Mr. Lynch says the title is in all capitals, and who am I to argue? Brimming with 5 years of built-up, post-Mulholland Drive anticipation, we drove a total of three hours (Cape to Cambridge) and paid you don't want to know how much to park to see this 3-hour film at a little art house theater with broken seats. You won't be seeing it in your theater at all unless you go to Boston now or can make it to L.A., Austin, Chicago, D.C., Seattle, or San Francisco in January. Otherwise, you will be renting or buying the DVD next summer. Or not.
I say the following as not just an obsessive David Lynch fan. He is probably my favorite living artist in any media or genre. He is Picasso, Kafka, and Mozart rolled into one. He creates universes. Twin Peaks was the greatest drama ever on television. Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive are all in my top ten favorite films. I have seen each of them many, many times. All of his other films are also terrific in my opinion, with the exception of Dune -- but even Dune I basically liked. Beginnning with Blue Velvet in 1986, at the Indiana University Student Union, I have attended the man's films as the faithful go to church: humbly, with holy reverence, a devoted acolyte expecting miracles.
But here is what I thought of my first viewing of INLAND EMPIRE: Irritating, maddeningly confusing, awkward, not enjoyable, nearly humorless, at least a half hour too long, and entirely too focused on Laura Dern's mouth.
The Slate review pretty much nailed it. Rolling Stone and The New York Times were too kind. I will see it again, of course, when I buy it next summer. I don't rule out an opinion turnaround. I have disliked plenty of stuff at first, only to gain appreciation after several exposures. Certain R.E.M. albums come to mind. Huckleberry Finn. Phish. F. Scott Fitzgerald. The White Stripes. The Bible.
Take Mulholland Drive. Sure, it was bewildering on first viewing to keep track of who is Betty and who is Diane and who are those old people and what does the box represent and where is Aunt Ruth anyway, and which parts of the film, if any, are a dream or a delusion. By the end of the film, some of those questions sparkle a bit with hints, and after the second viewing, it makes more sense, and so forth until I feel pretty comfortable when I see it today that I know what is going on. Not all of it, of course. But my feet have purchase. But back on first viewing, I was lost, and yet I enjoyed the film anyway. Each scene was self-contained, like a short short story, and how they all fit together was a project the viewer may or may not tackle. Art can have impact without full understanding. Emotions can be wrung from you and you don't know why or how. At the end of Mulholland Drive, as Traca put it yesterday, one is left with a feeling of profound sadness for Diane -- even if the exact plot and timeline are still muddled in the mind. At the end of INLAND EMPIRE, I was left with a feeling of not-so-profound indifference.
Irritating and maddeningly confusing: I felt that the director was going beyond the beyond. He was not allowing me anywhere to stand. I could not follow the various levels of reality, hallucination, flashback, or "meta-staging" (some of the scenes are from a movie the characters are making) well enough to grasp what was happening on screen. Watching the movie was trying to walk on a Silly Slide greased with Vaseline. I became annoyed with Mr. Lynch for not giving me enough to go on. Maybe I'm too dumb for his films now. Or maybe he's lost that slender but vital connection to narrative arc that, for me anyway, is necessary to enjoy a fictional film.
Awkward, not enjoyable, nearly humorless: The scenes are self-contained, as in Mulholland Drive, but they are not laced with the dark humor that I have come to expect and crave. There is no Cowboy, no impossible-to-please espresso connoiseur, no Michael Anderson's head on a non-little person's body. There is the surrealism of the Rabbits, of course, as seen in the photo above, who appear sometimes and stiffly deliver banal lines in their 50s apartment, to a laugh track. But they're not funny. The laugh track is almost a confirmation that they are not funny. What they may represent is of course part of the project waiting for me next summer, but in the moment, as odd and beautiful as their scenes are, they made me feel: nothing. And really nothing in the film made me feel anything except admiration for the framing, composition, music, etc. But don't you gotta wring emotions from your audience? The film made me understand that I believe you do have to.
At least a half hour too long, and entirely too focused on Laura Dern's mouth: The pacing of the movie is far too leisurely. Lingering on stuff that is not making the audience feel anything is just indulgent. He could easily have cut a half hour and you wouldn't notice the difference, except your rear end wouldn't be hurting so much. And yet he cut too much of the important stuff. Justin Theroux's character, supposedly the male lead, just vanishes about halfway through. He pops back in for one tiny scene, but otherwise, he's gone. Did he die? Was he real? Is he who she shot? Jeremy Irons: totally wasted in his role. Harry Dean Stanton: totally wasted in his role. Grace Zabriskie: totally wasted in her role. In fact, the only character who is developed at all in the film is Nikki Grace, and various other unclear characters, played by Laura Dern. Laura Dern may have a fascinating mouth, but dear God in heaven it's not enough to hang a film on. I found myself trying to orient myself in the story by calculating how much and what color lipstick she was wearing -- this is a sorry plate of crumbs to leave an adoring fan to feed on!
The basic plot had promise, if not exactly originality: The Hollywood remake of an old Polish film, in which the two leads were killed and which was therefore never finished, appears to be similarly cursed. "They found something in the story..." says Irons, who plays the director of the remake. "The two leads died!" The idea of a deadly meme, a gypsy curse embedded in the structure of a film, waiting to be activated every time the film is made, is good enough to hang a movie on, I suppose. But this device is not used well, because the audience should be able to tell what is the original film, what is the personal life of its actors in the original, what is the remake, what is the personal life of Laura Dern, what are the flashbacks of her personal past, what are the flashbacks of her past films, and what is the nightmare hallucination reality. When the viewer, or at least this viewer, can't distinguish among those levels at least minimally, then what's left is a swirling soup of imagery and sound that may be impressive, but is not meaningful.
In short, I believe he went too far. He lost track of the basic requirements of narrative art. He says he didn't even have a finished script when he started shooting this. That's pretty obvious. The "inland empire" must refer, in the end, to Mr. Lynch's subconscious. But the raw subconscious is not art -- it must be processed. I think he finally just filmed -- sorry, digital videoed -- some raw stuff that had been haunting his brain and thought people could make sense of it. Well, we can't. I couldn't. But what I really don't want to consider is that it was me after all, that the breadcrumbs were in fact there on the forest floor the whole time, but I just didn't see them. Which is why I will be buying the DVD.