A little boy went out to play. When he opened his door, he saw the world. As he passed through the doorway, he caused a reflection. Evil was born. Evil was born and followed the boy.
And the variation: a little girl went out to play. Lost in the marketplace, as if half-born…then, not through the marketplace—you see that, don’t you—but through the alley behind the marketplace. This is the way to the palace. But…it isn’t something you remember.
Inland Empire is a film about a woman in trouble. But this is not to say it is about a particular woman; no, the indefinite article here precisely points to something indefinite. It is not a matter of the woman who is in trouble, neither in the sense of the troubles that pertain to a specific woman, nor in one that makes a claim about some kind of essence of femininity. A woman—always singular and meaningfully alone; even with others. Any woman—any given woman—but, again, not in a way that defines a category; although perhaps what is at play is a more concrete universality.
When the film was released in 2006, I was fortunate enough to be able to see it in the theater at IFC here in New York. My girlfriend at the time, whom I had exposed by that point to almost all of Lynch’s extant work, came with me. I recall that, as we left the theater she said something like, “I thought that was easier to follow than his other stuff.”
She wasn’t wrong. Inland Empire might seem like a totally incomprehensible film from one point of view—if one is focused on trying to pin it down in terms of a linear narrative—but from another it is all too easy to understand. There is a theme here, and a story that might not make sense in terms of logic, but which certainly does on a more intuitive level.
Most films—even those that feature women in prominent roles—stem from a male perspective. This is not only because most directors and screenwriters have traditionally been men; it cuts to something deeper.
And it’s not just the film industry. Everything is imbued with the masculine point of view, from our entertainment to our philosophy. Everywhere we get men’s stories, and a male point of view. This is the significance of thinking about something like the Bechdel test (which Inland Empire passes right out of the gate).
Lynch’s film should thus be seen as a commentary on being a woman in a patriarchal world, and a critique of the film industry. Besides the fact that the film meaningfully centers around a film within the film, this latter point is well-evidenced by the fact that Inland Empire was independently produced and distributed, and by Lynch’s “for your consideration” campaign for Laura Dern.
I well recognize that there is something fraught about the fact that I (a man) will be contending in this piece that David Lynch (a man) has made a film that gets at the experience of being a woman. Perhaps I am not in the best position to assess the accuracy of the depiction. Perhaps it all remains a bit abstract for me, as I think about Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and things that women have told me. I recognize this. And, yet, I argue that Inland Empire is a feminist film. May the proof be, as they say, in the pudding (or not).
Woman as Other
Jean-Paul Sartre points primarily to three aspects of the human condition in his Existentialism is a Humanism—anguish, abandonment, and despair—and on a first pass these seem fairly gender-neutral. One encounters anguish in relation to the fact that in living one must decide what to do. Indecision is itself a form of decision; inaction a kind of action. I must decide, but in deciding I imply that I have made the right decision. This is what Sartre means when he talks about deciding for all of humanity. It is not just that my action is what I think I should do; it lays a claim as to what one should do.
Yet, on what basis could one decide? God is dead and we are alone (abandonment) after all. No moral system could tell Sartre’s student whether to go fight the Nazis or stay home with his mother in desperate straits, etc. He had to decide, and it was his decision itself that showed what it was that he valued more.
Existence precedes essence. There is no “human nature” but rather one is what one does. We are condemned to be free.
Further, we cannot count on others. Or perhaps we can when it comes to friends and so on. There can be solidarity. But one cannot count on humanity in general. The future is wide open, to be determined by the collective free existences that make up the species. Thus, despair: to act without hope (but one must act, nonetheless).
The famous, though oft-misinterpreted line, “Hell is other people,” which stems from Sartre’s play No Exit, does not mean that people suck, or something like that. Rather, it stems from Sartre distinction between being a subject and being an object.
I am a subject insofar as I determine my existence freely; I decide what I will be through what I decide to do. But I am also under the gaze of others. They know me in ways that I cannot know myself, and the views of others impact my view of myself. This is not only when I am with them, but potentially when I am alone, thinking about what others think of me. It is the way in which this impinges on my freedom as a subject that makes this “hell.”
Sartre insists that one is always responsible for what one does, but he also notes that there is no meaningful difference between doing something and pretending to do it. This perhaps should be read in the direction opposite to some thought about authenticity, however. In fact, this would seem to be the point: it is bad faith to suggest that my action in some instance is a charade; that it is “not me” in some meaningful sense.
But Sartre’s way of thinking may not be sufficiently nuanced in this regard. Certainly there is a difference, for example, between the actor and the character being performed? But, then, how does this apply in day to day life, where I surely perform myself for others frequently?
