Politics & Policy

David’s Dark Dreams

The surreal, mesmerizing new movie from David Lynch.

In The Film Snob’s Dictionary , the entry for “meditation on” reads:

Stock hack-crit phrase used to bestow an air of erudition and gravitas on both the critic and the film he is reviewing. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is an affecting meditation on cultural and temporal dislocation; the Matrix series is the Wachowski brothers’ meditation on the intersection of technology and spirituality. 

In other words, it’s an all purpose descriptor for critics who are convinced that a film has some deep meaning but don’t want to admit that they have no idea what it is. In that spirit, Inland Empire , director David Lynch’s latest big screen nightmare, might best be described as a meditation on “meditations on.” Lynch’s movie isn’t sure what it’s saying, but it’s convinced it’s saying something.

With no narrative, no stable characters, no sense of time or location, the movie is utterly resistant to simple summary or interpretation. It isn’t actually about anything, really, except maybe the total destruction of the sensation that anything either is or could ever be about anything. There’s no meaning, just the absence of it, and in its place, pure chaos. Whether you find it a surrealist masterpiece or pretentious dreck will depend on your tolerance for art that flaunts its effrontery. As something of a sucker for artsy-fartsy experimentation, I thought it was a demented hoot, but I’m still somewhat skeptical that it’s anything more than random imagery. No matter what, though, it’s a dizzy, mesmerizing mind trip.

Of course, trying to explain it is something a challenge. Where to even start? Perhaps with Laura Dern’s role — to call her part a “character” would imply that it was in some way recognizable as a human being — as an actress trying to rebuild a fading career. Or maybe with the Russian mobsters trading dire stares and grim remarks about nothing? Or how about with the family of walking, talking bunny rabbits bantering banally in a room designed to look like a freaky sitcom set? It’s probably wise to avoid thinking too hard about the troop of leering prostitutes who spontaneously break into a dance-and-sing-along of “The Locomotion,” or why Laura Dern suddenly adopts a southern yokel drawl in what looks to be an interrogation room and starts rambling on about her history of violent encounters with men. Trying to fit any of it into a single coherent pattern is about as futile as having an astrophysics debate with your cat.

No, Lynch’s movie starts strange and quickly uncoils into a full-blown cinematic fugue state. With stunning intensity, Lynch whips up a maelstrom of disassociated imagery, abstract dialog, and identity flux. You may not know what’s going on, but you’ll sure feel it. Lynch’s movie devours rational thought processes like a pack of wild dogs on a dead animal — it’s an outright attack on linearity, sense, and order.

At first, this takes some getting used to. You’ll have questions, like: Where is this taking place? Who are these Russians? What’s Laura Dern doing rolling around the ground on a Hollywood street corner listening to a homeless woman tell a long story about her friend’s pet monkey? And will someone please explain what’s going on with these rabbits? And at times, the movie seems poised to coalesce into something meaningful. Fat chance. You’re more likely to see Howard Dean support war and tax cuts than get a straight answer out of this movie.

As it becomes increasingly clear that the film will not be forthcoming with answers, you find yourself giving up on the search, and drifting, disconnected, in the film’s current of creepshow nonsense. By adamantly resisting answers — or for that matter, organized thinking of any kind — the film breaks down the desire to understand and puts the viewer at its mercy. In Lynch’s twisted, Dadaist world, there are no answers, no patterns, no narratives or stable ground of any kind — just imagistic fragments of terror and mystery. Andrew Sullivan will love this movie; there’s not a hint of certainty to be found.

Shot over several years on low budget digital video with no final script to guide the production, it is the least organized, least traditional film in Lynch’s already whacked-out oeuvre. Careful viewers could put together reasonable explanations for most of what occurred in Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive; even Nicholas Cage’s movie-ending pep talk from Glenda, The Good Witch of the North, in Wild at Heart, made a certain sort of trippy sense. No such luck here. Seeing something as familiar and iconic as a character from The Wizard of Oz would be a relief.

Like most Lynch films, Inland Empire is permeated by a sense of undefined menace and vague foreboding, all colored by weird comic undertones. His gift, if you can call it that, is for conjuring up an aura of dread in ordinary surroundings. He could film a Sunday School musical and somehow warp it into a high-grade freak show. Most horror movies rely on ghouls and gross-outs for scares, and though Lynch doesn’t shy away from graphic content, his movies create tension through disorientation; even his most basic shots are inexplicably creepy. It’s as if he’s extracted his nightmares directly from his brain and injected them straight into yours.

At its most basic, the movie is a cruel joke on the stability of mind and memory. Time loses meaning; memories are uprooted; sitting in the theater it’s tough to remember what just happened, who those people are, or how anyone got anywhere. Watching this movie isn’t so much like losing your mind as it is like having it stolen.

Maybe Lynch is trying to suggest something about the transient nature of identity and spatial orientation. Many of the scenes revolve around someone trying to figure out who they are and how they got to their current location. Or maybe Lynch is just batty, and, like the Mad Hatter throwing his tea party in Alice in Wonderland, he wants everyone else to join in the insanity.

Lynch is hardly the first director to conjure up this sort of frantic dreamscape. Frederico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, and countless obscurantist video artists have trod this ground before, but few manage to whip up such transfixing delirium. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that all the flashing lights and crooked shots don’t actually add up to much more than Lynch dumping out his subconscious clutter. The whole production brings to mind the scene in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame in which two of the characters pause from their ramblings to worry that their lives and thoughts might be beginning to take coherent shape:

HAMM: We’re not beginning to… to… mean something?

CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that’s a good one!

I know how they feel. Mean something? David Lynch, mean something? Hah! That is a good one.

Peter Suderman is associate editor of Doublethink and regularly writes film criticism for NRO. He blogs on film and culture at www.alarm-alarm.com.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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