Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Nonsense or Dream Sense? David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006)

"I can't seem to remember if it's today, two days from now, or yesterday. I suppose if it was 9:45, I'd think it was after midnight! For instance, if today was tomorrow, you wouldn't even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill. Actions do have consequences. And yet, there is the magic. If it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there..."

-- A strange Gypsy woman (Grace Zabriskie) discusses the vicissitudes of time (and "dream" time) with actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) in David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006).

This is an entirely personal assessment, but Inland Empire is the David Lynch movie that appears to make the least amount of "concrete," conventional sense and the most amount of "dream sense," if that is no paradox.

Inland Empire is a film in which logical, conscious connections between scenes are negligible and therefore almost fruitless to discuss or assess. Instead, the logic of dreams holds sway (powerful sway...) and Lynch's dream sense sweeps viewers from one emotional and terrifying moment to the next. 

For nearly three hours...

Like many of the artist's previous films, this is a "story" we can understand on emotional terms almost instantly, but not always on a clear, intellectual and practical level.

To truly comprehend Inland Empire we are required once more to undertake the process of "dream distillation." We must open ourselves up to Lynch's visual representations (dreams translated to images, via Freud's Interpretation of Dreams), and symbols, which in dreams replace action, persons and ideas. Before we get that far, a pseudo synopsis of what "appears" to occur in the film may prove helpful. 

In Inland Empire's first scene (after a scratchy record on a gramophone announces the introduction of history's "longest-running radio show, "AXXoNN,") two figures are depicted in expressionist, film-noirish black-and-white photography. They speak Polish.

Both personalities are "blurred" out so that viewers can't make out their faces (or even, in fact, that they have faces). This disquieting blurring effect cloaks their identities but also grants these mystery figures a strange timeless quality, as though their identities have been smudged and stretched (bled actually...) beyond the boundaries of the immediate context (a dark, seedy hotel at night).

Very soon, the man broaches sex with the woman ("do you know what whores do?") and the duo engages in it. During the act -- which is obscured by the blurry faces -- the woman asks fearfully "where am I?" and admits that she is "afraid."

Following this sequence Lynch cuts to shots of a crying woman in close-up, trapped in another hotel room and watching a banal TV sitcom replete with laugh track. The actors in this TV program are horribly creepy, humanoid bunnies. "What time is it?" asks one of the nicely-dressed bunnies. 

"I have a secret
..." says another ominously.

Next, in modern Los Angeles, we meet Nikki Grace (Dern) an actress up for a leading role in a new Hollywood film called "On High in Blue Tomorrows." A strange, foreign (Polish...) neighbor, a Gypsy played by Grace Zabriskie, shows up and introduces herself . She reports that Nikki will get the coveted movie part, specifically that she has a "new role to play." In sinister fashion, she also informs Nikki that the new role involves a "brutal murder" and that it has something to do with marriage.

The strange gypsy then tells Nikki a story, an "old tale" about a little girl, and it carries faintly diabolical overtones: "A little girl went out to play. Lost in the marketplace, as if half-born. Then, not through the marketplace - you see that, don't you? - but through the alley behind the marketplace. This is the way to the palace. But it isn't something you remember," she says.

Nikki is appropriately disturbed by her neighbor's creepy demeanor, but the woman continues to chatter. She informs Nikki that actions have consequences, that there is "magic," and that if it were "tomorrow" Nikki would be sitting on her sofa...over there.

Cut to Nikki, already seated on the sofa, as though time has indeed bent to the neighbor's will. It is tomorrow.

Promptly, NIkki learns that she got the part and that she will be starring in the film with an actor named Devon (Justin Theroux). Disturbingly, Nikki and Devon also learn from the film's director, Halsey (Jeremy Irons), that "On High in Blue Tomorrows" is actually a remake of a film that was never completed, a Polish film called "47." Like the current screenplay, it was the tale of two illicit lovers ,and one based on an old Folk Tale. "Something happened before it was finished" says Halsey enigmatically, and the implication is that the story itself is cursed.

Before long, Nikki and Devon begin to unwittingly take on the characteristics of their characters, Sue and Billy, respectively. They become illicit lovers despite the fact that Nikki's husband is exceedingly jealous. He warns Devon/Billy that his wife "is not a free agent" and that the bonds of marriage will be "enforced.

And then Nikki seems to slip between realities, inhabiting other lives. And this is where the movie really gets complicated. 

The San Francisco's Chronicle Walter Addiego explains: "Dern seems to be two other characters as well: a housewife living in a white-trash environment (possibly the Inland Empire region, east of Los Angeles) and also a hardened young woman who vents her anger at length about being abused by men (in this guise she delivers an extended and quite powerful monologue to a mysterious fellow with crooked glasses).

