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March 06, 2007

Moviegoing and DVD Journal: "Inland Empire" and "7 Men From Now"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Daer Blowhards --

* Funny, isn't it, how the unfolding of David Lynch's unconscious once seemed fascinating, and even seemed to have some cultural significance? What did people think they saw in his work? These days it can be hard to remember.

As for myself, I loved his work up through "Blue Velvet" and some of the early episodes of "Twin Peaks." The naivete, the straightforwardness, the visions ... His movies were like primitive paintings, only dignified and calm: finger-paintings with genuine gravitas, powered by a child's fascination with gruesomeness yet also an artist's responsiveness to beauty.

Since then, for me anyway, it's been a different ballgame. Although often technically beautiful, his films long ago turned into caricatures of themselves. Identity-swapping ... Grinding slow-motion heavy-metal music ... And all that stupid cool-kid stuff: the "nice" girls who turn tricks, the orgies by the lake ... Lynch came to seem to me like someone who couldn't let go of his years as a junior high school nerd obsessed by fantasies about what the bad boys and the bad girls were doing with each other while he was home watching TV.

Incidentally: This is fine, and it certainly has potential. I kept attending his movies because they were beautiful and because people talked about them, but largely because so many of them had an erotic scene or two that struck me as genius. Patricia Arquette with a gun at her head in "Lost Highway" -- whew! Naomi Watts and Laura Haring crossing boundaries in "Mulholland Drive" -- goodness gracious! But my main complaints about Lynch's post-"Blue Velvet" movies are that they're so repetitious and so very slow. What became of the Victorian gentleman-weirdo who made "The Elephant Man"?

In his new movie, "Inland Empire," Lynch is re-shuffling the same deck of cards he's been playing with since "Blue Velvet," only he's doing it less beautifully, less erotically, and even more slowly. In the film, Laura Dern appears to be an LA actress who wakes up in an Eastern European movie. And there it all is, all that familiar Lynchian stuff, all over again: the sinister laugh tracks, the red curtains, the is-it-camp-or-not? moments, the deafening electronic music, the is-this-a-movie-or-not? loop-the-loop tricks, the identity games. And all of it so slow, so very slow ...

What distinguishes the film is its hyper-experimental quality. Lynch shot it on a tiny budget, on a home-video-quality DV camera, and over the course of several years. Lynch had been playing with no-budget handheld filmmaking at his website when it occurred to him that he might shoot a feature-length movie on DV.

I'd been looking forward to experiencing the aesthetic qualities Lynch would find in the DV medium. Sadly, "Inland Empire" mostly looks plain awful. Either I'm blind or all Lynch has done is wander around his sets and performers with a handheld camera using lots of wide-angle lenses. What this means for the viewer is lots and lots of wobbly, looking-at-yourself-in-a-doorknob imagery. It's all no doubt meant to be hallucinatory and mesmerizing. But, given the usual Lynchian lack of story, given the over-familiarity of the material, given the HandiCam visual aesthetic, "Inland Empire" came off to me like a child's idea of a horror movie and a child's idea of an expressionist art movie, bulldozed together.

The film doesn't even deliver much to please Laura Dern fans. (I'm one. Has there ever been an actress so over-passionate yet so goofy?) Dern seems as mystified and narcotized as the film's audience does. She simply isn't given a lot to respond to but Lynch's own imaginings. Steve Sailer came up with a funny and apt line in his review of the film: the film consists of "Laura Dern walking into scores of rooms and staring in horror at what she sees." And that's about it for her performance. That's about it for the film too.

Incidentally, I like the way that Lynch works, and I'm sympathetic to Lynch's "art " approach to film. (I like art and I like popular entertainment both. What I don't like is when people set one automatically above the other, or when they deduce from some abstract principle what the merit of an individual work is.) In this case, Lynch started the project by taping Dern delivering a long monologue. On his website, he'd been been noodling around with a sitcom featuring rabbits as its main characters. He thought he saw ways of looping all this material together, and doing so in a painterly, hands-on way. Now that the film is completed, he's even distributing it himself.

This is nothing if not an organic way of "growing" a movie, and let's hear it for that. I'd love to see more movies be made in this spirit; it's like Print-On-Demand filmmaking. I just wish Lynch were turning up a few fresh elements for himself to play with. For me, watching the nearly three hour long movie was like being given a slow-motion bus tour of a city I already know too well.

