The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
INLAND EMPIRE, a round-table Alternate Take

Written by James MacDowell, James Zborowski and Tim Vermeulen.

Photo from the article NOTE: What follows is the first part of an ongoing discussion between three Alternate Takes writers - James MacDowell (JM), James Zborowski (JZ) and Tim Vermeulen (TV) - that attempts to get to grips with some of the issues that INLAND EMPIRE raises…

JM: INLAND EMPIRE seems to demand a different method of viewing from its audience than any other film I can name. One fundamental problem that the film therefore raises is how best to respond to it, and I would like first to suggest here a few potential responses to this central problem.

It is possible that we could attempt to approach it as an, undeniably splintered and difficult, story, by attempting to piece together its scenes into a narrative. Equally, we could treat it as a collection of obsessively charted themes and concepts, by making connections with the themes of Lynch’s other work, or to those of some other structuring system, taken from, for example, psychoanalysis or philosophy. Or we might simply treat the film as a visceral, emotional audio-visual ‘experience’, by abandoning a search for meaning and coherence altogether and appreciating it instead for the numerous immediate, individual pleasures that it affords.

There are two points to make about these possible approaches. The first is that Lynch himself, in the simultaneously wonderful and infuriating Lynchian manner to which we have become accustomed, has been quoted as suggesting that the film is in fact all very simple, and that it should not be at all difficult to ‘get’. This may well be of merely anecdotal interest: what directors say about their films is not necessarily to be taken at face value (‘trust the tale, not the teller’), and Lynch in particular is notoriously elliptical and mysterious when discussing his work - perhaps relying on his own opinions of the film is simply to engage in chasing a particularly slippery wild goose. Yet it’s difficult to entirely shake off the sense that there is, lurking beneath INLAND EMPIRE, a simple structure or ‘answer’ (or series of ‘answers’) that might help explain it - in part because the film itself contains enough internal echoes and ‘clues’ as to avoid appearing random, and partly due (I suppose) to innate human needs for some kind of coherence in art. The other point is simply that none of the above approaches may be the single ‘right’ one, and that the most fruitful way to view the film is likely to be to incorporate elements of each, and perhaps others as well.

JZ: I agree that we can attempt to approach INLAND EMPIRE in numerous ways, and that some of these approaches might demonstrate that the film possesses a level of coherence. Or, yes, we can abandon the search for coherence. Two questions then. First, what specific approaches might we employ and what specific claims for coherence might result in the case of INLAND EMPIRE? Second, is a work of art faulty, or at least limited in its achievements and effects, if it fails to be coherent?


JM: In relation to your (JZ’s) first point, and keeping in mind the approaches I mentioned, I’ll first give an intentionally reductive description of what I believe it is potentially possible to consider the narrative of INLAND EMPIRE to be; then I’ll touch on what I see as some of the broader thematic (and other) issues at play in the film. After that, I’ll briefly address the interesting second question.

Clearly, INLAND EMPIRE is a film that shows us multiple different worlds whose characters and characteristics bleed into one another. If trying to piece together a narrative for the film, it’s necessary first to give some kind of names to these worlds. It could be that there is, at bottom, the ‘real’ world, in which there exists the Polish woman (perhaps the subject of the ‘folk tale’) whose life is retold in both the film of which On High and Blue Tomorrows is a remake, and On High and Blue Tomorrows itself. This woman was married, had an affair, became pregnant, then either lost the son through miscarriage (suggested by the stabbing in the stomach/womb) or lost him to death later on. She became the victim of her jealous husband’s rage, and the murderous intent of the wife of the man with whom she had an affair. She lost everything, found herself on the streets and became a prostitute. This is the world glimpsed in the first scene, in which we see a woman go to a hotel room with a man, then sit down and watch a television, showing parts of the film INLAND EMPIRE (such as Grace Zabriskie approaching Nikki’s house). The second world is that of the first film made from her plight, shown in the sepia, early 20th Century-style segments that depict (in particular) prostitutes on a snow-covered street.

