CRACKED ACTRESS : David Lynch’s ‘INLAND EMPIRE’ [5/10]

Published on: February 27th, 2007

short-form review written for Tribune magazine:

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INLAND EMPIRE
USA/Poland/France 2006
Starring : Laura Dern, Justin Theroux
Director : David Lynch
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AS February's Oscar triumphs for Martin Scorsese and his frequent collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker once again prove, behind every great (male) director you'll often find an equally great (female) editor. Women remain scandalously under-represented in many moviemaking crafts, but the editing-table has long been a relatively-level playing-field: that Margaret Booth, Susan Morse and Anne Coates (to name just three) aren't better known says more about the ever-underappreciated job of the editor (according to Orson Welles, any movie's "second director") than it does about these individuals' skills.

And what does this have to do with David Lynch's new film INLAND EMPIRE? Well, anyone still in the dark about what an editor does should certainly seek it out: they'll soon realise how crucial an editor can be in shaping a director's vision. Because the "film" is a three-hour mess, desperate for the expert attentions of a Booth, a Morse or a Coates. Specifically, a Mary Sweeney, who cut Lynch's last four movies. The pair were a couple for well over a decade, got married in May of last year – and filed for divorce exactly a month later.

The consequence: David Lynch served as his own editor for the first time since his 1977's Eraserhead. The result: three self-indulgent hours of grainy video containing flashes of humour and inspiration, some virtuouso moments of flat-out genius – and flabby, repetitive stretches of uninspired tedium. The 'story' concerns an actress (Dern) enduring a severe existential crisis… Is she a penniless performer who dreams of being a Hollywood star, or vice versa? Her odyssey brings her – and us – into contact with all manner of nightmarish weirdness, much of it taking place either in Poland or in Polish (or both). Lynch oscillates between experimental and narrative forms of cinema – the former proving much more suited to his talents than the latter. As a sketchbook for future projects, INLAND EMPIRE (sic) perhaps serves a purpose… but it's a bit rich to expect people to spend time and money watching it in a cinema. As they say in Łódź: Nie wszystko się godzi, co wolno!

Neil Young
27th February, 2007

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CRACKED ACTRESS
full-length review, exclusive to Jigsaw Lounge:

     There is a plot. What would be the point of just a bunch of things?
                            
David Lynch

     … Back to the world of dreams.
                            
Basil Fawlty

AS February's Oscar triumphs for Martin Scorsese and his frequent collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker once again prove, behind every great (male) director you'll often find an equally great (female) editor. Women remain scandalously under-represented in many moviemaking crafts, but the editing-table has long been a relatively-level playing-field: that Margaret Booth, Susan Morse and Anne Coates (to name just three) aren't better known says more about the ever-underappreciated job of the editor (according to Orson Welles, any movie's "second director") than it does about these individuals' contribution to film history.*

You may be wondering just what this has to do with David Lynch's new film INLAND EMPIRE? Well, anyone still in the dark about what an editor does should certainly seek it out: they'll soon realise how crucial an editor can be in shaping a director's vision – especially if the director is a 'visionary' in the Lynch league. Because this "film" is, to be blunt, a three-hour mess, desperate for the expert attentions of a Booth, a Morse, a Coates – or, ideally, Mary Sweeney, who cut Lynch's last four movies. The pair were a couple for well over a decade, got married in May of last year – and filed for divorce exactly a month later.

The consequence: David Lynch served as his own editor for the first time since his 1977's Eraserhead. The result: three self-indulgent hours of grainy-grotty video. Containing
(i) flashes of inspiration and humour: the comedy chiefly via frustratingly-brief cameos from Lynch-regulars Harry Dean Stanton and Grace Zabriskie – the latter channelling Maria Ouspenskaya to delicious effect)
(ii) a few virtuouso moments of flat-out genius: Beck's 'Black Tambourine' has never sounded so good, while the truly nightmarish "Bus to Pomona" sequence which follows soon after (featuring Helena Chase as 'Street Person #1' and Japanese actress Nae as 'Street Person' #2) is jaw-dropping in its audacity.
(iii) long, long, flabby, repetitive stretches of uninspired tedium.

As a sketchbook for future projects, the film perhaps serves a valuable purpose – but it's a bit rich to expect people to spend time and money on it in a cinema. Perhaps Lynch (or a brave collaborator) should simply have removed every other minute, in an update of William Burroughs' famed literary 'cut-up' technique. There'd certainly be no risk of surrendering much in the way of cohesion or comprehension, as such matters are a very long way down the list of priorities here (and thus may ensure a long afterlife for the movie via judicious YouTube selections.)

