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Inland Empire

Film (2006). A Studio Canal production in association with Camerimage and Asymmetrical Productions. Written and directed by David Lynch. Cast includes Laura Dern, Karolina Gruszka, Jeremy Irons, Krzysztof Majchrzak, Julia Ormond, Harry Dean Stanton, Justin Theroux and Grace Zabriskie. 180 minutes. Colour.

A Los Angeles-based actor (Dern) adopts the persona of her character in the remake of a cursed film to enter a kind of Time Gate contained within the amorphous and shifting Dimensions of the film itself and begins to unravel the web of unconscious affiliations that underpin the film's continuing violence toward the women associated with it.

Where Dune (1984) was a more or less cause-and-effect Planetary Romance enlivened by occasional bursts of dream imagery, Inland Empire is its almost exact inversion: an uncut, three-hour meditation on the relationship between the language of dreams and the commodification of Sex, shot through with baffling shards of causal narrative. Writer and director David Lynch said the film was "about a woman in trouble, and it's a mystery, and that's all I want to say about it," before going on to offer the following quotation from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (composed circa 700 BCE) as a clue to his creative intent:

"We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe."

Lynch's ongoing fascination with transcendental meditation found expression in his film adaptation of Frank Herbert's famous novel Dune (fixup 1965) through the armaments borne by Paul Atreides's Fremen desert warriors: "Muad'Dib!" they intoned every time they used their Weapons, echoing the use of a personal sound or mantra by practitioners of transcendental meditation, a technique introduced in India in the mid-1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008) and one which became increasingly popular in California and elsewhere in the world in the 1960s and 1970s. Here Lynch uses connections between the teaching of transcendental meditation and the Psychology of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) – primarily Freud's massively influential Die Traumdeutung (dated 1900 but 1899; various trans as The Interpretation of Dreams from 1913) – and the theory of the collective unconscious first put forward by Freud's colleague C G Jung (1875-1961) in Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (1912; trans Beatrice Hinkle as The Psychology of the Unconscious 1916) to question not only the divide between the Inner Space and the outer reality of his protagonists but the very basis of human Perception. As in the adaptation of the Japanese Horror in SF movie Ring (1998) from the novel by Kōji Suzuki, it is the film within the film of Inland Empire that bears a burden of truth too huge for the protagonists to process except on an emotional level, via the disjunctive elisions and sudden epiphanies of surrealism.

Three thematic strands almost hold Inland Empire together. The film opens to the sound of a gramophone playing "Axxon N, the longest-running Radio play in history" – an allusion, it would seem, not only to a nine-episode mystery drama series advertised to start in the autumn of 2002 on David Lynch's own website and which appears never to have been made, but also to the axon, a neuron that carries "thoughts" from one point to another in the human brain. This motif occurs throughout the film. Meanwhile, a young prostitute (Gruszka) cries while watching television in a hotel room after a violent encounter with a client. The screen displays a family of anthropomorphic rabbits – people wearing masks with huge ears – who communicate in cryptic statements and questions to a soundtrack of staccato canned laughter.

Entertainment, sexual violence, rabbits trapped in an audio-visual hole: three elements that Lynch seems to think may summarize both his Hollywood career and the human propensity to narrative. Axxon N – spelt "AXXoNN" at some points in the film – is the gateway between the levels of the story, one that transforms, confuses and elucidates the identities of those taking part. A strangely-accented neighbour (Zabriskie) emerges from this gate to tell work-hungry actor Nikki Grace (Dern) she is about to win the part in a film about "marriage" and "brutal fucking murder". Grace's world and that of the viewer immediately begins to fuse with the technical process of making films – lights, cameras, confused shooting schedules – and to unhitch itself from the usual rules of Time and causation. The Mysterious Stranger retells the old myth of Echo and Narcissus from Book III of Ovid's Latin narrative poem Metamorphoses (8 CE) – "evil was born and followed the boy" – before going on to reveal that, like everyone else in the movie, she does not quite know who she is or what is going on. "I can't seem to remember if it's today, two days from now, or yesterday," she says in her strange middle-European accent. "I suppose if it was 09:45, I'd think it was after midnight! For instance, if today was tomorrow, you wouldn't even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill. Actions do have consequences. And yet, there is the magic. If it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there ..."

