Leo Goldsmith on David Lynch’s The Straight Story and Inland Empire
"I guess after my son died, I went into a bad time, when I was watchin' everything go around me while I was standin' in the middle, watchin' it, like in a dark theater before they bring the lights up. I'm sittin' there wonderin', 'How can this be?'"
—Nikki Grace/Susan Blue/Laura Dern in Inland Empire
David Lynch's films often dimly hint at the clandestine powers that control things: networks of organized crime, pornography rings, supernatural bureaucracies that hold sway from behind curtains or inside shadowy, Mabuse-like glass chambers and anterooms. What's more, Lynch explicitly ties these dark forces to the business of image-making—Flesh World magazine in Twin Peaks, the stag films of Lost Highway, and especially the Hollywood studios of Mulholland Drive (“This is the girl”)—suggesting a deep connection between the culture industry and the forces of pure evil. This is a particularly paranoid vision of the (flesh) world of visual entertainment, a world in which the line between starlet and sex-worker, or producer and procurer, is blurred, but one that runs parallel to Lynch's own paranoia about the control of his work and the “hidden forces” that might seek to divert it. Given his battles with producers over the creative control of Dune, and his subsequent insistence on retaining the right of final cut on his films, it's not hard to locate something autobiographical in Adam Kesher's byzantine studio negotiations in Mulholland Drive or even in the quasi-occult forces that seem to be behind “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” the film being made in Inland Empire.
But in that film, Lynch's film director-surrogate is somewhat different. Rather than the recalcitrant Adam Kesher, we have the pompous and somewhat obsequious Kingsley Stewart, nearly as ignorant as his two stars of the hands controlling the fate of the film. Stewart isn't onscreen much, and when he is, he's rarely in control, incapable even of getting his gaffer to move a light two feet downwards without confusion. As played by Jeremy Irons, Stewart is a self-absorbed and slightly oily character, too enthralled with his own image to be much in control of, or even involved in, what's behind his film. So, who controls this Inland Empire?
This seems an odd question, as Lynch's new film—indeed his new business model of almost total self-sufficiency in production and distribution—is all about self-control. Like many directors (Hitchcock being only the most psychoanalyzed), Lynch is obsessive, even anal, about each aspect of his films. He is intricately involved in the design and even construction of sets and works closely with his longtime composer, Angelo Badalamenti, even writing and performing his own music for his films—all in service of creating what he calls the proper "mood" or entering a "world." This is fairly common language for the self-consciously auteurist director's director, but Lynch explicitly links this adamant demand for singular control of his own work to his training as a painter, using the slightly faulty analogy that films, like paintings, ought to be created by one artist alone and not a cadre of executives and assistants who may not share his "mood," who may not have access to his "world." And so, for Lynch as for any number of professional and amateur filmmakers, digital filmmaking is a means by which a director can exercise total control over his work, using lightweight and inexpensive cameras to film scenes whenever the whim arises and without large crews, and prosumer nonlinear editing software (in this case, Final Cut Pro) to edit the film himself. It also offers a relative independence from budgetary restraints and overweening (not to say evil) studio executives.
But if this is true, why is Inland Empire such a mess? Why is it a film that, unlike any previous Lynch film, seems to lack control entirely, that flits from scene to scene—indeed into and out of various diegeses—almost at random? Has Lynch in fact lost, rather than gained, control with this new medium?
One explanation for Inland Empire's erratic structure would be that Lynch, left to his own devices, as it were, to "meditate out" his own film, would naturally devise something arbitrary, and that creative talents such as his require the restraint of good editors (even perhaps handlers) in order to make good films. Evidence to support this could be found in 1999's The Straight Story, a film that charmed unsuspecting audiences and exasperated critics alike with its “straightness,” thanks perhaps to a fact-based screenplay by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, Lynch's longtime editor and sometime wife. We might say that here, as with his work on The Elephant Man as Mel Brooks's “director for hire,” is an example of the studio system working successfully to reign in Lynch's perverse, maverick creativity in order to create a balanced and sensible film that would otherwise be beyond the director's more eccentric capabilities.
