Thursday, March 29, 2007

As We Get Older, And Stop Making Sense...

Anyone who knows my work would probably not be surprised to learn that I'm a big fan of David Lynch. What's more, the stranger the Lynch the better; never mind yer namby-pamby weak and watery Twin Peaks, my favourites are Eraserhead, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

Left: Laura Dern in
Inland Empire.

Thus it was with some anticipation I discovered that our local arthouse cinema, The Cameo, was one of the few places in the UK screening Lynch's new oeuvre, Inland Empire, a film so wilfully bizarre that his UK distributors had refused to handle it.

Shot on video in Hollywood and Poland, Inland Empire is supposedly the story of an actress (Laura Dern) who finds herself working on a remake of an uncompleted, "cursed" film. As shooting progresses, the boundaries between real life and the part she is playing start to blur. This sounded like a fascinating twist on the identity-swapping trope which has featured in Lynch's previous two films, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive - but unfortunately precious little of the film's three hour running time is devoted to this premise. Where Lost Highway introduced the stunningly bold gambit of simply swapping the film's main character without explanation mid-story, and Mulholland Drive used a sudden shift in characters roles and relationships to explore the corrosive effects of fame, Inland Empire quickly devolves into endless scenes of Laura Dern wandering about in the dark, occasionally being menaced by designer lamps.

Shooting on video has worked against the film in two ways; first, although Inland Empire is shot on digital video, it's not high-definition digital; the effect of projecting such crude and often badly-aliased images onto a cinema screen became quite painful to watch, especially over three hours. One of the delights of Lynch's films has always been the visual gloss he puts over everything, but the crudeness of video really kills that, a pity as the film needs all the help it can get.
As video allows the film maker to see what's been shot straight away, it's possible to use much more challenging lighting without the need for a cinematographer and expensive lighting rigs. Lynch has always been fascinated with images that hover right down on the edge of total darkness, a feat that's very difficult to manage with film, which forces him to use such shots sparingly (the sequence with the darkened room early in Lost Highway is a classic example). With video, such low-key shots are much easier to achieve, meaning that big chunks of Inland Empire are shot in eye-straining obscure-o-vision.

The second "problem" with video in relation to Inland Empire is to do with the freedom it gives the film maker. Video requires a much smaller crew; you shoot onto re-usable tape, not expensive film stock that requires further expensive processing. The result is that Lynch could improvise a lot more (supposedly he only wrote each scene just before shooting it) and shoot pretty much as much as he wanted. The reason this is a "problem" is that it's allowed Lynch to stray completely from the notion of a complete or coherent film.
Previous Lynch films, however strange they might be, had a completeness at some level; in Mulholland Drive, it's thematic (fame destroys), in Lost Highway it's structural (the end is the beginning) and in Eraserhead it's emotional (the persistent anxiety of the main character reaches crisis point). Inland Empire just seems to wander flabbily to a conclusion, then conclude again, then again. Lynch has said he'd be unwilling to return to working on film, but from the evidence of Inland Empire, he desperately needs the discipline shooting on film imposes.

Finally, and most disappointingly, Lynch seems to have lost the knack that really held his films together - that, however bizarre or irrational they became, from moment to moment there was a fascination in watching them that carried you through. This last was particularly noticeable after I went to see Eraserhead at a late-night showing at The Cameo; in under 90 minutes it took me on a journey that was more compelling, beautiful, troubling and satisfying than Inland Empire managed in twice the time.

Left: "What, take two bottles into the shower?" Jack Nance in Eraserhead.

Despite the above rantings, I'd still have to say, Inland Empire is still a Lynch, and it's worth seeing; it contains genuinely chilling moments and some of the most startling images of any film I've seen this past year. The disappointment you see in these paragraphs comes from the sense of a much tighter, more powerful film that might even have been made by editing the existing footage in a less self-indulgent way. It has, as Rossini said of Wagner, "...beautiful moments, but bloody awful quarter hours."

I still like it better than Twin Peaks, though.


Dave Shelton said...

Yup, it seems kind of an odd thing to say about a 3 hour long, deliberately even odder than usual David Lynch film but, it was all right wasn't it? Not terrible and not brilliant - at various points either one or the other but overall neither one.

Kind of expected to struggle with it because of the lack of a conventional narrative but just decided not to worry about it and enjoy the ride as best I could.

I agree entirely about the loss of visual quality through the switch to video. Those sinister red curtains just don't work so well without the sumptuous quality of film. He's still pretty top with the sound though.

Anonymous said...

Eraserhead is such a great film. Appalling, beautiful, boring, and fascinating.

I bought it six months before my second childs birth and was awoken one night by my 2 year old son crying in his room upstairs. I walked up to him in the dark with the tiny yellow ceiling mounted fire alarm lights shining circular pools of light straight down onto the hall floor below. An uncanny Eraserhead moment!

2 years earlier I found the Cronenberg film The Brood strangely carthatic as well.

The book Lynch On Lynch is fascinating especially about the making of Eraserhead and also because he never gives an explicit explanation what his films 'mean'. As is the Cronenberg book in the same series.

One of the great what ifs of cinema are if Lynch had accepted the invitation to direct Return of the Jedi. That would have been great.

I have still not seen either Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive or the new one so have that to look forward to.

Anonymous said...

I thought twin peaks was fab

Anonymous said...

Creepy. I saw it at The Cameo on Tuesday night: when were you there?

For my money it was too long and rambling. It opened well and established an unsettling Lynchian vibe, but the interminable last hour ruined a lot of what had come before. The expense of shooting on film might have forced a more condensed and enjoyable version.

However, I assumed the use of lower definition video was a deliberate choice used to enhance the dreamlike confusion of identity by blurring faces...

Johnny Rem said...

A Film Critic writes:

Nice take on the film. I loved INLAND EMPIRE (though my arse didn't). Apparently Lynch was well aware he could have used HD video but he stuck with his trusted mid range Sony. I too missed the rich visual textures of his previous work but strangely the unrefined image quality complemented the themes of metaphysical fragmentation and psychosis well.

The uneven production values of the cinematography give the film a wonderfully scrambled verisimilitude. We're never quite sure whether we're watching soap sequences (domestic rabbits), surveillance cameras (client and prostitute), 1950s film noire (man at the top of the stairs), reality TV (lounging strippers), Youtube home video (the "barbecue"). documentary (Polish woman) and the low grade handheld camera shots gave the horror a spontaneity which balances perfectly on that Lynchian knife edge of parody. The bad TV motifs of Twin Peaks and Mulholand Drive are especially effective in the gloriously surreal rabbit sequences simultaneously funny and disturbing in their banality. This was a more rough edged and even crueller vision of the world than Mulholland Drive and a fascinating if more self indulgent development.

Like the demonic master of ceremonies in Club Silencio Lynch lures the audience into the compelling fascinations of his world only to rudely and perversely draw attention to the smoke and mirrors unveiling the shockingly empty artifice of it all. Whatever "it" is...

PS Note the term 'Postmodernism' is not included in this review.