Inland Empire (2006) – A hermeneutist’s dream

”Do you wanna go see (insert film)?” – Never one to pass up a trip to the movies this is one of my absolute favourite text messages to receive at any and all times. On one particularly memorable occasion the film to go see was Inland Empire – More things that happened a reworking of unused material from David Lynch’s original 2 hours and 53 minutes long release of Inland Empire. By agreeing to my friend’s offer I had unknowingly given myself homework; watch the original Inland Empire.

I admit that I am far from an expert on David Lynch’s vast and confusing universe. I have not watched and rewatched all his films, or participated in riveting online discussions regarding the ’proper’ analysis of people dressed in bunny suits. I have long been hesitant to visit this Lynchian world that has intrigued and confounded so many over the years. I admit to be intimidated, frightened that his films would reveal my own inadequacy as an analyst of storytelling on film.

My first ever encounter with Lynch consisted of me and a friend capitulating 15 minutes into Mulholland Drive (2001), which only proved to deepen my fear. We had been unprepared for the position we as viewers were required to take. Whatever light-hearted fare replaced Mulholland Drive for the night’s entertainment has not left a lasting impression, but I will never forget the immediate challenge that Lynch’s film posed to me within just 15 minutes of runtime. It was a challenge I was not likely to forget, however much it frightened and threatened my self-proclaimed title as a film buff.

Second time around we were prepared for the challenge, prepared for the privileged role as an active viewer and prepared for the film viewing experience to naturally transcend into discussion amongst friends. Most importantly, without any assumptions of obtaining a single true answer, we were prepared to ask and be asked questions…lots of questions. The relief was great, I had not only watched the entire movie but also actually enjoyed it and been satisfied with my own interpretation of Betty’s, or should I say Diane’s, story of a broken heart.

However, without the crutch of my friend’s guiding hand and contagious Lynch enthusiasm would I be as successful with Inland Empire? With great excitement and a tiny trace of trepidation I sat alone in a darkened room while bunny suits, Eastern European accents and eerie red lights presented me with a dreamlike trance lasting almost three hours.

I’ll defy anyone who claims to have sat through Inland Empire without at least once muttering ”what the hell is going on?!”. A fancy Hollywood mansion is without further comment transformed into a humble apartment, only to become an Eastern European hooker street. Blink once and suddenly the prostitutes have seamlessly jumped the Atlantic Ocean only to stand upon a star, turning tricks on the boulevard of dreams.

We have all experienced this sense of dislocation in place and being. It is strikingly familiar. We experience it every night when the dream world overtakes our consciousness. This unquestionable acceptance of whatever moment is presented to us as being reality. A place where the now is true and everything that came before is transformed into fiction, up until the next abrupt and unexplained shift in time and place. Inland Empire operates in this playground of subconscious thought, in the terrifying beauty of dreams.

The artistic reflection of dreams is better known under the name of surrealism. It is a maddening genre, in the same way, as our dreams are wonderful, scary, frustrating, truth telling and bloody impossible to convey to others. Sure, we all know the classics; being chased without being able to move, the horrifying feeling of crumbling teeth in your mouth and my own personal greatest hit – ever since I watched Titanic at the tender age of eight – an impossible climb up an ever steeper hill (read: James Cameron designed digital ship).

But how about those other dreams? When people and places from your life are shuffled together and pulled out at random, familiar faces are given new personality traits and the door usually leading to the kitchen has inexplicably become a balcony. They seem so obviously fake in hindsight, when the frustratingly familiar alarm clock brutally causes real life to materialise yet again. But in the moment of dreaming, dreams are the only reality we know, and they are filled with true emotion, unfiltered by societal norms. Brushing off our dreams as fake would be just as wrong as seeking to find one true story in Inland Empire amongst the aspiring actress’, the prostitute’s and the loving immigrant wife’s.

Inland Empire is surreal; it is a captivating journey into human subconscious. It is equal amounts removed strangeness, as it is deeply familiar. Laura Dern is for large amounts of the film the face of our protagonist. She starts out as an actress landing a breakthrough role. Her early accomplishment of this clearly defined professional goal merely becomes the catalyst for an even greater and wholly more challenging quest. Who am I? Where do I come from? And where do I belong? Questions of identity. A relatable subject if ever there was one.

When learning a new language the first sentences you are taught to say are: My name is (…), I am (…) years old, I come from (…). These three simple nuggets of information are how a great deal of us introduce ourselves to the world. They apparently establish a framework for our identity. Our protagonist in Inland Empire slowly has these very foundations upon which we present our selves stripped away. Her name, home, intimate relationships and profession are all subject to change. As time proceeds, even her physical appearance becomes unstable and fluid.

