Comfort Horror In/Out of Inland Empire
by Travis Hedge Coke
Laura Dern’s Inland Empire is so discomfiting. The US DVD release packed it instructions to color and brightness-correct your screen. There was a short with a ballet dancer and a second feature movie starring the same cast and characters that radically alters the principle movie. Directed and written by David Lynch, Inland Empire is gut-punch, pee-inducing, worrying, exhausting, exhilarating make you nervous horror.
And, inside that horror, and outside that horror, the scare, itself, the dread becomes a comfort.
Like a long lone night of all threats, Inland Empire lulls us with the consistency its danger and the inconsistency of anything we can suss out from the distant dark or that right in front of our face.
A movie about guilt, curses, projection, feelings of power and intimidation, the certainty of narrative and the uncertainty in telling, IE features ghosts, devils, hauntings, time and reality displacement, monsters and torture, without ever really calling most of those anything of the kind. As with many Lynch productions, at the heart of it appears to be that men are terrifying, but that women are too. In an inverse of The Shining, or exactly the same as The Shining, ghosts haunting and pulling the living into their sphere are doing the ghost equivalent of making friends. Ghost groups who have room for one more might be little different than the Elks or Oddfellows.
As audience, we all go into a movie alone, but never alone. The scariest thing, sometimes, is the feeling that we are the only audience or that we are the wrong audience and have stumbled onto something not for our senses. Charlie Sheen contacting the authorities over what he believed to be legitimate snuff movies. Stumbled on VHS of the WNUF Halloween Special . Kids finding copies of The Begotten. When Martin Scorsese stops time in No Direction Home. When the remote control in Funny Games.
Illicit movies. Elicit movies. The private tapes and cell phone recordings they hope you will skip past. Woods porn. The window across from your window when the curtains are forgotten.
Dissonance and violation.
Many Inland Empire reviews emphasize it as a mystery, “puzzle,” “puzzle-box,” “riddle,” “detective story.”
No one involved in the movie told us to play detective. No one said there were clues, so far as I can tell.
The tagline is, “A woman in trouble.”
David Sims, for The Atlantic, emphasized the value in it as an anti-mystery and being, “beguiling and unfathomable.”
Ebrahim Barzegar, in the CINEJ Cinema Journal, briefly considers that the lack of demystification might be the point.
But, large and by, the response is that this is a solvable mystery that should be solved. That there is a causal and consequential list of circumstances and, for many, the conclusion is either that they alone are savvy enough to suss it out or they are very savvy and Lynch fucked up.
What challenges us, as an audience (or as critics, and you are a critic), is more often personal to us than we want. I see people tweet that Andor is more challenging than She-Hulk, and that is why one television show is doing better numbers than the other, but this ignores the very real, very loud complaining people who are challenged by She-Hulk are doing.
“You know what whores do?” at the opening of Inland Empire terrifies me and several of my family. It is not an especially graphic scene, nor lurid, and it causes shudders and my stomach sinks.
For some people – no judgment at all – “You know what whores do?” is as innocuous as, “But, I’m your step-sister! Ewwwwummm okeh.”
I like, “no judgment,” because maybe, before you put it out there, nobody thought they were being judged.
A lot is made of Inland Empire being shot out of order, written out of the order the scenes are edited into, but this is nearly every feature-length movie you have ever known about. That is not only every fiction movie under the sun handled in this fashion, bar a few, all but a handful of nonfiction movies are certainly handled, thus. It is why there are editors. If all editing a movie entailed was stapling one shot to the next shot in order from a beginning to end script written in a single draft line after sequential line, editing would be so simple someone would simply do it on break.
“Non-narrative,” does not mean the same as a movie shown out of order – anachronic or nonlinear – and ultimately, nearly all movies have some scenes which are presented outside their chronological occurrence. Flashbacks and flash-forwards are nonlinear, but not non-narrative.
We, as audience, may wonder if we should be recognizing homages or what Jeremy Irons’ scarf means, or we might be like, “Did David Lynch write this role for Jeremy Irons because he likes wearing scarves?” We can construct a murder mystery or a lover’s triangle, a betrayal and revenge story, satire of Hollywood, satire of tv broadcasts as seen from a small nondescript hotel room when you are very emotional and alone at the edge of the bed.
The existence of More Things That Happened makes a parody of the expectations of a mystery or puzzle movie, particularly a non-linear one, as linearity is now neither the events of Inland Empire in their order, as shown, nor can it be an implied causality of linear time which the movie truncates or distorts. We cannot know if the scenes of More Things take place within the sequences of Inland Empire, parallel to them, or if they are included and formatted into their own production out of contractual requirement and little more. Referring to the cut of the excised footage from Fire Walk With Me – which was truncated for contractual obligation – as, The Missing Pieces, is a parodic move, but so is how much the edited-into-a-product footage from Blue Velvet, as it detourns several accepted – and celebrated – points of Blue Velvet, and thus, with time passed and audience-familiarity, cannot be reinstated with destroying what is Blue Velvet.
Like those para-movies, More Things That Happened is a found footage movie constructed under the control of the person who made the footage in the first place. Don’t Smoke That Cigarette, if Kenneth Anger had directed all those cigarette commercials himself. More Things comes betwixt the traditional found footage and the horror subgenre called Found Footage, highlighting the silliness and excess – and the unknowability – of both kinds, in the same fashion that On High in Blue Tomorrows parodies Southern Gothic, remakes, para-films and parasitic films.
