By Michael Atkinson
[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.