The third world depicts the actress, Nikki, who gets the part in the remake of this film, On High and Blue Tomorrows. The fourth world is the film On High and Blue Tomorrows itself, in which Nikki is playing a character called Sue. This film, we are told, is cursed (presumably by ‘the Phantom’ character), and that curse seems to be designed to trap the female actress/ character in the part she is playing and force her to live out the original woman’s story herself; this happens when Nikki begins an affair with her co-star, played by Justin Theroux. Nikki travels through these various worlds (the world of her own life, that of On High and Blue Tomorrows, and that of the first film of the Polish woman’s life), trapped in the story, until she confronts and kills ‘the Phantom’. This then lifts the curse and sets both her and the original Polish woman free from the story (evidenced by the kiss in the TV room [the ‘real world], and the Polish woman’s reunion with her husband and son).


Obviously, this description of the film’s narrative is unsatisfactory: it, for one thing, is barely coherent in a conventional (‘realist’?) sense. It also leaves a number of elements unaccounted for (to take just two: the mysterious ‘rabbit room’, and Justin Theroux’s wife [played by Julia Ormond] showing up at a police station with a screwdriver in her side). I thought it necessary, however, to have a go at constructing a narrative at all in order to (a) test whether this task is possible or in any way satisfactory, and (b) to get the ball rolling by beginning to break the film down into its component parts. I think, although oversimplified (and perhaps, in some areas, also woolly or even flatly incorrect), the above rendition of the film’s events does contain elements of truth, but if INLAND EMPIRE was reducible to this story alone, I would have little interest in it. That I am hugely interested by it is also strongly indebted to both the thematic and visceral pleasures it provides.

In terms of its concrete themes, I think Tim will likely have more informed, intelligent things to say than me - things which relate the film’s project to psychoanalytic/ philosophical issues that I don’t quite have the vocabulary to enter into. For myself, suffice to say that the film forces me to ponder ideas relating to the mutability of personal identity (as do, of course, Lost Highway and Muholland Drive also) - the ways in which our sense of self is never stable, constantly shifting and always in some way mediated through performance and deception (in particular, the way Laura Dern becomes different characters both consciously, through acting, and unconsciously). It also encourages me to consider the nature of fiction film (particularly Hollywood films) and its relationship with reality - not merely the old cliché of wish-fulfilment-vs.-harsh-reality (though this is certainly and important, and necessary, part of it), but also notions surrounding the projecting of oneself onto the characters in a fiction film (this could be what is happening for the Polish woman watching television), and the ways in which real-life can be simultaneously exaggerated and emptied of its meaning when filmed. It also seems to me to be about time (there is much discussion of time, and Dern seems to travel through different time frames), and the innate non-linear flexibility of the concept through memory, etc.: for one thing, the running time of the film means that we are forced to remember back to long-gone moments/ images and relive them side-by-side with events unfolding in front of us if we are to make sense of later scenes.


The visceral pleasures of the film are also great. The frightening images (particularly Dern’s distorted face) are some of the most flat-out disturbing I have seen in my film-watching life, and they touch uncomfortably deep in me. The use of music is strangely hypnotic throughout, from Lynch’s own “strange, what love does” song, to a seemingly incongruous but somehow appropriate use of Beck, to the beautiful, free wail of Nina Simone in the credits sequence; and let’s not forget ‘The Loco-motion’ dance sequence: one of the most transcendently silly/ funny/ shocking/ satisfying moments I can remember experiencing in a fiction film. Who can explain that? Do we need to?

The physical experience of watching INLAND EMPIRE in a cinema is also unlike any other: sometimes the screen is so bright we cannot even keep our eyes on it; we are appalled one moment, laughing the next; we are at once confused by something inexplicable, then equally bowled-over by the sheer, apparent ‘rightness’ of a particular moment (I would say the camera pulling out to reveal another camera shooting the Hollywood boulevard sequence is one of these). The overall sense I have with the film is one of being sucked into it - into its very fabric - and getting trapped in its labyrinthine structure, just as Dern is; it’s as if I have fallen through the gaps between its broken, pixelated surface and am experiencing it from within.

So, from the ramblings above it is quite obvious that I’m finding it very difficult to explain in concrete critical terms quite why I respond to INLAND EMPIRE so strongly. This brings us round to your (JZ’s) final question about coherence, and whether a film is ‘faulty’ or limited if it can’t be said to be coherent. I would say, provisionally: no. Certainly it is a serious limitation if we are judging it with a set of criteria which places particular stresses on coherence, but I generally believe that I should - broadly - let a work of art dictate its own criteria of judgement to me (whilst, of course, always unavoidably allowing for the infinite personal aesthetic preferences that I myself bring to the table). This is certainly a controversial and debatable position, and one that I am aware has many potential drawbacks, but I’ll leave them to others to point out. What matters to me is whether I feel a film ‘works’, which is - of course - itself a kind of coherence. My response has already been long, so I’ll leave definitions of what this mysterious ‘working’ might consist of for later, but my reactions to INLAND EMPIRE suggest to me that it does indeed ‘work’: put very bluntly, it left me satisfied.


