David Lynch is, of course, one of the great modern American film directors. Since the mid-'70s he has overseen an outstanding body of work which exemplifies the theory of the "auteur" probably more forcefully than that of any other popular filmmaker since Hitchcock. Again and again, Lynch returns to the same obsessive themes, littering his films with instantly recognisable signature motifs, and developing a style so insistent that it has generated its own adjective: Lynchian. In retrospect, when examining his work as a whole, it also becomes clear that (aside from a few exceptions that prove the rule) there has always been a kind of evolutionary development in the way ideas in one Lynch film are picked up again and extended — adumbrated — in the next. The small town mystery theme of "Blue Velvet" provides the kick-off point for the post-modern soap opera "Twin Peaks"; the time-warping red room which allows the murdered Laura Palmer to meet Agent Cooper in the series feature film offshoot, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me", seeds the mind-fuck parallel timelines of "Lost Highway"; and the mutating identities of "Lost Highway" finally find their most moving, poetic expression in Lynch's masterpiece: "Mulholland Drive". These being just the most obvious examples.
Lynch's latest project (and it does feel more apt to use the word "project" rather than the term "feature film"), "INLAND EMPIRE", comes at an interesting cross-roads, not only for Lynch as a filmmaker, but for cinema in general. The rise of digital video looks to some like it could be the herald of the biggest shake-up in the medium since the introduction of sound. While others at the time looked on nervously, Hitchcock eagerly jumped on that innovation as quickly as he possibly could, and his cinema grew wings and took flight as a result. Lynch appears equally as enthusiastic about digital video, envisioning it as a gateway to new vistas of unadulterated artistic expression — unencumbered by the dilution necessarily born of the time-consuming constraints of conventional movie-making, and unsullied by interference from the Hollywood machine. Interestingly, Lynch's own justification for the switch to the new medium seems to parallel the misgivings of those who have reacted the most negatively to the new film. Self-produced, self-written and, in many cases, self-shot on a consumer-level digital camcorder, this three-hour bum-number appears to those very commentators to have done nothing more radical than to allow the director to indulge himself in a self-congratulatory art wank vanity project, with no thought for the poor viewer who is expected to actually sit down and watch the thing!
But this criticism is misconceived in that, even when he was shooting on film, with a full film crew and all the day-to-day mechanics of Hollywood to contend with, Lynch usually found a way to do just exactly what he wanted to do anyway! "Mulholland Drive", for instance, was conceived originally as a pilot for a television series. The ABC network (which now, ironically, happily screen shows as challenging as "LOST") rejected it, and so Lynch sought extra finance from the French company Canal Plus, reassembled the cast to shoot extra footage, and re-jiggered and contorted it until it became the (probably far more artistically successful) movie version, widely regarded as Lynch's best film to date. Had Lynch made INLAND EMPIRE in the conventional way, on straightforward 35 mm film, I would hazard a guess that it wouldn't have ended up being much different from how it stands now. The most revolutionary thing about the film's production is that it is mostly self-financed (through revenue earned from subscriptions to Lynch's web site). Canal Plus have chipped in again with some finance, but they did anyway with "Mulholland Drive", without having any idea of what the finished film would be like. Although Lynch used the portability and easy access of the digital camcorder to write and shoot scenes on the fly whenever he found a location he liked, it doesn't seem to me that this is quite the big deal it is made out to be in terms of what actually reaches the screen. If you're inspired to write a scene by the discovery of a location (as we see happening in some of the behind the scenes footage on this disc's extra features) what difference does it make if you get to shoot the scene the next day or the next month? It's less hassle for Lynch, I'm sure, to shoot it the next day, but it doesn't make much difference to the viewer! This movie then is no more of a "self indulgent art wank" than any other Lynch film (if you don't like Lynch, you probably think all his films are self indulgent art wank, anyway).
In so far as the adoption of digital video has had any notable impact on it, the only thing worth mentioning is that — visually — most of the film looks like crap, most of the time! This is a far bigger deal than all the "artistic freedom" Lynch thinks he is getting, or the self indulgence his critics think he is succumbing to. Lynch's background in art has always been a source of a great visual splendour in his cinema. Usually favouring the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, his films have always looked lushly beautiful, and individual frames are often composed as though they were paintings. No one, in fact, composes a frame quite like David Lynch. Take a look at almost any frame from "Wild At Heart", "Blue Velvet" or "The Elephant Man" to see the point illustrated. INLAND EMPIRE clearly still displays a concern for visual composition; but now it looks like we're viewing a blurry faxed copy of the picture rather than the picture itself. (Imagine how bad this film would look on video cassette!) Aside from a few scenes where its grungy low-resolution arguably benefits the material (the scenes with Laura Dern in her trailer-trash-battered-wife persona, or the guerilla feel of the Hollywood Walk of Fame sequences) the digital look is annoying and distracting and gives the film the air of a film-students-mimicking-Lynch project.
