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Sundance: Jennifer Fox’s Deeply Disturbing “The Tale” Explores the Maze-Like Nature of Memory

One of the more seismic premieres at Sundance this year — for both artistic and cultural-moment reasons — has been Jennifer Fox’s intensely disturbing The Tale. It’s a deeply complex work, based on the director’s own experience with sexual molestation. By casting Laura Dern as a filmmaker named Jennifer Fox, the director builds a frame around a story that is itself all about how we frame things. The events of the film are set in motion by the Fox character’s elderly mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) discovering a story Jennifer wrote years ago in English class about the relationship she once had with an older man (Jason Ritter) and a woman (Elizabeth Debicki) at the horse farm where she spent her summers.

The girl’s story, titled “The Tale,” discusses the affair in glowing terms (“I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful,” it starts), but Mom is convinced her daughter was raped and is horrified to be discovering this only today. Jennifer, now 48, resists that definition, and argues that her mother just doesn’t understand. But Jennifer herself has for decades clearly stored the memory somewhere unreachable, and she soon becomes obsessed with delving into her past and tracking down the people involved.

As Jennifer Fox the character goes on this journey, so too does Jennifer Fox the filmmaker, and the movie itself, in form and content, comes to embody the elusive nature of memory — inexact, always changing, and in constant dialogue with the present. Fox initially portrays her flashbacks in colorful, bright, manicured compositions, like something out of a diorama. Then she interrogates that past — literally. Her onscreen character interviews these people both in their former selves and in their present incarnations. Older Jennifer interviews her younger self; the younger self interviews her back. The flashbacks keep changing: Memories are cut short, then replayed differently, with new figures from the past suddenly appearing, dredged up from the dark abyss created by time and trauma. Those carefully composed shots eventually become intense, fragmented close-ups.

It takes a remarkably assured artist to make all this work, and Fox is savvy about how she eases us into her complicated narrative. Early on, she tips her hand by suddenly changing the girl playing her younger self right before our eyes, as a result of new information she receives in the present — a bold stroke that prepares us for the increasingly maze-like nature of the film.

Such flourishes also help paper over some awkward scenes, particularly early on. Fox definitely seems more at ease toying with structure and filming performed interviews than she does handling more conventional dialogue exchanges. (The director has previously worked mostly in documentaries, including the fascinating, six-hour 2006 film Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman.) Meanwhile, Dern effectively conveys her character’s obsessive curiosity, and even though she’s exploring something that happened to herself, her Jennifer remains analytical, as if this might be just another documentary subject for her. This might be brutal stuff, but The Tale, for much of its running time, avoids easy emotional beats; it’s a surprisingly cerebral movie.

And then, right at the end, it goes for the kill — in an explosion of emotion and rage that the film has been building up to throughout. But it’s a brief burst, and more than anything it serves to remind us of the impossibility of catharsis with stories like this. And The Tale’s melancholy, open-ended final moments dare to suggest that, in gaining more self-knowledge, Fox has also discovered infinitely more pain.

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“The Last Jedi” Is the Most Entertaining Star Wars Movie in Many a Moon

The Last Jedi opens with one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars film and then mostly keeps that lightness of spirit throughout. That’s not unwise for a movie crammed with confrontations and near-escapes and betrayals and counter-betrayals and speeches and mechanical minutiae and climaxes and pseudo-climaxes — a movie in which I’m pretty sure we see, at different points, no fewer than three different characters in comas. Writer-director Rian Johnson has certainly made the busiest Star Wars film of them all, but he keeps it from becoming a slog by infusing it with humor, verve, and visual charm.

As with quite a few of these movies, The Last Jedi starts in mid-escape and then keeps the pressure on. Huddled in a few spaceships, the Resistance led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) finds itself on the verge of capture or destruction by the First Order, that Galactic Empire tribute band, again and again over the course of the film, and what saves them each time is some singularly creative, kamikaze act of bravery. (If there’s one key theme that runs through this movie, it’s that of sacrifice.) Among the desperate are our returning heroes, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and recovering ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), as well as new additions Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a maintenance worker whose wide-eyed dedication to the Resistance has only been strengthened by the death of her sister during a bombing run, and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who assumes power at a moment of crisis and is promptly faced with doubting subordinates.