I am not the same with my grandmother as I am with my friend, and I am most surely not the same with my students. Rather than suggesting that there is some authentic self at the core of one’s being, I would suggest that it is always one mask behind another; even in terms of how I present myself to myself, alone in a dark room. Is that gaze something I can truly escape? Or is Sartre’s notion of subjectivity perhaps a (masculine) fantasy?
This is an even more pressing problem for a woman, insofar as she is asked to perform herself more consistently than is a man; asked to smile, respond to the unwanted attention of a (male) stranger, etc. Her being is caught up in being determined as an object in a pervasive way. It is in this sense that Simone de Beauvoir contends that woman is the Other:
Now, what peculiarly signalises the situation of woman is that she – a free and autonomous being like all human creatures – nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other. They propose to stabilise her as object and to doom her to immanence since her transcendence is to be overshadowed and for ever transcended by another ego (conscience) which is essential and sovereign. The drama of woman lies in this conflict between the fundamental aspirations of every subject (ego) – who always regards the self as the essential and the compulsions of a situation in which she is the inessential. How can a human being in woman’s situation attain fulfilment? What roads are open to her? Which are blocked? How can independence be recovered in a state of dependency? What circumstances limit woman’s liberty and how can they be overcome?
This is a man’s world, and insofar as a woman is determined as Other (as not-a-man), she is in trouble.
A Woman in Trouble
There is an ubiquitous sense of dread in Inland Empire. It’s not so much what happens, for the most part, as it is a feeling that pervades the film. (And this is even more the case with adequate sound; seen in the theater, there is a kind of low bass drone that you feel in your gut; something I have not been able to replicate at home, though that might be possible if you have a good enough sound system). This is the dread of being a woman; a woman in trouble. A woman is always in trouble, insofar as she is thrown into a patriarchal world defined by the gaze of men.
Though it is not just the men who are the problem; it is potentially other women, who view themselves through this same patriarchal lens. It is not just true subjectivity that is a problem; it is solidarity, as de Beauvoir also notes.
Think here of a couple of scenes from the film in particular: 1) the scene that centers around a discussion between women of Lanni’s (Emily Stofle) breasts; and 2) the scene towards the end of the film wherein Nikki Grace/Susan Blue (Laura Dern) lies bleeding from a stab wound.
We don’t see solidarity between women in these scenes. We see them together, but in separation from one another. We seem them interpreting the world from the predominant masculine point of view, which precisely impedes solidarity insofar as it denies them the autonomy of subjects. Self-interest: you may be dying, lady, but how do I get to Pomona?
This also explains the nature of the narrative of Inland Empire. It seems fractured because Laura Dern’s character is actually always a character in the story of a man, even as the film proceeds from her perspective. That is, Inland Empire unfolds from the perspective of the Other, which distinguishes it from perhaps every other film that exists.
In the first scene, we see a man and a woman—their faces blurred because it doesn’t matter who they are, except that she’s a whore. And then we see her, crying as she stares at the TV. It’s static, because it is all static. It doesn’t matter. Images cut in and out, resolving on The Rabbits.
The patriarchal form is parodied through the Rabbits scenes, which mimic clichéd sitcom tropes but evacuate them of their “substance.” This is about the form; a form we see all over the place. It’s about a man and his family, but foundationally about the man. Who cares about the details? These merely distract us from the main thing, which is the staidness of Hollywood and its fundamental frame.
What follows is a brief exchange between Janek (Jan Hencz) and Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak) where the latter presses the former on the fact that he is “looking for an opening” and the former “understands.” This is vague in the same way as The Rabbits. The substance has been ripped out, as it were. What we get instead is a pure form of masculinity; the assertion of a kind of pure masculine desire—to find an opening. For what? To what end? It doesn’t matter. I understand. This is what men do; look for an opening.
Indeed, the Phantom represents the darkest impulses of man; the tendency to be a creep; to take pleasure in the degradation of women; to have a laugh about it. And you can’t simply shoot that dead.
When Nikki gets the role in On High in Blue Tomorrows, there is a worry that Devon will have an affair with her, which would be very no good for perhaps multiple reasons, but key among them is Nikki’s husband, Piotrek Król (Peter J. Lucas), who even threatens him about it, more or less claiming his wife as his property. She is an object he owns.
Devon is not interested in her at first, and tells his people not to worry. But he clearly becomes interested, and I would contend that he becomes interested precisely as the “conquest” becomes feasible. This isn’t about love, but the way in which men can tend to be creeps. She is a part of his story, even as we see things from her point of view.