But such an explanation would seem to run counter to the control over his own work that, since the experience of Dune, Lynch has nearly always exercised, whatever the medium of editors, cinematographers, and composers through which he chooses to collaborate. Indeed, such an explanation of Lynch as the id-ful, Dionysian, avant-garde filmmaker submits to the notion—largely promulgated by the director himself—that Lynch is simply a weird, possibly unstable person, completely overlooking the fact that all his films prior to Inland Empire, for all their idiosyncrasies, were nonetheless linear narratives. For all the obtuse and discomfiting imagery of Blue Velvet, for example, the film tells an unswervingly direct story. Even his more digressive films, like Eraserhead or Lost Highway, present events more or less in order, regardless of what such events might mean or even, in terms of the film's sense of reality, come to be. His last film, Mulholland Drive, with its diptych, looking-glass architecture, establishes two competing or complementary sequences, parallel lines running in tandem toward heaven and hell, respectively.
In this light, The Straight Story is not so much an anomaly in Lynch's career as Inland Empire, with its seemingly arbitrary structure, edited by Lynch himself. G-rated and Disney-distributed though it may be, The Straight Story is not an unconventionally conventional film in a career filled with nonsensical oddities, but merely the most extreme example of Lynch's linear tendencies. In fact, there has always been a strain of the square, the normal—even, the perversely normal—in his work. This is the Lynch that supported Reagan and to this day boasts Eagle Scout status on his resume—the same Lynch that, by a certain logic, was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on The Elephant Man, thus guaranteeing that the Lynch of Eraserhead would not fade into obscurity. (Indeed, the works of David Lynch that are probably his most indelible—Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks—embrace these extremes of the perverse and the normative most fully and most comfortably.) But The Straight Story, which represents Lynch at what is probably his most mainstream and conservative, is nonetheless as quintessentially Lynch as Lost Highway, engaging the extreme of goodness and normalcy that so often devolves into disease and confusion in his darker films.
From The Straight Story’s first shot, we are consistently drawn into the elegant straightness of Freddie Francis's compositions—flat landscapes, rows of corn, and unbending roads leading to the horizons of Iowa. The eponymous protagonist, Alvin Straight, is himself a direct person, and in the course of the film, his well-traveled tractor becomes a kind of Straight Talk Express to rival John McCain's. (Asked what he's buying a grabber for, Alvin responds simply: “Grabbin’.” And he minces no words with the young female hitchhiker he encounters: “Are you running away? [No answer.] How far along are you?”) The world of Alvin Straight is one of simple, straightforward pleasures—wieners, lightning storms, the sounds of grain elevators, making birdhouses, a donut while sunbathing. But it's also representative of “straight” values: an emphasis on family and community, as well as a strong sense of individuality; simple, practical solutions to problems, no matter how dire; and above all, a pragmatic acknowledgement of one's death.
Lynch's narrational style in The Straight Story is straightforward to a point that borders on purposeful naïveté. (The film's very genre—the road movie—is one structured around a sense of linearity, of direction, however discursively followed.) Lynch has stated in interviews that he shot the film mostly in chronological order, more or less following Alvin Straight's actual route from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, to see his estranged and moribund brother, Lyle. Individual scenes are themselves shot simply, occasionally in single takes or at most with a fairly simple shot-reverse shot structure that cuts between interlocutors or indicates point of view. There is no deviation from this. Lynch's trademark device, the dissolve to a flashback, vision, premonition, or nightmare is wholly absent here. Instead, Alvin's reminiscences are rendered in dialogue only (the ghostly sound of an air-raid signal as Alvin and another old-timer trade war stories is the only exception to this). The film's only stylistic flourishes are themselves almost retrograde, as when Lynch punctuates the telephoned news of brother Lyle's stroke with a crash of thunder. To depict a deer-killing car crash, Lynch shows only Alvin in a reaction shot, and a jerky zoom telegraphs his shock at the incident, an effect that would seem almost amateurish if it weren't so economical. And while most of Lynch's films toy with an opaque symbolism, which the director himself is quick to warn his viewers against interpreting, The Straight Story's symbolic structure is wholly transparent, as when Alvin suggests that a few sticks bundled together, stronger as a group than individually, is a metaphor for family.