TV: Indeed it seems, as you (JM) argue, most appropriate to analyse INLAND EMPIRE through various somewhat loosened theoretical and textual frameworks; frameworks, moreover, that should not necessarily cohere with one another and could even be utterly contradictory and forever irreconcileable. I would thus only like to add some theoretical suggestions first, and subsequently, taking up JZ’s second question, some textual ones.

The film takes place, as its title already suggests, in an ‘inland empire’. It seems on a par with what many philosophers have termed the ‘difference’, or, more recently, the ‘intermedial’: that is, in short, what lies in between different realities and/or media. A difference, or treshold, the intermedial consequently is at the same time subject to and constitutive for these realities and/or media.

The ‘inland empire’ (re-)comes into existence as it were by the re-enactment of On High and Blue Tomorrows. This story appears to be both a past reality and a past ‘fictional’ mediation. Laura Dern thus finds herself trapped in between places, amongst others, such as a back-alley (reality?) on the one hand, and a movie set (fiction/medium?) one the other. In this ‘difference’, she can see both the realities and/or media through windows and TV screens, but then isn’t able to enter them. The difference she now is in is necessary to keep the realities and media apart. This is why she encounters all of them, and at the same time.


An ‘inland empire’ such as this is not just the difference between places of realities and/or media. It also differentiates their various times. It recalls here Borges’ Labyrinth, wherein time is conceived of not as linear, but rather as a maze of many different possible timepaths that can differentiate, cross, merge, and differentiate again, cross again, etc. Through narrow, confusing paths Laura Dern enters the same junctions, rooms, but in different times, of different realities and/or media. The one instance she is in a long lost Poland, the other she is at home with her real husband, the other on the set with her fictional husband. Along the way, they all appear to be one and the same.

But what happens, my question is, when she finds her way out of this labyrinthine ‘inland empire’? What happens to the ‘difference’ when she does away with it? Does it dissapear? And more interestingly, then, what consequences does that have for the realities and/or media it mediates? They surely must blur, merge, become one?

Finally I would like to shortly answer JZ’s second question in relatively standard art- philosophy terms.

One has to understand the difference between the categories of beautiful (i.e. the harmonious) and the sublime (i.e. the disruptive). According to many philosophers, from Kant to Nietzsche to Lyotard, only the second category applies to art, if only because it threatens us, inspires us with all encompassing awe, and necessitates us to somehow overcome it.


Without obvious coherence, a fragment, this work of art is able to tear one (or at least me) apart between attraction and repulsion, to inspire one with awe, and then necessitates her/him to finish it, turn it whole and overcome it through some sort of ‘contemplation’. This tension, between the fragment as immediate experience and the whole as contemplative retrospective, can be said to be sublime, and thus - like many literary works by for example Novalis, or paintings by Friedrich, or later Munch, or photographs, recently, by Crewdson - a work of art.

JZ: Thanks to Tim for offering a perspective that goes beyond my competencies and, as he acknowledges above, those of James. I did not actually question whether or not INLAND EMPIRE qualifies as a work of art: it seems to me that that status is conferred upon it automatically by various features, both textual and extra-textual (including the institutional context in which it is presented), that probably do not need to be lingered on. Nevertheless, Tim’s response remains valid as I was asking something about INLAND EMPIRE’s ‘artistic-ness,’ to use an ugly formulation (‘artistry’ implies something a little different). I did not really expect my equation between incoherence and ‘faultiness’ to stand, and Tim’s offering of examples from elsewhere in art history is helpful (although I resist his impulses to go to the opposite end of the scale: Kant et al may exclude the beautiful as a criterion in art, but many other theorists/critics do not, and I do not really see how one can, in the face of the existence of so much beautiful, harmonious art).

I offered that equation, though, as an opening gambit concerning something which bothered me, and still bothers me, about INLAND EMPIRE. In order to develop this further, I need to put some cards on the table.

