Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

05 February, 2007

Down the Rabbit Hole

I've been psyched about seeing David Lynch's latest, Inland Empire, for some time now and I finally got to see it on Sunday. The Dulcinea and I drove down to Chicago in the morning. I called my friend Andrew when we were just minutes away from the Kennedy to see if he was going to join us for breakfast. I found out that he was still at Glen's as his car wouldn’t start. So we stopped over there to give his battery a jump. Unfortunately, it wasn't the battery that was the issue. He needed a block heater. And so he jumped in the back seat and we were off. We tried to park at the school across the street from the Music Box only to find that no parking was available. We found a spot a couple blocks away and braved the cold heading to an Irish tavern next door to the theatre. We ate and skedaddled next door. Entering the theatre, we were treated to some organ music. The red curtains were highly appropriate for a Lynch film. If you're a cinephile and have never been to The Music Box, then do go sometime. It was built in the late 1920s and remodeled some time in the 1980s, methinks, and is gorgeous. The curtain went up, a couple trailers played, and then it was right into Lynch's world.

After the titles, we see a close-up of what looks like an old gramophone needle humming along in the groove of a record. We hear, "Axxon N, the longest running radio play in history." I think the next scene was of a hooker taking her john to a room and taking off her clothes. It was in black & white and the faces of the actors were blurred. We next see a woman sitting on a bed crying as she watches a television with nothing but static. The picture eventually show a scene with people dressed as rabbits which was lifted from a short film that Lynch had done in 2002 called, unsurprisingly, Rabbits. It's a static long shot a female in the background ironing and another female sitting on a couch in the foreground. A male walks in and sits on the couch. After some dialogue, the male gets up and walks through the door. He ends up in this old, ornately decorated room. The rabbit fades away and two men appear on a couch and chair in the foreground and have an interesting conversation. Next we see Grace Zabriske walking around a courtyard and ringing the doorbell of a very large mansion. She says that she is new to the neighborhood and is going around introducing herself. The mansion belongs to Nikki Grace, as played by Laura Dern, who is an actress. Zabriske speaks here with a Slavic accent and she is more than sufficiently creepy here. Nikki is auditioning for a part and the woman inquires about it. The woman also says that Nikki has "it". Not knowing quite what to say, Nikki just blurts something along the lines of "I hope I get the part." But the woman knows better. She knows that Nikki will get the part and asks if there's a murder in the script. And then she goes off on some great tangents including some about time as in "If it were 9:45, you'd think it was after midnight" as well as perspective. Regarding the latter, the woman says that she can see Grace sitting on an adjacent couch tomorrow. She then points at the couch and we the viewers are zipped somewhere else and/or sometime else. Nikki gets the part of Susan Blue in On High in Blue Tomorrows being directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) and also starring Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) as Billy Side. Harry Dean Stanton plays Freddie Howard, Stewarts assistant who provided a modicum of comic relief.

The story remains on just this side of linear and understandable but this slowly dissolves when Stewart informs his lead actors that On High in Blue Tomorrows is, in fact, a Polish gypsy story and a remake of another film, 4/7. 4/7 was never completed. At first Stewart says that this was because of something "in the story" then he reveals that the lead actors were murdered during production. Nikki and Devon start sleeping together despite Devon being admonished not to do so several times because Nikki's husband would kill him. From there issue of double identity, a Lynch staple, crops up and it gets really weird.

There's really no point in trying to go any further here in describing the plot because it would be futile. The movie is a collage where Nikki and Susan become one, as do Devon and Billy. Nikki's husband takes on multiple identities as well. Action shifts from California to Poland and back. Dern enters a room at one point only to find herself surrounded by a bunch of young women who, it is revealed, are prostitutes in one hallucinatory reality or another. Dern takes on a few roles here and she did an absolutely fantastic job. The movie was shot on a mid-range DV camera and it looks like it. Not much, if anything was done to sweeten the video and I think the harsh tones of video here make for a surreal atmosphere that would be hard to capture on film. There are lots of close-ups here too with a shaky handheld camera fitted with a wide lens and it furtively meanders around in many shots. There is some great expressionistic lighting to be had as well. Inland Empire runs for 3 hours and about 2 of them feature some of the most disconcerting ambient music ever. It's just a low rumble for most of the time – a bit like the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra but much more foreboding. Plus there are liberal doses of Penderecki as well. I got lost much earlier than I expected so I stopped looking for visual cues for a while and concentrated on audio. The volume at the theatre was very loud and I suspect this is now Lynch intended. He loves to bury things in the mix so he instructs theatres to pump up the volume so these bits are audible. This also has the effect of making the haunting music that much more haunting and the jarring moments more jarring. The soundtrack here is just relentless. Most of the time it pushes you and, when silence breaks out, you coast along on the momentum of all the sounds of the previous scene.

Inland Empire is more along the lines of Lost Highway than Mulholland Drive and even more so like Eraserhead. There isn't much in the way of plot and what there is can only be described as such very loosely. Laura Dern constantly walks or looks through doors/portals that connect two different realms. That is a central motif here – portals. Doors going to odd places plus the instructions to put on the watch, light a cigarette, and use the cigarette to burn a hole in a piece of silk so you have a hole to look through. Walking back to the car, The D, Andrew, and I talked about the movie. I really to see it about 10 more times before I can come up with an explanation that will fall only miles short of anything. Inland Empire is a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Reading interviews with Lynch who said he basically wrote scenes on the fly, I suspect that there is no central message here. It is what it is – a barrage of loosely connected scenes that make up a subjective look at interior states. But, like most of Lynch's works, you can approach them as puzzles. Lynch gives us clues as to how one might go about teasing possible meaning here. Firstly, I'd like to get Zabriske's scene down pat so I can look for those elements later in the film. Locations get multiple scenes and so do shots such as the POV shot with the outstretched hand. Red curtains appear and I swear that there was (at least) one scene that was shot in reverse. And, as Andrew pointed out, scenes are disjointed by the fact that Lynch placed reel changes right in the middle of them. As a text, Inland Empire is extraordinarily dense and a fantastic movie. I found myself often drifting away from a mindset of critical analysis and just letting the images resonate within me and the music move me as it would. One viewing is rarely enough to get much out of a Lynch film and it is the case doubly so here. Either you'll sink into the movie and find yourself having a receptive gut reaction to what you're experiencing or you won't.

I had a minor epiphany walking out of the theatre. For just a moment, I thought I understood Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway which has its own double identity theme and a tendency for doors to lead to very odd and interesting places. (Plus "The Waiting Room (Evil Jam)" probably wouldn't fit too badly on the movie's soundtrack.) Just for a brief little moment that album made sense. So you have been warned - Inland Empire has this strange ability to make you understand progressive rock concept albums does weird things to you.

Inland Empire's website has no dates for it turning up here in Madison but it opens in Milwaukee on 23 March. So, if you can't make it to Chicago in the next few days, you can make a shorter jaunt out east next month.
|| Palmer, 7:27 PM

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