One of the great joys of watching great and interesting movies is that it can lead to so much interesting writing. The level of writing that makes you feel like you are experiencing the film in a new way or opens you up to new ideas. The type of writing that inspires you think deeper about what you have watched.
One of the best films to read great writing about is one of my favorites, Inland Empire. With the recent restoration supervised by Lynch himself that has led to limited screenings in theaters and an upcoming new physical disc in 2023 by Criterion, it has become a great time to read about Inland.
This article takes a look at some great new writing on the film but also some interesting things written about the film before the recent restoration. This article will be updated in the future as more great pieces are made about this remarkable film (or I just find other great ones that have already been written).
Lynch pushes further than ever into surreal territory by Ty Burr
Ty Burr did an admirable job in 2006 of writing a very traditional weekly film review model review of Inland. “There’s no symbolism, and you’ll drive yourself crazy if you go looking for it. This may be hard for literalists to understand — and moviegoers can be the most literal audiences of all — but the film is nevertheless a work of profound, unnerving impact.” His review (and the one by Leigh right underneath this) definitely show the limits of the weekly review model supported by the Hollywood establishment. It’s a consumer driven/capitalist approach to criticism and is largely unhelpful to art. It was interesting to read two writers try to write about the “experience” of watching the film in that moment in time though as opposed to getting lost in trying to crack the code of some concrete meaning.
Danny Leigh wrote this review at the time the film was originally released in 2007 in England. Leigh was an early adopted of the idea that the film was more of an experience than something that is meant to be “understood” in the traditional/outdated sense. He wrote, “…I think Lynch’s newest head trip is probably best understood as not understood at all. Instead, it should just be experienced – a jolt of pure cinema full of revelations about the power of film, but only because of what it is rather than what it says. Closer on many levels to a gallery installation than a Friday night at the movies…”
BEFORE THE RESTORATION
Anderson’s book is simply put the gold standard for independently-ish published film criticism. It should be studied by all who aim to write about film. She manages to use an acteurism lens with her own distinct voice to create a page-turner of a deep dive analysis into one of the most dense works of modern cinema. Buy and read it now.
In another book that you should absolutely buy, Dennis Lim explores the life and career of David Lynch (up until right before they started the work on The Return). Lim’s writing on Inland is a great resource on multiple levels. It more directly discusses the film within the context of Lynch’s other work and makes specific connections to other films more easily as a result. It is also a deep dive into the look of the picture and the technology used to film it. Again, I definitely recommend you buy and read the book for yourself.
In this academic article, Barzegar approaches Inland (and Mulholland Drive) from a perspective that looks to examine the meaning behind the distorted sense of reality in the films. Barzegar writes, “Postmodern writers could be taken as illusionists who beckon the readers to the magical realm of words and texts. They intend to blend and misplace the narrative levels of their story so as to puzzle the readers, which in most cases are effective.”
(Disclaimer: I read this article via Google Translate as it was originally published in Hungarian.) In this academic article, Kiss wrote, “You leave the cinema and don’t even try to untangle the threads, a much more fundamental question is in your head: is what you just saw the ‘perfect bluff’ itself…I really can’t stand the purple haze of low-stakes theories surrounding Lynch, so I’ll quickly explain what I mean. The ‘bluff’ category is usually awarded to those films which actually do nothing but play on the expectations of the audience linked to the category that can be called “art film”. In terms of subject matter, according to Richard Corliss, contemporary American “independent films” are bluffing, but the style is not spared by the bluff either: a typical, arbitrary, i.e. self-serving, film style characterizes even a slice of European art film. In Lynch’s case, bluffing is strangely almost a virtue. It is a synonym, i.e., a reflection of the critical statements that speak about him under the theoretical umbrella of postmodernism: in connection with his films, the designations like “postmodern dream world” or “surreal fantasy” are mostly expressions of analytical dead ends that do not know what to do with their subject. When conventional analytical strategies fail, the distraught critic pulls out the postmodern drawer and pulls out his last-ditch markers. For example, if you are really unsure, or at least feel that it is more than a simple bluff, you will also say “perfect bluff”. But with this adjective ‘perfect’, we also highlight our own weakness: we secretly realize that what we see cannot be simplified in this way, that the pejorative adjective ‘bluff’ or criticism leaning towards fiction does not cover the values of Lynch’s storytelling. From this moment on, we are not freed from our need to interpret: if we do not treat the film with our cheap analysis routine, we will have a chance to uncover its true values with adequate persistence – we think. Again and again we try to reinvent ourselves in the world created by Lynch, and it is probably the surface of this effort that makes these films “exciting”.” Kiss’ writing about Inland is actually interesting and well-written to a degree that it makes you want to read and reread it. I am curious how much meaning was actually distorted by the rough Google translation though.