The main film-viewing context I bring to INLAND EMPIRE, for better or worse, is a ‘narrative cinema’ context. More specifically, the movies that figure most prominently in my mental geography are those made in Hollywood from roughly the mid-1930s until around the end of the 1950s. I point this out as a means of both highlighting where my competencies predominantly lie, and confessing to my aesthetic preferences. Now, obviously (and this has already been touched upon above), such a context is not the correct or only context one can bring to INLAND EMPIRE. However, it is also far from irrelevant. Hollywood specifically has always figured heavily in Lynch’s films (and, it would appear, his psyche), and INLAND EMPIRE itself concerns both film-making and stardom - one of its most memorable scenes occurs on the Hollywood ‘walk of fame,’ or at least a Lynchian version thereof. (Furthermore, INLAND EMPIRE was screened not in art galleries, but in cinemas that mainly exhibit narrative cinema.) Thus do I qualify what follows: what I say is informed by my own aesthetic preferences, and I offer only one perspective from which to interpret and evaluate this film. However, I do not mean to be overly apologetic about this. I think the things I have to say below point to what might be legitimately considered to be limitations of INLAND EMPIRE.


Narrative cinema is a broad designation, and it is hard to point to its general features without being overly specific on the one hand, or banal on the other. Not all narrative cinema is ‘realist’: a movie will often make clear that its world should be understood as adhering to different conventions from the world its audience lives in. ‘Linear’ is another commonly used but in actual fact highly misleading term. Even a narrative film that unfolds in chronological order is probably not best described as ‘linear,’ as it will almost invariably involve revelations concerning events that occurred before the movie began, and information revealed later in a movie will often lead us to re-interpret what we have seen earlier. Nevertheless, this short discussion points to two important features of narrative cinema. It will feature a reasonably coherent fictional world, the operation of which can be related to the operation of our own world through similarity and/or some specific differences. It will also feature a story that serves as a thread to pull the audience through the movie, and serve to motivate the ordering and presentation of scenes.

The issue of genre also deserves mention here. Genre too can establish a bounded range of expectations, and help the audience to orient themselves in relation to the movie, both in terms of the stories likely to be told, and the attitude they should adopt towards what they see.

All of this means that a great deal of narrative cinema, whether a 1946 Hollywood movie or a 2007 Italian movie, will draw upon these resources. A scene about which one may find little to say relating to the more obvious manifestations of film style may nevertheless be eloquent, resonant, suggestive and fascinating because of its handling of these conventions. Actual examples tend to be preferable to hypothetical ones, so let me, very briefly, offer one example from a recent movie, Junebug (2005).

The scene is a familiar one. George (Allesandro Nivola) has brought his new(ish) wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) to meet his family in North Carolina. George and Madeleine live in Chicago; Madeleine is an art dealer. Thus, we are likely to see cosmopolitan and rural values and modes of interaction come into contact, and perhaps conflict. As is often the case in coming-home movies, the couple arrive at meal time. However, the specific meal-time at which they arrive, breakfast, is unusual. Before this scene, we have seen George’s mother express (again, familiar) reservations about this woman of experience and her suitability for George, and the fact that there exists some hostility between George and his brother is established. We have also seen Madeleine try to get all the family members’ names straight with George before they exit the car.

<i>Junebug</i>
Junebug
When the scene begins, then, our viewing of it is informed by what has already been established about the characters and their relationships with one another. We might also register how tropes of the sub-genre (arrivals, meal-times) are used, and slightly tweaked. The way the scene itself is played draws upon our knowledge and recognition of awkward social situations. Madeleine, despite her efforts, gets George’s mother’s name wrong. She then proceeds to knock a decorative bird off the wall with her bag, causing it to smash, which heightens the tension further, and allows for a fascinating display of how people’s reactions to an event are regulated by the social relationships in place - in this case, the characters have only just met, are unsure of each other, and are trying to remain cordial.

Junebug is, I think, a deeply wonderful film, but the important point here is that so much of what allows it to be wonderful comes from its larger cultural context. It engages us by asking us to draw upon the knowledge and expectations that we have due to our familiarity with awkward social situations, families, other movies that depict such things, and narrative cinema in general (put most generally: we expect things to happen to the characters). Too often, conventions are seen as a prison to be escaped from. The same sometimes goes for narrative and genre. But these things can offer an enabling context, to be intelligently used by filmmakers to create a work of art that has more resonance than it could muster on its own, precisely because it emerges from such a rich cultural context. One does not have to create one’s own language to speak eloquently; indeed, if one does try to create one’s own language, there is the risk that no-one else will understand what is being said.

