Read the previous segments:
Part 1: Creating a New Folk Culture: Future Cinema Aesthetics and the Rise of the Backyard Filmmaker
Part 2: Going Inland: Inland Empire and Transcendental Meditation
Memory, Identity, Confusion, Recursion: Narrative Structure in Inland Empire - A Primer
Chris Marker, cinema’s great essayist, makes the experience of memory one of his primary topics. La Jetee, Sans Soleil, and his CD-ROM Immemory are perhaps his most poetic works on how the human mind incorporates the past into the present. Sans Soleil includes the following meditation on identity and memory in Hitchock’s Vertigo:
“From this fake tower—the only thing that Hitchcock had added—he imagined Scotty as time’s fool of love, finding it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it. Inventing a double for Madeline in another dimension of time, a zone that would belong only to him and from which he could decipher the indecipherable story that had begun at Golden Gate when he had pulled Madeline out of San Francisco Bay, when he had saved her from death before casting her back to death. Or was it the other way around?”
So far I’ve only seen Inland Empire once, so I haven’t had the time to finish the work of narrative unpacking and establish a chronology or cause-effect structure. The structural complexities are immense, unlike the relatively simple Mulholland Drive, which has essentially a single narrative-structural conceit that inverts and de-realizes what we think we’ve seen. IE, on the other hand, doubles back on itself recursively. Inland Empire takes the already existent narrative fracturing, recursion, and de-cue-ification of modern filmmaking and ups the ante significantly. The film is structured like an MC Escher painting, with one hand drawing the other – as when Susan interrupts Nikki’s rehearsal, an interruption that happens both early and late in the chronology of IE. IE even exemplifies Droste Effect visual recursion when Laura Dern’s character (Susan? Nikki? Laura?) meets the girl who’s been watching her on the television. Certainly J.S. Bach’s fugal compositions share something with Lynch’s placement of Laura Dern’s mirror-image characters in isomorphic scenarios (and scenery). Lynch’s brand of “mise en abyme” is the strangest of ‘strange loops,’ and Hofstadter’s Law seems to apply both to watching the film and to its creation.
“We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” – Chris Marker, Sans Soleil
“I think of a world where each memory could create its own legend.” – Chris Marker, Sans Soleil
One notable structural element of IE is it’s blurred lines between Past, Present, and Future. Huge sections of the film exist as flashbacks or flashforwards, and much of the narrative confusion experienced by viewers is due to an inadequate presence of clue-giving on Lynch’s part as to when we are jumping and in which direction, and especially upon our return to the previously left scene. [“Inadequate” only for conventional narrative clarity, a principle DL has left behind for the murky territory of Art]. Adding to this confusion is the presence of flashforwards inside flashbacks inside flashforwards, and Lynch’s jumping between VERY disparate worlds with much of his crosscutting. Often from one frame to the next we will be at a different point in the (linear) story, where actors are playing different characters and we are thrust into new events in medias res. Lynch’s near-total absence of narrative and temporal clues makes this a “mystery” in the sense that we as viewers have a puzzle to piece together, and much of the information is obscured on first viewing.
“The big self is mondo stable. But the small self — we’re blowing about like dry leaves in the wind.” – David Lynch
“And beneath each of these faces a memory. And in place of what we were told had been forged into a collective memory, a thousand memories of men who parade their personal laceration in the great wound of history.” – Chris Marker, Sans Soleil
The danger of an actor’s performance and the process of role-playing are a narrative engine as well as a theme. In the first rehearsal for On High in Blue Tomorrows, the actors and director are spooked the appearance of a figure who disappears before being discovered, in a way not humanly possible (“where no person can disappear,” if I recall the quote correctly). We later discover that this figure was Susan Blue, the character that Nikki is rehearsing in the interrupted read-through. Susan’s arrival frightens those at the rehearsal – calling to mind Naomi Watt’s audition scene in Mulholland Drive (among other female-in-Hollywood isomorphisms with MD). That audition scene is one key to unlocking the (blue?) box of IE’s attitude toward performance as a component of an actor’s art. As in MD, the female performance literally frightens those around her, and actually convinces those others of the reality of her performance. In IE, however, the ‘reality’ believed is a physical manifestation of Susan, a reality that later takes over Nikki so completely that she is no longer Nikki (or was it the other way around?). At this point in the film Susan’s interruption of the audition is only a spectre, just as it is for Nikki only a hint of things to come. It happens just at the moment when Nikki begins to connect with Susan, as the scene approaches emotional climax. In another example of Lynch’s denial of cues for audience understanding, the spectre interrupts the rehearsal before Nikki is able to perform Susan as Susan in the decisive moment; that is, the realization goes from internal (in Nikki’s mind) to external (a noise in the set) before Nikki completes her transformation to Susan within the rehearsal scene.
What’s most significant about this divorce of cause from effect is Lynch’s commitment to creating a work that feels like the work of the mind left to its own devices. Lynch’s adoption of dream logic has been present from his early short films, often becoming itself the subject of his work, from the discovery of the severed hand in Blue Velvet to the moment-of-death dream that makes up the first half of Mulholland Drive. IE extends this logic, using narrative disjunction, temporal shuffling, and recursion as organizing principles. In doing so, Lynch pushes the boundaries of even his intense audience and creates a new kind of viewership, one that is at once less dependent on causality and more engaged in the process of discovering causality. Like his unspoken theses on the futures of digital media, it remains to be seen if others will follow, but we should appreciate that Lynch is willing to blaze the trail.