Not to be a snot about it or anything, but I feel fairly comfortable making the bold declaration that seeing Inland Empire at midnight in an old-fashioned movie palace with David Lynch in attendance is pretty much the only way to experience the film. OK, well, take all those factors and transpose them to L.A. and it would probably be even more mind-blowing (let me know if, as I suspect, it is, KP and DS). But still. I was really lucky to have had one of those experiences on Saturday night that didn’t just reaffirm my faith in movies, it reaffirmed my faith in moviegoing. And how appropriately ironic that at the center of the experience should be a virulently damning critique of the Hollywood moviemaking machine.
There was a long period spent waiting in line a block and a half away from the theater in the snowy, frigid January night air, but all was forgiven when the man took the stage to rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Now, I’m no big Lynch devotee; I haven’t really seen any of his stuff except Mulholland Drive and maybe the first five episodes of the first season of Twin Peaks (for shame, I know—all the more reason to take the rest of everything I have to say with a whole shaker full of salt grains). But still—I hooted. I hollered. The excitement was contagious. And the dude, for all his deceptively mild-mannered demeanor, is bad ass. With the decadent, blood-red curtain covering the screen behind him, his black and white, be-suited silhouette glowed with a sinister halo, turning him into the self-styled avenging demon of showbiz he’s evidently resigned himself to being at this point in his career. There just couldn’t have been a more fitting introduction to the film (even though his closing benediction from the Upanishads certainly was nice).
And what can I possibly say about the movie? It begins with a single light beam from a projector against the dark and eventually wends its way to a lighted match held by a homeless woman on the Hollywood Walk of Fame near where Laura Dern will soon vomit a puddle of blood. We go from the industrial technology of film back to stories being told around a fire. It seems to weep with tears of both mourning and fury for the degradations of whoring yourself as an artist to a movie studio. When one of Dern’s characters tries to explain the origins of her misery and downfall to a borderline catatonic man behind a desk (is he a private eye? a movie theater projectionist? her pimp?) and says, “it all goes back to when my little boy died; it was like I was watching it happen from the back of a dark theater,” it’s hard not to read that statement (with a little help from Jonathan Rosenbaum) as Lynch himself tracing his dissatisfaction with Hollywood back to the failure of Dune. It’s also hard not to read Dern’s other brilliant line “men don’t change; they just reveal more of what they are” as a similar, weary bon mot about the shoulda-seen-it-coming machinations of this business we call show.
Curiously, however, it’s also a pretty apt description of the peculiar internal logic of Lynch’s own film syntax—the 45 minutes or so of just barely coherent exposition that eventually begins to extract its most innocuous characters, situations, and images to fuck the charred mass of sludge where your brain used to be. And therein lies the thrill of seeing this at a midnight showing. Battling against the fatigue of the day (and the fatigue of a whiskey on the rocks, I will admit), I more than willingly rode the waves of the waking nightmare that was unfolding in front of me rather than attempting to fight the current in any attempt to piece together the plot. (And I am fairly confident there is, in fact, a plot; a coworker who’d seen it once before in New York and then again at Saturday’s 8 PM show did his best to give me his reconstruction of what was more or less happening—and I buy it.) But, the specific circumstances of the screening gave me the gift of feeling lost. Lost in the detritus of the cinema—the sets, the theaters, the people, the lifestyle, the mythology, the hackneyed old plots, the forgotten corners of the landscape, the technology—the way that Dern’s character is. And, I’d wager, the way that Lynch himself feels as a truly independent director these days.
Now, I’m not saying that, when you’re sitting at home watching the movie on DVD, the rabbit sitcom and the scenes of the naked tearful hooker in the hotel room watching television won’t make you feel like reality has just been pulled back in on itself like a tube sock. But, I am reiterating the fact that sitting in a grand old theater during those scenes when Dern walks into a grand old theater and sees herself on the screen walking into a grand old theater has a particular way of feeling, at 2:30 or 3 in the morning, like, maybe you’re dead, or the world is about to end. Seriously. It’s an existentially terrifying moment. (And don’t even get me started on the scene a few minutes later when she shoots the mean old Polish guy, who turns into the demon/deathmask version of herself—the fright-induced adrenaline of that moment is pretty much solely responsible for keeping me awake until the lights came back up and for getting me safely back home.) I think he’s implicating us in his beloved leading lady’s (ladies’?) pain here. He’s rubbing our noses in the fact that we haven’t shown up. We haven’t made the effort. We haven’t appeared where we’re needed most. And yet, we’re there. We’re fucking there in the middle of it; we’re the ghostly presence silently occupying the seemingly unforgiving absence. He’s counting on the fact that crowds will gather in grand old theaters to be taunted by our lack of a reflection, causing us to doubt the reality of our very bodies in the seats holding us up. His masterful control of the mindfuck of that moment made me feel profoundly privileged just to be there to experience it.
And, well, what of . . . most of the rest of everything else? His preoccupation with women and women’s issues seems affectionate, respectful, and genuine. Sure, he’s excoriating the way Hollywood tends to maintain a stable of kept starlets in tiny, tiny pens like veal ready for us to devour while they prance and vamp and flirt with each other (and, apparently, still groove to some Little Eva). But he also has deep, keen feeling for now-aging actresses like Dern and the shoulda-been-hugely-famous Julia Ormond, giving them the painful, bloody metaphor of the screwdriver in the gut, the artist’s abortion that cuts deep, bleeds you dry, and then kills. And, it’s not just today’s actresses that Lynch seems to want to stand up for. I may be overreaching here, but, considering his affection for Hollywood and Hollywood history, I couldn’t help but read the blonde Asian girl’s story about her friend with the hole in her vaginal wall as an allusion to one of the original Hollywood rumors/urban legends, that Fatty Arbuckle molested Virginia Rappe at a party with a Coke bottle. The movie business’s predatory tendencies as dramatized by the abuse heaped on the women who attempt to make a living working within it is a pretty goddamn heavy indictment. Whether or not Lynch is aligning or identifying himself with that level of exploitation is kind of beyond me at this point, after only having seen the movie once, but . . . if he is, that’s either unintentionally but slightly insulting to the women who really have been chewed up and spit out by the industry, without the opportunities to redeem their careers that Lynch has had, or it’s evidence that trying to work as a successful director in Hollywood has taken a far greater toll on him than anyone has probably realized.
So, yes, I think it's probably some kind of masterpiece. I generally hate the term "tour de force" to be used in film reviews, but, fuck me if Laura Dern's performance isn't a goddamn tour de force. I'd stand on a corner with a cow for her, too.