James MacDowell began this discussion with the assertion that ‘INLAND EMPIRE seems to demand a different method of viewing from its audience than any other film I can name.’ I agree: Lynch’s film attempts to be sui generis to a greater extent than most others. Of course, it is informed by Lynch’s other work, and bits of narrative and genre float by, but, broadly speaking, I think it is fair to say that it chooses to kick away those supporting and enriching conventions I sketch above. I am not saying it is wrong or forbidden to do so. INLAND EMPIRE remains a work of art, with some absolutely breathtaking scenes (I think few people can handle tone, or menace, better than Lynch). However, by choosing to forego these things, does the film not impoverish itself and become excessively solipsistic? Is there an acceptable trade-off between the things I have pointed to in other movies (things I value) and the achievements of INLAND EMPIRE?


JM: I think there’s a potential danger, if we carry on in this vein, of our discussion becoming a little too binary and somewhat caricaturing INLAND EMPIRE to the point at which we treat it as something that it is not. Whilst I understand what you mean, James, when you say that Lynch by and large ‘chooses to kick away’ most of the conventions you see as constituting narrative (or at least, ‘classical’ narrative) cinema, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that, in the film, merely ‘bits of narrative and genre float by’. This film is by no means avant-garde, experimental, or lacking in narrative to the extent that, say, Un Chien Andalou-era (1929) Bunuel was, the work of Stan Brakhage was, or that of Mathew Barney is. To make our dialogue surrounding INLAND EMPIRE into a debate about the relative merits of narrative vs. non-narrative film (which, in another context might be very interesting and valuable) would, I think, be a mistake in this case.

My previous reply attempted to show that, whilst the story of INLAND EMPIRE may not be able to be explained fully in every individual aspect, it certainly does have a story of sorts. Tim’s understanding of the film as being built around a series of labyrinths between worlds also attests to this, assuming as it does a central character who goes on a journey - perhaps the most basic framework of all plots. Incidentally, I should like to say, in response to Tim’s question about what happens when Dern finds her way out of the labyrinths (I would say this happens after she kills ‘the Phantom’, kisses the Polish prostitute by the television and fades away): I feel that, yes, the worlds/medias merge, but that Dern is then transported to another reality altogether, outside of anything we have seen before (an afterlife of sorts, perhaps, or at least a freeing state of escape) represented by the party over which the credits roll. This is the place being described by the Japanese woman on Hollywood boulevard - a place that is happy (albeit also built to some extent on pretence and role-playing, as evidenced by the talk of the blonde wig that makes the run-down prostitute look like a beautiful movie star, etc.), and a place that it is desirable to escape into (see the Japanese woman’s desire to catch a bus there). In short, then, INLAND EMPIRE is, I think - although obviously not as clear in its plot as a ‘classical’ Hollywood film - not divorced from narrative cinema as strongly as you, James, seem to be suggesting, and in that sense is already - without need for any critical overview that might explain its inner workings more fully - more ‘coherent’ than you imply.

As such, I also don’t believe that the film is so divorced from the wider contexts that you speak of as you suggest it to be. Firstly, in terms of extra-textual context, my earlier comments about what I consider the film’s themes to be show that - for me, at least - it certainly does relate to wider (social/ psychological/ philosophical) issues, and in fact cannot be understood without reference to such external contexts. One theme I didn’t touch on particularly (but which you do in passing) was that of Hollywood and stardom: as you point out, one of the film’s most memorable scenes (I think one of the most memorable scenes of any recent film) takes place on the ‘walk of fame’, and the film is certainly engaging with notions relating to the actual social reality of Hollywood. In this sense, then, I don’t find the film to be as ‘solipsistic’ (as you put it) as it might be said to run the risk of being.

