I have now seen Inland Empire
twice. The first time was over half a year ago, in a very large theater in Chicago with Lynch himself in attendance. The second time was finished last night, after watching it segmented over the period of about a month (mainly due to my desire to watch it in a half-awake/half-asleep state as I was going to bed, which almost always lead to me falling asleep, obviously). Both experiences, in more ways than one, have been totally different experiences. And really, what I want to stress here, is that the film itself is an experience
In discussion of Lynch's films one often, undoubtedly, encounters interpretations of narrative. It makes sense, as feature films are primarily narrative. Lynch has always bordered the line between commercial film and experimental film. Sometimes this works to a disadvantage, and sometimes it turns out quite nicely. One thing that I find somewhat problematic is the tendency that film viewers and Lynch fans have to try to "solve" the mysteries that Lynch puts forth. For one thing, I think that undermines the intention of many films from Lynch's career, but it primarily undermines what (it appears) that Lynch was setting out to do with Inland Empire.
In the 60s and 70s, many experimental and avant-garde film makers began to push towards the idea of an expanded cinema. I, of course, mean this different from how Youngblood who was a primary advocate of considering video and new media as an art form, means it. Stephen Dwoskin, in his seminal book Film Is offers the following: "In film expression one essential expanding device is to thrust outwards beyond the frame. This, at least, gives a literal meaning to the term 'expanding cinema', which is not an addition to cinema, but part of cinema." And later he goes on to say, "In the expanded cinema the images contained in the moving frames function less as expression and suggest associations and more as actual occurrences. What appears in the frame is important, but the way in which it happens is also essential."
Examples of this particular breed of expanded cinema would include films designed for multiple-screen projection (such as Warhol's Chelsea Girls and films of the Italian De Bernardi who often incorporated three- and four-screen projections), incorporation of live actions (like many of Terayama's more experimental works and many of the individuals working within Viennese 'direct art' such as Valie Export and Peter Weibel), etc. I would argue that Inland Empire shares more in common with these experiential works than it does with common narrative features.
For Lynch, above all else, is concerned with atmosphere; the environment and mood that he is creating with his moving images. The narrative in Inland Empire is largely coincidental to a feeling that Lynch is trying to create. The intention behind the choices made by expanded cinema filmmakers was to give cinema viewers a more tangible experience in terms of relatability, in order to draw the viewer deeper into the experience of the film itself. I would argue that Lynch achieves this desired outcome without the use of multiple projections or live actions, but rather by laying on atmosphere and disparate events so thickly that the viewer suffers a completely visceral and emotional response.
It may seem a bit of a stretch to relate multiple projections and performance art to a (materially) straight-forward film, but despite the different methods of work, both films strive for the same goal. Another way Inland Empire works is Lynch's subversion of the flicker. Obviously, since Lynch is working with digital video as opposed to actual film, he cannot actually make a flicker, in the traditional sense. But, many early flicker films (such as Tony Conrad's The Flicker, as well as much of Bruce Connor and Peter Kubelka's work) aspire to put the viewer into a trance state; occasionally this is used to some affect, but often the mere materialist aspect is exploited. Lynch, throughout the movie, will have a scene set in very low light, only to suddenly use a stroboscopic light along with heightened music to imply either an intense narrative change emphasis a catharsis; such as near the end of the movie when Laura Dern (in one of her many permutations) is wandering through a hallway that is possibly directly outside of the apartment that the "Rabbits" sitcom is taking place inside, where she eventually encounters a man with a terribly distorted face. Light flickers, music screams.
To reductively read the film would be to assume that all Lynch is after is emotional manipulation. However, emotional manipulation can't lead to an end unless it's within the context of a narrative. There are certainly threads of narrative throughout Lynch's film, as the narrative serves as a form of progression throughout the film, but unlike a traditional narrative (even in comparison to what you could tongue-in-cheek refer to as a traditional Lynchian narrative) events aren't linked, characters come in and out of presumed story-lines, and virtually nothing is brought to a close. There is only an underlying theme, and an underlying mood, which serve to create, ultimately, a masterful environment.
This creation of an environment is how Lynch avoids emotional manipulation for the sake of emotional manipulation. If you read the film as an experience instead of a narrative, you're not supposed to empathize with characters, rather, you become an absent character. The fourth wall is broken. Of course, in Lynch's meta-universe there seem to be more than four walls. There are films within films within films; meaning, of course, that the viewer has no context for what is ostensibly the reality of what they're watching. This is disorienting, and forces the viewer, instead of locating a reality within the film to locate the only reality present, being, of course, the actual physical world.
