Journey across the digital divide

David Lynch’s explores the possibilities and limitations of a digital camera in ‘Inland Empire’

Michael Garberich

The buzz around David Lynch’s film “Inland Empire” is that, as part of the lingering last of a dying breed that learned the craft on celluloid, he chose to film it entirely with a digital camcorder – a low-resolution Sony PD-150.

Given the irony of identifying a movie shot in digital video as a “film,” we might soon view the term as a tradition that our digital generation has rendered obsolete.

“Inland Empire”
DIRECTED BY: David Lynch
STARRING: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux
PLAYING AT: Oak Street Theater

Though it’s probably too early in history to predict the contents of our digital era’s language, those who question Lynch’s digital embrace (he has said he’d do it again in a heartbeat) provide an ironic counterpoint to our persistent enthusiasm for technological “evolution.”

The difference in picture quality, though advances are diminishing it as you read, is immediately perceivable. A fuzzy haze and aliased lines define the Victorian salon in which Nikki (Laura Dern) and her Polish-accented neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) exchange terse, ominous words: a narrative and material portent to the instability of Dern’s point of view throughout the film.

The hand-held camera feels awkwardly positioned and maneuvered, providing Lynch’s characteristically tense and paranoid ambience – still evoked by his typical, droning sound design – with a cinematographic equivalent.

This distinctive formalist quality quiets those who declaim against Lynch’s choice in hardware. Like the ’60s and ’70s new wave and vérité movements before him, his address of our changing times has uncovered underlying apprehensions as we forge boldly onward into the 21st century.

The tightly framed close-ups of wide-angled, warped and sporadically unfocused faces deliver a palpable intrusiveness. Their presence within the salon – the typical setting for pleasant, gentrified conversation within the home – only intensifies the ill-ease; it seems the burgeoning democratic, do-it-yourself possibilities of a middle-shelf digital camcorder have yet to blend with our bourgeois aesthetic demands.

But Lynch’s content, above all, has never lent itself to simple explanation.

So if my tangential deconstruction of the story-behind-the-story in “Inland Empire” feels like a desperate refusal to actually reveal the story behind “a woman in trouble” (the film’s understated tagline, referring to Dern), understand that “Inland Empire,” in typical Lynch fashion, also refuses to adhere to any traditional narrative linearity.

Following the lineage of “Mulholland Dr.” and “Lost Highway,” “Inland Empire” reads like a palimpsest written on tissue paper, with images and dialogue repeated throughout the film.

A Polish prostitute is introduced with a blurred-out face; a jealous wife stabs a screwdriver into a woman’s side; and a harem of other prostitutes dance in sync to Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion.”

Then, there are the “rabbits”: people dressed in rabbit costumes who occupy a room sparsely designed with the rudiments of a dreary family sitcom set. Their monotone conversation is intermittently interrupted by discomforting canned laughter.

Sure, the image quality might seem inferior if taken at face value (pun intended), but Lynch dazzles and distresses with a more basic element of film: light.

“Inland Empire” flickers on every shadowy surface with Lynch’s expressionistic reds, yellows and blues, only more frequently and with greater intensity than ever before. It’s as if, in parting with film and its inherent flicker, he has sought to compensate for its absence.

And the sensation is disorienting, recapitulated in a scene that tracks a group of prostitutes on Hollywood Boulevard, thumping to the beat of Beck’s “Black Tambourine” (it has never sounded so good). Then, a brutal stabbing (recall: screwdriver, jealous wife) and prolonged death scene unveil the sordid fragility of constructing dreams (Hollywood anyone?) and the wild orchestration the act involves.

Among “Inland Empire’s” infinite imbrications is a set of insular reservoirs in which we invest our hopes and dreams, from the home to Hollywood, to technology and even to time – past, present and future.

But entwined within and, at the same time, encapsulating “Inland Empire,” is the unstable realm through which we all must struggle to organize this forever- changing and oftentimes irrational world: the mind.