On High in Blue Tomorrows: The Legacy of David Lynch’s Inland Empire

My poor brother. He had no idea what he was in for Christmas Day, 2006, when he asked to tag along with myself and two of our cousins to an early afternoon screening of the new David Lynch film, InlandEmpire, at Pasadena’s Laemmle Playhhouse. Only 18 at the time— a year and a half younger than me—I don’t know that he’d ever even seen a proper art film by that point, let alone a Lynch film.

Suffice to say, it did not go over well. Many utterances of “what the fuck…” could be heard coming from his seat in our otherwise empty theater. I wish I could say that when we walked out of the movie three hours later he was a changed person, not unlike me following a screening of Mulholland Drive—my introduction to Lynch—five years earlier, but mostly he was just confused and grouchy.

I, on the other hand, was ecstatic. (Our cousins, who at least had seen Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, and so knew roughly what to expect, fell somewhere in the middle.) I had just sat through my favorite filmmaker’s magnum opus, three straight hours of pure Lynch id. What could be better? How could that man ever top it?

For a long time–11 years, to be exact–he didn’t. Indeed, it seemed increasingly likely that Inland Empire would be his last major work, even as he remained highly prolific in other areas: directing shorts, music videos and commercials; acting in other people’s movies and TV shows; releasing experimental blues albums; opening Parisian nightclubs; advocating for Transcendental Meditation; slinging coffee; and becoming a much-beloved weatherman.

Personally, I couldn’t think of a more fitting final film to go out on, although for a long time, I felt like I was alone on that score. Granted, Inland Empire earned polarized reviews upon its release, with several prominent critics praising it, even as others derided it as an incomprehensible mess and unbearable slog. It had its share of public champions (foremost amongst them Moby, of all people), but it enjoyed none of the cultural cachet that Mulholland Drive had received half a decade prior, mostly because not that many people bought a ticket for it. 

The opinion of those who did—many of whom were fans of Lynch’s other work—seemed to hue closer to my brother’s than mine, if my memory of the online forums and handful  of conversations with the few people I met who’d actually seen it are anything to go by. Anecdotal, to be sure, but I suspect my experience matches plenty of others from the time. 

It’s very easy to understand why the film put so many off. Even at his most most accessible, Lynch is an acquired taste, and Inland Empire is without a doubt him as his least accessible. The plot—such as it is—is extremely hard, at times outright impossible, to follow, and it would be a fool’s errand to attempt any synopsis beyond the film’s tagline of “A Woman in Trouble.” But, fool that I am, here goes: at base, the “story” revolves around a successful, but slightly past her prime actress (Laura Dern, whose career best performance was about the only element of the film to garner universal acclaim) who undergoes a splintering of reality after engaging in an affair with her costar (Justin Theroux) on the set of her latest movie, an overcooked Southern melodrama called On High in Blue Tomorrows, itself a remake of a seemingly cursed German production based on an old Polish folktale. 

Speaking of Poland, large chunks of the film take place in Łódź (an American-Polish co-production, Inland Empire was shot on location), with one of the many narrative threads involving a Polish prostitute (Karolina Gruszka), who may or may not be one of Dern’s alternate selves, who finds herself estranged from her son and husband, who may or may not be the man responsible for a series of brutal sex worker slayings. There are several other strange interludes, most memorably a recurring glimpse at a series of deeply menacing scenes from an otherworldly sitcom starring anthropomorphic rabbits (voiced by Mulholland Drive cast members Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Scott Coffey, and Rebekah Del Rio). 

If you haven’t seen Inland Empire and are wondering how Lynch ties this all together, the answer is: he doesn’t, at least not in anyway that explains what it all means. Not that that’s ever been the case with his movies, but even at their most narratively experimental and confounding—see: Eraserhead, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive—people managed suss out a larger/deeper meaning that, even if it didn’t explain every single thing that took place within them, made it possible understand them in large brushstrokes.

Not so with Inland Empire, which, unlike all those others (including Mulholland Drive, originally shot as a pilot for new TV series before being retooled as a feature when the network declined to pick it up) never had a script. Along with incorporating previously released stand-alone footage (such as the excerpts from Rabbits, which first aired as a series of web shorts), Lynch would write out scenes as filming commenced, handing the actors fresh pages on the day they were set to shoot. As an artist, Lynch has always followed his intuition, willing to change course the moment the muse demands; but here he intentionally set off without a roadmap, trusting the universe to make it all coalesce: “It’s a risk, but I have this feeling that because all things are unified, this idea over here in that room will somehow relate to that idea over there in the pink room.” 

