Lynch in his films engages his muse in a furtive way:
she is too hot to handle…
© 2010 by James Clark
A film so dark, violent and bloody as Inland Empire does not readily translate as abounding in whimsy. Notwithstanding that concealment, the movie does carry a peculiar payload of delight.
On bringing her wild drive to a close at an L.A. mansion where she was based while making a movie, some scenes of which were going to be shot in cost-effective Poland, Nikki Grace, played by Laura Dern, lowers herself into a sofa in the salon at high tea time, looks across the table at a far less bashed up mustering of herself and then looks around to find Laura Elena Harring, a.k.a., Rita, from Mulholland Drive. They smile and each blows a kiss to the other, the latter’s kiss having the inflection of Betty’s, “Taunk you, Daahlink.”
That latter bit of Slavonic fizz is about all the Poland you get in the glamorous, witty and subtle precincts of the realm of Rebekah Del Rio, Empress of the heart-stopping range of “Crying.” There is, of course, Betty’s Canada, readily emitting an uncool quotient as unsettling as Poland’s. (When Betty first meets Rita and blurts out that she’s just in from Deep River, Ontario, her new friend closes her eyes and reels slightly against a picture on the wall, not entirely because she’s just been through a near-death shake-up.) But Betty was a product of introspection indoors during long winters, and conjuring arcane, atypically slanted dreams to ward off a frozen nightmare, and as such she could go some distance with Rita toward a cogently hot “somewhere.” She eventually heeds the Cowboy’s advice to “wake up” to safe and easy rewards, leaving Rita confined to a solitary vigil on behalf of real excitement.
Though well-heeled with the fortune that had been invested on behalf of her execution, she had come to a territory impelling her to discover and embrace integral love and its productive powers. Inland Empire (2006) is a foray by a Rita who would not be recognizable as privy to a deadly (and laughter-inspiring ) kiss, nor to surreal sensitivities centering upon Jean Cocteau’s cinematic poem to love, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) and extending to Jacque Demy’s wispy thunderclaps. If Mulholland Drive was Lynch’s celebration of the exigency of laugh’s keeping cry at bay, Inland Empire was his cold shower of facing the odds that that daring causes to batter down upon it. One of the least (but also one of the most characteristically surreal) of those invasions is delivered at the end, at the salon, just after the Lauras tune up. Like the opportunistic predators that they are and always will be, a clutch of hooker-dykes (Canadians would caution that you canonize them as “sex workers”) with whom Susan had done quite a lot of business in the preceding hours, suddenly materializes as back-up cast for a willowy Jamaican woman trying to convince us and herself, through calypso-gospel song, that we’ve all hit upon “something big,” to be sealed away as a tidy nest egg. “Oh Yeah!” is her hopefully charismatic intro. The first thing you notice is that, not being about little things, her performance can’t be bothered with lip-synch precision. Then the legion of honor gets down to a less than professional dance gambit, reminiscent of the anaemic displays (counting on undiscerning audiences) of Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort. The upstanding woman of color, with her entitlement to a huge handicap, tees off with, “Sinner man, you better be prayin’!” Then, “Don’t you know I need you Lord!” Then, thinking perhaps that repetition might breed radiance, she flips out, in that anorexic voice of hers, “Power! Power! Power!” and so on.
