Examining the Umpire - Deconstructing Waves of Illusion and Reality in David Lynch's Inland Empire
I believe David Lynch to be one of the very finest (read: challenging) directors working in American cinema today and he deserves an audience for this film. It seems he has been unable to find a distributor for the movie, which is more a symptom of America's lack of intellectual curiosity rather than the film's merits. So, like many of DIY artists today, he has taken the responsiblilty of ditributing the film himself. It is rare that a film-maker would show so much faith in his audience. He expects a lot from us, but he gives a lot in return.
Some intital comments
No film-maker has represented the labyrinth of the unconscious in cinematic terms more successfully than David Lynch. In his newest effort, Inland Empire (IE), Mr. Lynch has taken his own personal evolution of film narrative a step further than in his previous work. In IE, Lynch calls on and surpasses the surrealists' attempts to register the many fleeting fragments of image and thought that influence and construct our consciousness.
Inspired by the critical and financial success of Mulholland Drive (MD), Lynch seems to have gained the confidence to pursue the furthering development of a narrative structure that he has been working on for over 20 years. The films from his oeuvre most concerned with this development starts with Blue Velvet (BV) and include Lost Highway (LH) and MD. All those narrative roads seem to lead logically to Inland Empire. While the other films (Eraserhead, Elephant Man, etc.) link his thematic interests as a whole, I will be focusing primarily on structural concerns in this discussion.
For the moment, I'm going to refrain from commenting on the early works at length and get to the point at hand - trying to make sense of IE (I'll save the larger overview for the final draft). Since MD is most closely related to the new film, I may reference it from time to time.
In MD, Lynch presented a very clear delineation of the dream world (the first two hours) and "reality" (the last 20 minutes). Everything leading up to the final set of sequences, where Naomi Watts awakens from her Hollywood fantasy was the stuff of dreams - a dream charged with the guilt of having hired an assassin to kill her lover out of jealousy and rage.
In IE, you don't have the clear delineation of waking and dreaming consciousness – the narrative doesn't read as "now she's dreaming, now she's awake". Instead audiences find themselves constantly working through the labyrinth of a woman's consciousness in pursuit of liberation.
In IE, Lynch is primarily wrestling with a question that vexed the existentialists: "what motivates us into action?" – In IE, this question drives the film from beginning to end. IE explores the ways that television, movies, pop-song mythology, memories, dreams, family members, friends, and the fantasies and illusions we project in and out of our states of consciousness, all come together to help the individual negotiate how best to act in the present tense. As individual human beings with experiences unique to our own personal mythologies, we are always assembling a mass of information that comes from these sources (both personal and societal) in order to be who we are (which is not unlike acting in a movie based on what you know about your character).
As usual, the set up (the movie you think is being made) is pure illusion – all the power and wealth are pure projection and fantasy. Laura Dern appears to be married to a man who is wealthy and has powerful connections. Her journey throughout the film is to uncover the artifice of her dreams, break free from the abusive man she is living with, and strike out against her neighbor in order to free a young woman who has been held captive in a prostitution ring under his supervision.
Laura Dern's character serves as a guardian for Caroline, the victim described above. She seems to have psychic abilities, and may be using those powers to project the action on to a screen (a film within a film), which moves through the labyrinth of her unconscious in order to free her.
In this case, the action is murder as liberation. This is expressed in the film through the "action" of a movie that is being made. This young woman is watching a film that is being made in order to determine whether or not she will be liberated from her spiritual prison. She is often crying while viewing the action on screen, for she is never certain, even until the last fatal moments of the movie, how the "film" will turn out.
Who is really directing this film? - The young girl? - The film director played by Jeremy Irons? - David Lynch? - Is the "film" really the narrative of her consciousness? - Are the parallel story lines that Laura Dern navigates merely the projection of this woman's hopes? How is the character played by Laura Dern aware of Caroline? When exactly does she become aware of her? If she is aware of her, how is she aware of her? Or better yet, when does she truly become aware of her and decide to take action into her own hands? - These seem important questions to consider when viewing the movie.