As to the actual content of the film itself. Those critics who assumed Lynch had let the digital video medium run away with him can certainly be forgiven for their assumption: INLAND EMPIRE is by far the most uncompromisingly abstract piece of work Lynch has produced since "Eraserhead", and contains moments and images that recapture that film's disorientating dread. You may not ever really know what is going on, but it will scare you on numerous occasions! The problem with it though is that there is really not that much which is new here; this despite its abstract trappings, its multiple levels, its bewilderingly recursive structure (a-film-within-a-film-within-a-dream-within-a-film ... etc). Rather than developing previous themes, as we've seen done before, INLAND EMPIRE mostly just feels like a desperate rehash; all the best ideas and images from "Lost Highway", "Twin Peaks" and "Mulholland Drive" get thrown at the screen in a jumbled heap, and the result often detracts from the original ideas rather than taking them anywhere new.
The idea of the fractured self, the immutability of identity, has become a major concern since "Lost Highway", but how could it have been better explored than in "Mulholland Drive"? INLAND EMPIRE seems to be essentially about the same thing, with an added level of complication: Laura Dern seems to be an actress, Nikki Grace, whose latest film (directed by Jeremy Irons as Kingsley Stewart) is itself a Mulholland Drive-style abstract piece ("On High In Blue Tomorrows") about a woman (Susan Blue) who is losing her identity, which makes things all the more confusing when Nikki, too, begins to lose her handle on who she is! On top of that, a woman in a hotel room (Karolina Gruszka) —apparently a prostitute — is watching the whole thing on a TV screen, raising the possibility that none of Laura Dern's numerous personas really exist at all! All of these cryptic characters are menaced by a shadowy figure known only as the Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak). Instead of crafting a puzzle which, once unlocked, provides a thought-provoking new perspective on what (we think) we've just seen, as was the case in "Mulholland Drive", INLAND EMPIRE seems to have been designed so as to elude any definitive interpretation. One can look at it from any angle and find a narrative thread of sorts for each of the various personas presented by Laura Dern, but never one that resolves the whole film into one coherent narrative.
Over the three hours there are still a few surprises though: Lynch proves himself uncommonly adept at writing gritty character monologues in several long scenes where a battered looking Dern talks at great length about her humdrum life of abuse and squalor — scenes that play like a cross between Samuel Beckett and Alan Bennett! If this film is about anything, in the end it's about the mystery of artistic creation (anyone who has ever done any creative writing for any length of time has probably experienced a moment when a character seems to come to life and break free of one's conscious act of creating them) and what that says about identity itself (i.e.: it's an illusion!); but, as I say, it was much more convincingly done in "Mulholland Drive" and making things even more abstract, even more complicated, confusing and weird (the scenes of people in rabbit heads, talking in non sequiturs, are embarrassing self-parody, I'm afraid) do not make them any more artistically profound. The film is second division Lynch, then; now that he has exhausted all these old motifs and themes, what will be interesting will be to see where he goes from here.
This two-disc Region 1 DVD set is different from the UK one, with a completely different set of extras provided for disc two. This version has been assembled by Lynch himself, and must surely be the definitive statement on the film. The most important extra feature herein must surely be the seventy-five minutes of deleted material, which, rather than being presented as such, has been edited, scored and arranged by Lynch to make a kind of companion film to the main feature, titled "More Things That Happened". Don't expect any stunning new footage that throws an illuminating light, revealing all the secrets the main film left shrouded in mystery: most of the running time is taken up with very long dialogue scenes interspersed with random footage of gloomy-looking hallways, building facades and shadowy corridors. There is another of Laura Dern's long "talking head" sequences which is by turns distressing, menacing and hilarious, where Dern's character describes her mother getting her hand cut off in a corn-on-the-cob machine! Another notable scene is a lengthy monologue from Nastassja Kinski (in the main film Kinski - along with William H. Macy and Laura Harring - appears only briefly in a completely pointless cameo) relating a steamy encounter in a strange hotel. A short film entitled "Ballerina" is presented separately and consists of a young woman dancing in a spotlight beam to an edgy ambient score. Some of this footage can be seen briefly in the main film superimposed over another scene. A un-narrated collection of behind-the-scenes snippets ("Lynch 2") casts Lynch in quite a different light to his easygoing public persona. We get an insight into the unusual way the film was shot as Lynch scouts various locations with a small band of very young-looking assistants in tow, discussing how scenes are to be shot, mucking-in in the making of sets, and telling people off for not doing as they're told, when they're told to do it! A strange Lynchian extra is a black & white video film entitled "Quinoa", that turns out to be nothing less than a cookery lesson with the man himself! While waiting for the truly gross-looking mush he's concocted to cook, Lynch sits outside on the porch (leaving one of his young lackeys to watch over the bubbling brew) and tells us a bizarre tale about an odd train journey in Europe, accompanied by strange sudden hand movements that have their own music score! "Stories" turns out to be a long, static film of Lynch sat in front of a red curtain, relating tales and anecdotes (and fulminating against anyone who should be so foolish as to attempt to watch the film downloaded on to a computer or a phone) from the making of INLAND EMPIRE and any other random thing that happens to cross his mind. Finally we have an animated stills gallery.
The film itself is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen and looks as good as the digital video medium will allow (many say it looks better than it did in theatres, which only means it must have looked pretty lousy!). The audio comes in booming 5.1 Dolby Surround (as always, Lynch's sound design is subtle and powerful, and contributes a great deal to any impact the film has) and 2.0 Stereo. A cracking DVD release then; by far the best treatment any Lynch film has received on DVD - but a film that very much sees its director running on the spot.