Beyond the Multiplex

David Lynch's obsessive, surreal "Inland Empire" is the New York Film Festival's hottest ticket. Plus: "49 Up," Tony Kushner, p.c. coffee and more.


Andrew O'Hehir
October 5, 2006 4:15PM (UTC)

How do we explain the unlikely cultural status of David Lynch? There is no hotter ticket at this year's New York Film Festival than the North American premiere of Lynch's new picture, "Inland Empire." I know two movie buffs in their early 20s who are planning to hang around outside Alice Tully Hall on Sunday night and buy tickets from scalpers (if they can find them), and they certainly won't be alone.

What will they see if they get in? An obsessive and surreal three-hour picture, almost totally lacking in conventional plot, shot on high-definition video by a 60-year-old director. You could say, I suppose, that "Inland Empire" is about an actress (played by Lynch favorite Laura Dern) in a Hollywood film that's been cursed by Gypsies. But that's like saying "Ulysses" is a story about a guy who sells newspaper ads, or, more to the point, that the dream you had where you flew over the Atlantic Ocean with your second-grade teacher and Marilyn Manson was about air travel.

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Lynch's movies have always flirted with (or, to his detractors, wallowed in) dreamlike levels of abstraction and ambiguity, associative and reiterative images drawn from the unconscious, and other tropes that have more to do with experimental cinema and avant-garde art than with narrative drama. Would someone out there like to tell me what the plot of "Eraserhead" is, or to explain why understanding it is important to one's appreciation of the film, or lack thereof? By the time of "Blue Velvet" (released 20 years ago!), it seemed clear that conventional narrative, along with the audience expectation it builds, was an element that Lynch would sometimes use, sometimes subvert and sometimes ignore altogether.

Many of Lynch's fans apparently believe, however, that the director has set out for them a massive jigsaw puzzle that has a solution. Salon's famous "explainer" about Lynch's 2001 "Mulholland Drive" remains one of the most-clicked articles in our history; it's a brilliant but bizarrely pedantic piece, full of confident assertions that the film has a unitary narrative that mostly makes sense and mostly hangs together. I would argue that A) that's not true, and B) even more important, it's missing the point.

Lynch's movies are about his super-saturated colors and meticulous sound design; his characters' terrifying glimpses of the spectral, the demonic and the divine; his sense that movies render time into a porous and malleable medium; his troubled and troubling examinations of female sexuality as an image-commodity, and other things we could discuss. Are they also about their putative narrative plotlines? Sure, in the same way that Duchamp's "Large Glass" is about a bride and some bachelors, or "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" is about a dinner party.

I'm not going to review "Inland Empire" in any comprehensive way, not least because I'm not quite sure what to say. It has not yet been acquired for U.S. distribution (which ought to tell you something about it right there) and it seems unfair to review a film that probably won't be seen by American audiences until sometime next year. (It will be released in various European countries between November and March.)

If anyone wants to explain this one in terms of its plot, though, good luck to you. The inland empire of the title refers, in my judgment, not to the suburban hills and valleys southeast of Los Angeles but to the darker regions of the self. Nikki, the fading star played by Dern, must venture into her own inland empire -- and so, I think, does Lynch. Many of his trademark haunting, grotesque and comic images are captured here, in the smudgy, caffeine-edged luster of HD video (it's obvious why Lynch is attracted to the medium, but I miss the brilliance of his pictures on celluloid).

Minimal bones are thrown to the audience. Nikki has signed on to make an adulterous love story -- it looks like a terrible film, and I can't tell whether that's intentional -- with a bad-boy costar Devon (Justin Theroux), directed by a pompous Englishman named Kingsley (Jeremy Irons). None of these people sticks around for long, although Harry Dean Stanton almost steals the movie in his tiny role as Kingsley's debauched and broke assistant. The picture belongs entirely to Dern and to the director, as Nikki seems to walk through a mysterious portal out of her own privileged life and into that of her character, and then (perhaps) into yet another existence as a battered Hollywood streetwalker.

