“Learn Lynch” is a new series here on 25YL where one of our writers watches a David Lynch film for the first time and reviews it. Do you remember what it was like to watch these films for the first time? All of the thoughts and feelings? Or if this is your first time watching Lynch films, allow us to be your companion through this wonderful and strange journey. Hope you enjoy this new feature and look for the latest installment each Thursday evening!
Inland Empire is…
…it’s a film about…
No…nope, that’s not going to work.
What can you really say about Inland Empire? Conventional plot synopsis doesn’t do it justice because the plot is largely indecipherable in any kind of conventional sense of the word. It’s really almost secondary to the experience of watching the film, which I’d argue is the point. Inland Empire not a film; it’s an experience.
I am not a huge fan of Inland Empire. At three hours long, it’s about 90 minutes longer than my usual attention span allows, and the series of disorienting visuals, noisy soundtrack, and frightening concepts presented push too many of my buttons for me to call this an enjoyable film experience. What’s weird is that I’ve seen it twice and both times I’ve sat down excited to dive in. I think it’s because of the challenge that it presents to me. This is not an easy film to get into, to digest, but I find it fun to try.
I think the film portrays the story of an actress named Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). I say “I think” because I’m not really sure what to think, and I think that’s kind of the point. But I digress. Nikki receives a part in a film called On High In Blue Tomorrows, which is an American remake of a supposedly cursed German film titled 47. She is subsequently consumed by her role. I don’t mean in the Stanislavski sense but on a deeper and more fundamental level (possibly, as Martha Nochimson writes in her book David Lynch Swerves, on a quantum level): Nikki Grace as an individual ceases to be, phasing in and out of existence alongside her character “Sue” and various other incarnations of herself whom we meet, and by the end of the film we’re left to question whether what we’ve witnessed was real, imagined, part of the film Nikki is in, or something else entirely.
The point of this series is not to explain it all, so I’m not going to try. My closest guess is that this is a film about creativity and art, and I realize that this is a broad statement, so I’ll let Aidan get into it in more detail, since we largely agree on this.
I was glad I had the chance to watch Inland Empire a second time, because I will never forget my reaction after watching it the first time. Though I asked many questions after that first watch, they all inevitably boiled down to some minute variation on:
Variations included: “What was that?” and “What did I just watch?” and the oft-repeated “What the [insert favoured curse word here]?”
I can’t imagine anyone’s first watch of the movie doesn’t generate a similar multitude of questions. Inland Empire is a sprawling, script-less expression of David Lynch at his most confounding. When the President of Showtime described Twin Peaks The Return as “pure-heroin Lynch” Inland Empire was where my mind went. Watching it is a dive into a surrealist, mood-filled, meta-commentary on film-making that can’t help but confuse even the best prepared audience.
Unlike audiences who watched it in 2006 however, I had the luxury of ten years of internet analysis to help me prepare for my second watching. With the assistance of YouTube in particular, this second watch allowed me to come to some sort of understanding of the film, as well as build an emotional connection to the movie that had completely evaded me in the first watching.1
For a movie this confusing – with multiple storylines played by the same actors and actresses – a quick summary is in order to try and explain the show as I see it. As I understand it there are three storylines2 at play in Inland Empire. There is the story of Nikki Grace the actress, who is playing the woman Susan Blue in On High in Blue Tomorrows. Gradually Nikki loses herself into the story of Susan. The majority of the film, and the middle hour and a half, winds up focusing exclusively on Susan’s story, which is presented in mostly the same way as Nikki’s was early on in Inland Empire.
Mostly unrelated, but perhaps the most related, is the story of the Polish “Lost Woman” who is likely a prostitute who’s been abused and who is watching both Nikki and Susan’s stories play out along with us, the audience.3 Because it’s so meta, I’ll simplify my understanding in the following way: Nikki is the Actress, and the Lost Woman is the Audience. It’s a bit of a stretch to see them both in such simple ways, but it will help explain the movie at a high level.
The key moment for me in deciphering the film came at the end. In it, the Audience and the Actress come together and embrace, eliciting tears from both. The Audience then rushes home at the end of the show and we find out that many of the parts of the Actress’ story actually originated in the world of the Audience.
This is key to me: Inland Empire appears to be about two things: the making of a film, and the interaction with the film on the part of the audience. In Lynch’s mind, the actual movie is somewhere in between. We get a lot of Nikki and Susan as the Actress in On High in Blue Tomorrows. But a lot of the imagery, themes, and reality of the scenes we see come from the Lost Woman as the Audience. The Audience lives in the green carpeted apartment with a son and husband. She has asked her friends if they can hear her. She is abused and hurt, which is why she cries when she watches Nikki and Susan being hurt: they are the same wounds she is actually suffering. When the Audience and Actress meet, even though one of them is artificial, the emotional connection between them is real and powerful.
This meme capturing David Lynch’s response to a question about how to analyze a movie seems especially pertinent when talking about Inland Empire.
For Lynch, there is no need to go into depth talking about what happens to the Actress in the middle of the movie, because we as the Audience are in charge of bringing our own baggage along for the ride, and making meaning of it where we can.
David Lynch’s other statements about art seem to support this view. He appears to have an extreme subjectivist understanding of art, where the piece of art doesn’t even actually exist until there is someone observing it and bringing their life into the gaps, colours, and shapes of the piece itself. The film literally is the “talking”, the whole conversation between audience and film. In this way Inland Empire can teach a Learn Lynch 101: don’t ask Lynch what anything means. He can’t build meaning for you. You just have to watch it and then fill in the gaps the best way you can.
As Aidan’s meme shows, Lynch never talks about his films, and I think that’s because he doesn’t believe authorial intent should matter to the viewer. He has his reasons for creating his art. I think he truly believes that we are supposed to sit down and watch his films and disagree about what it means because we all come to the theatre with different circumstances that necessarily colour the way we interpret what we see. This kind of Barthesian approach is unsatisfactory and wishy-washy to many, but it’s Lynch himself who told us “What you know is valid.”
That said, if you sit down to watch this film expecting to be able to piece it together in any kind of objective sense, you’ll probably walk away unsuccessful; this is not the kind of film that bends to the will of the viewer that easily. Our best advice to first-time viewers is to let it happen. Let the scenes unfold. Let your emotions unfurl. Accept your gut responses.
1 I should note here that I owe a lot of my making sense of the film to two videos in particular. Part 27 of Joel Bocko’s excellent treatise on Twin Peaks and David Lynch helped me draw the connections to Lynch’s previous work, while Malmrose Project’s in depth analysis of the film helped me make sense of the many characters played by the same actors and the way the stories may connect as a result of this. What little sense I could make out of Inland Empire, I could do because of their excellent work.
2 Possibly four.
3 The possible fourth story is the one the Lost Woman’s may be telling herself, in which she stars as a character in the longest running radio play mentioned in the very first shot of the record spinning. While not key to the rest of this exploration of the film, I think that the Lost Woman sees herself in this way to both minimize her own trauma, and to recast herself as a protagonist whose situation can change on the whim of the storyteller.