For all of the film's singularity of direction, death is Alvin's ultimate goal—Alvin reaches Lyle, but there is no return trip. Like some of Lynch's early films, The Straight Story begins and ends with a galaxy of stars and a sense of moving through outer space. In The Elephant Man, this image is explicitly linked with death, though it is qualified with a quotation from Tennyson: “Nothing will die.” But in The Straight Story there is nonetheless the indication that, upon reaching his brother, Alvin's travels—and his story—have come to an end.
Part of the obsessive, almost stubborn linearity that Lynch employs in telling his Straight Story—what Alvin himself refers to as “a story as old as the Bible”—stems from the director's own former insistence on adhering to linear, film-based editing technologies. Rather like Alvin, who abjures walker and automobile alike in favor of his own mode of transport, Lynch was, at least as late as Lost Highway, editing his films on a flatbed Kem system, rather than with the by-then standard Avid nonlinear editing setup. Lynch said in a 1996 interview: “I personally hate Avid. I hate the image, I hate the TV screen, and I hate being at such a remove. You don't ever feel the film. It's a phony, cheap, bad image. And I haven't a clue how it works. For cutting a commercial with sixteen different layers of things, it's pretty nice. But for a feature film where it's 99 per cent straight cuts, there's nothing like a Kem and the quality image.” Nonlinear editing models, like Avid, employ graphic representations of timelines and are constructed around an architecture of "clip bins" from which shots and sequences can be drawn (and assembled or layered) at will.
Though at one point Lynch showed a strong preference for a film-based, sequential assembly of shots, fast-forward to the release of Inland Empire in 2006: “Working on Inland Empire was very different. We shot it entirely in digital video, so the level of flexibility and control was amazing…. [W]ith DV, as soon as you're done, you can put it into the computer and go right to work. And there are so many tools.” What's notable about both of these quotations, ten years between them, is that Lynch still insists on control, on having a “clue” about how his editing systems work and using them to get inside his “worlds,” but that their syntax has changed decisively from one of linearity (and hence of a classical sense of cinematic narrative) to one of nonlinearity, of random access.
Thus, while a lot of early reviewers of Inland Empire noted the most obvious aspect of Lynch's shift from film to digital video—its surface aesthetics—comparing that film's more arbitrary structure to the forward direction of The Straight Story suggests a perhaps more fundamental shift in Lynch's approach to editing and storytelling. Inland Empire's exchange of the voluptuous, flat colors of celluloid for the grainy, pixelated miasma of DV is indeed shocking, but what seems more crucial for Lynch is the change this new technology offers in his approach to editing, always the part of the filmmaking process which Lynch has most firmly emphasized.
Unlike The Straight Story (and indeed all of Lynch's earlier work), Inland Empire offers no indication of a beginning or ending, and indeed more than one character expresses confusion about its chronology, whether it is “today, two days from now, yesterday,” or even whether or not the characters are making an original film or a remake. Regardless of the comparisons to Eraserhead, this is easily Lynch's most challenging film, one that stubbornly—at times, aggressively—resists any attempt by the viewer to sort it out. Rather than a sequence of events (or cuts), the film is a web without a center, a collection of episodes or scenes, visited and revisited, which may be connected, may be part of the same story, may be happening at the same time, or may not be happening at all. Narrative arcs are nowhere to be found—instead Lynch simply begins with the start of a projector and ends with something that resembles a wrap party.
One would be hard-pressed to concoct an adequate synopsis of the film. Suffice it to say that Lynch's three-hour diversion through a certain L.A. neighborhood has something to do with actresses and whores, with a story of infidelity told many times over, with variations in the cast, setting, and economic strata, and with something that Lynch identifies as "the Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit of Negativity" in his recent quasi-self-help manual, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. In that book, a curiously slight volume that largely serves to broadcast the director's devotion to the somewhat cultish practice of Transcendental Meditation, Lynch offers the following quotation from The Upanishads as an epigraph to his chapter on Inland Empire:
We are like the spider.
