Went to see Inland Empire at a sold out screening tonight. Sat in a plastic chair at the back of the auditorium because all the other seats were taken. Arrive early if you go to see it - there're still a few days left.
The film starts out and you feel okay. We're in Lynchland, but it's interesting enough. Seems to be about infidelity and the relationship of movies to reality; there's something like a plot that emerges, after a few strange bits, and you feel more or less comfortable - it's no weirder, initially, than Lost Highway or Mullholand Drive, offering us a story about a movie being filmed, which may or may not have a bearing on another movie in the past; the relationships in both movies may be spilling over into reality and there's a certain degree of narrative suspense, involving very "Hollywood" questions of who will sleep with whom and what the consequences will be. My favourite bit in this section of the film involves a creepy turn from Grace Zabriskie, who echoes Robert Blake's character in Lost Highway. I remember getting off (literally, I'm afraid) on some of Zabriskie's erotica (a funny but sexy short story called "Screaming Julians" in one o' those Susie Bright anthologies, I think) and am always amused to see the uses Lynch can put her to - generally unflattering but often quite compelling. (Does it mean anything that Laura Dern's main character in the film is called Nikki Grace?).
Anyhow, about an hour in, the film starts to get very strange. We move into an overlapping series of semi-narratives involving various characters, many of whom are played by Laura Dern, who really shows her breadth as an actress in this film. (It's no wonder she helped produce it; she seems to be living out a similar trajectory at three different levels in the film - the affluent, the suburban, and the dirt-poor - and inhabits each strata convincingly). At first we feel like we're being treated to dreamlike digressions, voyages, perhaps, into the female interior, and expect that we will wake up at some point, returning to the master narrative somehow enriched by these digressions to make better sense of it, recalling, say, Mullholand Drive - which gets very strange in parts, too, but eventually resolves itself into something coherent. We wait, but, though certain bits pay off - there's a scene where a group of prostitutes who serve as a sort of interior chorus talk proudly about their tits, to quietly hilarious effect - the film delights in frustrating us, setting up our desire for coherence but never quite rewarding it. The narrative and the question of who will fuck whom having been abandoned, this becomes the dominant mode of "suspense" the film generates: will it make sense? When it's all over, will I get this? Lynch dangles the carrots of understanding just out of our reach, almost as if to see just how far he can make us go without letting us take a bite; he makes of the film a colossal mindfuck (a word one Dern character actually uses to describe the experience's she's had, apparently mirroring our own perceptions). He does this for about two more hours.
While Lynch is a master of mood and tone and succeeds in stirring the desire to SEE to a creepy level of intensity, the last third got a bit much, for me.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, never one to be one-upped, concludes that while some have complained that the film is incoherent, the emotions Lynch is presenting on the screen are plain as day - among them, a sort of loathing for Hollywood and its cheapening of human emotion (he makes a great deal of what I guess is the film's climax, in which a dying Dern - in one of her various incarnations - vomits blood on one of the stars on the Walk of Fame). Clear that Lynch feels antipathy towards Hollywood - Rosenbaum is right that that is in there, and there are constant other references to spectatorship, the cheapening of experience on TV and in movies (most notably figured by a sitcom within the film, complete with laugh track, starring giant rabbits); certain scenes at the end deliberately echo Mulholland Drive, taking place in a cinema where Dern watches her own image onscreen - an image of herself watching her own image, and on into infinity... All told, this self-reflexive one-hand-clapping "cinema about cinema" stuff seems to only account for about 50% of the last two-thirds of the film, however. What's with the Slavic subplot? What's with the framing device involving a prostitute (?) being beaten by her pimp(?)? When Laura Dern shoots the badguy, what the fuck is the meaning of the giant surreal face that appears? Why have her talk about gouging the eye of a potential rapist to a sort of shrink-character (whose role is what, exactly?)? What's the point of all the class stuff here, and do the stories the prostitutes tell (or the homeless people watching Dern vomit) have any bearing on anything? What's with the whole issue of the death of a son - whose son? Why a screwdriver, and what's the whole "I've been programmed to stab someone with a screwdriver" thing about? Is it meant to signify characters trying to escape the plot of the narrative they're in - never really having autonomy, slaves to the master plan of the artist - or is the resonance meant to be deeper, dealing with how we're all slaves to our subconsciousness, to drives we can't fully master?
In the end, you settle into a sort of resignation: none of this, it turns out, is going to make sense after all, save what sense you impose on it. It's crafted to frustrate being resolved into any one reading; the film would probably be a failure if it could be wrapped up with as tidy a bow as Rosenbaum brings to his reading of it. It's actually something of a service to the film to call it incoherent; it means you've resisted the urge to oversimplify, to chop off limbs to fit the bed you've made for it.
This was not such a film experience. Leaving Inland Empire, I just felt like I'd been bludgeoned, fucked with, and finally dismissed. For all the film's obvious craft and ambition, I can't really recommend such an experience to anyone.