In our incessant and never-ending drive to make sense of the human project of existence, what is more often than not lost it seems is an appreciation of the subtleness of ontology, the absolute weirdness and absurdity of Being which always lurks just below the every-day imagination. To me, a David Lynch film invites you to sit back, relax, suspend the constant narrative-making impulse that rules everyday life, tune out and just become totally absorbed in that which lies just below the surface of human existence – that weirdness, that sense of dread – the dread of the suspicion that that which we affirm as reality is in reality itself just so much story-telling, an illusion lurking at the edge of an infinite abyss of nothingness; that existentialist realm of “Not-Being” from which 100% of the human population has come and back to which 100% of that same will return.
Take the rabbit scenes in Inland Empire, where three characters dressed in rabbit costumes deliver dead-pan, serious but obtuse dialogue highlighted by canned laughter, after the fashion of your typical sit-com. Most reviews of Inland Empire cannot seem to make any sense of these scenes, why they are in the film, what the rabbits are doing and how they may or may not relate to the Polish characters in the upstairs room into whom they magically dissolve. But perhaps the rabbit scenes are best read as a mordant critique which is simultaneously humorous in an absurdist way for all its intensity; a critique of that narrative drive which turns the extraordinary and unexpected reality of everyday existence into a clichéd, banal and in a radical sense, mundane set of stories and lines whose structure, syntagm and conclusions, whose cardinal functions are already totally known and which seem to perpetuate themselves by a kind of fundamentalist evangelical auto-propagation; light entertainment that repeats incessantly and constantly on our TV screens informing us, by way of attempts at comedy, that reality constructed as a clean narrative with beginning, middle and end; introduction, body and conclusion is the safest and surest, though ultimately terribly dreary way to write human existence. As Shakespeare once noted “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
I recently watched Lost Highway again before sitting down to Inland Empire a third time. I remember how unsettlingly awesome and weird that film seemed at the time. I’d never encountered anything quite like it before, but looking at it now, after Inland Empire; it seems like a totally ordinary film in the sense that it pretty much makes sense. There’s nothing that weird about Lost Highway anymore, indeed it seems downright conventional after the total mind-fuck that is Inland Empire.
I won’t make an attempt at a synopsis, as that would be giving in to the temptation to make some kind of linear narrative sense of a film which, if it does nothing else, commands you with certain force: THOU SHALT NOT attempt to turn Inland Empire into any kind of linear narrative. I’m not sure if David Lynch has read Roland Barthes, but Barthes’ unique method of post-structuralist textual criticism seems to apply itself almost perfectly to this film. What we can analyse are themes, memes and rhemes – such as proposed in S/Z. Where lexias dominate and the ideal text is reversible and infinitely interpretable. If there is one consistent signpost as to the manner in which to derive the (non-)meaning of David Lynch films, it seems to be the perverse way Lynch uses what Barthes called catalytic functions in his discourse. Catalysts in a discourse do just that, they serve to speed up, summarize or anticipate events in the narrative. When we see a catalyst we semi-consciously mark it in the narrative as a driver in the narrative whose specific function, even if its meaning be delayed, will notwithstanding soon be made clear in order for us to neatly make sense of everything that we’ve seen, heard and read. Classic examples of these in Inland Empire are the symbol “Axxon N.” that we see painted on walls and the portent references to a certain time of day – after midnight.
We almost cannot help but read these as clues whose catalytic function in the narrative will become clear and provide us with the key to the code. Except they never do. There is no key in the end. What appear to be catalytic elements turn out to be perhaps cardinal functions in the discourse, or worse yet, perhaps just ornaments designed to lead us further down the rabbit hole. The point being, that the distinction is classically a binary one. We are so used to dividing up narratives into catalytic and cardinal functions that we are in danger of failing to see the film for what it is – a continuous series of catalytic functions: indices and pieces of information for which relate only negatively to, indicating an absence of, cardinal functions. In other words, there are no nuclei, there is no certain story to be found in Inland Empire. What we have instead is a continuous, uninterrupted 3 hour stream of discourse, whose purpose is simply to maintain phatic contact between the narrator (the film) and in this case viewer (the audience), and nothing more. In other words, whose purpose is manifestly just to keep you watching the film, and nothing else. No messages, no sermons, no truths: just aesthetic impulse. The purpose here is not to tell a story whose meaning and interpretation is finite and decidable by everyday conventions, but to narrate a set of indices and sets of information in order to create moods and feelings, emotional responses: those relating mainly to situations appearing ominous, portent, eerie, surreal, incomprehensible, supernatural and even horrific to some extent.
The whole cardinal/catalytic paradigm is here suspended, the syntagm is dissolved and we are invited in every sense into a dream world full of foreboding and menace, but at the same time, if you are willing to just let go for a few hours, mind-blowingly amazing. Freud hinted that the symbolism of dreams is reversed as it were. In dreams time becomes space and space becomes time, every object stands for another object but the ordinary waking code is suspended to be replaced by the secret code of the unconscious. That is why dreams confuse us so much. Inland Empire invites us to interpret, at endless length, and in doing so, perhaps come to some kind of clarity or realization of the nature of our own identities and how fragile they often can be. If nothing else, if you watch this film open to these contexts and these textual approaches, you will almost certainly be compelled to watch it a second, and a third, and a fourth time: the surest mark of a successful film. If however you are not open to these kinds of textual approaches and prefer a clearly coded, explicitly linear narrative (and not suggesting there’s anything wrong with that at all) then this film will almost certainly confound you and I would recommend rather renting a horror film like “They” or “Pitch Black”.