Main question: What is Lynch's omigod-what's-going-on-here? pacing about? An actor friend who liked the movie said that there's nobody who can match Lynch for simply putting the unconscious up on the movie screen, and I certainly agree that that's the case. What I can't understand is why the unveiling of this particular, overfamiliar unconscious moves so damn slow, and why it's given the doomy-portentous tone it's given. C'mon, David: We've all been here before. So why the attitude of shock and horror? Your own imagination can't be giving you the vapors any longer, can it?

Here's a short video of Lynch promoting Laura Dern for an Academy Award nomination, and doing so in a very Lynchian way. In this interview, Lynch talks about "Inland Empire," but even more about Transcendental Meditation, which he has practiced for years. (I notice that Yahmdallah also did a little TM'ing back in the day.) Perhaps these days Lynch is more interested in painting and in TM than he is in movies? Here's another recent visit with Lynch.

* It'd be hard to think of a movie that contrasts with "Inland Empire" more sharply than the film I watched last night, Budd Boetticher's 1956 western "7 Men From Now," from a story by Burt Kennedy. Where "Inland Empire" writhes about like a dragon drunk on quaaludes, "7 Men" gets its business done in a crisp 78 minutes. Where "Inland Empire" tries to self-generate as its own unique life-form, "7 Men" confines itself to classic Western understandings.

Tempted though I am, I won't try to generalize from this comparison. All I'll say is that, in this case anyway, I found that the traditional, genre approach yielded far more pleasure. The main similarity between the two pictures is in the way both films keep you in the dark for long stretches. "Inland Empire," though, keeps you in the dark for its entire length; what's unfurled meanwhile are the filmmaker's imaginings. "7 Men" keeps you in the dark for its first 20 minutes; when it fills in the blanks what's delivered are living characters and a compelling story.

As the narrative elements first fall into place and then get complexifed and twisted, the film builds up a lot of tension and explores a lot of substantial a-man's-gotta- do-what-a-man's-gotta-do moral predicaments. The film, which was produced on a very low budget, is modest in scale yet is gorgeously composed and photographed. (Though it's set in Arizona, it was filmed near Lone Pine, California.) It's as matter-of-fact as can be -- as spare and direct, in fact, as any Robert Bresson movie. (Note to non-film-maniacs: Robert Bresson is a French filmmaker known for his uncompromising asceticism. Try "Mouchette," "Au Hasard, Balthazar," and/or "Pickpocket.") Still, and despite its no-nonsense, get-to-the-point approach, "7 Men" still feels appropriately leisurely, and still manages to evoke a lot of mythical, inevitability-plus-surprises, Iliad-and-Odyssey overtones.

The main performances are all terrific. Randolph Scott is chiselled, dignified, and resourceful as an honorable, angry man on a deadly mission. Lee Marvin is lewd, flamboyant, and scary as a sexy and dangerous varmint. With her darkly troubled manner, her hopeful innocence, and her bruised bedroom eyes, Gail Russell convincingly portrays a woman any man might be willing to take a lot of chances for.

(Gail Russell was in fact an interesting and very sad case. She was discovered young by Paramount, and was promoted by them although she had no background and no drive as an actress. Shy and insecure, she quickly took to drinking. By the early '50s she was unemployable. Her role in "7 Men" was her first in five years. Though the film scored with the public, Russell never did give up the bottle. In 1960, she was discovered dead of alcohol-related heart failure. She was only 36 years old.)

"7 Men From Now" has been a much-coveted minor legend in filmbuff circles. Produced by John Wayne's production company, the film somehow got tied-up in estate disputes, and has been nearly impossible to find for decades. It was restored and presented by UCLA five years ago. The DVD of it was released last year; it's one of the few Boetticher movies available on any kind of video format. Though I haven't explored the disc's extras yet, they look plentiful and promising. The print -- clear, crisp, and colorful -- is beyond-splendid, and Amazon's price on the DVD is a real bargain.

Here's a good and informative Guardian obit of Budd Boetticher, who started out as a matador.

Back here, I wrote about the brilliant Elmore Leonard / Delmar Daves "3:10 to Yuma," and about Westerns more generally.



posted by Michael at March 6, 2007


Your review of Inland Empire made me think of analogizing Lynch to Wiliam S. Burroughs. Burrough's most accessible book was Junkie, a traditional novel he wrote intending it to be part of an Ace Double paperback, which it was. Burroughs' writing after that is mostly incoherent if sometimes given to some interesting imagistic prose.

