For the record, I am a David Lynch fan. I happen to think, shy of masterminds like Kubrick, Kurosawa and Hitchcock, he is one of the most indelible of filmmakers in cinematic history. That said, I'm not gonna to sit here and go on and on about how profound Lynch's latest movie Inland Empire is. Rather, I'm going to try to explain how Inland Empire holds much value despite the fact that it's a too frequently self-conscious, hodge-podgey mess of a viewing experience. Others were right in suggesting that the film was one of his most unbridled, but I never expected something quite so questionable in terms of artistic merit.
The movie has dialogue, but almost all of it is surface-y and vague. Now, I realize most haters out there would say something like, "That's Lynch alright," but that's kind of my point. With significant exception (there are some startlingly beautiful visuals and a whole lot of innate creepiness), the film is this close to playing out like a student film parody. Chiefly, the integrity of the film is undermined with his go-go dancing, Suicide Girls-style revue. The audience was laughing, but I just found it cutesy and forced. It didn't have the effortless style Lynch usually manages to get from his performers. Sure Dorothy Valens couldn't sing, but she was played with a vivid and particular style; instead, the let's-sit-around-and-be-sexy ya-ya punk sisterhood had zero screen presence beyond their skanky sex appeal. Leaden moments like these had me thinking that Lynch's vision was compromised somehow, or that the combining-separate-projects methodology of the film had made things feel more clunky than usual. A certain rigidness of line-delivery has always been his trademark, but the dialogue here is so witless as to make that once chilling stillness seem flat. There is the exception of Freddie Howard (Harry Dean Stanton), whose sad sack routine manages to get other crew members to feel bad enough to shell out their money to him. He has very few lines in the film, yet he resonates the deepest as a character.
The thing I always found endearing about Lynch's work was the way in which they tightrope-walked between messy, vague dream logic and very stereotypical Hollywood plots. Inland Empire has this at some level, yet it seems to lose its integrity as it goes on. After awhile you get a feeling not just that he's making things up as he goes, but that he allowed himself to be taken over by some lazy, egotistical temperament. This is a film that dares the unsuspecting viewer to criticize it as much as it welcomes the usual pithy put-downs. It feels more indulgent than inspired in the end when professional synchronized dancers lip-sync to Nina Simone's "Sinnerman" (and the SG-type girls dance a little less confidently than before in the background). Earlier, there's an obnoxiously inappropriate inclusion of Beck's "Black Tambourine." Never mind what I think of the song; its placement here is not charmingly dissonant like "In Dreams" in Blue Velvet, nor darkly appropriate like Marilyn Manson and Smashing Pumpkins in Lost Highway. It was unexpected in a most irksome fashion. It made me want to run to the projectionist and ask him if it were some kind of prank.
Lynch's obsessions have been good to him. He's one of those directors whose films, at their best, feel magically myopic and solipsistic. You get the feeling that the other film personnel aren't “collaborators” so much as his paid dream-logic mechanisms. A David Lynch film can be something profoundly individual, something worthy of being prefaced as "A ____ _____ Film." Now, I feel as if he's grown somewhat feeble. As boundless and oddly satisfying as much of Inland Empire can feel, it also reeks of a sort of compromise. It's as though he's doing one "for the fans," which any true fan of Lynch should not ever want. He's an artist, and part of what makes him a good one is how unpredictable he is. Some of the absurdity in his latest effort is so labored and near-stocky as to make this Lynch fan feel like calling out the next non-sequitur. As much as today's artist wants to be the entertainer (see Mamet praising Borat and shrugging off Maher's plea for more exceptional films on "Real Time"), I think Lynch would better entertain if he took a normal storyline (rather than a mere premise) and instinctively refracted it. I'm doubtful that the novel Wild at Heart is based off of is as bizarre as the film.
David Lynch has often denied that his films are at all meaningless, yet there is always something out of reach in his stories. Inland Empire refuses to lay in exposition beyond that which business director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) divulges about how they are remaking a Polish production that was never finished because two of the principles were murdered. The amount of hard plot in this film could barely fill out a summary blurb. As usual, though, Lynch does a lot with a little. His use of sound, shot composition, and actors (Laura Dern, as usual, is something to see) is unparalleled in its mesmeric capacity that one can hardly dissuade people seeking something different from checking it out. But I think Lynch people out there should stop acting as though they have to commit to a side. I'm not afraid to say there's almost as much wrong with Inland Empire as there is right. Since he's a director who can be described positively with much of the language haters use, sorting this out can become maddening. Inland Empire isn't a great film, but it's an enticing tableau with rich and unexpected experiences for those who don't know the man's work. For those of us who do, it's a striking tableau with as much vivid visual/audio treats as moments of near self-parody. Whether this is on purpose or not is immaterial; it slaps you right out of the flick you're supposed to be immersed in.
We seem to be living in an increasingly hard-nosed world. Comedies that get called "edgy" (Little Miss Sunshine, "Arrested Development") are frequently rather safe, audience-leading attempts at quirkiness. The real deal absurdists (“Tim and Eric”) get marginalized. Anything that takes chances is expediently smoothed over until it becomes the next template ("The Office"). Reading comment page reactions to the more original creative works out there, the world can begin to seem pretty crass. But I suppose it’s the bad side of folks like Lynch and other truly creative minds wanting to humble themselves. In trying not to appear aloof or elitist, it seems artists in the pop culture field have lost the strength of their convictions and become almost populist. There seemed to have been a middle ground at some point not too long ago. Trends have certainly taken a major turn toward the banal. Much of today's popular music is merely about exerting sheer strength or sex appeal. Lynch makes films that champion these things, but they also ruthlessly undermine them, and it's not nearly so cut-and-dry as that. With his last two films, he is exploring vacuity and fakeness in Hollywood, not to satirize or comment on, but to lean right up against and peer into. He amps this beautiful women "in trouble" contrivance and slows it down to a pace so ridiculous that you have to reflect. You have to laugh at what you're allowing yourself to buy into every time you go out to see the impossibly beautiful conquer the impossible odds and learn impossible truths. Slow down the sensory triggers and let the story slide out and you're face-to-face with pure absurdity. It's as agonizing as it is fascinating. It tries the patience as it floods the senses. It's a novel thing when you get down to it. There's no end to the possibilities Lynch presents.
This may be why Inland Empire seems better upon reflection than it was as I was watching it. Just mere seconds of the film are groundbreaking, even if there are fidget-inducing stretches of bland, seemingly reflexive self-indulgence. Even though Lynch could stand to get his artistic instincts and his cheeky impulses in order, I simply cannot give up on the guy. Additionally, I'd like to think he's not the last of his kind. We need the confounding films as much as the elucidating ones. Confusion and disorientation are as much a part of life as all the other touchstones, and life should be portrayed in as personal and boundless a relief as possible.