As we eventually suss out, Nikki's journey is part film making illusion and part reality. But the final destination is frightening and sinister. She ends up at a hotel room labeled 47, where must pass a malevolent "Shadow" to free the woman we saw earlier -- perhaps the real Sue -- trapped in that hotel room (and still watching TV bunnies...).

Got it?

A close watching of Inland Empire reveals several familiar David Lynch obsessions, including sexual violence against women (an important factor in Blue Velvet [1986], Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me [1992], and Lost Highway [1997], an excavation of Hollywood illusion (Mulholland Drive [2001]), and Evil as a symbol contained in one possibly supernatural individual (Bob of Twin Peaks; Robert Blake's bi locating videographer in Lost Highway).

Also, the 2006 film showcases the "gateway" to other worlds, other realities, like the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks or the world-opening/changing "box" of Mulholland Drive. Here, there's a gateway tagged with the legend AXXoNN that transports the protagonist, Nikki Grace, from one reality to another; from one state of being to another. On the surface it's just a door, with those letters scrawled roughly in chalk on it.

However, if we interpret the nonsense word "AXXoNN
," we come up with a close approximation in science: the word "axon."

And, biologically-speaking, an axon is a crucial part of our mental landscape. It is (
by Wikipedia) "a long, slender projection of a nerve cell, or neuron, that conducts electrical impulses away from the neuron's cell body or soma."

The diagram from Wikipedia (left) actually proves quite helpful here: it diagrams "axons" linking sections of the brain, closing the gulf between synapses and carrying "thoughts" from one point to another. 

The AXXoNN gate in Inland Empire fulfills much the same function. In the film, it links realities, identities, dreams and even disparate time periods together. Nikki navigates this gate and taps not into something personal (the "day residue" of dreams described Freud) but something much more Jungian in concept: an unconscious idea hidden in the conscious mind of the race itself; something about the "genetic" memory of women; of womanhood/sisterhood itself.

I discussed in my review of Lynch's Dune how Paul Atreides' dreams seemed to originate with the Divine, one important school of dream interpretation. In Inland Empire, the dream sense of David Lynch suggests supernatural communication instead; the magical linking of at least two women (Sue and Nikki), and perhaps more, across time and space.

The magical AXXoNN gate is a symbol for the human mind. The "longest running show" in human history is the human collective memory, in this case the female of the species' collective memory of sexual violence and abuse through the ages, across the globe.

The perpetrators of such violence are symbolized in Inland Empire as one male uber-being or presence, the "Shadow," a recurring monster figure. The Shadow is the Blurry Man in the film's opening scene who demands sex, and also an unseen killer on the prowl in Poland. Finally, he is monstrous man "guarding" room 47 and keeping a woman locked up there.

When Nikki shoots this Shadow, he changes shape. First he is a horrible female thing (an amalgam of many female faces; pictured above), but then he shows his true visage and it is both monstrous and terrifying.

The Gypsy (Zabriskie) has prepared us for the presence of this thing in her first scene: "A little boy went out to play. When he opened his door, he saw the world. As he passed through the doorway, he caused a reflection. Evil was born. Evil was born, and followed the boy."

The Evil that has followed thus "little boy" is the mistreatment of women; the "dark side" (or reflection) of manhood.

But by taking on the role of "Sue" in the movie, by becoming the receptacle for the remake's "curse," Nikki has crossed the gate and become aware of the collective memory of abuse in the "sisterhood" of women, and it is up to her to free the woman in the hotel (again, perhaps Sue herself...) who has been trapped there, unable to return to her husband and son because of the "box" (of sexuality?) where the Shadow has locked her up.

In very simple, horror movie terms, Nikki "exorcises" the ghost of Sue/the trapped spirit from the haunted tale of "On High in Blue Tomorrows." That "old tale" is about how men treat women poorly, like Billy treats Sue, or like Nikki's husband threatens her. In much the same fashion that Nancy Thompson takes away Freddy's power in a Nightmare on Elm Street, Nikki takes away the Shadow's power in Inland Empire.

One of the most significant aspects of Inland Empire is Lynch's complete negation -- nay annihilation -- of any coherent "timeline" of events. The film's dialogue constantly refers to time as meaningless or, at the very least, circular. Examples:

"In the future, you'll be dreaming,"

"I figured one day I'd just wake up and and find out what the hell yesterday was all about. I'm not too keen on thinkin' about tomorrow. And today's slipping by."

"This is a story that happened yesterday. But I know it's tomorrow."

"I'll show you light now. It burns bright forever. No more blue tomorrows. You on high now, love."

And, one of the creepiest incidents in the film involves Nikki passing through the first AXXoNN gate and coming upon...herself

Early in the film, Halsey, Devon and Nicki rehearse a scene from the movie on a darkened, apparently empty sound stage. But a noise is heard in the shadowy distance, and Devon investigates. The film later reveals Nikki herself is the source of that noise, observing herself, Halsey and Devon from a distance. Has she time traveled, or is all but we see or seem but a dream within a dream?