Nikki has landed some kind of sunken treasure, to judge from her L.A. house and its serving staff, headed by a plummy-voiced butler, where we meet her as things get underway. Though bound for Poland, she has been auditioning for and is about to discover that she has succeeded in winning a principal role in a work titled, On High in Blue Tomorrows. While still in the audition-stage, she receives a visit by a “new neighbor,” a decidedly middle-aged local with a Slavic accent whose contorted but passable mouth culls up Mulholland Drive’s corpse of Diane/Betty, having received stellar reconstructive plastics. As she arranges for coffee (wasted Diane’s lifeline) to be served, we are drawn to Nikki’s grace, the fullness and poise of her face and the measured, very quiet gentleness of her voice (exactly the pitch presented by Laura Harring) and its simplicity of expression, set in relief by the neighbor’s disquieting tightness, with eyes shining in memory of much white powder that is not sugar for coffee. The guest immediately springs into knowingness that Susan will win the part to boot her flagging career, and that that work links to a first (Polish) version of the scenario, based on a gypsy folk tale, whose presentation was aborted by way of the co-stars’ being murdered, “brutal fucking murder!” Nikki responds with, “I don’t like that kind of talk.” (She could recall Diane’s jealously reproving her ensnarement of her into a wedding celebration (marking the end for them) with, “No fucking way!” It had been prefaced by a typically Slavic impetuousness about first principles, apropos of a little boy’s opening a door (a Pandora’s Box) to an upshot that “evil was born…and repeated over and over.” “You should go,” says the former Camilla, so adept at dismissing Diane. She leaves, but not before flinging back her way this trapeze—“There’s an unpaid bill. Actions do have consequences.” As the stranger had declared, Nikki/Rita/Camilla does get the part and her somehow warming cool evaporates in crude shrieks of triumphant glee. That step would leave her in lethal jeopardy due to her co-star’s being a notorious wolf and her husband’s being notoriously jealous and (what is much worse, but also much more surreal fun) a successful, wealthy and domineering lawyer prone to riveting out the kind of ethical architecture as to consequences we first heard from “the Cowboy” in Mulholland Drive. This is to say that, in addition to her obsession with Rebekah Del Rio’s “Crying” and its intricacies of laughing, Rita has hitched up with the canny antipode of her uncanny breakaway. To make matters even dicier, the co-star, Devon, as “Billy” (goat) is played by Justin Theroux, who was Camilla’s beau, Adam (the piece of work for the Cowboy), in the earlier outing. There is a delicious first reading of part of the script that echoes Betty’s audition, before a wonky, combined-years-of-experience corps of journeymen, generating quite startling sexual chemistry. (The Brit brain trust on this one complains of the “terrible tea” at the commissary.)
So the stage is set for graceful Rita’s testing the waters of an almost indescribable cesspool of resentment. Her career as a comeback actress infiltrating the ways of the world is particularly granted a highly tentative key—on embarking on a night of quickly accelerating coitus with Devon (whom she often refers to as “Billy,” his name in the melodrama) where she displays a resort to salty language (prompting his, “You talk too fuckin’ much”), she confides (as would Cocteau’s Belle in a zone of “happily ever after” she doesn’t believe for a moment) on his reference to her risking her marriage, “There’s nothing to ruin, Billy”—by a recurrently obtruding TV show, “Rabbits.” “Rabbits” (2002) is Lynch’s “Thought Experiment” along lines of the quantum physics conceptual graphics known as “Schrödinger’s Kittens,” whereby one attempts to reduce to absurdity the notion of finite intent as instrumental for factual eventuation. It pictures adjacent closed rooms of an electron receptacle, and a cat in the locked room housing the apparatus. With “Rabbits,” Lynch pictures a cul-de-sac emanating from the actions of Mulholland Drive. In a very modest living room three figures, each of whom is concealed by a long-eared head piece, which could belong to a rabbit, or a donkey, go about very limited activities in a mood of utmost furtiveness. Jack (rabbit; or Jack [ass]) Susie and Jane are Adam, Betty and Rita (with voices of the actors who played them), frequently retracing a vacuous promiscuity on the sofa—Rita in the middle, of course. The ladies are in frumpy dressing gowns; Jack is in a suit and tie. A sonorous foghorn or a train plays out periodically, as does the phone and a knock in the door. One says, “No one can know about this.” But in general they are reduced to random shards of retrospectively pointed observation (like, “I saw it too;” “I have known since I was seven;” “It happens all the time;” “It’s past midnight;” “I do not know where;” “I have the secret;” “I’m not sure;” “What time is it?”) which elicits sitcom laugh tracks. As Jack enters the room from his life outside, he is greeted by noisy applause from the canned response facility, in accordance with a persona far from weaned away from bathetic milking of approval. The palpably insufficient life spinning within those paranoiac confines (bringing to mind a parody of noir witnesses in hiding