21 janvier 2007

Notes on INLAND EMPIRE, Part 3

This is the third segment in the "Notes on INLAND EMPIRE" series. More may follow if indeed I see it for a second time this coming week. This brief reflection deals with IE's narrative structure. It's little more than the jumping-off point for an article-in-progress, but I hope it will be enough of a key to allow for at least a partial decryption of IE's narrative logic.

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

Part 3:
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.

14 janvier 2007

JLT/JLT Year in Review

Josh and Teresa at JLT/JLT are hosting their First (Hopefully) Annual Year in Review discussion on the year in movies, music and everything else. I'll be one of the participants, as will a number of other writers and critics whose work I admire; it's definitely worth checking out. Running all week at JLT/JLT.

Update: Here's Part 1, and here's Part 2

12 janvier 2007

Notes on INLAND EMPIRE, Part 2

The "Notes on INLAND EMPIRE" series continues, this time with a glimpse into the Hindu philosophic school that inspired the Transcendental Meditation movement. David Lynch is a strong proponent of TM, spending significantly to publicize its virtues to the general public. Below I address some themes of IE along with some possible connections between those themes and philosophies relating to the practice of TM. This is part 2 of what will be at least a 3 part series; Part 3 should be up this weekend or early next week. I'd like to note the Jürgen Fauth makes some points that deal more strictly with the practice of TM as it relates to the narrative experience of IE in this post.

Click here for Part 1:
Creating a New Folk Culture: Future Cinema Aesthetics and the Rise of the Backyard Filmmaker

And now for Part 2:
Going Inland: Inland Empire and Transcendental Meditation

“I have been “diving within” through the Transcendental Meditation technique for over 30 years… Someday, hopefully very soon, “diving within” as a preparation for learning and as a tool for developing the creative potential of the mind will be a standard part of every school’s curriculum.” – David Lynch

Transcendental Meditation is, among other things, a way to tap into the untapped power of the unconscious mind. TM acolytes believe that if the square root of 1% of the world’s population practices an advanced form of TM simultaneously, then world peace will result, and that if just one percent of the world’s population practiced the Transcendental Meditation technique, there would be an end to war.
It should be clear that the film’s title refers to this untapped potential as much as to the geographic location. Maybe more so, as Lynch never applied for any of the permits necessary to shoot in Inland Empire cities. [Another possible reason for his lack of permits might be the use of IE as an example of the potentials of amateur filmmaking; for more reflections on this, please see Part 1.]
One of the hallmarks of Lynch’s filmmaking has always been to imbue everyday objects with a decidedly sinister presence. A pan across an empty bedroom is given a sense of dark foreboding through Lynch's selections of music and lighting. This is especially true of Inland Empire, as the narrative fractures and multiplied personae exist in different spaces that are at once strange and familiar. For they are “normal” spaces – often like the ones we might see in our own homes – but they are foreign to Laura Dern’s character(s) at the moments of transmogrification. These physical spaces are often as strange as the new selves that she finds herself in (strange both to her and to us).
This disorientation and fear associated with everyday objects relates to the principles of Transcendental Meditation and it’s relationship to the physical world. If TM is capable of influencing war and traffic accidents, then it must work on some level above the substrate of the physical world. And though the practice of TM itself is now marketed as a religion-free practice, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi states that his teachings are based on the principles espoused by the Adi Shankara. Adi Shankara consolidated the principles of the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy, best defined through his statement “Brahman is the only truth, the world is unreal, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and individual self.” Brahman is the truth of existence, an idea of God that includes all things that exists as components of Brahman.
Adi Shankara also contributed the concept of “maya” to Advaita Vedanta. Maya is that which covers up the reality of the unified Brahman-nature of the world, cloaking it in our experience of the physical world (including our own illusion of being an individual self). Brahman is hidden behind our experience of the world as a series of discrete physical realities. We could also say the same about the illusory distinctions between past, present, and future.
The illusions of maya, like the illusions of cinema, only serve to separate us further from truth, a separation that inevitably (according to Adi Shankara) causes suffering. The obstacles to our self-actualization (a goal of TM practice) are twofold: the object-nature of the physical world and, especially in IE, our investments in fictions.1
For this reason Lynch is skeptical both about the objects we encounter and the roles we play, and encourages us to be aware of the pitfalls of both. “Nikki Grace,” the actress who both portrays and becomes “Susan Blue,” suffers extensively because of her investment in fictions. The dangers that she experiences are due entirely to her taking on the actor’s project of inhabiting another (false?) skin, which then becomes truer than “Nikki,” even inside her own head. As she dives within her new character, that’s when the trouble begins…

1 These two concepts, which I separate here to emphasize the problem of fictions in particular, are two aspects of the logic that the physical nature of the world is itself a fiction. By "fiction," I mean specifically the act of role-playing and the inherent lies told in the process of creating/distributing art. Might these lies actually serve the service of greater truth? That may be one of the philosophical ramifications of the film's final minutes - including the song "Sinner Man" playing over the credits accompanied by the presence of Lynch actors from other films.

