Sunday, December 10, 2006

New Film: Inland Empire

The following dialogue is a fictionalized recounting of a conversation that I had with my girlfriend, Lisa Broad, following a screening of Inland Empire last night. At this point, my thoughts on the film are too tied up with her insights to offer a straight-forward review that doesn't continually succumb to plagerism. Also, it gives Lisa a chance to experience what it would be like to hear her words in someone else's voice, which seems as though it might be an appropriate experience to connect to the film. *Be advised that the following conversation includes spoilers.*

Lisa: So what did you think?
Me: I am considering it.
Lisa: Me too.
Me: I guess I could begin by saying that I thought it was easily the most ambitious American movie of the year.
Lisa: I agree... What I would say is that it was horizontal rather than vertical. Does that make sense?
Me: I think so.
Lisa: (Motioning with her hands) If Mulholland Drive is this set of ideas stacked one on top of the other, Inland Empire was like a series of paper clips combined into a single chain. Does that make sense?
Me: I think so. It's like Inland Empire is a series of variations on a single theme, a study of all of its ramifications: stardom.
Lisa: Not stardom. This isn't one of those facile examples they're so fond of in cultural studies.
Me: Maybe not stardom -- instead say the persona of an actor.
Lisa: I think that's true. It's interesting that Laura Dern has had all these performances where she has been made to suffer over her career... and not just in David Lynch's films. It must be difficult to see one's self on the screen and to see these things done to one's body. That's what all those reaction shots of Dern are about: she is watching herself suffer.
Me: That's true, I didn't even think of that.
Lisa: And yet, it's a very hopeful film.
Me: I wouldn't say hopeful.
Lisa: No, I think it is. After all, during the credits we see her 'Producer credit' at a very intentional moment. And of course, there's the point in which she shoots the Mesmerist, after which everything is restored. And back to the end, there is joy in this ending.
Me: I'm not sure that means it's hopeful. It is still a very dark and punishing film.
Lisa: But seems it wants to say that it's worth it. That's what the ending is about.
Me: But you can't forget the death -- even if it is only that of her character's in a film (within the film). There is a clear tragic tragectory. After words, she shoots the Mesmerist, as you've said. She then kisses the brunette, passing the role on to this other female, before she finds herself in effect in the after life.
Lisa: So you think there is transcendence?
Me: I guess I would say there's an immortality that redeems it.
Lisa: Yes, there is this, and there is also a way out: remember the producer credit and the feeling that the film effects, after being so very punishing, and not entirely pleasant up to the end.

David Lynch's Inland Empire is indeed the most ambitious of all this year's English language fare: it represents a genuine contribution to the form-class of the reflexive dissection of acting, of which Mulholland Drive (2001) is a second example. Here, Lynch interests himself in examining all the implications of the star persona, structuring a picture on either the many variations of a single role and/or the many related roles enacted by a single actress. Either way, this is a film that further extends the critique of the earlier film, inquiring as to the impact that the act of fulfilling a role has on those who do this work. (Lynch explicitly links Dern's work to prostitution.) Moreover, this is also a work that seeks to consider the idea of "role" from every angle.

Me: There is this idea of the "role" which is articulated early on when Grace Zabriskie visits. She says she's heard Dern has a new role, Dern responds that she's up for a new role, and Zabriskie says she has it.
Lisa: Yes, she starts the new film and soon learns it's cursed. After this point she no longer can distinguish whether she's in a film or not... That's one thing I don't like, this psychological dimension. It makes for poor insights into the film. Its the same problem with inadequate readings of Mulholland Drive as a lesbian love story, rather than what it is: a film about the medium...
Me: Yes, a film that divests performers from roles to conceptualize both. But I would say that like that film, Lynch gives the spectators who are insistent upon a psychological reading just enough rope to hang themselves.
Lisa: But in this film there are those things which cannot be reduced to this framework: the rabbits, the Polish setting...
Me: About this part, did you notice that at one point, one of the Polish characters repeated the exact lines that Dern delivered in a conversation with the therapist? My thought was that it too represents another version of the film-within-the-film...

(Cross-chatter about the Polish performers, the implications of Eastern Europeans to represent evil, etc.)

Lisa: There's one other thing I wanted to mention: its as if the Mesmerist stands in for the director, who makes the characters act the way they do. Of course, he's also the person Dern kills near the end of the film.
Me: Actually she shoots him, but we don't see any wounds.
: Except on his face, we see a grotesque morphing of her own. This is a film that uses DV well, by the way.
Me: I agree, and it's important that it is him she shoots. It is after this point that she is liberated. It is almost like a Rivette film.

There is perhaps no better compliment to the on-going Jacques Rivette series at the Museum of the Moving Image (and an earlier one at the Anthology Film Archives) than Inland Empire. Like Rivette's masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Lynch's narrative does not delineate between dream and reality, but rather creates a reality that operates according to the logic of the first. Again, Inland Empire permits a reading that traces Dern's further estrangement from sanity, but this is to miss the point: the point is that the structured effected allows Lynch to consider the art form he is working within. Likewise, as again with the best of Rivette, Lynch makes his roles interchangeable -- first it is a love triangle with Dern, her husband and her co-star(Justin Theroux) with the former gentleman in the role of killer (so long as the co-star touches his wife). Upon a second image of a needle on a record, this dynamic reverses with Theroux's character, his wife and Dern making up the three components. Now it is Theroux's wife who is thrust into the role of the killer. Then again, it is she who we see at the beginning of the film -- in the role of someone condemned to kill -- meaning that this approximate structure is only that, approximate.

Lisa: But I don't think it's really put in order at all... or at least in a particular first second and third order. All the stories are chopped up and rearranged. The stories themselves have an order, obviously. But they are chopped and strung together.

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