and not mitigated by Jane’s occasionally killing the lights and bringing to bear a portable version of Bête’s nocturnal digs [about which, we see Jack in a room recalling Bête’s corridor of curtains, where a murder is being mooted, in Polish, with subtitles]) would be Rita’s cue to hit the road, and to improvise, like the significant Mulholland Drive factor of investigator Mike Hammer, from the noir, Kiss Me Deadly, some semblance of historical traction. In this she would carry from the incubator that was “Rabbits” a spray of possibly maturing offspring (intentional drives). The fear that paralyzes the trio up for scrutiny does, as we have seen from Mulholland Drive, include a substantial basis in fact. Thus Rita would seem to be equipped in a way similar to the exiled princess of Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970), disguised under a new face and body and involved in a vast menu of roles through which to troll for a suitable mate. Such dispositions would be either quite binding (like marriage to an anal notable) or rather less so. But the point being clearly, though not obviously, made through this apparatus is that Rita has no choice but to act a part she can’t take fully seriously and, as a play actor, sample many roles spraying into range from an almost deliriously infected world history. Therefore, the title of the business at hand, On High in Blue Tomorrows, would complement that launch, in citing the case of Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), wherein a girl brings down upon herself a ton of blue tomorrows by having chosen to marry a benign and dull wealthy businessman in lieu of a man she loved with some, clearly insufficient, intensity. This case sets in relief Rita’s settling for second best because there is no first best. Her state of mind, therefore, could not accurately be described as “blue,” but instead that compound invoked by the theme song of Kiss Me Deadly, namely, “Rather Have the Blues” (than what I’ve got). One last point coming into view here is that, in the flooding fantasy (self-dramatization with its trap-doors of taking oneself far too seriously) that is Donkey Skin, the Princess, whose previous role left her with the name, “Delphine,” is assisted in the task of choosing promising steps by a fairy godmother played by one Delphine Syrig. Inland Empire entails weaving between two Lauras, in undertaking its saga of dangerous choice. We have already seen, in Mulholland Drive, how Demy’s playfulness with names could be brought within the orbit of a darker but no less light-hearted adventure. A film so dark, violent and bloody as Inland Empire does not readily translate as abounding in whimsy; but, notwithstanding that concealment, it does carry a peculiar payload of delight (laughter).
At the film’s outset we find a young dark-haired woman with Slavic features crying her eyes out while watching an instalment of “Rabbits.” There was a preamble where a man orders her to take her clothes off. “You know what whores do.” “Do you want to fuck me?” This is in black and white, and their faces are blurred out as if for evidence pending, or porn. Her nude body is not unlike Rita’s. Then there is full color and full focus and she is watching “Rabbits” dressed in a scarlet silk dress. Jane (Rita) says. “I’m going to find out one day.” Jack says, “I hear someone,” and Jane laughs, her laughter resembling the braying of a donkey. Demy’s Peau d’Ane (Donkey Skin) looks to a film of his friend and colleague, Robert Bresson, namely, Balthazar at Risk (1966) wherein a donkey—able to bray joyously despite multiple tortures from a crude surround—displays remarkably touching self-possession and love of life. At the outset of the Blue Tomorrows project, one of Devon’s PR team, apropos of preventing an indiscretion with Nikki, smirks, “But she does have a nice ass.” (The Polish Rita doing tricks will bleed into Nikki as a North Carolina housewife whose husband beats her savagely for becoming pregnant while he has been diagnosed as sterile. He leaves her to head the animal component of a small Polish circus.) In bed with Devon and watched by her husband, she reveals not only an undisciplined combustibility but tries, in vain of course, to get across to her abortive candidate that she is caught up in a spiel of recurrences exposing her to disjunctions of temporal sequence. One of her segues will, as we have noted, be a fleeting, richly inflected occupancy of the persona of the woman watching “Rabbits.”
Being almost quite literally from another planet, Nikki—often addressed by the name of her current incarnation on the screen, “Susan Blue”—evinces (very unlike Balthazar) almost no resistance to the herniating egos all around her. As a result, she is an appalling, while at the same time appealing, facsimile of the self-possessed equilibrium of that template explorer, Mike Hammer. This is Rita without Betty to keep her on an even keel, and no longer profiting from a truncated range of operations. She has a go at sifting through what the world has to offer, while maintaining, in theory at least, what her most intriguing incarnation, a white trash, North Carolina gal with links to Poland claims to live by—“I don’t take this kind of behavior.” In fact, like that speaker, she is battered (at times, almost beyond recognition) by the riptide gravity of “Inland [land-locked] Empire,” a history locked away from dynamic currents.