<i>Mulholland Drive</i>
Mulholland Drive
Moving from the extra-textual to the intertextual, clearly another context that the film relates to is the other work of Lynch: it constantly refers to themes and images that Lynch has been obsessing over for pretty well his whole career, and can be understood in relation to these connections. As a viewer, I also feel that I have been ‘trained’ by Lynch’s other films in how to watch and respond to INLAND EMPIRE. I know, for example, from having seen Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997), and Muholland Drive that a flickering or strobe-ing light will tend to indicate a shift or disconnection in perception or worlds - a moment of transition. Thus, when this lighting effect occurs in INLAND EMPIRE at the moment when Dern and Theroux are having sex, I know that what is happening is the clashing and shifting of two worlds/ modes of perception. Another Lynchian narrative technique that I bring to bear whilst watching due to intertextual context is the image of disappearing into or through an object into another place (such as Muholland Drive’s blue box): this also crops up in INLAND EMPIRE when Dern burns a hole in some silk fabric and looks through it; I am able to understand this moment precisely because the film does not simply stand alone and entirely make up its own rules. Whether these relationships to Lynch’s other films could themselves be said to be evidence of solipsism is another question, though I would argue that they are no more so than the recurring themes/ motifs of, say, Hitchcock are solipsistic.

Another intertextual context you bring up is genre. INLAND EMPIRE certainly appears to be, narratively, largely (though not entirely) removed from familiar generic codes; however, I don’t think anyone could reasonably argue that a film needs to belong to a genre in order to be valuable. As you say, a lack of genre closes off one possible method of making meaning, but a generic framework is certainly not necessary for a film to be meaningful or enjoyable. Having said that, however, INLAND EMPIRE does in fact contain overtones of one broad generic category in particular - the mystery film - and a few more specific sub-genres, such as the ghost story and Hollywood film industry satire. The Hollywood satire and the ghost story elements both have their own specific, instructive generic resonances, but it is the ‘mystery’ aspect that I think is most interesting.

The sense of mystery, of trying to find out the answer to a question (in this case, for Dern, simply ‘what is going on?’ or ‘how can I stop it?’) drives the narrative, even if not to the same extent as previous Lynch films like Blue Velvet (1986) or Muholland Drive. More than driving the narrative, however, I would say that it actually drives the entire film and seems virtually - the more I think about it - its main reason for existing.

<i>Blue Velvet</i>
Blue Velvet
The search for meaning (embodied most succinctly in generic fiction by the ‘detective story’) is a fundamentally intriguing trope, relating as it does to what I would argue is one of the human mind’s most basic needs - understanding and comprehension (Umberto Eco, I think, touches on this in his The Name of the Rose). It is a story type that Lynch has used again and again. INLAND EMPIRE allows the viewer to delve much further than most ‘mystery’ plots into the very stuff that mystery is built around, because the mystery that needs to be solved here is not clearly defined in the manner of a murder mystery, etc., but rather is extended to include every aspect of the film we are watching - the film is itself a mystery about a mystery. This is - I think - what I was getting at earlier when I spoke of falling through the fabric of the film and finding myself inside: the mystery at the heart of the film is reflected in the construction of the film itself, and the spectator is put absolutely into the position of Dern, trying to solve a (perhaps unsolvable) mystery. Without watching the film again (for a third time), I can’t be sure of specifics, but I distinctly remember that throughout there are lines that seem to be addressing the audience directly, commenting upon the act of deduction that the spectator is unavoidably attempting (one phrase I remember coming up is “mind-fuck”). The ways in which time shifts for Dern is replicated for us by repetitions and call-backs across the film’s long running time, and so we struggle to make sense of these shifts in just the same way she does. The ‘clues’ (recurring names, images, plotlines, etc.) may not ever add up finally to one ‘answer’, but it is the entering into and taking part in (in the most extreme way possible) the process of an unfolding mystery - via the labyrinth-like structure Tim spoke of - that seems to me the very subject of the film.

I hope I have sketched half-convincingly why I think the film is not as disconnected from its various contexts as James implies. Certainly I don’t believe that codes and conventions are ‘prisons to escape from’; I absolutely agree with James’ description (via the Junebug example) of the ways in which social and intertextual conventions can deepen our understanding of and response to a work of art, and would say that this process is at work in INLAND EMPIRE too. I do believe, however, that there is also much space for valuable art that operates outside of these conventions, within new conventions, or which - as, I believe, is the case for INLAND EMPIRE - relates to these conventions in new, interesting and exciting ways.