Once more, we must delve into dream interpretation or dream distillation to afford ourselves an understanding of what's happening in a Lynch film. Consider that, as dreamers, we do not experience time. In dreams, there is no past and no future, just the eternal moment of now (to coin a phrase). Time moves differently in the world of dreams, if it moves at all. More likely we -- the dreamers -- are the ones that "move;" from one vision or idea to another; from one phantasm to the next. But we don't "drive" or "fly or otherwise travel to new ideas in any conventional fashion On the contrary, we miraculously, seamlessly transition from things that happened, to things that might happen, to things that will happen. And they all seem to be happening NOW.

This is the dream sense of David Lynch, translated to film. We jump from one reality to another without conventional physical travel. The connections forged in the film are the connections of the mind, the subway path of the axons, the AXXoNN gate. A thought triggers another thought and we witness this progression of ideas played out. Only here, an idea in a scene (like the abuse of women) triggers another scene that's a variation on that theme, and on and on. The connections are the light-speed connections of cognition itself, of thought. David Lynch is an artist who knows his own mind, and Inland Empire is his mind's eye brought to the surface...dreaming on film for us.

Inland Empire also gazes specifically at Hollywood, the land where dreams come true for some and manifestly don't for others. This is the surface/underneath dichotomy that David Lynch often utilizes in his films.

Inland Empire cuts between the wealth and opulence of a movie star's life (Nikki) and life on the streets for several Los Angeles hookers. Importantly, the streetwalkers ply their trade on mean streets decorated with Walk of Fame "stars," a startling conjunction of wealth and desperation.

It's more than that, too. The film very much concerns the way that Hollywood (and film making in general) can take a horrifying, upsetting tale (like Sue's) and put a shiny gloss over it; "remaking it" as a palatable entertainment that pleases the masses. The underneath -- the darkness -- is buried beneath the mainstream, MPAA-authorized surface.

So, hookers -- preparing to meet their "johns" -- burst into a musical number featuring Carole King's 1962 hit "The Loco-Motion." Something seedy and demeaning has been turned into entertainment, a cavalcade of "tits and ass" as one hooker notes (after showing off her artificially augmented bosom).

As Inland Empire also notes, actors in Hollywood become buried in their parts, lost in other lives (the way Nikki becomes lost in other lives.) Accordingly, the film is literally packed with incidents wherein characters state "I'm not who you think I am." This could be a reference to many things. Like the fact that, as viewers, we often mistake actors for the roles they play (in other words assuming that Shatner is actually Captain Kirk-like; or that Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones-esque). 

On a deeper level, this notation that "I'm not who you think I am" could refer to any number of important dualities in human nature The conscious/subconscious mind, the waking/dreaming state, or the idea of the AXXoNN gate again: that our brains can hold both our contemporary "identity" and the collective or genetic memory of those who came before, which we can access.

Two characters -- in two time periods and two different cities in Inland Empire -- also say "Look at me and tell me if you've known me before." It's a desperate kind of demand; one designed to foster understanding of who you are and moreso, get an exterior verification that can anchor you in the present, in your identity. Dreams are like tides...they can carry you away and sometimes you need to know what others see.

David Lynch shoots Inland Empire in standard definition video, a controversial decision which seems to highlight the seedy, lurid aspects of theis particulartale. Unlike most Lynch pictures, this is not a beautiful one in terms of color and crispness. The typical greens and reds we associate with Lynch are here in spades, but they bleed all over into human faces...and faces often look haggard and worn out, suffused with ugliness. The underlying notion seems to be of a "now" (a presenttime) exhausted by the cumulative weight of the past, of the collective unconscious. There can't be beauty here when the past is so often ugly.

Laura Dern is literally the anchor of the film -- the only person we can really hold onto while we're unstuck in time, as it were -- and she gives a courageous performance. By the end of the film, all artifice and notions even of technique are stripped away and we are looking at a person exposed, raw. It's a great achievement in terms of screen acting and actually one of the finest performances I've witnessed in some time.

Although I am looking back at Inland Empire after my review of Dune (1984) last week, I bear a deep and abiding sense that this movie is actually the mountain that David Lynch has been climbing for some time. From Blue Velvet through Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, from Lost Highway to Mulholland Drive, the artist has been ascending towards a film that speaks entirely in the language of dreams, towards a pinnacle of formalistic, expressionistic film making that can't be understood in any traditional, "conscious" fashion.

Some viewers Lynch will likely lose on the twisting mountain path leading up to Inland Empire. For instance, It has been called (by the Village Voice) "Lynch's most experimental film since Eraserhead." 

But for other fellow travelers, however, this movie represents the apex of a long and intriguing journey; the summation of a career and a world view. You're on high now. Or, as one of the characters in the film notes, this movie is really a "mind fuck."

My advice to you, the prospective audience, is make it a consensual one.

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