Inland Empire (2007)

Inland Empire (2007)

In Inland Empire, which is also a massive region of land with nebulous boundaries east of Los Angeles (just saying), married actress Nikki Grace wins a part in a film opposite known philanderer Devon Burk. On the first day on set, director Kingsley Stewart tells them he has just found out the script is actually a remake of a German film called 47, which was never finished because the two leads were murdered. Nikki’s husband Piotrek is controlling and jealous, and he threatens Devon, but Nikki and Devon start an affair anyway. Then shit gets weird.

There are multiples stories unfolding, in Los Angeles and in Poland, in Vikki’s real life, in the film they are making, and in the apparently cursed film they are remaking, which Vikki seems to move in and out of. It quickly becomes clear we can’t know for sure where we are, and there is the extra quality of the DV camera Lynch used, whose grainy, home video picture and poor sound quality constantly reminds us we are watching Lynch make a film.

It’s an unusual and meta experience to say the least, but after three hours, as the end credits roll, I find I’m crying, because of the joyful music, yes, and because I’m exhausted, definitely, and because this is probably David Lynch’s last film, and it’s the end of my David Lynch project, but the biggest reason I think is that if it’s possible for someone to make Inland Empire, this ridiculous, epic, surreal, sometimes dull, sometimes exhilarating, contradictory, confusing, experimental art film, then honestly, and this is quite an insight after a month of Lynch’s work, and probably what I was hoping to realise, anything is fucking possible.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Mulholland Drive (2001)

The pattern David Lynch tends uses in his more archetypal work is again on display in Mulholland Drive – events organically unfold, the images are striking, the narrative is confusing, characters are not who they seem to be, and in the last twenty minutes he reveals what’s really going on, which is then open to even more interpretations. It’s a heady formula that allows him to explore the psychological themes that clearly fascinate him.

I was pretty frustrated with Mulholland Drive until the last act when, true to form, he performs his magician’s trick. It was created as a pilot for a television series with NBC, which the studio didn’t like, and Lynch then was given money by StudioCanal to finish it as a film. It feels like it was meant to be open-ended, with many elements reminiscent of Twin Peaks, but the ending he came up with does a pretty wonderful job of sealing it in movie form. Like Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway, the story hinges on the main character’s psychological reaction to trauma, in this case an alternative reality that of course cannot last.

There is only one film left in my May project to watch all of David Lynch’s films. I feel sad the project is ending soon, and there is no more film Lynch to explore, but he’s still making television series, and he might make another movie. He’s not dead yet. I suppose I prefer the Lynch who has to constrain himself to two hours than the one who lets himself sprawl – which takes us neatly into Inland Empire.

The Straight Story (1999)

The Straight Story (1999)

If David Lynch were trying to somehow redress all the darkness of his earlier films in one go, then he would make The Straight Story. Like The Elephant Man, it’s straightforward and forgoes the dreams, fantasy sequences and excess of Lost Highway, Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet. It really is a pure thing. Old age is investigated with a tender eye, and the hero, Alvin Straight, is wise and practical.

When he hears his brother has had a stroke, Alvin sets out on an odyssey to travel the three hundred miles to his brother’s house on a lawnmower. His eyes are too poor to get a driver’s license, but we realise the lawnmower has become a choice when he is offered a lift but refuses it. As he says, he wants to do it his own way, which you get the impression he has done his whole life.

Everyone he meets is good-hearted, and the handful of conversations he has on the road each reveal something about his nature, or his past. His hard-won wisdom rubs off on people. He very much reminded me of my grandfather – quiet, creative with mechanical things, a problem solver, stubborn, sometimes abrasive, and carrying memories he struggles to speak of. To me The Straight Story is a lovingly told expression of appreciation and respect for this type of man, made even more poignant in knowing that that generation, who fought in World War 2, are now almost all gone.

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway (1997)
Image credit: Photograph in American Cinematographer, Jan 2020.

Lost Highway is a puzzle. It opens with a jealous husband who thinks his wife is having an affair, and ends with a deadly resolution, but what happens in between is ambiguous and complicated. There are unsettling video tapes left on doorsteps, threatening hallways that seem to swallow characters up, dream sequences that might be memories, a menacing man who is in two places at once, and a character switch at the end of the first act that takes the film in a completely different direction.

After following intense jazz saxophonist Fred Madison, we move into the life of laid back mechanic Pete Dayton who falls for Alice, a doppelgänger of Fred’s wife. The film becomes a noir mystery in this second act, as Alice seduces Pete, and draws him into conflict with the violent and unpredictable Dick Laurent.

Lynch loves psychological stories, and has said that he was thinking a lot about the OJ Simpson trial at the time he was writing Lost Highway, in particular how a man could kill two people and then carry on with his life as if nothing had happened. Twin Peaks’s Laura Palmer did a similar split within herself to cope with trauma, and that is the key to Lost Highway. Characters are archetypal, more than one character is not who they appear to be, and in the end Fred’s psychological problem of jealousy is solved.

In an interview with American Cinematographer, Lynch talks about how his ideas come into being, which I think shines a light on the unique quality all of his films have:

When asked to explain how his rather unique thought processes conspire to conjure up his cinematic visions, the director assumes a sincerely thoughtful expression. “Everything sort of follows my initial ideas,” he offers. “As soon as I get an idea, I get a picture and a feeling, and I can even hear sounds. The mood and the visuals are very strong. Every single idea I have comes with these things. One moment they’re outside of my consciousness, and the next moment they come in with all of this power.”

The complexity of Lost Highway might come from this process, where powerful images force themselves into Lynch’s work, and he has to work out what to do with them. It might be impossible to rationally explain it all. Sometimes the image requires a leap of faith, by the filmmaker and the audience.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

A howl of pain from Laura Palmer, the murdered girl that opened the TV series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is difficult, heavy, hard to watch in places, and grapples with incest, rape, drug-taking, murder, domestic abuse, and the psychological consequences. Perhaps we get the opening half hour with the citizens of nearby Deer Meadow to connect us with the humour and quirkiness of the TV series, although these people have an obnoxious streak, but it does feel odd, like a different film. By the end, it feels like another universe.

The film is brutal and haunting, but I found it frustrating that Lynch felt compelled to make it at all. It tries to explain and wrap up the mysteries of the TV series, but it doesn’t quite stand on its own as a piece of art. If I hadn’t seen the first season of the TV series, and know the ending of the second, I don’t know how much of this would have made any sense.

Having said all of that, as a telling of the story of a victim of incest, it’s mature, emotionally smart and absolutely devastating. I just wish that either there were less decorative aspects of the TV series, or they were woven in more coherently. However, there are shots and scenes in this film that I will never forget. It’s a flawed masterpiece.

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The Complex

My debut novel, published by Salt, available online and from all good bookshops.

Cover of The Complex

Signal

My first published short story, with Nightjar Press:

Cover of Signal