Loughrey speaks to key elements of the film: the setting (in an immediate and larger sense) and the idea of patriarchal violence against women. To the immediate setting, Loughrey writes that “The Los Angeles of Inland Empire is a crucible of deep, moral ugliness – unpleasant to look at and exist in.” This is key both to the film’s events but also to the larger ideas that the film explores, particularly that of the violence women must suffer as a condition of existing in this world. Loughrey later writes, “Lynch is guilty, like many a male auteur, of deifying and objectifying his female characters. But, unlike so many of his compatriots, his work also shows great empathy for the terror that women suffer at the hands of gendered violence.”
Burns used the 2022 restoration of Inland Empire as an opportunity to revisit a film he hated upon its release in 2006. After watching it again this year, Burns concluded, “…I’m relieved to report that I don’t hate “Inland Empire” anymore. I mean, it’s still an arduously long and insanely unpleasant experience, but I’m willing to concede that there’s a challenge there I was unwilling to meet upon its initial release.” Burns also manages to express my main takeaway from the film which is that, “You’re not supposed to follow the movie so much as let it wash over you, wallowing in the atmosphere of exquisite unease.” Burns offer a solid essay of what it means to grapple both with how your experience with a piece of art can evolve over time and how one’s poorly conceived expectations of what something is supposedly “supposed to be” thwarts your experience with what something is actually trying to be.
Nayman puts forth his own theory about the film while focusing on the infamous tagline, “A woman in trouble.” Nayman writes, “…is the “woman in trouble” Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), a famous actress contracted to star in a Hollywood movie adapted from an obscure Polish script that is possibly cursed? Or is it The Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka), a Polish immigrant who, in the film’s opening, sits exiled in a hotel room of the damned, observing multiple planes of televisual reality (including a sitcom about human-sized rabbits) through glassy eyes?…I’ve decided (if not determined) that Nikki and The Lost Girl are one and the same….As far as I can tell, the main sources of trouble in Inland Empire are Hollywood and the patriarchy, which Lynch treats as malevolent entities as schizophrenically indivisible from one another as Nikki and The Lost Girl.” Nayman’s take speaks to the broader conditions in which women are forced to survive – not merely exist in – in order to make it through each day. He treats his ideas not as a “answer” answering a problem, but more as a reaction about what the film means to him.
While acknowledging that many have tried to chart narrative logic into the film, David Sims speaks to the idea that that way of thinking is inappropriate for the film at hand. Sims writes, “But to me, the spontaneity of Lynch’s creative process means Inland Empire should be embraced as something beyond narrative. At its best, the film’s a compelling re-creation of a dream state, in which one’s location, timeline, friends, and personality can morph without warning.” Sims really captures the importance of approaching Inland from a mood lens. If ever there has been a major film by a major artist that was begging for you to discuss it from the perspective of how it made you feel, it is Inland.
Elkind rather blissfully just goes all in and tries to truly analyze the film for ideas and meaning in a rather courageous manner. In a rather short amount of space, Elkind delivers an admirable plot summary, convincingly examine how the mechanics of how Lynch shot the film impact the mean, assess the abilities of Dern, contextualize the work within Lynch’s filmography, and put forth his own ideas about how the film thematically comes together.