Click here for Part 3: Memory, Identity, Confusion, Recursion: Narrative Structure in Inland Empire - A Primer

Hell in the Pacific

In this film from 1969, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune star as WWII soldiers stranded on the same island. Mifune speaks Japanese, Marvin speaks English, and there are no subtitles. Dialog is minimal and the film's story is a slow development of their relationship from adversaries to comrades. Performances are excellent - Mifune and Marvin are bitter rivals with such enemy anger for each other, and their the audience shares their frustrations with communication. Mifune is expressive enough that even without understanding his words, he projects his emotional state; Marvin's performance matches Mifune note for note. Marvin served in the Pacific, and was one of the 2 survivors when his [squad?] was attacked by enemy machine gun fire during the battle of Saipan (Marvin, for his part, took gunfire in his buttocks and crawled to safety, later receiving a Purple Heart). John Boorman's direction is effective but not flawless, and some elements have not aged well - the occassional zoom for emphasis seems especially unelegant. The movie doesn't effectively transmit mood, in part because music is heavily foregrounded to provide emotional cues. I would have prefered that this film build tension through silence, which would have augmented the 'real experience' transmitted by the decision not to subtitle Mifune's dialogue for English-speaking audiences. [WARNING --SPOILERS AHEAD.] The version I saw was NOT the original cut of the film, which ended with Marvin and Mifune dropping their truce and return to fighting a pointless battle. Instead, in a touch that both outdoes and predates Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, they are blown up by a bomb (or are they?) in a final shot added by executive producer Henry Saperstein after the movie's first few weeks of release were underwhelming. The original cut sounds more poignant by far but as a fan of Obscure Object I could appreciate the narrative insanity of such a stunt - one that gets to the heart of war in the way that Buñuel gets at the heart of the modern world and our inescapable fear of irrational (read: terrorist) destruction. DVD Savant has a good review of the film and available DVD edition [I saw this on Turner Classic Movies]. In either version this film is recommended viewing.

09 janvier 2007

Notes on INLAND EMPIRE, Part 1

The first in a series of selections from my work-in-progress on David Lynch's Inland Empire. Among other concepts, the piece uses the work and theories of Chris Marker as a partial guide to understanding IE in its aesthetic and structural contexts.
First I'll address Lynch's efforts to become the Griffith of our new media era.
Please email feedback or comment below. Though the article does not currently have a publication venue, I'm considering my blogging as the presentation of a work-in-progress, presented in sections. Waiting for the pieces to fit together as a coherent whole would do a great disservice to my subject.
Though this section is largely without spoilers, it is aimed at those who have already seen the film.

Creating a New Folk Culture: Future Cinema Aesthetics and the Rise of the Backyard Filmmaker

Inland Empire is not universally ugly. It is often intentionally ugly, and very often intentionally amateurish. But why? David Lynch has vowed never again to shoot on film, in spite of his avowed love of the look of film. What effects might this have on Lynch’s work? And what does this decision mean for the future of motion pictures?
Chris Marker has stated that “film won’t have a second century.” Cinema culture is moving irrevocably to hobbyist-produced small-screen filmmaking, and David Lynch has chosen to abandon traditional filmmaking tools in favor of the tools of the amateur. Just as Dante invented modern Italian by writing his Divine Comedy in the Tuscan dialect, so Lynch is creating a new vernacular language of filmmaking by combining his control of the medium with the tools of the masses and the realities of cinematic production in the (still developing) age of full cultural democracy.
Lynch’s aesthetic devotion to this new cinematic language extends from his choice of camera to his use of framing, choreography, actors, and music to mimic amateurism. IE was shot on the PD150, an affordable prosumer camera with the identifiable look of digital video. DV’s technical freedoms (low-light shooting, freer camera movement, and the elimination of shooting costs) allowed Lynch to work without a script and improvise during takes. Like YouTube serialism or Chris Marker’s Immemory CD-Rom, IE explores narrative fracture as a component of the new dominant viewing experience of the masses – the aggregation of discrete multimedia events.
At various moments in IE, Lynch frames his actors in ways that mimic internet video, or poor student filmmaking (the extreme closeups of Nikki’s first conversation with her new neighbor set this precedent in the first scene). In another mimic of YouTube aesthetics, Lynch incorporates poorly rehearsed choreography routines to pop songs, and uses amateurish (“bad”) actors in some of the film’s smaller roles. There are even moments where his use of music feels like this new digital auteurism; his use of a Beck song is too loud vis-a-vis the scene, too extensive a sample to smoothly fit into the story, and too obviously placeable without reflecting on the narrative to serve as an effective emotional cue.
Lynch draws connections between this new aesthetics and previous folk cultures. By establishing a folk tradition of subverting Hollywood narrative presentation (the curse on On High in Blue Tomorrows), Lynch implies the demolition of Hollywood storytelling strategies at the hands of a new set of digital auteurs – amateur and backyard filmmakers. “Rabbits,” the ‘sitcom’ populated three human-sized rabbits, was shot literally in Lynch’s backyard, and picks apart the conventions of sitcom as a cause-effect simple narrative (misplaced laugh tracks and dialogue that gives no clues as to meaning or content). Like most of Lynch’s recent output (self-distributed on his website) it began as a series of short episodes in serial form. David Lynch, like Chris Marker before him, suggests that the age of narrative cohesion in longform storytelling has passed.