Re: Budd Boetticher. I interviewed him briefly several years before his death and he was a real gentleman.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on March 6, 2007 2:54 AM

You're being generous when you call yourself a blowhard. You should call yourself an idiot.

Posted by: TMNT- turtle power! on March 6, 2007 8:47 AM

Randolph Scott: one of those impossibly handsome guys that even hetero men get off on. Oops, what did I just say?

Posted by: ricpic on March 6, 2007 10:00 AM

I can't quite bring myself to defend "Inland Empire", but neither do I want to dismiss it outright without at least giving it another viewing when the DVD is released. My reason for this is pretty nebulous: here's a three hour movie in which virtually nothing (comprehensible) happens and I was never bored with it. Plus the fact that I've liked most of Lynch's post-"Blue Velvet" work. "Mulholland Drive" is my favorite of all his movies, and then there's the very unLynchian but absolutely wonderful "The Straight Story". The first season of "Twin Peaks" remains for me the best thing ever made for television. True, the second season was awful. But how much of that was due to ABC's dithering about how long the series was going to continue?

Nothing but agreement, though, on "Seven Men From Now", a splendid western. The seven westerns Boetticher made with Randolph Scott between 1956 and 1960 have attracted considerable attention in the past couple of years. I've seen four of them, and can attest that "The Tall T" and "Comanche Station" are almost as good as "Seven Men". "Decision at Sundown" is not unwatchable, but decidedly inferior to the other three I've seen. There's a very interesting documentary floating around out there called "Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That". It's been shown several times on Turner Classic Movies and will likely show up again. It's certainly worth looking out for.

Posted by: Michael P on March 6, 2007 1:28 PM


Excellent post. I share many of your misgivings about Lynch - from The Elephant Man through Blue Velvet he was, I thought, quite unlike any other director out there (in my limited experience).

Mulholland Dr. was, in some ways, a masterpiece, and really made me think - but at the same time it was almost too distasteful to go back and watch again (wihout having to go to Confession). I really wanted to like that movie more than I did.

But now Lynch is really getting self-indulgent to the point that his work seems to be for his entertainment alone. And I'm not one who's necessarily opposed to self-indulgent work, as long as it's interesting or thought-provoking. But you still have to access it, and it's getting harder to do that with him.

Nice segue to 7 Men From Now as well!


Posted by: Mitchell on March 6, 2007 2:22 PM

I eventually walked out on "Inland Empire" after about 170 minutes, but I have thought about it a lot since then.

What I'd like to see is Lynch release the DVD into the public domain and invite anybody to re-edit it as they see fit and post their remix on the Web. There might be a good short movie buried within it somewhere.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on March 7, 2007 2:19 AM

1. My personal favourite Robert Bresson movie is Diary of a Country Priest.

2. Budd Boetticher Westerns are sadly unrepresented on DVD. I have put 7 Men From Now onto my to see list. (Its the Canadian version of Netflix.)

3. I blog here about Czech animator Jiri Trnka's great parody of the Western, Arie Prerie. You must see it to believe it.

Posted by: Thursday on March 7, 2007 8:11 AM

Oops, link is here.

Posted by: Thursday on March 7, 2007 9:21 AM

I think Steve Sailer's idea is brilliant. After that Tom Hanks trailer the MB put up here on daBlowhards, it's clear there's some untapped talent out there.

I'd love to see someone do a mashup of the "The Cave" with it's amazing underwater cave footage and "The Descent" which is truly scary.

Posted by: yahmdallah on March 7, 2007 9:53 AM

I really love Mulholland Drive, and think it's the best movie about dashed hopes and pained longing I've ever seen--which is to say it's the best "break up" movie I know of. It's long and meandering, yeah (and there are several episodes I could do without--the part with the hit man especially), but Lynch in top form holds me in a peculiar way. I go along with it.

I'm usually the first to complain about movies being too long and unfocused. There are some filmmakers, however, who seek your sustained attention as a means of pulling you down their rabbit holes. Rivette is the prime example, and, for me at least, some of Lynch fits this mold as well.