JZ: I thank James for his salutary intervention and correction. I admit that INLAND EMPIRE is ‘more narrative’ than I allow above - and the comparison with Brakhage et al suggested above makes that point well (and also raises the issue of duration…). However, I think a little exaggeration, as long as it is corrected, is not necessarily harmful in this context. Mine is not the only voice here, so it can be corrected by others; and exaggerations may be instructive, forcing others to get closer to what something is by pointing out what it is not, creating an effect something like a pendulum that swings before reaching a resting point near the truth.


In such a spirit, I would like to qualify aspects of my previous comments in light of James’s objections. Although, yes, a form of narrative is present in INLAND EMPIRE, I think that my suggestions about the consequences of not having a narrative still apply at least partially to the film. James and I disagree about the extent to which a narrative is present and a logic discernible in INLAND EMPIRE. We can probably agree that the film is neither narrative-free, nor in possession of the logic and clarity that one takes for granted in so many movies. Even if INLAND EMPIRE has a narrative, if that narrative does not allow the viewer to do quite the same things - or the same things to the same degree - that other movies do, then surely some modes of interaction and sense-making will be frustrated. As I say, what remains to be agreed upon is the extent to which narrative is/is not present/clear, and the consequences of this. In relation to genre also, I would suggest that my observations need to be similarly tempered, rather than overturned. (And let me acknowledge that indeed, no-one could reasonably argue that a film must belong to a genre to be valuable, and I hope I did not appear to try to do so.)

TV: I think these arguments have been very useful and eye-opening. I agree with most of them. Let me shortly take on some of them you from a somewhat testing, theoretical angle.

I feel the need to first say a few short words still about the final scene with regards to Hollywood Boulevard. Maybe it is a new reality/mediation here, but then always one that is both. As James MacD points out, it is not so much about reality as about acting, i.e. fiction. But what you do not mention however - and the name of the street, and it is a ‘real’ street, Hollywood Boulevard! - is that, of course, they are one and the same. And neither does this ‘simulacrum’ seem ‘free’. The blonde woman experiences a very painful, terrible reality, but while putting on an act.

Might this not be Lynch’s recurring critique: that we have, with the mystery, dissolved the ‘inland empire’ - the difference, the treshold between real and unreal, true and untrue, and that this is what we get: real (or are they) people dying while acting on a street that is both real and fictional?!

I have to say I agree with James MacD: I also do think there is a narrative (the flickering lights, Laura Dern’s travels in the timeless but time-differentiating labyrinth), that is, although not typically generic, genre-related. And, I might add, a very strong one. But indeed, as James Z rightly asserts, this narrative asks for a different audience interaction.


Were INLAND EMPIRE somehow generic, then it would be, as James MacD argues, a mystery. Something is happening before our eyes, but we cannot grasp it - and can less and less even; in an ever more seemingly fragmentary fashion it constantly and increasingly overcomes us, and we just struggle to comprehend - but of course fail. This Real, in other words, perpetually slips away, and what we, in fact (and I consciously repeat myself here) try to do is to somehow get back to it - again, impossibly so; primarily through narrative. This experience of a mystery so mysterious and powerful that needs to be somehow - continuously, almost ‘sissyphusly’- solved by us, its audience, is exactly that of the aforementioned sublime.

JM: Thank you, guys. I think that we may now have actually gone as far as we can with our discussion without the close analysis that easy watching and re-watching of the film would allow. All the points we are debating are in a way theoretical until we can test them against the film itself, and right now this isn’t possible. I would therefore suggest putting a pause on our conversation until the film becomes available on DVD, at which time we can revisit it with the close attention that it deserves and demands. Because of its complexity, one or two viewings of this film is certainly not enough: it seems to me to absolutely require multiple viewings in order to get the most basic of handles on it, let alone construct a useful critical evaluation.

I would just like to close, though, by saying that I think it’s a testament to INLAND EMPIRE’s achievements that it has not just inspired, but necessitated, the kind of dialogue above - a dialogue that has forced us to touch on some of the most fundamental and interesting issues about the very essence of cinema, and art more generally. Whatever the merits of the film may prove to be on repeat viewings (and I personally am already on the verge of calling it Lynch’s masterpiece, eclipsing even Muholland Drive), the fact that it has made us engage anew with notions such as coherence, narrative, genre, external context and the sublime make me appreciate it greatly - apart from anything else - as a work of provocation, regardless of its other values. The specific characters of these values are also very important, however, and we will be able to discuss them in greater depth and with greater usefulness when we have this fascinating film in front of us again...

This article was published on June 21, 2007.

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