Sure enough: Grace is on the spot indicated when she receives news from her agent that she has won the part. Her husband (Lucas), meanwhile, glowers possessively from the top of the stairs as she and her girlfriends shriek with joy at the news her career has been reignited. He, like many other of the male characters in the film, seems to be a reflection, perhaps even a non-computerized Avatar, of "The Phantom" (Majchrzak), some kind of pimp or hoodlum that haunts the Polish film 47 of which the new film On High in Blue Tomorrows is a remake. When director Kingsley Stewart (Irons) tells Grace and her co-star Devon Berk (Theroux) that the prior film ended in the murder of the two leads – "they discovered something inside the story" – Inland Empire's emphasis on the Hypnotic effect of Cinema becomes somewhat clearer. Grace hears something backstage during rehearsals, goes to investigate and only later during the film meets herself coming back the other way, to horrifying effect. She is several people by this time, or perhaps none at all; or perhaps connected subconsciously to all the other women who have been brutalized by The Phantom and the men who unconsciously do his bidding. She and Berk become so immersed in their parts that they begin an affair in-character against the express warnings of Grace's all-powerful husband and the symbolically patriarchal ur-narrative on which cinema tends to insist.

Lynch seems uncomfortable about his relationship to the procedure of making films in Hollywood. While on-set gofer and pan-handler Freddie Howard (Stanton) mirrors the bare-faced cheek of the financing process in wonderfully lugubrious fashion – "I've got this damn landlord," and, "seems like only yesterday I was pulling my weight" – the men elsewhere in Inland Empire are complicit with cinema's dominant ideology of control and sexual exploitation and the women unable to escape it, no matter how often they change their identities. People disappear and then reappear again. Co-stars Grace and Berk begin as themselves, continue as "Susan Blue" and "Billy Side" – the parts they are playing in "On High in Blue Tomorrows" – and then seem to relay the violence of the 1930s Polish precursor "47" as entirely different people. Grace's Polish neighbours may or may not be the rabbits trapped in the television the "Lost Girl" is watching and/or those who have cursed her. "Lost Girl" may be Grace or merely connected to her on some deeply symbolic and unconscious level, or both. When Grace herself becomes trapped among the preconscious impulses behind the story she has entered, she finds a backroom of prostitutes who may or may not be connected to her husband and to The Phantom. She is a suburban housewife and a prostitute, or perhaps neither. Nothing is clear – except, perhaps, the emotional pulse of being connected to a deeply-gendered memory of abuse.

Inland Empire differs from Lynch's previous films Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) in that it does not divide – albeit confusingly and possibly only in retrospect – into sections of fantasy and reality. Those movies marketed themselves on there being a solution embedded within their nightmarish Möbius strip narratives. The structure of Inland Empire is more akin to that of the metaphorical web from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to which Lynch himself referred, one supporting a network of hyperlinks to the repeating themes of Lynch's career, the process of making films and the city of Los Angeles, "Inland Empire" being a named suburb of the City that conquered the world by commoditizing its dreams. From Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet (1986) to Laura Palmer in the Television series Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and its feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), the key to the lurid and surreal world of David Lynch has always been sexual abuse. Lynch shot Inland Empire without a script, handing each actor new dialogue each day on set. "I write the thing scene by scene and I don't have much of a clue where it will end," he said in a 2005 interview. "It's a risk, but I have this feeling that because all things are unified, this idea over here in that room will somehow relate to that idea over there in the pink room." Lead actors Laura Dern and Justin Theroux said they had no idea what the film was about while they were shooting it: a sentiment echoed by many viewers who have seen it since. Monologues delivered by Dern's character towards the end of the movie strip away some of the artifice of filmmaking to disclose the sex-work that Lynch seems to feel underpins the Hollywood dream and the damage done to those sufficiently mesmerized to enter the dangerous alleys and backrooms behind its marketplace.

A denouement among the street-walkers on Hollywood Boulevard sees "Susan Blue" stabbed in the stomach with a screwdriver after seeing her Doppelganger across the street. "Cut!" shouts director Kingsley, before dusting her down and telling actor Nikki Grace her scenes for the film are over. She wanders, dazed, into a nearby cinema showing "On High in Blue Tomorrows", enters another "Axxon N" gate and shoots The Phantom, causing his face to distort into a wounded mirror of her own. The "Lost Girl" is watching the rabbits in a nearby room. The two women kiss. Nikki fades into brightness with the rabbits while the "Lost Girl" runs to joyfully embrace a man and child. Nikki is home now, smiling at the strange gypsy woman from the beginning of the film who has rooted the whole endeavour in the folk tales and Fantastika of Poland. The actor Nastassja Kinski is nearby, as is Laura Harring, one of the stars from Lynch's film Mulholland Drive. A one-legged woman who was mentioned in an earlier monologue is also present, along with a woman with a blonde wig and a pet monkey referred to by one of the prostitutes on Hollywood Boulevard. End credits roll as women who have played prostitutes throughout the film begin dancing to the song "Sinnerman" (1965) by Nina Simone. One message comes through loud and clear from this intermittently entrancing miasma of symbolic, imaginary and real: Cinema will kill you and replace you with a copy. [MD]

see also: Lewis Carroll; Mythology; New Wave; Pocket Universe; Postmodernism and SF.

further reading


Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 09:56 am on 19 June 2024.