Being a Rita having had to free herself from being a Camilla, Nikki on the go takes as her strong suit love-making and becomes embroiled in the murderous jealousies of her spouse and those spouses having scuttled the first production of On High in Blue Tomorrows (originally titled in German Vier [Fear] Sieben ). Adulteration of the monstrously corruptible phenomenon of love ensnares her not only in those deadly conflicts but in additional leaching away of nearly all semblance of the gentle poise with which she welcomed her deranged neighbor. On finishing with the pileup that was Devon, she comes into the orbit of a sisterhood of prostitutes, a polyglot network of dykes and Valley girls who wouldn’t buckle down and who painfully remind her of her own history of gauche violence. Sado-masochistic practise there puts her on track toward the contracted murders of the earlier cast, one of the operatives of which becomes intent on murdering her, due to kinship in resentment with Devon’s wife. The latter has slapped her repeatedly as she blunders into their suite, declaring love for Devon, trying to rally him to help deal with the miasma she has invoked. As she is repeatedly hit, she says, “I don’t care. It’s somthin’ more.” A limo carries the hit man contracted by Nikki’s husband to a brutally ugly campsite in some Polish forest. In the guise of the startlingly foul-mouthed battered rural American wife of a circus employee (whose final gig lacks snap due to mourning a dead child), she flits, amongst the hookers, between snowy Warsaw (where one of the girls masturbates on the street, and the clicks of her clitoris blend into a carriage horse’s hoof beats on any icy road) and Hollywood and Vine, is stalked at the latter by the woman constituting a homicidal field of resentment and specifically coming about as Devon’s wife, is gutted by a screwdriver, pulls it out, staggers until falling close by Dorothy Lamour’s sidewalk star, copiously vomits blood, is addressed by one of the vagrants lying about, “You dyin’, Lady,” who proceeds to converse with a Japanese girl nearby about bus routes to Pomona (the latter knowing Pomona well due to its being the home of a hooker friend who wears a blonde wig and is so glamorous she even has women in love with her). Then, as Nikki takes her last breaths, the avatar of the obvious first tries to sell her a lighter and then confronts her with, “You on high now, Love.” (This latter scene exposing a thick crust of ice over a field of dreams, not unlike the preposterous distemper of the “Sinner Man” troupe.)
Then a camera boom sails into view, the actor-vagrants walk off, Nikki remains on the sidewalk. The director, shaken in a way similar to the reaction at Betty’s audition, calls for applause all round. Nikki gets up and drags herself to the back area of the sound stage, views for a few seconds a rush of her role as the trash-talking Southerner, goes up a dark stairway leading to the terracotta dump where “Rabbits” takes place, takes a gun from a drawer, confronts the hit man, shoots him several times (his face becoming a white pulp with scarlet emanations from the mouth) then a clown’s getup, then her own face twisted in rictus. Then, after opening the door for the fearful entities of “Rabbits,” she proceeds to the salon and its mincing joys, as accompanied on piano by a guy in a cowboy hat. Another rendition of Laura Dern replaces the Rita who has just endowed hard-won stability (grace) for loving innovation going forward.
The whirligig structure has transported Rita to a new problematical plateau for exploration. We should look back at two features of her war that render Inland Empire, over and above its mordant brilliance, a sensual lift every bit as compelling as that of the more emotionally congenial Mulholland Drive. Mulholland Drive had its breathtaking balancing act of Rebekah Del Rio performing the song, “Crying.” Inland Empire has Nikki/Rita, occupying the role of a nameless rural wife, with access to some kind of fence by means of which to disperse some valuables, and exposure to a contemptuous and vicious spouse, priding himself on having “a way with animals,” being “good with animals” (a skill with respect to which Rita has a long way to go before mastering). A series of appointments with the middle man elicits the following odd and awesome poetry, partly on behalf of intimidating a business obstacle, but partly on behalf of rallying a courage that has been all but blown away.
“I don’t know what I’m doin’ here.
It’s one hell of a fuckin’ climb!
There was this man I knew
In time they reveal what they really are.
It’s an old story.
All along it was bein’ revealed.
Plannin’ somethin’ with me in mind.
When I get mad, I really get mad.
When I was fifteen I ripped out a rapist’s eye
Got a finger in his eye socket
Me and fucker had it out
There was goo
See me comin’ at him
Grabbin’ his nuts
Huggin’ his nuts till the ambulance comes
He was cryin’ and screamin’ like a baby
What a fuckin’ man you are
What a baby you are! I said
He come to reapin’ what he was sowin’.
