Monday, September 17, 2007

Inland Empire: Grade B


Inland Empire (2006)

Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons. Director David Lynch.

This is the best movie I have seen all year but it lacks one critical ingredient, a story. It is a set of hundreds of individual scenes in which characters act out small situations. They tend to group into thematic categories. The largest has Laura Dern, in a fantastic, riveting set of performances, as a Hollywood actress who gets a part in a dreary B movie directed by Irons and co-starring Theroux. In this movie-within-a-movie, her character falls in love with a married man, and in the making of the movie, maybe the actress and actor also fall in love, an ambiguity heavily exploited by Lynch. Quite often you think you are watching the actors off set when the director yells “Cut!” and you realize you have been watching the inner movie.

In another group of scenes, Dern goes down long dark hallways or through steel doors and emerges in other locations, including a cheesy 1950’s bungalow, a stone mansion, an extremely sensuous gilded interior, and at the seedy corner of Hollywood and Vine. No explanation for these through-the-looking-glass events is given but I thought I detected a similarity between one of the many sound tracks and Jefferson Airplane’s “Go Ask Alice.”

In another group of scenes, a woman (not Dern) walks enigmatically and fearfully around pre-war Poland in the winter. In a group of scenes that seems connected to those by color and texture, Dern tells a story to an interrogator in a dank basement.

The giant rabbit-headed people in a one-room green apartment must be mentioned. They take turns pronouncing nonsequitur statements that made me think of Mamet, interspersed with laugh tracks, so they must be in some kind of a sitcom.

There are other groups of scenes as well. Some of the narrative mini-themes intersect slightly from time to time. Individual scenes recur throughout the three hour (!) movie but are never exactly the same. They are time-warped or close-up, or recontextualized. It all just ends when there are no more scenes to show.

Call me old fashioned, but I think the number one purpose of any movie is to tell a story. I loved this movie, but without a story, I will not give it an A. I can imagine a comedic meta-theme about the inability to distinguish reality and fantasy, but that might be reading too much in. After about an hour, I started to get a "contact high" and could literally feel the mental disorientation that Dern's character was experiencing. Laura Dern’s astonishing performance alone should earn the movie an A, but I am sticking to my no-story rule.

Here’s what I think the movie is about: cinematography. Lynch explores every narrative cinematic technique you can think of, from creepy horror gestures to silly farce, and it’s a joy to watch a master effortlessly at work. But above all, I think he is exploring a new way to deal with light. The movie was apparently shot with a digital camcorder so there isn’t much tonal range. Consequently the brights are blindingly bright and the shadows are black without detail. The amazing thing is how he gets both of those in the same shot. How is it even possible? I think he recruits the human eye’s (or brain’s) tendency to conserve meaning, in order to bridge the sensory gaps where the video is lacking.

For example, two characters are sitting in a dimly lit warehouse, and you become visually engaged in those surroundings, when suddenly the door opens and the full strength of California noontime sunlight comes blasting through the opening, turning one side of the picture into a blurry white fireball, while the interior of the room goes into extremely high contrast relief, colors leaping off every surface. Then the door slams and you are back in the dim brown light of the warehouse where the characters casually greet each other. You feel the pupils of your eyes struggling to adapt. And they do, so the net result is that you would say, “The door opened and somebody came into the room.” But in retrospect, you realize what a mind-blowing visual experience you just went through.

On the DVD extras (in the special edition 2-DVD set), there is a 20 minute B&W film that I think confirms my hypothesis. It’s called Quinoa, and shows Lynch boiling a pot of water and making a serving of quinoa, while blithering inane narrative about what he’s doing. If you didn’t realize it was really about putting the whitest of whites intimately next to the blackest of blacks so the viewer’s eye and brain must provide the interpolar context, you would think this was the most boring, meaningless bit of film ever created. But once you get what’s going on with the light, it is an exhilarating work of art.

I should also mention that the sound track was extremely diverse in this movie, from computer generated, to string quartets, to 50’s rock n roll. I think Lynch may have been trying to do with the sound the same thing he was doing with the light, but for me, it was less successful. Because of the experimentation with both sound and light, Inland Empire would probably be worth seeing on the big silver screen, although it’s too late for that now. DVD on a large screen digital TV is still an incredible head trip.

Finally, once again, here’s my vote for Laura Dern for the most stunning acting performance of the year.

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