Inland Empire is closer to video-art digital experimentation than traditional cinema, especially at that time, using handheld, lo-fi digital cameras (now enhanced with artificial intelligence extrapolating fakery), do-or-die sound recording, and a disregard for hiding artifacting.
More Things That Happened is a direct-to-DVD release.
There were early complaints as to how cheaply these movies looked and sounded, how cheaply produced they seemed, and that something like direct-to-home-audience was less prestige than the director or actors deserved, but maybe we like our cheap and earnest-seeming production values and a comfy home release.
Maybe it is cool as fuck that we are asked, when we put in a DVD, to play projectionist, to step up our game and modify color and brightness in ways we rarely ever do on our playback devices. Maybe we like that this Dreams That Money Can Buy impressing of audience to production.
More Things and Inland Empire feel as if they imply we could make these movies. We, the general audience, choose to believe the fairytale that Mickey Moran and Patsy Barton just put on a Busby Berkeley movie in the barn with gumption, oomph, will-do, and talent. We respond, watching, with the same ease and enthusiasm as professional actors in Inland Empire respond to being cast in what appears to be a decently-budgeted professional established-studio motion picture, On High in Blue Tomorrows.
Scripted, professionally-performed, professionally-shot scenes, such as the “brutal fucking murder” visit by a character played by Grace Zabriskie in the fullness of her actorly powers, or the aforementioned, “You know what whores do?” are treated by even savvy audiences as if they are amateur productions or unscripted fly on the wall camera voyeurism. We feel genuinely threatened by them in a different way from Jason Voorhees slashers. No one is cheering for someone to attack in the Inland Empire scenes, because we do not know what that attack would be. If someone says, in a Friday the 13th movie, that they want to get nailed tonight, you and I know that Jason is going to put a nail through them. All the visitor to Nikki Grace’s place is going to do, is tell us what happens in a movie.
Shit, if only we were not watching a movie.
Criticisms we commonly lay at Andy Warhol or Bette Gordon – if we commonly lay any – are present in Inland Empire and More Things, and as with them, our instinct is to believe they are Outsider Art, or amateur, flea market, happenstance art. From the gut and soul. The number of art schools David Lynch has been affiliated with, the years of work, training, mentorship, screenings, showings, and the length of his professional career are conveniently forgotten, for awhile, so a purity can be embraced, a direct psychic communique. And, not a piece of manufactured art.
These are manufactured art. People made this. People planned and did these things.
The remastered rerelease of 2022 has an estimated six to twelve frames per second missing. It “may appear juddery.”
Nail, but euphemistic. Nail, but ironic.
A two-movie Structural film in which there is no film. To quote that high-minded collection of analyses, Wikipedia, “The shape of the film was crucial, the content peripheral.”
When the wrong figure dissipates in the light of reason as a seance concludes, the irony is on us.
The guilt implied in naive promises or what it means to sell someone a watch is our guilt. Everyone else is only acting or implying with light, sound, and movement.
Intermedia experiments, rephotography, neo-Fluxus formality are put on us as audience, the same way that late night broadcasts of Night of the Living Dead or Class of Nuke’em High are intermingled with host commentary and sketches by Elvira or Rhonda Shears, and not the smartly-dressed gentleman in an overstuffed chair, which is reserved for any movie a television channel needs to assure us is prestigious.
The content becoming a series of events like commercial commercial host movie host bumper commercial movie host commercial movie, the shape of Inland Empire transforms into the Shape of Halloween, into a brutal, inexplicable, unstoppable stalking killer, who we can attempt to control via explanation, but have to acknowledge, as does anyone confronted with their reality, that all explanations will be, in the next scene, a lot of hot air that cannot save anybody.
Which is more challenging, the newest Jeffrey Dahmer dramatization or Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting?
Maybe Inland Empire is horrific – and comforting – because it places onus on us, and because it is a non-narrative movie that looks and feels like it will keep becoming narrative. We know the scenes as scenes, we know the implied narratives, even start to feel like they will causally apply to one another, build until we can concur or deduce the narrative linking and justifying what are complex variations of Stan Brakhage shaping in movement.
We can deal with the closer-t0-the-bone like-life scenes or we can confront the thing that is the whole and what is outside. We can get lost in the alley or the market.
All the academe and practice and stature and artistry in the world only does so much to distract pain or soothe trauma. Solipsism is no substitute for empathy but neither is cataloguing, editing, or getting cathartic revenge.
We fuck up. This world will be taken pathways and mistaken avenues and facades of domesticity and pretenses of metropolitan maturity and lived experience. We never get past sleepovers and pep talks and rebellion and ennui.
The world will always have something in it that can hurt. The world’s nature is to have something in it that will hurt.
That Inland Empire is as culpable to our bodies and brains’ hallucinatory, presumptuous, nervous sorting as something across the room on a dark night after just waking and being unsure, even, how long we have been awake. That More Things That Happened are things that happen to us. Their eventfulness and causality are beyond our regulation. Abusers and abuse are autonomous to our judgment, encouragement, curation or dread.
Is it worse if the woman in trouble is us, or if the woman in trouble is completely beyond our help?
That she maybe never needed us at all, we are no help, and we don’t either.
Comfort Horror In/Out of Inland Empire
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