I won't make any promises on which section I'll excerpt next, but I'm leaning towards my section on IE's relation to Transcendental Meditation.

Click here for Part 2: Going Inland: Inland Empire and Transcendental Meditation
Click here for Part 3: Memory, Identity, Confusion, Recursion: Narrative Structure in Inland Empire - A Primer

08 janvier 2007

Zizkek vs Groucho vs Me

This is only peripherally about cinema, but:
I've been cited in a recent Language Log post following up on Slavoj Zizek citing the Marx Brothers.
Read the post here:
Marxist quotation.

04 janvier 2007


I've seen Inland Empire, and it's good for #2.5 on the Top 8 (now 9) movies of 2006. more to come...

03 janvier 2007

Year-End 2006

All of these lists are in rough order with my favorites at the top. I hope to write about some of these in depth in the near future. Here are my noteable cinematic experiences from 2006 (minus the notes):

Old Movies I caught up with for the first time:
Army of Shadows
The Rules of the Game
Herzog's Noseferatu
Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes
Claude Lelouch's C'était un Rendez-vous
Days of Heaven
The Spirit of the Beehive
2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
Antonioni’s The Passenger
Zoo in Budapest

This list will help you understand what follows...Movies I've missed so far but hope to catch:
Letters from Iwo Jima
Colossal Youth
Children of Men
Inland Empire
Pan’s Labyrinth
The Host (US release in March!)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Battle in Heaven
Three Times
Iraq in Fragments
Miami Vice
Days of Glory
Quixotic [Honor de Cavelleria]
Woman on the Beach
Princess Raccoon
Le Monde Vivant [The Living World]
Syndromes and a Century
Flags of Our Fathers
Old Joy
Brand Upon the Brain
Duck Season
Our Daily Bread

Note: I'll be seeing Inland Empire tomorrow night, if plans hold.

My list of Best Films of 2006 (new releases) is not a top 10 because it's incomplete for not having seen either Eastwood film, or Inland Empire, or Pan's Labyrinth, or Children of Men. So I'll leave two spots free and reserve the right to ammend this later (it was going to be one spot, but for all its whimsy Science of Sleep just didn't strike me as very good).

1. Army of Shadows
The powerful simplicity of the opening shot is overshadowed only by the strong visceral reaction it provokes in me; it's the perfect setup for the spectacularly intimate epic of national pride and self-sacrifice that follows. It's the brotherhood that strikes you in the moments when our main characters deal with ordinary Frenchman: in the barbershop, or in a Nazi military headquarters. Or even between members of the resistance, sworn to protect each other's identities even when alone together in a room. The final coda makes the story so much larger than even that which we've seen. A true masterwork.
2. United 93
The finest American movie about heroism ever made.
The perfect, singular appropriate response to September 11, 2001.
Update: 2.5 Inland Empire
more to come on that...
3. Idiocracy
Why Fox tried to kill this I have no idea, as it was the funniest movie I've seen in a theater this millennium. Trenchant-enough social commentary to overcome the slight missteps into over-juvenalia. A meditation on cultural stupidity the way The Seventh Seal is a meditation on death.
4. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
The funniest movie I'd seen in years - at least until I made it to Austin to see #3. TS has more hidden jokes than The Big Lebowski, but is aimed at the literati. Will they ever give sillyness it's due? Pre-Modern Post-modernism by way of Monty Python, but in book form, only then made into a movie, which is sometimes about the making of the movie that it's being made into. But much funnier than that sounds, and better with every viewing.
5. X3
6. A Scanner Darkly
A good film that could have moved to greatness with a heavier use of surveillance-camera angles and conspiratorialism. A well-built skeleton that could use a good hearty meal of urban dystopianism for the camera.
7. Casino Royale
Seeing Bond becomne a Double-0 was the best action sequence since Jason Bourne left Paris. Eva Green makes the other Bond girls look like paper cutouts - on brains, acting ability, and, with apologies to Ursula, ownership of her physical appeal. The best Bond movie ever? Yes... considerably.
8. Mutual Appreciation
Bujalski may be overrated by certain critics and his movies may not tell us much that we don't already know, but I like that he doesn't shy away from insecutiry, silence, and inaction. His resistant protagonists are ripe for the kind of anthropological films he's making, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else he's got in store.

Most Overrated:
Marie Antoinette
I like this for 5 minutes at a time; the only problem was that those 5 minutes were spaced about 20 minutes apart each time. Sofia, you're a very good filmmaker, but please take note: Movies about boredom do not have to be boring.

Best Small-Screen Movie Experience:
Claude Lelouch's C'était un Rendez-vous - ON YOUTUBE