David Lynch's Inland Empire Jerremy Irons. Director David Lynch and star Laura Dern.
'I don't really understand what I'm doing here,' Laura Dern says at one point in David Lynch's new movie, Inland Empire. And with the film clocking in at almost three hours, that is understandably going to be the reaction of a large majority of the audience at this maddeningly frustrating movie. But the audience, at least the mainstream one, is obviously the furthest thing from Lynch's mind. Art-house movie lovers, however, will rejoice. With the surrealistic Inland Empire, Lynch finally leaves the narrative long behind and embraces his experimental Eraserhead roots.
Increasingly, Lynch's movies have pointed in this direction. As far back as 1997's Lost Highway, Lynch has been losing the battle between trying to keep his movies on track with a discernable storyline and his more artistic tastes. Inland Empire ( the title refers to an area east of Los Angeles ) jumps immediately into the experimental arena with a series of surreal scenes—a prostitute in a cheap hotel room bandying about S&M, a scene with a trio of human-sized rabbits enacting a satire of sitcoms sans dialogue, etc. Abruptly, the sliver of a story appears: Actress Nikki Grace ( Dern ) is visited at her baronial mansion by an ominous Polish-accented woman ( Lynch favorite Grace Zabriskie ) who relates what she calls a Polish fairy tale and then warns Nikki not to take the role if offered in a movie called On High in Blue Tomorrows. But Nikki, after meeting with director Kingsley Stewart ( Jeremy Irons ) and her proposed co-star, the womanizing Devon Burke ( Justin Theroux ) , decides to go ahead. Once shooting begins she learns that Blue Tomorrows is actually a remake—the original two stars were murdered during filming.
Sounds pretty normal, so far, doesn't it? But, like the Polish lady and depending on your taste, I'm either warning you or exciting you with the news that before Lynch reaches the halfway point this story simply disappears into a spiraling vortex that seems to turn on Nikki's too-strong identification with her role in the movie. Or maybe it's the insane jealousy of Nikki's husband and suspicions that she and her co-star are having an affair. Who can say? At one point, Nikki goes through a door on the movie set and into another life. Devon disappears from the movie—as do the movie director and others. Later, the rabbits reappear, as does Julia Ormond ( barely recognizable ) as a screwdriver-wielding…what? Underneath, Lynch supplies his usual soundtrack of industrial ambient menace—and like all his movies, a feeling of dread overwhelms everything. The syrupy Mantovoni instrumentals used as a counterpoint just ramp up the dread ( as intended ) .
There is more—much more—but you get the picture. Or rather, do not. 'Can you please explain this movie to me?' a friend asked, exasperated, after seeing Lynch's last feature, 2001's Mulholland Drive. I couldn't. I know it's the job of the film critic to at least make the attempt—and to be sure, David Lynch is a good reason to keep members of our profession in business—but I could no more ascribe Lynch's motives in that one then I can explain why Laura Dern is a scared, frightened actress one moment and a surly prostitute the next.
I can tell you that the movie is beautifully shot on the same kind of DV camera you can purchase at Best Buy and that Dern is amazing. But the amazement comes from her versatility because she's actually playing an assortment of characters under the guise of one. One applauds her work, appreciative of the technical bravura and the intensity of the emotion. But, like the movie itself, it's not something that one will want to sit through again. To appreciate a work of art is not necessarily the same thing as enjoying it.
A host of gay- and lesbian-related DVDs have hit the streets recently or are directly on the horizon. Here's a quick round-up:
Quinceanera ( reviewed in a recent column ) , now out on DVD, is the multicultural study of a disenfranchised gay Latino teen and his pregnant cousin who are taken in by their courtly uncle. This richly rewarding character study was written and directed by real-life partners Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer. Get it.
The Night Listener, based on a real incident that happened to Tales of the City author and gay icon Armistead Maupin, is also out from Miramax. Robin Williams plays the title, Maupin-like character who is drawn into the life of an AIDS-affected gay teen ( Rory Culkin ) and his mother ( Toni Collette ) after a series of heart-rending phone calls. But does the teen really exist? It's an offbeat mystery with terrific, eerie performances ( especially from Collette ) and interesting script by Maupin help.
A special edition of Brokeback Mountain—just released by Universal—was inevitable. But from the description ( a preview copy didn't arrive by deadline ) , this two-disc version isn't quite as special as hoped. Though new making-of featurettes are promised, no extended or deleted scenes are included and, most annoyingly, a director's commentary from Oscar winner Ang Lee isn't here. Wait for the next edition.
Also just released is The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 1, a long-awaited, comprehensive collection of early works by the experimental filmmaker and gay artist. Anger is better known for the cult book classic Hollywood Babylon he went on to pen, but access to the rarely seen but frankly sexual, violent, thrilling Fireworks, Rabbit's Moon, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and others ( all included in the set along with a 48-page booklet ) should change that.
Late January/early February DVD releases include Viva Pedro—a boxed set from gay auteur Almodovar that will include eight of the master's films ( from Law of Desire up to Bad Education ) and an extra disc with special features; lesbian director Jamie Babbit's offbeat teen thriller The Quiet; gay director-writer Ryan Murphy's dysfunctional family dramedy Running with Scissors, which is notable for Annette Bening's star turn; and, finally, the two-disc Alexander: The Final Cut, a 220-minute 'final version' of the much beleaguered Oliver Stone saga that promises to restore—and add—love scenes between Colin Farrell, Jared Leto and maybe even the infamous 'Persian Boy.'
You can find my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Feedback can be left at the latter Web site.