Unlike some of the critics and friends who have claimed that the new film is merely a meandering wash of nonsense, there is a strong narrative at play here - its structure is that of a labyrinth of the unconscious (IE is Lynch's most Jungian effort). The numerous dark hallways that Laura Dern moves through represent that labyrinth. Consequently, there is no excess - every image, every sequence is part of the puzzle and must be taken into consideration. Since the film runs a little over three hours, there is a lot of information to digest, perhaps too much information for viewers who are used to being hand-held by traditional beginning-middle-end (problem-development-resolution) film structures.
Lynch provides all the information the viewer needs to piece together the meaning of the story but the viewer has to pay close attention to assemble it. The opening image is one of a recording - an old school turntable that is playing a recording of a "radio broadcast". This image could represent that what is to follow is a recording, or a document of something that happened in reality, that occured in real time. The image of the record player fades into a bright light, which will guide the characters and the viewers to the film's final destination.
The first scene with actual characters could be seen as superfluous. For the next hour, there isn't much to connect them to - so it seems irrelevant. But this scene sets up the central problem that drives the action. In this first short episode, a man and a woman who are speaking Polish (their faces are obscured from view) are about to enter a hotel room. Once inside the room, it appears the man has hired the woman for sex. The woman asks what the man wants, and he responds by telling her to take her clothes off, and that she will find out soon enough. The silent male domination of this female (and others like her) is the central problem of the film. There is both meaning in this duality; in telling her to shut up and do what's she's told, and also in that he doesn't express directly what she is to do.
There are a few scenes that take place in a room with characters who are wearing rabbit costumes. Apart from the humor that plays in these scenes (and the reference to TV sitcoms and how they inform the cultural landscape, the message of these episodes is important. A family (the central family of the story) is disguised: we don't know who they are and we do not learn who they are until the ending sequence when they are reunited after the mother's liberation. The room they occupy is connected to a large palatial space (left over from the days of the Russian "Empire"). This setting is important: it informs us that the family is connected to the old world/empire (Poland, in this case, not Russia).
The pimps that import the empire to America are also disguised. We are told in one scene (by the man we assume is Laura Dern's husband), that they are circus performers. This lie is kept in place to disguise the whereabouts of the young woman who has been kidnapped and to obscure the truth that these men are criminals (all you have to do is look at them to know what they're up to). Later in the film we see the main pimp confront the young woman on the street one cold wintry evening (this scene is a predecessor to the opening hotel sequence described above).
David Lynch is dealing with a very real problem in this new film, despite the mass of illusions he has piled on his subject. For over a decade, many young eastern European and Russian women have been lured to America with the promise of honest work, only to find that the employment in store for them once they arrive is "the oldest profession in the world". Given that many of these ladies come from strong families and have old-world pride and cultural conditioning, they are often too ashamed to write home and tell their families the truth of their situation. So they remain enslaved in these rings, occasionally sending money home to their families, while furthering the impossibility of escaping their fate.
Now that the principal plot line has been charted, let us examine the surrounding artifice. The film jumps from the room occupied with the rabbit-people to southern California. A strange woman with an eastern European accent calls on Nikki (Laura Dern's fantasy projecting of her "true" self) in order to introduce herself ("one should know one's neighbors" - an important statement, as we will see later).
The dialogue, as goofy and Lynchian as it can get, is important: she tells a little fable about a boy who crosses the threshold and enters a world of evil. In the second part of the fable, a young girl "enters the marketplace" (as a commodity, as it turns out). She askes the young actress that a murder is part of the story, and despite Dern's refusal that murder is a part of the film, still in its planning stages, she informs her that "oh yes, brutal fucking murder" is a part of the story that will unfold.
As it so often happens in Lynch films (MD, LH), the set-up, or the movie you think you are watching, is all illusion. Laura Dern's "real" character is not an actress. She is not married to a overtly wealthy and powerful man. She is not even married, but rather, she is living with a man that is connected to an empire, but it is a dark and illegal empire that occupies the distinctly non-glamorous landscape of Pomona (not Beverly Hills or Bel Air, as one might imagine from these opening sequences).
