In the fall of 2006, David Lynch published a book called Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. "Ideas are like fish," he begins, and the book is his guide to their natural habitat (the unconscious); the best way to hook them (transcendental meditation); and the most effective kinds of bait (desire, intuition).
Along the way, Lynch shares the ingredients of his best-known recipes (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet), as well as some of the more exotic ideas he's managed to catch ("I don't necessarily love rotting bodies, but . . . the textures are wonderful"). Midway between chapters devoted to "Kubrick" and "Common Sense," a whale emerges from the depths. "I'm through with film as a medium," Lynch declares. "For me, film is dead."
Lynch made good on this promise—or bad, depending on your point of view—with last year's release of Inland Empire, a movie shot with the Sony PD-150, a low-grade digital-video camera considered obsolete for serious feature filmmaking. Like his previous film, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire tells the story of a woman lost in the labyrinth of self. Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, a Hollywood actress in the grip of a violent identity crisis, the nature of which is reflected in the elusive, dreamlike shape of the movie. But where the glamorous look of Mulholland Drive referenced the Hollywood past (westerns, musicals, film noir), the rough textures, weak colors, fuzzy depth of field, and structural volatility of Inland Empire resembled nothing so much as YouTube having an epic nightmare.
Audiences expect the unexpected from Lynch, but many critics were appalled by this new direction. In thrall to the vanishing art of 35mm cinema, they failed to appreciate the extraordinary variety and visual richness of Inland Empire, with its encyclopedic investigation into the spatial and textural possibilities of video as video, not a low-rent replacement for film: the distortion of objects looming in the foreground and evocative ambiguity of background shadows; the unique beauty of a video dissolve and the dissolution of forms in "overexposed" light.
To dismiss the medium of Inland Empire is to miss the message. Just as Mulholland Drive can be read as a cautionary tale about the effect of movies on consciousness, Inland Empire speaks to the isolation and fragmentation of the post-cinema psyche, the splintering of self in the matrix of the Internet. As such, it may be the first movie masterpiece that doesn't properly belong in movie theaters.
"Digital makes it what it is," says Lynch on the phone from his house in the Hollywood Hills. Back in L.A. from the Polish premiere of Inland Empire, the director spoke to me about digital filmmaking, cooking quinoa, and the beauty of the "thing."
"With traditional shooting on film, the equipment is so big and so heavy you need a large crew," he says. "And the setup between shots takes a long time—sometimes a very long time. With digital, you have much less downtime—sometimes just moments. So what happens is, you stay in the scene, and there are less things around to break that scene. You're in it—-you're in it!"
But what precisely are we getting into with Inland Empire? The only explanation Lynch has offered to date is that it's about "a woman in trouble." What kind of trouble? "Well, you know," replies Lynch, "I just say it's about a woman in trouble." That's it? "That's it. I can't really say, because it putrefies the experience. You see a thing, and that thing has been worked on for a long time until it feels correct as a whole. And then it needs to go out without any additional words. It doesn't do any good for the director to say this or that—it doesn't really change people's opinion. They might come up with something far more interesting out of it."
Lynch's reticence to comment on the meaning of Inland Empire extends to the double-disc DVD package. The first simply contains the film as shown in the theaters, without a commentary track. The other disc is made up of nearly three hours of extras and features, including a 70-minute collection called "More Things That Happened." Incorporated into the body of Inland Empire, this additional material would push the total running time to over four and half hours, but Lynch insists that they be considered apart from the main attraction.
"There are things that don't go in a film that you can still love," he says, "but the film's got to stand on its own. It's got its own feel, and you don't want to fiddle with that. Anything else should be separate. So the film is the film, the other things have a bearing on film, but they're just . . . "— ha!—"more things that happened."
And what about "Ballerina," a study of a woman dancing to a piece of music composed by Lynch? "It's another thing—it's just a thing—but to me, it's a very beautiful thing." Indeed—whatever else "Ballerina" might be, it makes for a definitive rebuke to anyone who claims video incapable of rivaling the beauty of film. Composited from two different shots, sheathed in a smoke-like emanation, the movements of the dancer are as hypnotic as the infernal close-ups of Wild at Heart or the interstellar oddities of Eraserhead.
"Ballerina" might be viewed as a preparatory sketch for the vast canvas of Inland Empire, the trace of an artist refining his technique. A painter before he was a filmmaker, Lynch devotes as much attention to the production design and set decoration of his movies as he does to the performances or cinematography, as can be seen in the montage of behind-the-scenes footage on disc two called "Lynch 2." "That seems to me the joy of it," he says of this artisanal care for details. "I mean, the super fun of it!"
As for "Quinoa," which begins with the filmmaker preparing a recipe based on the hearty grain, then morphs into a beguiling lesson on how to cook up a story, Lynch merely notes: "Well, you know, there's all these cooking shows. But I don't cook. I know how to make tapioca from when I was little, and rigatoni because I learned how to make rigatoni. But now I know how to make quinoa. So I did kind of a cooking thing.
"The chef does not make the fish," Lynch continues. "The chef can prepare that fish and really make it a great meal—a beautiful, you know, thing—but the chef doesn't make the fish. It's like you are going along down the street and you get an idea, and it's a thrilling thing, it's the whole thing, and it might be a fragment, but that fragment is complete. So you go into this process where more ideas hook onto it, and the more ideas you have, the quicker the rest come to join it. They become like bait, and you just stay true to those ideas. And where intuition comes in is, you're translating this idea to film and it's not quite right. Like on a violin note—if you lean a little bit harder on that note, it feels correct, and if you back off a little bit, it doesn't feel correct. And if you follow this thing, staying true to idea, intuition is your friend. You walk away when it feels correct."