That said, Lynch is capable of stinkers. I hated Lost Highway. Still haven't caught up with Inland Empire.

I like Boetticher as well and think Michael's comparison to Bresson is a good one. There's a tactile, on-the-verge-of-something-spilling-over quality to the work of both men. This certainly comes out of their ascetism, but I think it's also tied to an almost fetishistic emphasis on craftsmanship. There's not a hair out of place in something like A Man Escaped (my fave Bresson), and there isn't in 7 Men from Now either.

Of the Boetticher westerns I've seen, I've loved 7 Men, The Tall T and Ride Lonesome, and merely liked a few others. Even his gangster film, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, is worth a look. The only two Boettichers I didn't enjoy much are Decision at Sundown and The Bullfighter and the Lady.

Posted by: Ron on March 7, 2007 1:47 PM

A less film-ic, more merciless-on-the-audience film than Inland Empire would be very hard to find, but I actually thought it made sense, and liked it rather a lot. Is life long enough for a second viewing to verify that... not sure.

Posted by: Alice Bachini on March 7, 2007 6:03 PM

Don't BLUE VELVET and ERASERHEAD also have their longeurs? I'm not sure that being slow and repetitious are distinguishing features of bad Lynch as compared to good Lynch. As for the stupid cool kid stuff, that's definitely present in something awful like WILD AT HEART -- but not so much in MULHOLLAND DRIVE, which I also love.

Lynch sure knows how to spring new sexy/daring leading ladies on the audience, doesn't he? Rosellini, Watts, and Sheryl Lee in FIRE WALK WITH ME come of nowhere and knock your socks off.

Posted by: Steve on March 7, 2007 6:23 PM

Yikes, I'm getting old. I used to think of Lynch as au courant. But Michael's post got me to googling up a posting I'd written over ten years ago to a cinema listserv on Lynch. Michael Brooke ( was submitting his own pieces to the listserv and had recently offered up his thoughts on Lynch. My response then, which still holds in retrospect:

"I agree absolutely with Michael's experience of viewing Eraserhead. Ditto "Elephant Man" --to me an almost perfect marriage between Lynch's dream obsessions (note the dream which begins the film) and conventional narrative. The freshness of the unconscious "stuff" created cinematically added to the tragedy at the end. Dune was a nice try in that department,
but. . .

That being said, I see where Ian is going with his feelings about Lynch's work getting staler. To me, a lot of Twin Peaks (the series) got pretty old. If the donuts and cherry pie were as stale as some of the episodes, they'd be uneaten, I fear.

Some of this is due no doubt to the fact that Lynch did not have and could not have had a lot of control over something as sprawling as a long-running series. But it also pointed out dramatically to me the clash of the demands of TV with the demands of the unconscious. The unconscious will give up its secrets when its damn good and ready and, even then, you may
not be altogether sure (as viewer or creator) what it's all about.

On the other hand, series TV demands an hour a week, period, and it better be there on time. Is it any wonder the product suffers? Moreover, think of the process of *watching* TV, something that all cinema-lovers on this list would recognize as a fundamentally different process than going to a movie. Try as one may, TV viewing is inherently much more bound up with the expectation of formula--even with Twin Peaks, I think, the viewer's mind rebels against the unknown and seeks the formulaic--death to the surrealist artist, to be sure. So some of the failures of Twin Peaks goes beyond the
conventions of the series format--it lies in the minds of even the most committed Lynchian viewers who cannot stop the mind's inevitable
translation of film experience to TV experience.

Even beyond Twin Peaks, though, I kind of think Lynch is getting stale, and is forced by success to "dream up" (to use a term that denotes forcing a process that can't be forced) more "weird" stuff because he is known as the
"weird" director who sells tickets because his stuff if "weird". I mean, maybe he's human like the rest of us (now, wouldn't *that* be weird?) and is subject to the normal human pressures attendant on success, prestiege, etc. ("Dave, boobie, it's the guy with the money on the phone. . .want's to know how those script changes on the frog-boy project is coming. . .says the Lucas people are real interested in doing the morphing for us").

On the other hand, maybe Lynch's strange little unconscious is as fertile as ever, and I am just tiring of its sado-masochistic recesses. After all, just because he successfully regurgitates his mental product up there on the screen is no guarantee that anyone needs to like it."

Posted by: fenster moop on March 9, 2007 3:03 PM

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