Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Thinking Of Empire (by Defensive Listening)

I found the D.I.Y. ethic to be alive and well in the unlikeliest of places last week as The Paramount Theater in Austin, TX, known primarily for its Vaudevillian history, welcomed filmmaker David Lynch for a rare screening and Q&A session. Lynch has always manged to maintain his status as Hollywood outsider/adventurous experimental filmmaker (despite having been employed by Disney), but his latest project might just raise his own personal bar in both regards. His appearance in Austin was just one of many he's recently made in cities around the country as part of a promotional tour for INLAND EMPIRE (his caps), his latest and possibly most daring work in recent memory. The film itself is noteworthy to be sure (as explained below), but its release also represents several changes in Lynch's production and distribution M.O. that are highly indicative of the widespread cultural and technological transitions that we all are experiencing as film-makers, musicians, artists, writers, bloggers and fans. For starters, the movie was shot entirely on digital video, which he contends is terrible from a quality standpoint but highly advantageous in other ways. Additionally, he is funding and distributing the movie's release almost entirely on his own, a bold move considering his relative lack of deep pockets (for Hollywood anyway).

Lynch introduced INLAND EMPIRE by welcoming Austin native Chrysta Bell (who is featured on the soundtrack) to set the tone with a brief improvisation consisting of her lone, haunting voice echoing through the historic theater. It was one of those time-stopping moments similar to the Lady in the Radiator scene in Eraserhead or the Rebekah Del Rio performance of Roy Orbison's "Crying" in Mulholland Drive, only this time, Lynch was was touring the movie himself, without the aid of a traditional distributor, and the audience was treated to a rare opportunity to see and hear an element of his picture live and in person. This kind of intimacy would not be possible if the film had been distributed by Miramax or Sony Pictures Classics, the kings of fake independent cinema, and the break from the norm was quite welcome. As the film began, Lynch advised the audience not to get up during the nearly three hour run time, marking the first of many ways in which Lynch would challenge the audience over the next several hours.

Without spoiling too much, Inland Empire is a sprawling fever dream, macabre and disturbing but not without moments of outright humor, or at the very least, scenes so uncomfortably awkward that everyone in the audience laughs nervously in unison. As confusing as Mulholland Drive was to some audiences, this made that film look like Kate and Leopold. It is particularly important to note from the outset that the picture was shot without the aid and anchor of a proper script, meaning that many of the scenes were scribbled out the day before or of shooting. The project evolved out of an online series called Rabbits that Lynch has worked on for some time on his own rather innovative website, David Rabbits features a vocal appearance by Naomi Watts, who starred in his last major release, and scenes from the series (which features a family of rabbits, or actors in rabbit costumes, interacting in 1950's sitcom fashion) are weaved throughout the film, making for some of the most disconnectedly abstract stretches of the movie. Laura Dern should be commended for such a strong acting performance considering that neither her nor the director admit to knowing what INLAND EMPIRE is about. Throughout the movie, Dern transforms from guileless and sweet to jaded and vengeful to horrified and devastated as the audience is subjected to a pummeling of flip-flopping themes. Her character is an actress, but the line between her character in the film and a woman in reality is blurred to the point of causing the audience to feel uneasy as the very theater they sit in becomes part of the twist. The setting also bounces between movie sets in California and prostitutes on the streets of Poland without warning, adding to the dizzy nature of the film's content, pacing and tone. There were no shooting permits obtained for the scenes actually shot in the "Inland Empire" section of California, adding to the guerilla appeal of an outright challenging movie made largely devoid of big studio influence. On many levels, Inland Empire plays out more like an improvised composition than a traditional film, with various textures and themes slowly unraveling over the course of it's substantial running time.

In a surprisingly smooth Q and A session following the presentation, Lynch also compared the methods he employed in creating and releasing INLAND EMPIRE to making music and the decline of the music industry in general, which is also obviously in a state of flux. Lynch made some of the music on the soundtrack, as he has in the past, so he wasn't merely tossing around vague metaphors. Even without his usual coconspirator, Angelo Badalamenti , the soundtrack was excellently performed by Lynch and the aforementioned Bell, along with the occasional girl group or Nina Simone song thrown in to counter or even heighten the on-screen bizarreness.

He spent much of the question and answer session explaining how meditation figures heavily into his daily life and creative process, as well as how excited he is about the prospect of self releasing future projects with his beloved Sony digital video camera. To hear an icon like Lynch, (whose work has always had a timeless quality due to the lushness that comes with traditional film) talk about the virtues of self released DV was a dramatic example of how drastically technology has changed art in general, especially in the past decade. The transitional crossroads between art and technology comes with some necessary compromises and tradeoffs to be sure, but as painful as it can be to see so many new releases peppered with pixellated breakup, the ease of transferring digital work from camera to theater does help to wrestle away much of the big studio power, since the studio is one of the only institutions that could or would want to spend money on extremely expensive analog film and related expenses. So even an auteur like Lynch, someone with almost impossibly high standards for the final visual and sound quality of a project, has recognized that ultimately the increased liberation from big studio oppression might be worth the compromise. Such sacrifices might be the only way future artists as unique as Lynch will even have a chance at making a statement in a creative world increasingly choked by over-analyzation of audience demographics and target markets. The highlight of the conversation was hearing Lynch explain to the sold-out theater, which was probably comprised of many aspiring filmmakers, that his idea of success could never be measured in terms of money, but rather through the realization of a creative vision. You often hear people say things like that when they clearly don't mean them, but considering that Lynch has just self-released what a friend complained to me as being the "world's first three hour short film", he somehow seems more believable than most.


Blogger wjh8787 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Foodie said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review. I think within the next 10 years, there'll be no difference in picture quality between digital and film. That's when the robots will take over.

11:44 PM  
Blogger sbj850805 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:52 PM  
Anonymous theladyofgarnets said...

I wish I could have been there.

1:18 AM  
Blogger Zine-O-Phonic said...

"For starters, the movie was shot entirely on digital video, which he contends is terrible from a quality standpoint but highly advantageous in other ways."

I'm glad that some of the purists are seeing the worth of digital, even if it is mostly for price reasons.

hi-fi is the new lo-fi.

8:17 AM  
Blogger sebastian said...

Llooooooraaaaandooooooo por tu amorrrrrrr...Classic. nice post DL, I cant wait.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very well written.. and very good review of this film... i as well saw this in austin. couldent have said it better!!

9:57 AM  
Blogger stonedranger said...

I've seen a few of those Rabbits shorts and they're frightening.

9:57 AM  
Anonymous thomas said...

when can we see this film?

10:21 AM  
Blogger Defensive Listening said...

Unfortunately, I don't think there are any plans to show this in the Dallas area, which is why I went through the trouble of going down to Austin. It's actually a shame, considering we have four art-houses in the area, not to mention a couple of decent art museums. The DVD that comes out in June will be released by Rhino, which is great because they're allowing him full creative control over the content (extras etc.). He has promised that the DVD will be really cool.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous thomas said...

well, at least i'll be looking forward to getting the dvd. thanks!

12:05 PM  
Anonymous thomas said...

any other suggested good films coming out?

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

film sux. back to music, m'kay?

1:32 PM  
Anonymous thomas said...

music is for fags

4:51 PM  

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