And the same goes for the rest of the film. Take whatever man you want, whether it is the husband, or the confessor (or whatever precisely he is supposed to be), and you find the woman treated as object; whether as a piece of property, or an object of study, or whatever.
In this regard, it is significant that the bonus disc of the DVD is labeled as More Things that Happened. These aren’t deleted scenes, in the sense of things that were cut from the film where the film remains the true thing; they are more in a sense that puts them on the same level. These are more things that happened to a woman in trouble.
As the film proceeds, the lines blur between the characters Laura Dern portrays. At the beginning, she is an actress taking a role, but as time goes on she becomes confused about this, as do we. Think of the scene wherein she tells Devon Berk/Billy Side (Justin Theroux) that it’s like a scene from their movie, before the camera pulls back to reveal that I guess it was?
The duality of character names should key us into this blurring of the lines, but the important point is that this doesn’t just pertain to actors.
I perform myself constantly. Is there some stable self underlying these performances? A soul perhaps, that makes them all hang together?
But even if there were a soul, would that really help with regard to the issue? I still differ all over the place, and seem incapable of experiencing something constant about myself.
It’s always now.
“If it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there,” as Grace Zabriskie says.
Yet in this constant differing, perhaps there is something to found about the human condition. The condition of a woman—in trouble, determined through the male gaze—perhaps opens something broader. Perhaps, as Gilles Deleuze suggested, the majority is no one, and we are all Other, struggling to be subjects in a world that works to make us objects.
In this regard, the ending of Inland Empire strikes a hopeful tone: women dancing together; solidarity, at last. Perhaps Nikki/Sue did manage to kill the Phantom (or the patriarchy) and open up a true possibility for being a woman who is not in trouble. And perhaps man is also redeemed, once this phantom has been destroyed.
The Marine’s Sister (Tracy Ashton) arrives to the party, notably feeling accepted without regard to her disability, Laura Harring and Laura Dern blow kisses at one another and smile. The former grabs the hand of a man in a beanie, but there is nothing sexual about it; she’s just letting him know that he’s accepted, and he smiles as well. There is a monkey that is happy, too (I don’t really know what to say about the monkey).
A multiplicity of women gather to dance. That their dance is choreographed is only to show us their solidarity at this point. A man saws wood to the side; focused on his labor and not on viewing the women as objects. Monique Cash comes to the fore to lip sync to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”:
Oh, sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
All on that dayWe got to run to the rock
Please hide me, I run to the rockBut the rock cried out
I can’t hide you, the rock cried out
I ain’t gonna hide you there
All on that dayI said rock
What’s the matter with you rock?
Don’t you see I need you, rock?
Good Lord, Lord
All on that daySo I run to the river
It was bleedin’, I run to the sea
It was boilin’, I run to the sea
It was boilin’, all on that daySo I run to the Lord
Please hide me, Lord
Don’t you see me prayin’?
But the Lord said
Go to the Devil, the Lord said
All on that daySo I ran to the Devil
He was waitin’,All on that dayI cried, power, power (power, Lord)
Kingdom (power, Lord)
Power (power, Lord)
Oh yeahWell, I run to the river
It was boilin’, I run to the sea
So I ran to the Lord
I said Lord, hide me
Please hide me
Please help me, all on that day
He said, hide?
Where were you?
When you oughta have been prayin’
I said Lord, Lord
Hear me prayin’, Lord, Lord
Sinnerman, you oughta be prayin’
Outghta be prayin’, sinnerman
Oughta be prayin’, all on that dayUp come power (power, Lord)
Power (power, Lord)
Hold down (power, Lord)
Go down (power, Lord)
Kingdom (power, Lord)
Power (power, Lord)
Ha-ha-ha-ha, oh Lord
Nu, nu, nu
No-no-no-no, ma-na-na-na-na, don’t you know I need you Lord?
Don’t you know that I need you?
Don’t you know that I need you?Oh, Lord
Oh, Lord, Lord
We here get the whole theme of Inland Empire: a woman in trouble with no place to hide. Even the Lord (a man) turns her away. She was praying, but he nonetheless she says she ought to have been praying. Her supplication has not been adequate. And, yet, she asserts her power, calling out to the good aspect of man at the same time that she calls for the “sinnerman” to repent (“Don’t you know that I need you?”)
The end of Inland Empire gives us a vignette of a world where the patriarchy has been broken. Women find solidarity, and the men present treat them as subjects at last; accepting a kind hand, playing the piano as they dance, or sawing wood in their presence. And the monkey is happy.