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There's also the question of the Gypsy curse and the film's haunted prehistory, some fragments of a sinister thriller set in Poland (and spoken in Polish), an absurdist drawing-room comedy involving a family of giant rabbits wearing clothes (my colleague Stephanie Zacharek says they are not rabbits but donkeys, and who am I to insist on a single interpretation?) and lots and lots of ominous images of Dern/Nikki/whoever wandering through dark places: alleys, corridors, staircases, the streets of Lodz, Poland, and the corner of Hollywood and Vine. That's without mentioning the chorus of Hollywood hookers doing the Locomotion, or the dynamite musical number that unfolds behind the closing credits and has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

To the extent that "Inland Empire" does offer a narrative, it's largely a downer, a story about a woman who is symbolically, and perhaps actually, debased. Don't expect to go home energized by Lynch's take on the movies, art and life here. Despite its moments of inspired terror and mystery, this isn't a cult hit in the making like "Mulholland Drive," or even a contrarian critic's delight like "Lost Highway." It's an opaque and baffling work, difficult to follow and difficult to like.

That said, this may be a necessary work for Lynch, if not exactly for his audience. "Inland Empire" does not mark a new direction. Reportedly written and shot on the fly, with neither director nor actors knowing exactly what would come next, it's a distillation of, and meditation upon, the themes that have possessed Lynch since at least "Blue Velvet" and seemed to come to climax, pun intended, with "Mulholland Drive." But Lynch's questions and obsessions are always big ones; there's nothing insincere or inauthentic about him. Good or bad, his films imitate no one else's, and serve as a constant rebuke to the parasitical industry that loves him but can't quite handle him.

More NYFF: Michael Apted's "49 Up," the masterly and confrontational "Bamako," a sequel to "Belle de Jour" and more
Even beyond the Lynchian enigma, there's entirely too much material to cover this week, so let's just accept that none of these pictures is quite getting its due. A week into the NYFF, it looks like a highly promising season for adventurous films. If, that is, you're willing to ignore the fact that most of them won't make a nickel at the U.S. box office and most of you won't be able to see them for many months, if not years, on DVD.

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One exception to this is Michael Apted's "49 Up," the latest riveting, heartbreaking chapter to one of the supreme creations of documentary filmmaking, the "7 Up" series. That cross-class assemblage of 7-year-olds first captured in 1964 Britain have now hit 49, which is unbelievable to those of us who aren't that far behind them. Most have continued to participate in the series, and if some of the midlife outcomes are completely expected, others are not. Tony, a poor kid from London's East End who wanted to become a jockey, has instead become an affluent upper-middle-class contractor with a house in Spain. Bruce, an awkward, idealistic bachelor who spent years teaching schoolkids in inner-city London and Bangladesh, is now the alarmingly happy father of two boys.

The original "7 Up" (on which Apted was an assistant to director Paul Almond; Apted has directed the six subsequent films) brought together orphaned kids living in central London shelters, others from the working-class East End and still others who already knew what prep schools and Cambridge colleges they would attend. It was meant and received as an indictment of the British class system, which still seemed almost inflexible in 1964. Over the decades and five intervening films, Britain has changed unutterably, the class system has partly melted and the films themselves have become something else entirely.

I haven't seen all of the films in Apted's series, but watching "49 Up" I realized how passionately I remembered these characters -- how much I longed for the poor kids to beat the odds and overcome their own sense of insufficiency, and for the rich ones to undergo some sort of redemptive transformation. Those emotions are understandable, but the real complexities of these people's lives in middle age are far more interesting. If the "7 Up" series is the grandfather of reality television (as it's been called) then it marks a noble lineage. As I see it, the point of Apted's series is to remind us that we all know success and failure, and that every so-called ordinary life is a zone of great drama and tremendous risk.

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Jackie, a divorced single mother living in a Scottish housing project, now challenges Apted directly, telling him his films have never portrayed her fairly. Nick, a shy Yorkshire kid who wouldn't talk about girls, is now a university professor in Wisconsin with a strikingly beautiful and intelligent wife. Paul and Simon, two of the orphan kids, never quite escaped their economic background but have built, through trial and error, fulfilling family lives. (Apted, himself now 65, may be wondering whether the end of his series is in sight.) If these people are all nearer to the end than the beginning of their lives, in chronological terms, they are all -- like the rest of us -- still becoming themselves. (Opens Oct. 6 in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, Washington and other major markets, with more to follow.)

