David Lynch is the least articulate of great American movie directors. If, in a rare interview, he should happen to talk about not talking as a personal preference of his, then he's talking in more personal terms than usual—probably more so than he'd prefer. No shame in such authorial mystery—and no mystery in it, either, given that mystery is among this artist's most treasured gifts. Put it this way: When the unconscious is your stock in trade, you don't necessarily want to put words to it, at least not ones that would give too much away. "Sometimes a wind blows," proclaims the ethereal song (lyrics by Lynch) at the end of the auteur's psychosexual masterpiece Blue Velvet. "And the mysteries of love/Come clear."
And then sometimes the wind doesn't blow. Predictably (and endearingly) declining to explicate his Inland Empire after its recent premiere at the New York Film Festival, Lynch clearly wants his weirdest movie since Eraserhead to speak for itself, even in some other, indecipherable language. One journalist, seemingly unaware of the director's elusive demeanor under scrutiny, inquires about the significance of the number 47 in the new film, wondering whether Lynch agrees that it "relates to time"—to the seasons in a year and days in a week, for example. "Those words you said," acknowledges the director, leaning slowly and sheepishly into the mic as if it were a wild animal he was trying not to spook, "were...very...beautiful." Instant laughter and applause from the crowd suggest that, 20 years after Blue Velvet and almost 30 after Eraserhead, we like David Lynch to act Lynchian.
But what the hell is Inland Empire? Shot in the chintziest-looking digital video, starring Velvet's Laura Dern and a half-dozen other familiar figures from the director's oeuvre, the new film is at once Lynchian and not Lynchian at all, which maybe helps explain why this borderline inexplicable movie about Hollywood and psychosis seems to have split the critical establishment right down the middle. Me, I've seen this three-hour movie twice and I still can't resolve my conflicted feelings about it—which may well be the director's desired effect. Dern plays an actress whose hold on reality slips way past discernible boundaries of performer and role—this much being plain once Dern's Nikki starts answering to the name of Sue even when appearing off camera. As Inland Empire suggests a remake of Lynch's own Mulholland Drive, so the movie that Nikki (or Sue?) is shooting with her monosyllabic costar Devon (Mulholland's Justin Theroux) is a remake of another movie called 47—and you know what that means (or doesn't). Or maybe you don't. And probably either way is just peachy for Lynch.
"Oh, it's a beautiful world that we live in now!" says the high-pitched director of his new digital dream factory. "With digital [video] editing and all the things that you can do in your own room, it's really a beautiful world. Really beautiful!" Can you see yourself going back to film? asks the festival's director Richard Peña. "Never! For me, film is completely dead.... It's like swimming through cold molasses. Digital is the future and it's getting better every day."
So it is, although Lynch chose to shoot Inland Empire on a relatively old and cheap DV camera—the Sony PD-150—and the results are shockingly ugly, which may well suit the unusually realistic depiction of Hollywood and its psychic sludge. Identities, both personal and filmic, blur in a movie whose images themselves are blurry—and dark and pixilated and hideously, sickeningly drab. If you recall, say, the bright orange flames that fully consume the wide screen at the beginning of Lynch's Wild at Heart, wherein blonde Dern played the red-hot and sexed-up Lula Fortune, the dreary sight of the same star's Nikki/Sue splayed across the colorless Walk of Fame sends a particular chill. (Maybe that's what the Observer's Jason Solomons was getting at when he called Inland Empire "the most miserable three hours I've ever spent in the cinema.") Lynch here leaves conventional beauty for some other lens—like the one on the 35mm Panavision camera whose occasional appearance at frame's edge signals the ever-intruding presence of Tinseltown.
Financed by the hands-off French company Studio Canal and by Lynch himself, Inland Empire—whose North American premiere at the NYFF was a major coup for Peña's fest—is so emphatically un-Hollywood that it has no release date and no distributor either as yet. Not that Lynch, a devoted practitioner of transcendental meditation, would ever utter anything negative about the other, more industrial dream factory that has occasionally funded his surreal experiments. "The only thing I'd say is that cinema is a magic medium," the director replies when asked to compare Inland Empire with Mulholland Drive. "And I love Los Angeles. And I love the whole idea of Hollywood. Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire have something to do with that."
And then, befitting Lynch, it gets weird. "I love...um...I like, personally, brunettes." Finally, a little clarification: "And I love Laura Dern."
Blue Velvet and Eraserhead screen at the U of M's Willey Hall on Friday at 8:45 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., respectively; Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart screen at Walker Art Center on November 10 and 11 in newly struck 35mm prints.
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