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MRQE Top Critic

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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Every hardcore David Lynch fan will attest that viewing any one of his films on the big screen can be an unforgettable, sometimes life-changing experience. So when a hardcore David Lynch fan happens to hear that the filmmaker’s new project, Inland Empire (which he accumulated over 100 hours of footage for) is being released as a three-hour epic, the cinematic opportunity simply cannot be passed.

Upon reading the official Inland Empire website, I discovered the film was not scheduled to be distributed in Denver, and naturally, my heart was shattered. As my out-of-state friends ranted and raved to me about the critically-acclaimed extravaganza, I remained huddled in a dark corner of my room, weeping softly to myself and re-watching the trailer over, and over, and over again. Knowing that a DVD release wouldn’t see the light of day until next year, it was clear that action had to be taken before it was too late.

I have no control over my love for the cinema, so I did what any other desperate fanatic would do. I picked the closest city that had an available screening and began to map out the inevitable road trip.

The destination was Salt Lake City, and the voyage was to be an easy one: eight hours there, catch the last showing at 9:30, then an immediate trek back to Colorado. After gathering four other mates to help with the driving and gas costs, we left on a beautiful Wednesday morning, heading north towards I-80, which would take us straight through southern Wyoming and into Utah.

Although we were scheduled to return early Thursday morning, we didn’t arrive back in Denver until Friday afternoon; bruised, dirty, tired and broke. What happened to us was nothing short of a David Lynch experience, yet the feeling of being trapped inside a film couldn’t have been more appropriate for what our trip was all about.

In Dreams, In Dreams

Lynch shot this epic over a five-year period with no shooting script
Lynch shot this epic over a five-year period with no shooting script

As an artist, Lynch has made a definitive name for himself within the midnight theaters and art-houses as being one of the top auteur filmmakers of our time. However, in the mainstream cinema, he’s taken as more of a crazed scientist with wacky hair, wearing a lab coat and conducting bizarre experiments with film that rarely turn out to be successes. Most dismissive critics are quick to say that these films are pretentious nonsense, but fail to really dissect why.

When introducing someone to one of Lynch’s mind-benders, frustration is the typical response by the time the credits roll. What most refuse to see is that while they have been busy trying to decipher every surreal event and character, they’ve forgotten how great the overall ride has been. Most audiences have been so swept up with Hollywood blockbusters telling them what to think and how to feel that having a film that demands the viewer to experience these emotions on their own can be a hard pill to swallow. While Lynch does, in fact, experiment with film, he doesn’t do it to confuse or frustrate us, but to enhance the feeling and tone of the story.

In Lost Highway (1997), he created a tale set within the mind of a convicted killer, making us experience the characters and settings as remembered by him while being executed on the electric chair. No matter how much the condemned man tries to convince himself that his crimes were justified, the truth continues to haunt him, even in his fantasies.

Mulholland Dr. (2003) had the same obscure narrative within a character’s personal delirium; when two dating actresses are torn apart by one’s success, the other goes into a fit of jealous rage, hiring a hit-man to kill her former lover. The first two-thirds of the film places us in the center of a guilty dream that the girl has after the hit has taken place. As she wakes up, we are fed the rest of the story in flashbacks. The denial and repression that our protagonist feels is powerfully delivered through sudden jump cuts to different times and locations, which come like punches to the face as we helplessly watch the truth unravel to its bitter, yet beautiful end.

While these previous works have been ingenious experiments in film as a medium, Inland Empire is something entirely different, something much more original and important than anything Lynch has done before... it re-invents film as a medium.

Strange, What Love Does

Laura Dern's character actually turns into Laura Dern
Laura Dern’s character actually turns into Laura Dern

“From Hollywood, California — Where stars make dreams, and dreams make stars,” proclaims William H. Macy in his only appearance in the film as a television announcer. This is just one of the many memorable quotes or “clues” that Lynch provides the audience in Inland Empire. Like most of his films before this, he doesn’t dance around what he’s trying to say, he just says it. It’s up to us whether or not we listen.

Laura Dern (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart), who provides one of the most astonishing performances I’ve ever seen, stars as Nikki Grace, a married actress who has just received a part in a film alongside Devon Berk, played by Justin Theroux (Mulholland Dr.). As the production starts, with Jeremy Irons as the optimistic director Kingsley, the line between what’s real and what’s the film begins to blur. Pretty soon, the actors are calling each other by their character names off camera, and as a secret affair begins between them, reality seems to disappear.

But it hasn’t. In fact, this film does anything but stray from realism, as Lynch takes us through a journey from a film within a film, to reality within a film within his film. The theory of what he’s done can almost be described as being fourth dimensional. It sounds hard to grasp, but without giving anything away, the popular tagline that has been attached to Inland Empire (“A WOMAN IN TROUBLE”) isn’t exactly based on a character in the story, but rather someone related to the production of the movie. The extent of how far Lynch has blended reality into this picture goes so deep, as things twist out of control, that Laura Dern’s character actually turns into Laura Dern.

Armed with a Sony PD-150, Lynch shot this epic over a five-year period with no shooting script. After its completion and debut at the Cannes Film Festival, he started a campaign for Dern to receive an Oscar nomination for her role, sitting in a lawn chair on the side of a major highway in Los Angeles with a giant sculpted cow that had a painted petition for her nod on the belly. For her to have received a nomination would have brought his creation full-circle, completing the blend of the actress in the film going for the award with her receiving it in real life.

Denver, After All

The Towers Theater in Salt Lake City provided a very suitable setting for the film; the ceiling dripped water all around us, random cats strolled around the seats during the show, brushing by our legs and scaring the crap out of us, while the speakers were so delightfully loud, I thought my ears were bleeding by the end.

The remainder of the trip ended up being a disaster, with a blizzard crippling us in a small, one-horse town in Wyoming where we encountered every sort of “Lynchian” middle-American nightmare that could be conceived. Maybe it was just the after-shock from such an overwhelming film, but things had become more than just strange for us on the voyage back.

Finally after the roads were reopened, we got back into Denver. As I got to a computer and opened my email, first thing that caught my eye was an invitation for a press screening of Inland Empire at the Mayan. After all the blood, sweat and tears, Denver would end up showing the film anyway. Although I can recommend this film simply because I nearly killed myself and four others just to see it, you should take advantage of its release and experience what you’ve never experienced before.

Even if it kills you.