Korean director Hong Sang-soo ought to be able to expand his tiny Western following with the wry, leisurely and highly enjoyable "Woman on the Beach." It's a satirical romantic comedy about a hip and tremendously self-absorbed filmmaker who steals a friend's girlfriend on a visit to an out-of-season, and rather uninspiring beach resort. It feels a little like Eric Rohmer plus Fellini, if they were boho slackers from Seoul. No U.S. distributor has yet been announced.

I wrote last week that "Bamako," a challenging work that combines human drama and Brechtian agitprop about the injustice of the global economy, by the Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako, is the festival's masterpiece so far. That impression sticks, and unlikely as it sounds, New Yorker Films has now acquired the film, so big-city viewers, at least, will get a crack at it. On one hand, "Bamako" is about a crumbling middle-class marriage in Mali's capital city (which gives the film its title), with a beautiful, flirtatious wife pursuing a dangerous career as a nightclub singer while her upright, disapproving husband stays at home.

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How this interacts with the "trial" going forward in the courtyard of the couple's home -- a tribunal in which the people of Africa are prosecuting the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (with both sides represented by white, white-wigged lawyers) for "pauperizing" them -- is something of an open question. Meanwhile, animals wander around the courtyard, women wash laundry, the trial must pause for a wedding procession, local guys play cards and discuss death. Then there's the hilarious interpolated TV western, starring Danny Glover, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman and Sissako himself. If this all just sounds like left-wing pretentiousness, then God bless you and move on. But those with a taste for this kind of confrontational and experimental work will find that it's surprisingly moving, funny, tragic, strange and undogmatic. Trust me a little; ride a hunch. (Release info has yet to be announced.)

The other dark-horse masterpiece at this year's NYFF, so far, is Manoel de Oliveira's "Belle Toujours," also acquired by New Yorker. Conceived as a sequel to Luis Buñuel's 1967 "Belle de Jour," in which Catherine Deneuve played a middle-class wife turning masochistic tricks on the sly, "Belle Toujours" captures Henri (Michel Piccoli, reprising his original role) and Séverine (this time played by Bulle Ogier, another Buñuel favorite) as they find each other in Paris, 40 years later. It's a tremendously economical film, with not a shot or a second wasted, yet rich with ambiguity, comedy, longing and sadness.

I guess it should be economical, given that Oliveira is now 97, a full decade older than Ingmar Bergman (and only eight years younger than Buñuel, who died in 1983). He's not just the last working member of the great Euro-art-film generation; he's almost certainly the oldest filmmaker in the history of the medium. So yeah, this is a filmmaker who knows that every film, every shot, every breath could be his last. But it's no novelty act; there aren't too many 27- or 37- or 47-year-olds who can make something this compressed, bitter and delightful. (At last report, Oliveira has begun shooting another film.)

Jafar Panahi's "Offside," another NYFF premiere, is bound to get some publicity, considering its circumstances and subject matter. Under the Iranian regime's peculiar rules, Panahi -- director of "The White Balloon," "The Circle" and "Crimson Gold" -- is allowed to make the films he wants, but can't get them shown in his own country (except, occasionally, at festivals). Filmed in and around a World Cup qualifying soccer match between Iran and Bahrain, "Offside" documents the efforts of soccer-mad women and girls to sneak into the officially all-male stadium. It's a narrative feature, not a documentary, but more notable for its spirit, verve and vérité-style immediacy than for its pedestrian comic plot. (It will be released in the U.S. next March.)

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Fast forward: Feel-bad java with "Black Gold"; a rueful genius in "Wrestling With Angels"
I drank three cups of excellent free-trade organic coffee while watching Marc Francis and Nick Francis' documentary "Black Gold." I defy you to A) stay off the joe during this film, and B) avoid feeling a little queasy about exactly where the piles of cash you've spent on that addictive, delicious dark-brown elixir in your lifetime have gone.