An actress in an identity crisis; the poetry is complete.

Our dreams allow us this potential for fluidity in identity. Just as place and time in dreams do not adhere to any physical sphere of reality, so it is with our socially imagined concept of identity. Like our dreams do for us, David Lynch has freed the universe, and herein our protagonist, of Inland Empire from the limiting rules of space, time and fixed identities present in our physical world. We as viewers must let go of what constitutes reality and enter this no-rule dream sphere, if we don’t want to be left behind on an ever-evolving, fluid yet jaggedly jumpy ride.

I have a difficult time grasping what it is I find so appealing with my Lynchian cinematic experiences so far, as opposed to other examples of experimental storytelling. I am not particularly prone to the area of films that balance the treacherous line between depth in meaning and pretentiousness. I can fully understand if you watch Inland Empire and go on to scream ”humbug!”.

We come here to another fear I had to overcome in order to write this essay. Battling it out with my fear of not understanding or appreciating Lynch’s distinct filmmaking style was the fear of deceiving myself into manufacturing great artistic merits to his work. With films such as Inland Empire there will always be this nagging suspicion, that the filmmaker is really just fooling the audience into creating thoughtful masterpieces out of simple weirdness.

My conclusion in the end can be nothing more than so what? When I watched Inland Empire my mind was rewarded with an overflow of stories, my cognitive sense making was challenged to the utmost, I was entertained and I was attentive. I do not believe that it is possible for me to read too much into this work, to tell too many stories from these images. I have encountered a film that encapsulates the joy of boundless interpretation. Inland Empire provides the viewer with a game, a chance to let your imagination and cognitive skills let loose and work overtime, greatly aided by Lynch’s already imaginative constellation of images on screen.

For some, Inland Empire will be nothing more than a bunch of weird scenes randomly thrown together, while characters non-communicate with each other by speaking gibberish. To them I am sure my reading will seem unbearably pretentious, but it is nevertheless an honest account of the captivating journey one character’s mind has taken me on. To me Inland Empire magnificently visualises the human thought process. The messy, unglamorous, and scattered thoughts and emotions of individuals.

There are many reasons why I love film above any other art form or entertainment medium. Why I have chosen to dedicate my student life in pursuit of greater understanding, knowledge and joy of film. A crucial element for me has however always been the telling of stories. Inland Empire is filled with story, perhaps too much story. They overflow; create separate timelines and abrupt environment shifts. The characters themselves are overflowing with stories. They possess multiple personalities to accommodate this vast traffic of disjointed personal experience.

Western storytelling has a strong linear tradition. We document history as a set of dates and places, explaining time as a straight and orderly line of cause and effect. Time in Inland Empire is not portrayed in this similar straightforward fashion. You could almost be tempted to say that time has been lost; the characters have lost their time. This would however simplify what Lynch is showing us. He is bending the singular linear timeframe. Past, present and future exist side-by-side, overlapping and interrupting any attempt at creating a neat order. A multiplicity of time, place, personality and story confound our preconceived ideas of organized reality.

Most terrifying is perhaps the simple notion of there not being one truth to explain everything. No key to unlock the true meaning of Inland Empire. One thing that has always seemed to frighten the human race more than not having any answers at all, has been the idea of multiple and equal truths occupying the same space. I relish Lynch’s small portrayal of truth as a plural entity.

My satisfaction in viewing Inland Empire does not lie in any ability to derive a single true story; it lies with allowing myself to surrender to multiplicity. I will never create a finished and tightly packaged story from the going-ons in Inland Empire. It will stay with me and continue to evolve. In conversation with others I will be reminded of a moment I forgot or a scene I ignored. This never-ending multiplicity of stories is exciting, challenging and deeply frustrating. But it can also be a helluva lot of fun…if you surrender to the surrealism of it all.

I have deliberately not read other reviews or thoughts on Inland Empire before writing this piece. I needed to centre my own thoughts before immersing myself in others’. Lynch makes the viewer a storyteller like few other directors do. I will enjoy meeting my friend for a beer and hearing her thoughts. We will share our stories and create new ones in the process.

If you were seeking an answer to the question ”what does it all mean?” by reading this essay, I am sure you have been deeply disappointed. I have even resisted telling you the particularities of the stories I experience, when viewing Inland Empire. I am reminded of something my ’Lynchian’ friend told me. She had been to an art exhibition of Lynch’s works, were he was asked to explain his creations. The reply was swift and shockingly obvious; if he were able to explain them, there would be no need for him to make them would there?

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