The 'story' – which, as is usually the case with Lynch, is almost certainly much less convoluted than it superficially appears – concerns an actress (Dern, somehow-inevitably) enduring a severe existential crisis. Is she a penniless performer in suburban-backwater California (the "Inland Empire" of the title) who dreams of being a movie-star, or vice versa? Or both? Or neither? Her quest to find the answers becomes a journey around Hollywood-as-haunted-house, many of its denizens portrayed – in a rather cruel casting in-joke – by supposed "has-beens" such as Mary Steenburgen, Nastassja Kinski (blink and you'll miss her) and Julia Ormond (who proves unexpectedly pivotal to the 'plot'.)

The odyssey brings her – and us – into contact with all manner of nightmarish weirdness, much of it taking place either in Poland or in Polish (or both). This unexpected detour into Eastern Europe (stemming from a visit made by Lynch to Łódź's Camerimage Film Festival, where he became enchanted with video technology) doesn't play to the director's strengths. He knows America, knows Los Angeles – has long been able to fascinatingly explore the textures of his local geography. Poland, however, is presented as a sinisterly exotic netherworld populated by the violent, the decadent, the mentally unstable: the paranoia of a scared, affluent 'western' tourist (it'll be – ahem – interesting to see how the picture fares among Polish audiences.)

On a wider thematic level, INLAND EMPIRE similarly fails to showcase Lynch's singular abilities to best advantage: it's painful how he oscillates between jagged experimentalism (with which he seems increasingly comfortable) and the requirements of narrative cinema. Instinctively drawn to the former, he can't quite surrender his grip on the latter – which means the film includes extended passages which rather tamely parody genres such as soap-opera and film-noir, and where Lynch's often-wicked sense of humour seems to have gone mysteriously AWOL.

The closest recent comparison is perhaps with Michael Mann's (similarly po-faced) Miami Vice movie: both films explore the possibilities of video (Mann via the latest in gleaming high-def; Lynch very much the seven-shades-of-sh*t opposite**); feature Justin Theroux (arguably male-lead here, wasted in a minor role by Mann); dourly deconstruct their own narratives as they go along, and, coincidentally, feature versions of Nina Simone's legendary take on the classic spiritual 'Sinnerman' (in Lynch plays the full ten-minute version over the aggressively-effervescent end-title sequence). Miami Vice, though much reviled on its initial release, is gradually winning new converts – especially via the extended, unrated "director's cut." It's very hard to imagine the same happening to INLAND EMPIRE, which in its present form will surely only satisfy the director's hardcore of admirers. As they say in Łódź: nie wszystko się godzi, co wolno. Cut!

Neil Young
27th February, 2007

INLAND EMPIRE : [5/10] : USA (US/Fr/Pol) 2006 : David LYNCH : 180 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Pathe cinema, Rotterdam (Netherlands), 2nd February 2007 – public show (Rotterdam Film Festival "surprise movie")

further Jigsaw Lounge coverage of Rotterdam 2007

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* see also the filmographies of Barbara McLean, Anne Bauchens, Marcia Lucas, Verna Fields, Dede Allen, Dody Dorn, Jill Bilcock and Carol Littleton (and there are many more where they came from…)

** As well the result of dispensing with Sweeney's editing services, INLAND EMPIRE marks the first feature on which David Lynch has served as his own Cinematographer (aka 'Director of Photography.')

I've come on a few years from my Hollywood Highs
The best of the last, the cleanest star they ever had

I'm stiff on my legend,
the films that I made
Forget that I'm fifty
cause you just got paid

[CHORUS]
Crack, baby, crack,
show me you're real
Smack, baby, smack, is that all that you feel
Suck, baby, suck,
give me your head
Before you start professing
that you're knocking me dead

You caught yourself a trick down
on Sunset and Vine

But since he pinned you baby
you're a porcupine

You sold me illusions for a sack full of cheques
You've made a bad connection 'cause I just want your sex

                           David Bowie

And what about this ghost? The French name and writing? The mausoleum? The protection diagram? The past life talk? Is it related to the little girl who was in the dream and also at the hospital? What the hell is going on? I am not all that literal-minded of a person, but Jesus man, this thing makes no god gamn sense. If it was a David Lynch movie people would come up with some horse shit that the movie supposedly means, but for a DTV movie starring Steven Seagal and Treach most people will just shrug and forget about it.

    Vern : review of Today You Die, from Seagalogy p228