One time he got himself into some kind of frenzy.
He was waitin’ for me in the half light, crowbar goin’ up
When I opened the door, he shot out at me wavin’ the crowbar
I screamed and tried to get out of the way
Fuckin’ crowbar smashes that piece of shit door like glass
Tears it to shit.
I don’t take this kind of behavior.
I kicked his nuts crawlin’ up to his fuckin’ brain for refuge.
Servicin’ a couple a guys for drinks
One had a dick like a rhinoceros
He’d fuck the shit out of you,
I’ll tell you what!
A little girl, they asked her what she saw.
She says she sees the end of the world
All fire and shit and blood runnin’
Fuckin’ funny people.
All got their peculiarities.
Went to some Eastern Europe shit hole with a fuckin’ circus
A real fuckin’ ball of shit!
There was this guy they called him “The Phantom”
When the fight at the bar was over the Phantom’s done gone and disappeared
This is the kind of shit I’m talkin’ about
North Carolina Marine.
His sister with a truck-shift for a leg
She killed three kids in the first grade
This is the kind of shit…”
That would be gentle Rita, as Mulholland Drive’s Laura would say, “Just to see.” But it could slide that way into somethin’ real bloody. I’ve often felt the same when confronted by Canadian public television. Or academic film societies.
The second unusual feast served by this film is close-up scrutiny of the toll taken on Nikki’s face. The physiognomy of the Lauras is a study in contrasts. Mulholland Drive’s Laura Elena Harring, a former Miss America, displays high cheekbones, a perfect chin and mouth and big dark eyes that playfully smoulder over a wide range of expression. She has arresting breasts, well-moulded hips and a dancer’s carriage. Her skin is taut and consistently textured. Laura Dern, in addition to being older than her double at the time of filming, presents an asymmetrically elongated face, a crimped mouth, a meandering chin and medium-wattage eyes. Her body is a nondescript tube and she moves, at the best of times, as if she would rather be sitting down. In an exchange with Devon she explains she’s headed for the gym. “Why would you want to go to the gym?” he asks. “To stay young.” The vicissitudes of Nikki’s reconnoitre are far from conducive to a youthful appearance. For the first while, by techniques of lighting, focus and makeup, there is an effort to portray Nikki as redolent of Rita’s effulgent sensuality. One notable moment at a makeup prep for the shoot, begins with a close-up of her face out of focus, centering upon her lips as a huge scarlet fruit. This touch begins to wear away, however, as her voice slips into a twangy drawl, dispersing the spot-on smokiness of a younger Rita, still detectable at the conversation with the neighbor. In bed with Devon, lines along her mouth and down her neck become very evident. On exploring the terracotta bunkers, and coming to a room like Diane’s, only to have the lights flicker noisily like that at the Cowboy’s corral, her face becomes frozen with fear and we can see that no amount of time in the gym will turn the tide. While the love packages display their running on empty (never so thunderously than when they go into dance numbers), she cries and she begins to look more like their grandmother than their mother. Now the lighting goes out of its way to impose a splotchy gloom upon her stained and lined face. Seen from upside down in an S-M moment, she shows multiple furrows. As the Southern gal doing business, she has a big welt on one side of her mouth, and her skin appears to have seldom met with soap and water. As the same woman on the run, screaming out, “I’m afraid!” while the hookers taunt—and with a cut back to “I don’t care much about tomorrow and today’s slippin’ by…wonderin’ how can this be”—she is cruelly deformed. After being stabbed, she looks ancient and more male than female. In showing this plunge before a staggeringly severe gravity, as trumped by the same kind of heart so readily saluted in Rebekah Del Rio’s highlight, Laura Dern almost reinvents the sense of beauty. During the last scene at the salon, her coming to a reestablishment of zest and its forbearing composure closes that scrutiny with a whimsical kiss for not only Laura Harring, but for Jean Cocteau and Jacques Demy.
The scrutiny had begun with a locomotive’s shaft of light in extreme darkness, the locomotive moving backwards, to reveal the film’s title as if it were the truss work of a railway bridge. Quantum polarization and its seldom acknowledged assignment to be brave receive thereby a graphic rendition. The film’s unflinching look at how unforthcoming illumination (headway) can be also comes under the aegis of that lovely overture.