We weave our life and then move along in it.
We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream.
This is true for the entire universe.
As a clue to the film's narrative structure (or lack thereof), the quotation suggests much about Lynch's conception of time as presented in the film—not as a line or sequence but as a web that can be navigated outside of a sense of chronology. This notion of temporality, which may strike one as an odd and rather Californian hybrid of Eastern philosophy and quantum physics, in fact offers a good working explanation of timeline editing, the means Lynch employed to construct his Inland Empire.
But what's especially frustrating about Inland Empire is that it so explicitly foregrounds a sense of fate—of compulsion and predestination, of characters locked unerringly into their roles—while consistently denying the viewer any straightforward perception of what's to come. We never really learn enough about the plot of “On High in Blue Tomorrows” to determine how (or whether) it aligns with its other iterations: a Polish folk tale or a radio serial or Nikki Grace's real life. We are, like Nikki/Susan, helplessly lost in the many permutations of the narrative, picked up and dropped off at random points without any sense of a way forward or back—standing in the middle, as it were, watching it, like in a dark theater before they bring the lights up. Even the film's conclusion, once Laura Dern meets her Polish prostitute opposite in an operatic clinch, ultimately leaves Laura more or less where she started—at home on her couch—before propelling us to yet another woman in yet another mansion. That this woman languorously coos “sweet,” rather than twist her mouth in agony is our only indication that this new wormhole—this new diversion of time and space—may be thrilling and not terrifying.
At the start of the film, in an elaborately decorated salon, one agitated Polish man asks another, “Do you understand I look for an opening?” And indeed, throughout Inland Empire, the spectator seeks for points of entry into a narrative that doubles back on itself, outside of a notion of temporal or narrative flow. Lynch's own point of entry into digital filmmaking, motivated by the economic freedom it affords, also engages a new syntax with which the director can exert control over his films, even to exert control over the very structure of time itself. Thus, Inland Empire is not only a film about losing control, but also one about taking control, about liberating oneself from a storyline of another's devising—as instructed by the Vedic text, weaving one's own life and then moving along in it. It is therefore only when Laura Dern's character (Nikki? Susan? Dern herself?) burns a hole in a silk handkerchief and plunges through that the narrative is freed from the back-alley transactions of the marketplace, unseen studio heavies, pimping agents, and craven, obsequious film directors. This is a clear allegory for Lynch's new process, one that extricates itself from the dark, seedy forces of contemporary image-making (which the film parodies in the form of sitcoms, celebrity talk shows, and music videos).
Visually, structurally, and thematically, Inland Empire and The Straight Story represent polar opposites in Lynch's body of work. But curiously, for all the obvious differences between the two films, there is at least one interesting correlation between them: the sound of a train whistle. In the earlier film, this is represented musically in Angelo Badalamenti's guitar and violin score, and in the latter film it is still more ghostly and subliminal, present only as a distant, disembodied (but seemingly diegetic) sound effect. Trains, with their inexorable forward momentum and direction, would seem an obvious symbol of linearity itself for the former film, but we never see the train in Inland Empire. It calls out at decisive moments—heard in the background as rabbits converse obliquely, sounding at the moment in which Laura Dern decisively trades her movie-star mansion for a blue-collar bungalow, or eulogized by the chorus of whores as “The Loco-motion.” But this train never pulls into view, and whether it is literal or figurative, it is no doubt menacing, commanding the synchronized movements of the whores, seemingly representing something at once sexual and coercive, a path (to destitution? to prostitution?) from which one cannot divert, a prescribed set of actions (as in a screenplay), or a compulsion. In Inland Empire, both Dern's character and the spectator try to follow this train of thought, but ultimately lose the plotline. For Lynch, this atemporal narrative existence can be frightening or even messy, but it can also be euphoric or even silly. On the one hand, Dern's frantic wandering through time and space suggests total chaos, but it ultimately seems to free her from a master narrative of spousal abuse and control, sexual and professional exploitation, and social immobility. And ultimately, for Lynch, Inland Empire also liberates his cinema from a constrictive and circumscribed filmmaking model.