“Inland Empire,” “Puzzlehead”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Inland Empire,” Absurda / Rhino, 2006]

How lucky are we to have David Lynch? Virtually no other notable filmmaker in these United States can so be designated as a self-directed, independent artist with his/her own unique aesthetic and a happy willingness to eschew trad careerism, and even salary, in pursuit of the eccentric sublime. Set aside the consideration of things “Lynchian” — an art-culture realm that will doubtless survive us all — and you’re still faced with perhaps the most defiant and uncompromised voice in modern American cinema. He’s so revered and hallowed, if not broadly consumed, that he could at this stage in his game easily round up global funding for a “Mulholland Dr. 2” — but instead, Lynch hunkered down and began making short digital films for his subscription website, and then began shooting disconnected scenes with his already-obsolete digital camera, and then asked Canal+ if they’d mind funding a feature cobbled out of it all, and they said sure. When the result proved to be a three-hour semi-narrative filled with uncorked mayhem from pre-civilized Lynchistan, the man simply distributed it himself. Now, he’s releasing “Inland Empire” on DVD, alone again, naturally.

The arguments are still raging among critics on whether or not Lynch’s torrential and demanding act of movie-movie provocation was in fact the best American film of 2006. (It had, in any case, little significant competition; if your local critic dished it, you know where you stand in the future in regards to that featherhead.) Trapped in its own bell jar, “Inland Empire” — named after the Southern California region not because it’s set there, but because Lynch simply liked the name — summons the likes of Bergman’s “Persona” and Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits” in its allusive structure and suggestions of a fracturing female psyche, but only because the movie behaves like a narrative deprivation tank, forcing you to scramble for corollaries. There are no visible marks of influence, homage or even traditional psychology. It’s one of the rare films that teaches you — obliquely — how to watch it. Summary is predictably impossible. Often the sense of “Inland Empire,” as it jaggedly leaps from absurdist non sequitur to psychodramatic set-up to lurching creep-out, is that there’s no orthodox there there, just dreams within dreams within movies within nightmares. Laura Dern, stretched on the rack of being a crazy auteur’s favorite go-to girl (a scouringly fearless performance, or performances), shows up in a variety of personas; it’s symptomatic of Lynch’s sensibility that we’re never sure how many. (There’s a Hollywood actress, a working-class wife, a battered Southern hooker and scores of other glimpses.) Several of these could be contained within the movies-within-the-movie, or not, or both — as a roomful of prostitutes dance to “The Loco Motion,” other figures float stories and notions of murder, the rabbit-human family from Lynch’s 2002 “Rabbits” shorts endure obscurely menacing domestic moments in their living room, movie sets open onto real homes and mysterious neighborhoods, melodramatic interviews are held with no clear purpose, and so spectacularly on.

Lynch’s newfound devotion to primitive digital video reflects his disregard for diegetic cohesion — the uglier and more fractured the film is, the more Lynch regards it as peculiarly beautiful and, vitally, exuding its own logic. It’s difficult to deny, after seeing it, that he has a point. Think of “Inland Empire” as an epic version of the radiator scenes from “Eraserhead,” or the Tower Theatre scene in “Mulholland Dr.,” without those films’ already semi-conscious contexts.

It’s more of an epic-sized underground montage film than a “movie” as we commonly know it, and endurance of the film’s length is pivotal: the free-associative chaos becomes its own context, and as a viewer you’re living in a rule-free cinematic space, where film is merely another form of consciousness, not an alternate reality you can forget as you occupy it. Lynch likes to characterize the film as an “experience,” not an entertainment product you consume, and though he would never dream of being programmatic, “Inland Empire” is a close cousin to Artaud’s concept of a Theater of Cruelty, intended to unravel complacent expectations and create a cathartic crisis in the very fact of spectatorship.

Or Lynch was just playing with the inexpensive technology, unhampered by Hollywood overhead. Either way, the surest way to find disappointment in Lynch’s Byzantine, exhaustive howl is to hunt for codes and readings, while ignoring the sensual textures of life in the underlit corridors of his imaginary space. The familiar distance and omniscience of ordinary filmgoing are simply not factors in this hectic equation. If you’re “open,” as Lynch has said many times in his TM-inflected publicity interviews, it’s something like a new frontier. Don’t miss the extra disc of superego-less supps, including outtakes (some spectacularly spooky, and none so different from “IE” that the film couldn’t’ve been an hour longer), a behind-the-scenes survey of Lynch’s unique methodology on the set, production tale-telling, the man’s recipe for cooking quinoa with broccoli, and more.

Occupying other outskirts: James Bai’s microcinema genre-riff “Puzzlehead” is so cheap, it has only its ideas and speculative frisson to sell it. It’s a post-apocalyptic, A.I. melodrama because the low-budge narration says it is, using, à la “Alphaville,” the more barren and anonymous stretches of Brooklyn as a lawless wasteland and focusing on an eccentric scientist (Stephen Galaida) who uses illegal technology and his own “synaptic map” to build an android that looks just like him. Bai’s smartest conceptual flourish was giving the retrospective narration over wholly to the robot (Galaida, without a beard & glasses), whose poetic ruminations about human life as he’ll never know it neatly support the film’s threadbare frame. Like Greg Pak’s “Robot Stories” (both of them disarming advances on robo-emotionalism over Spielberg’s “A.I.”), “Puzzlehead” is actually about love — the crisis between creator and creation begins when the latter takes a bullet for a local shopgirl during a hold-up, inspiring the lonely, meth-spaced doctor to disable the doppelganger, shave and pass himself off as the ‘droid. Shot on 16mm and hampered by stiff post-dubbing, Bai’s movie deserved a real budget, but the heart and head are working overtime.

“Inland Empire” (Absurda/Rhino) and “Puzzlehead” (Lifesize Ent.) are now available on DVD.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.