Lynch also calls attention to the act of viewing many, many times throughout the films. There is the woman in the hotel room who is occasionally seen watching events that we as viewers have been watching as *the movie* on her tv screen, *within the movie we're watching*. Also, in the last hour when Laura Dern is in the theater and layers of the film change as we go from viewing Laura Dern on the screen to Laura Dern viewing herself on a movie screen within the movie, to use viewing the screen Laura Dern is viewing straight on (which has a different texture than the rest of the video does), etc. The sense of disorientation is so strong, that you can't help but lose yourself to it.
A lot of the examples I've brought up previously have called much attention to the final third of the film. Many viewers are disappointed that after setting up a perfect (though for Lynch, "normal") narrative in the first third of the film, the interesting plot line totally dissolves. You could assume that if all Lynch wanted was to create this environment to be experienced, then the initial narrative could be left out. I disagree completely, as without the initial introduced narrative, we wouldn't experience disorientation. Lynch sets up expectations with the first hour, and then breaks them in remarkably unusual ways. If the film was devoid of the introductory narrative, it would simply exist as pure mood, which could be interesting, but in the format it currently exists in, Lynch has many more opportunities to expand this experience, which he makes ample use of.
Due to the nature of the film as an experience, I insist that the film is actually far more successful when viewed alone on a TV. When viewed as a projection in a movie theater, not only are you surrounded by other individuals which keep you in touch with an ordered reality, but also digital video actually looks better on a TV than it does projected. Being alone makes you far more susceptible to the environment that Lynch has created, and it becomes remarkably easier to experience the film. While seeing the film in theater I was often brought out of this environment when audience members would laugh at the absurdity present in the film. While in a group, the most common reaction to absurdity seems to be laughter because it makes you uncomfortable. Whereas, viewing the film on your own, the absurdity simply extends the totally incongruous atmosphere that has been created and becomes starkly chilling. Even the monologue by the Asian woman on the street near the end of the film, about her cousin Niko and her monkey becomes terrifying in context-- out of context, without being totally absorbed into the film, it's ridiculous and you can't help but laugh.
Lynch has always made subversive horror films. He's never been satisfied with normal genre tropes, yet it is his films that invoke terror in a far more urgent fashion than most of what can be said to come directly out of the horror genre itself. Before I saw Inland Empire, I considered Lost Highway to be Lynch's most successful film. Eraserhead is too underdeveloped and caught up in blatant symbolism, Blue Velvet doesn't alter any formal structure, and Mulholland Drive alters structure in too much of an intentional way (which may sound like an arbitrary statement, but I really think Mulholland Drive losing much of the "chance" present in Lost Highway that significantly affects the tone of the film). In terms of Lynch's narrative films, I still hold to that fact. But in terms of something new, something progressive, and something that exists as terror instead of a depiction of terror, Inland Empire succeeds. I think it's safe to assume that what Lynch has done with the film is something he's been building up to throughout his entire career, whether intentionally or not. It's no secret that none of the cast had any idea how the scenes they were shooting would fit together, and in interviews even Lynch himself has admitted to writing scenes on the fly, not having any idea how the film would end up. Within his freedom it becomes clear to a viewer that this terror, this atmosphere is what Lynch is most concerned with, and he is a master of it.
His sound design, as par for the course of his filmography, is excellent. There is no doubt that a Lynch film without Lynch's sound design would be completely ineffective. Sound has as much of a presence, if not more, than the images on the screen. Such an intensive reliance on sound in a film only serves to heighten the sensory relation to its viewer. I'm sure if there were someway to embed an olfactory experience into the film, Lynch would be exploiting that as well.
The only part of the film that doesn't sit right with me is the ending; meaning, of course, the dance scene in the lobby of Laura Dern's first character's home. I think it was intended as a catharsis to free yourself from the experience of the film, but as it stands, it's so incongruent with the rest of the film is shocks you out of the atmosphere, instead of slowly letting you out. It's still abjectly weird, but it's unnecessary after the family reunion scene that precedes it. I would have been a million times more satisfied if Lynch had just let the song play and had the screen decked in only blackness.
While developing thoughts about the film (which has also obviously continued through my meandering ramblings within this review), I commented to a friend that Inland Empire may be to narrative cinema what James Joyce's Ulysses was to modernist literature. I don't mean they're stylistically congruent, but rather, Ulysses changed the way novels were written; suddenly, the mind of characters was just as urgent and present as what the character was actually doing (that's reductive, but you get the point). Lynch's film changes the entire viewing experience, totally subverts narrative into an environment, and actually demands a lot of the viewer. Watching Inland Empire is not an easy experience; it's emotionally taxing, as I've mentioned before, because to truly experience the film, you really have to accept your role as a viewer, as an anonymous participant in the event. Suddenly film isn't a passive experience. This film is remarkable, and I have no doubt that if people start making themselves active participants in the film/environment, people will stop fretting about what the narrative "means" because it literally doesn't mean anything. This is not a film about meaning, this is an experience.