This British-born, Sundance-spawned docu focuses largely on Ethiopia, which is probably the poorest of the world's leading coffee-growing nations. Ethiopia has a relatively small chunk of the $80 billion annual coffee business, but numbers like those ought to be able to provide the nation's coffee farmers (who provide, experts agree, some of the best beans anywhere) with at least a reasonable standard of living. Right?

No, wrong. As the Francises demonstrate, Ethiopian farmers typically get a price of between 12 and 25 cents a kilo (i.e., 2.2 pounds!) for beans that, after shipping, roasting and packing, get sold to you and me for $8-$12 a pound in supermarkets, and $3 a shot at Starbucks. No one disputes that those intermediate steps add value, blah blah blah. But come on, free marketeers: These people grow something that the whole Western world wants, and their entire nation is starving. OK, that's an exaggeration, but Ethiopia remains afflicted by periodic famine and chronic malnutrition; about 7 million people in that country are dependent on Western aid to survive.

Still, "Black Gold" is more an Al Gore-style message of hope than a total downer. It is not necessary to drive up the retail price of coffee to pay the farmers, only to cut out some of the middlemen. The Francises focus on Tadesse Meskela, a minor hero of globalization, who travels the globe trying to find coffee roasters willing to work outside the extortionate international commodities marketplace and buy Ethiopia's best beans directly from the growers he represents. This is a case where consumer choice, that oft-derided solution, really can make a difference. One farmer in the film says that if he could get 50-60 cents a kilo for his beans, his family's life would be transformed and his village could afford to build a school.

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My coffee, by the way, comes from organic cooperative farms in Chiapas, Mexico, and can be found here. The distributor Grounds for Change, a supporter of the film, sells organic coffee from the Ethiopian regions seen in the film. Smart theater owners will brew up some good stuff at the concession stand, and leave the doors open a crack. (Opens Oct. 6 in New York and Seattle; Oct. 13 in Chicago; Oct. 15 in Madison, Wis., and Nashville; Oct. 27 in Boston; Nov. 3 in Burlington, Vt., Hartford, Conn., and Santa Fe, N.M.; Nov. 10 in Atlanta; and Nov. 17 in San Francisco, with more cities to follow.)

Many years in the making, Freida Lee Mock's documentary "Wrestling With Angels" paints an intimate and detailed portrait of playwright Tony Kushner, in the years since he became the most important living American dramatist. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is something of a booby prize. Kushner is an immensely talented, prodigiously nice and profoundly noble man, and with "Angels in America" he captured a certain essential American angst of the AIDS/Reagan years. It's not only the greatest play of the last 20 years, but also, by far, the best literary or dramatic work to tackle the undigested trauma of an epidemic about which our culture remains peculiarly silent.

Kushner, as I think he would admit, is unlikely to reach so far into mainstream culture ever again. ("Angels in America," in fact, now looks like the dying gasp of serious drama on Broadway.) His subsequent work, much of it very good, has never reached far outside his left-wing, intellectual, New York base. Despite its post-9/11 synchronicity, "Homebody/Kabul" found little audience, and his mini-play about Laura Bush reading Dostoevski to dead Iraqi children came off as mean and simplistic satire (when, as Mock's film makes clear, it wasn't intended that way).

Mock, who made the Oscar-winning 1994 documentary "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision," follows Kushner to his personal and artistic roots; while he may seem like the quintessential New York Jewish playwright, he actually grew up in Lake Charles, La. She also follows him into an uncertain future as a sort of patron saint of American resistance, an apostle of gay marriage, anti-Zionist Judaism, old-line Marxism, and other disgraced and half-abandoned causes. Kushner seems funny and carefree in this role. It's as if he lost 100 pounds after becoming famous (which he did), and gained a charming humility and sense of responsibility. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York. Opens Nov. 3 in Los Angeles, Nov. 10 in Dallas and Houston, Nov. 17 in Palm Springs, Calif., Nov. 24 in Atlanta, and Dec. 1 in San Francisco, with more cities to follow.)

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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