Patience and ambiguity are not qualities most moviegoers hold dear—indeed, a cursory view of current-day film discourse makes it clear they despise them—and on top of Inland Empire being his most ambiguous film, it is also his longest and his slowest, features many a drawn-out scene of Dern’s character walking slowly down some dark corridor, or delighting in long beats of empty air between pieces of dialog. Thrnfilm is very much a work of transcendental (or “slow”) cinema—Paul Schrader, in a new introduction of his essential book of film criticism, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dryer; places Lynch in the center of his Tarkovsky Ring and along the axis of his Art Gallery line in a diagram categorizing filmmakers within that school—and while this style has always been prevelant in his movies, he takes it to extremes in Inland Empire

Neither does the look of Inland Empire appeal to most cinemagoers, be they of the multiplex or the arthouse variety. Outside of its intimidating runtime, this is probably the thing that has stood in the way of most viewer’s enjoyment or appreciation of the movie. Shot entirely on standard definition digital video— Lynch would forsake celluloid from here on out—gone is the dark, rich texture of his previous work, and in its place we have footage that looks like a home movie: grainy, over-or-underlit, and often unflattering to the people within the frame. Make no mistake, it is an undoubtedly ugly movie. But that ugliness is of a piece with the story it’s telling, an unflinching examination of mental illness, misogynist violence, and urban decay. Unlike the worlds of Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, there are no white picket fences or verdant forests to contrast with the ugliness of this world. While the majority of scenes take place in Hollywood, the movie is called Inland Empire, and as anyone who’s familiar with that region of Southern California can tell you, it ain’t exactly known for its comeliness.

(The harsh digital look also achieves a Brechtian resonance, one that is highly apropos, given the movie is about an actress struggling to distinguish her reality from that of the character she is playing.)

All of this, combined with its streaming unavailability, made for a lonely decade as an Inland Empire lover. But the tide began to shift starting in 2017. For while it remains Lynch’s last feature film to date, it would not be his grand final statement after all. In the weeks leading up to the debut of the miraculous Twin Peaks: The Return, the word from those in the know described it pure, uncut Lynch. Those who’d seen Inland Empire knew what that meant, and indeed, while the series retained some of the folksy quirkiness that made it such a huge (if brief) cultural hit in the ‘90s, this new iteration proved far darker, slower, and weirder than anything that had came before, sharing as much if not more in common with Inland Empire than the two seasons of its original run.

And yet, The Return proved massively popular with those who tuned in. Undoubtedly, this was the result of the change in medium, as such a fractured narrative is more tolerable for most viewers when dispersed over the course of several hours of episodic TV than in one giant three-hour chunk. Lynch was also able to recapture some of the texture of his earlier work thanks to advancements in the technology, with much of the show standing amongst the most visually impressive examples of digital cinema thus far (particularly as seen in the earth-shattering Episode 8). 

The lead up to and eventual success of the The Return brought new and renewed attention to some of Lynch’s other projects, begining with the once-reviled Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and his 1997 neo-noir Lost Highway, both of which have since been properly reclaimed as the masterpieces they always were. Inland Empire was always going to be next in line.

As with those two movies, Lynch oversaw the striking of a new 4K print of Inland Empire. This version—which softens the look of the movie slightly, but thankfully retains most of the griminess—got a theatrical re-release last year courtesy of Janus Films, and a new Blu-ray (and potentially streaming) release via The Criterion Collection. While we should be wary of affording any brand too much deference, the induction into those two catalogs is the arthouse equivalent of canonization. Disregard that notion if you will, but it does mean many more people will actually watch the thing, as evidenced by the screening I took in last summer at Santa Ana’s Frida Cinema, alongside a full, and highly receptive, house. That this three-hour beast of movie could pack them in at all—let alone for a late-night weekday showing—speaks to how much things have changed since first I experienced the film at that empty Los Angeles screening. On high in blue tomorrows, indeed.

Now I just have to convince my brother to give it another shot.

“Inland Empire” is out today on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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