A new David Lynch film is always cause for celebration, and after failing to get into the preview at the NFT a few weeks ago, I was itching to see INLAND EMPIRE (caps required) this weekend. Also, bizarrely, this week I had a request from an Iranian magazine asking if they could translate my 10 year old article on Lynch into Persian for publication [!]. So, after this little reminder that I’m actually one of the world’s leading Lynch scholars [cough] I had to run out and see his latest work. So was it any good? On first viewing – it’s difficult to say.
I can’t even tell you what it was about. It has very little plot of relevance, it can only really be described in terms of mood – gritty, dark and disorienting. Every David Lynch film has at least one of those scenes that seem to come out of nowhere, having no relevance to the rest of the film, yet are incredibly powerful; Sherilyn Fenn stumbling from a wrecked car in Wild At Heart, the horror behind the diner in Mulholland Drive, the woman who’d just ran over a deer in The Straight Story. This is a film entirely made up of those scenes. But even though it left me bewildered and disoriented for pretty much the entire running time (3 hours!) I still had to pick my jaw up off the floor by the end of it. I wasn’t sure what I had just experienced, whether it was good, bad, entertaining or torturous, but there’s one thing it wasn’t – boring. It was impossible to tear your eyes away, it was mesmerising, and I think the rest of the theatre agreed with me, as everyone remained in their seats until the last of the credits had rolled and the house lights went up. By which point I no longer knew if it was today or tomorrow, or what I was doing there.
There was one obvious flaw with the film though. It was all shot on DV (using a Sony PD-150), and Lynch was producing himself, which meant 1) it looks awful, and 2) it really could have done with some trimming. While the decision to use DV had obviously given Lynch a freedom to shoot whatever he wanted, it also imposed limits of its own in that it was very heavy on close-ups, probably because all the longs shots and mid-shots looked really grainy and pixellated. With surrealist cinema lush imagery can often make up for a lack of coherence, but INLAND EMPIRE didn’t have this luxury.
But, even if it didn’t look that great (there was still some great cinematography, even with the constraints) suffice to say it sounded amazing. Lynch is much celebrated as a director, which sometimes overshadows his comparable skill as a sound designer. The sound is the reason why it’s always worth seeing a new Lynch film in the cinema, even if he’d shot it on a mobile phone.
So, while INLAND EMPIRE is a stunning piece of work, I can’t say I’m too impressed with the move to digital, and the creative freedom it has given him. My favourite of the four films he’s made in the last 15 years was The Straight Story, which was the Lynch style applied to a Disney film, and is the most restrained film he’s ever made. Both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive don’t really stand up as well by comparison. But with his new found creative and financial freedom, Lynch may not ever need to make a studio picture ever again, he’ll never need to try his hand at a romantic comedy to make ends meet, or to be hired to helm a summer blockbuster, which for a director like Lynch would be a much more radical and interesting project. Instead he can quietly carry on making ever more abstract and inscrutable films solely for his diehard audience, churning them out until there’s no-one watching any more, much like Godard did. Which in some ways would be a shame.
There was another film I saw recently, Michel Gondry‘s latest The Science Of Sleep, which has much in common with INLAND EMPIRE. Both are surrealist, non-linear, open-process and purposely blur the line between accepted reality and fantasy. But The Science of Sleep somehow managed to do all this in a way that was also charming and funny, while INLAND EMPIRE just used fear and disorientation cranked up to 11.
Lynch has recently said that, since discovering the freedom of DV, he can’t go back to celluloid. Which means we can probably expect him to disappear even further up his own art-hole in the next few years. Gondry, on the other hand, is on his third feature and every new film he makes is bursting with creativity and originality. I have to say that, even as a long time Lynch obsessive, I am now much more excited to see the big budget sci-fi epic that Gondry will inevitably get offered any day now, than the next few years of David Lynch home videos.