Lynch continues by creating the illusion that Laura Dern has been offered a very important part in a movie - a role that could "save" her career (in reality, it will save a young woman's life, her sanity, and her family). Jeremy Irons and Harry Dean Stanton are making the film, along with a stable of producers that hover in order to protect their interests (a mirror-image of the strong arms who protect and camouflage the central pimp). You can tell by the flippant way that Lynch handles these two characters that they are mere cardboard cut-outs. The assistant director played by Stanton is constantly borrowing money from the cast and crew (just as in "reality", Dern's imaginary wealthy husband is actually a poor and desperate man willing to do anything to get his wife back). The director of the film, played by Irons is always about to do something to get things going, but that something never really happens.
From the start, suspicion abounds that Laura Dern and Justin Theroux (the two principal actors that are in the film that is being made within the confines of Lynch's movie) will transit from actors who are making a film about a couple that is having an affair, to married adults having an affair. The adultery seems to have taken place between Dern and Theroux in the film's reality, which motivates Susan Lynch (Theroux's wife) to stab Dern with a screwdriver in one of the ending sequences.
Adultery serves as a sinister plot device, but it also serves as a central metaphor: the allegiance to family and the destruction of the family through the act of "errant sex" is especially important in IE. The cinematic family has its doppleganger in the "family" that runs the prostitution ring, as well as the Polish family that is being torn apart by that same squad of hustlers (is there such a word as triple-ganger??? - my German is clearly over-taxed here...).
In the central section of the film, Laura Dern is led by a mysterious chalk-drawn symbol to a house - this is when the empire proper begins to be revealed. In chalk, the letters: ax xon are scrawled. The phonetic realization of those letters could spell "action"...
She meets other women there - women who have been duped by a man who controls them. It is assumed that this man is either Justin Theroux, or the husband of the actress played by Laura Dern (as in MD, Lynch uses one actress to play two different roles - a reversal of the technique Luis Bunuel used in That Obscure Object of Desire). There are some funny and heartbreaking scenes in the house as Laura Dern (and the audience) begins to see what is really going on there...
Once she meets the girls, the film begins to focus more on the central problem and less on the artifice of movie-making. After talking to the girls and discovering that she may also have been deceived by "him", she arrives disoriented at the home of affluent Justin Theroux, and confesses her love for him in front of his family. This is one of the defining moments of the true relationship between Theroux and Dern.
After finding herself stranded on the streets and in fear that she is being stalked (by Theroux's revenge-seeking wife), she makes her way into a strip-joint, where she moves upstairs to tell all to a silent confessor. This nameless man, who may be the manager of the strip-joint, is connected to the prostitution ring; he reports to an unseen caller that, "yes, she's here now". Dern's confession reveals some of the plot and allows viewers some much-welcomed narrative clarity: we learn that she isn't really an actress at all, but really the victim of an abusive husband who seems to be carrying on with some shady characters. She doesn't know what exactly they are up to, but she knows murder may be linked to their intrigue. Several people around her talk about a murder - the viewer is held in suspence for long stretches of time because you assume the murder is going to happen any moment. She reveals that "he" has beat her, and she is frightened, but is ready (and capable) to castrate him if necessary to free herself from this dark bondage.
She ends back on the streets with the prostitutes, but Theroux's wife finds her this time and stabs her on the sidewalk. While she lay dying on the sidewalk, a few street urchins examine her. One of the homeless women that watches over her tells of a friend that works in a whorehouse in Pomona. Dern loses consciousness and dies and the "film" that is being made and at this point that movie comes to a close.
Dern gets up disoriented and wanders into the final labyrinth, where she confronts her nemesis and kills him. As in other sections of the film, Lynch uses music from the closing murderous sequences in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining when Jack Nicholson goes on the rampage with an axe. Lynch pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey in a similar fashion. This is yet another way that Lynch accesses movies to inform the viewer of the importance, or meaning of a sequence in his film.
As a result of the murder Laura Dern has committed, like the killing of some errant warlock who has psychic control over a village of peasants in a fairy tale, the young woman becomes freed and is able to leave her confinement and join her family. The screen fades to black, but the film isn't over yet. There are other themes to resolve in the final moments of the movie.
That's it for now. I'm going to see the film again in the next few days to iron out some of the other plot lines in order to develop this piece further. If you are interested in seeing the film, just know it is not one of those movies where you can digest everything in one sitting. There is so much information operating here, that viewers with a taste for mainstream cinema will likely be overwhelmed by the onslaught of cross-stories and plots.