feelings about a movie changed so dramatically over the course of a viewing. The first half hour or so was really rough, and I was starting to regret putting down money for it. By the end I was considering giving it a place in my top ten movies. Another watch is probably necessary before that sort of decision, but I definitely love it more than Mulholland Drive – even though Mulholland Drive is by far the better film. In fact, Inland Empire may in fact be a straight up bad movie, or even a movie that’s so bad it’s good. I don’t know. It breaks so many cinematic rules that it’s hard to properly evaluate by the usual criteria.

I went into Inland Empire knowing that Lynch had shot the thing on a crappy digital camera, but even that didn’t prepare me for the visceral experience of watching it: it looked awful, and I was wondering what could have possibly possessed the man to do this to his movie.

The plot early on also looked like it was leaning pretty heavily into bad arthouse territory. Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) has just landed a part in the movie On High In Blue Tomorrows, which she hopes will be her big comeback performance. It’s a movie seemingly about an adulterous relationship, and as filming begins, we’re teased with the possibility of a similarly illicit romance blossoming between Nikki and her costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). Yet another story about rich people contemplating adultery. Woo.

But it turns out that the movie is a remake of a cursed European flick which was never completed due to the brutal murder of its leads. The curse may still be in effect, as indicated by Nikki’s increasing inability to separate the movie and reality. So it seems like we’re watching an artsier version of Perfect Blue.

But then even this horror/thriller hook breaks down, as the narrative coherence gets defenestrated and Inland Empire splinters into several different storylines with Laura Dern playing I can’t tell you how many different characters. The unifying glue that keeps it all together is the movie’s tagline about, “a woman in trouble.” As long as you’re able to recognize that that’s what’s going on at any given moment you’re kinda able to role with it. Though, truth be told, I’m still not sure what the sitcom plot about anthropomorphic rabbits has to do with this.

Inland Empire feels less like a movie than it does like a weird dream you had about a movie you saw. It may perhaps be the most successful cinematic replication of dream logic ever, although achieving that requires virtually all norms regarding cinematic form to be exploded.

Trying to pinpoint the exact appeal of such a self-indulgent affair is a bit tricky. But like Mulholland Drive, the film doesn’t really have the deadpan artsy seriousness you expect from this sort of film: it’s really a travesty of horror and thriller movie cliches, all cranked up to eleven. Tonally, it oscillates between genuine creepiness and high camp. Actually, on that note, you could almost plausibly describe it as an arthouse version of Evil Dead. Once you put it in those terms the appeal for me is pretty straightforward.

The lack of self-seriousness goes a long way, but there’s also aspect. A lot of what turns me off of avante-garde/surrealist art is less the artistic techniques involved than the sort of ends they’re employed towards. Like, a lot of it thematically only wants to be destructive, and so as a result there’s a smallness and nihilism to it. In Lynch’s works, there is not just darkness and deconstruction, but also the recognition of evil; and with that, the belief (or at least the wish) that good should conquer evil.

I’ve been watching Twin Peaks on the side, and this has only helped to confirm this: it’s protagonist, Special FBI Agent Dale Cooper, is this borderline gary stu. In the hands of almost any other modern American filmmaker he’d either be recast as an anti-hero or else as an ironic parody. But Lynch treats the character not just like he’s a man of the law, but that he’s also unironically a force of good seeking to defeat the radical evil that threatens Twin Peaks.

I’m getting a bit distracted: there is no Cooper to provide a moral anchor in Inland Empire. But the film also doesn’t have the fear of genuine sentiment that other films of its ilk has. And, indeed, it does seem to want to be the comic counterpart to Mulholland Drive’s tragedy, even if the means by which it attains that are still a little baffling to me.

And then there’s Laura Dern. For much of the movie’s three(!) hours its a one woman show, and Dern just completely throws herself into it. It’s a completely mesmerizing performance that, like the movie itself, oscillates between genuine pathos and campy theatricality.

And even the crappy home video quality reveals a purpose in the sense that it removes a buffer between you and the insanity unfolding on the screen. The weird, smeary colours and grainy pixels eventually impart a kind of surreal quality to the whole thing.

The movie does earn its R rating when it comes to some of the sexual/violent content. But even beyond that, I don’t think I can give it an unqualified recommendation simply because it’s just so given over to its peculiar brand of insanity that I couldn’t in good conscience foist it on an unsuspecting person. Again, I feel hesitant saying that it’s even a good movie. It’s closest analogue, Perfect Blue, has content which is more viscerally disturbing, but at least it makes sense as a conventional thriller. Inland Empire is this really weird artifact that just happened to strike a chord with me (I mean, it even has anthropomorphic rabbits).

I’ve heard that the new season of Twin Peaks is spiritually closer to this film than it is to the older seasons. Which, uh, must be some interesting TV.

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About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in fragments of culture, pop culture and its discontents, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Empire Strikes Back

  1. T. Martin says:

    With a title like that on the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, the topic of this post caught me off guard

    • Josh W says:

      Whoa. Is it really the 40th Anniversary? I had no idea actually.

      • T. Martin says:

        Would’ve fit more had David Lynch gone through with directing Return of the Jedi (though, based on what I know about David Lynch’s work, I’m glad he didn’t)

      • Josh W says:

        I actually kinda doubt a Lynch directed ROTJ would be substantially different from what we got; I imagine that job came with a tight leash.

        But hey, apparently Laura Dern’s in The Last Jedi, so there’s that.

  2. Pingback: Down the rabbit hole | Res Studiorum et Ludorum

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