Back among the baddies, concave-faced Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) first harangues General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) for failing to finish off the Resistance and then chastises his impulsive Dark Side protégé Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) for his failure to kill young Jedi-to-be Rey (Daisy Ridley). “Alas, you’re no Vader,” Snoke snarls. “You’re just a child in a mask” — whereupon the younger man petulantly yanks off said mask and smashes it. It’s refreshing to see these villains not as monolithic, sneering, all-powerful beings but as essentially dumb, angry kids, somewhat out of their element: Hux is ambitious and overconfident, Kylo is volatile and conflicted; they piss each other off as much as they piss off the good guys. That’s an inspired, maybe even courageous bit of character development, because it adds interest, texture, and even some humor to their scenes, while sacrificing a degree of menace and urgency. (These imperial buffoons do a lot of damage, but it’s hard to feel scared of them.)

Meanwhile, at a remote island on the distant planet of Ahch-To, eager apprentice Rey tries to convince an embittered Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to return to the fight and teach her the ways of the Force. Still scarred from his failed attempt to train a new generation of Jedi — an endeavor that effectively birthed noted psychopath Kylo Ren — Luke is now convinced that the ancient order needs to end. He’s even begun to question whether the Jedi were a force for good to begin with. But my early hope that Johnson might give us a deconstruction of the Jedi’s role as quasi-benign enforcers of state power was for naught; Luke’s main bone of contention with Jedi history appears to be that everything they did wound up in failure, which, well, he’s got a point.

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As The Force Awakens did with Star Wars, The Last Jedi borrows the rough template of The Empire Strikes Back — proto-Jedi coaxes reluctant master out of retirement and faces his/her greatest fears, while their friends face deadly scrapes elsewhere. But whereas J.J. Abrams seemed content to remix the earlier film, Johnson infuses much of The Last Jedi with his own sensibility. He has more visual style: He shoots space battles with a mixture of freewheeling fluidity and hushed grandeur, and lightsaber battles with both hothouse fervor and graphical mischief; one big fight is filmed against a background so deliriously red you might wonder if you’ve accidentally stepped into an MGM musical or a Michael Powell fever dream.

Not unlike James Cameron, Johnson also appears to have an engineer’s mind for story and scene construction, as well as for what-if invention. What would happen if you — and here’s where some mild spoilers start, fanboys — drove a giant ship at hyper-speed straight into an imperial armada? How do tracking devices on star destroyers actually work? If your master can read your mind, how would you conspire against him? That kind of intricately imagined detail adds a pleasing sturdiness to many scenes; they seem to hold to the laws of a real universe as opposed to the demands of blockbuster thermodynamics.

There’s proportionality to the film’s thematic arc as well: “When I saw you,” Snoke tells Kylo Ren, “I saw what all masters hope to see — raw, untamed power.” That quote is reflected later, when someone else (I won’t say who!) remarks of Rey, “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” The bad guys shape and exploit, the good guys grow and set free. Elements like these echo throughout, lending the whole conceptual elegance. You get the sense that it’s all been sincerely thought through, and not cynically slapped together.

A good thing, too, because the story itself, as jam-packed as it is, doesn’t always amount to all that much. Johnson excels at coming up with lots of little things to keep us interested — a plan to access a hyperdrive here, a minor space mutiny there — but the broad, melodramatic passions that originally fueled the Star Wars movies, and helped win them so many fans, don’t register quite as strongly as they did decades ago. But that was a different time, and those were basic, elemental desires — the thwarted passion of lovers, the search to reclaim a child, to redeem a parent. And it’s also true that the saga occasionally overdid it; if George Lucas was guilty of one thing with the prequels, it’s that he sometimes privileged myth over entertainment.

Johnson attempts to bring balance to the equation, but has he overcorrected? Put it another way: Should I have felt more during The Last Jedi? Maybe not. Maybe it’s the very briskness of his approach that keeps the heavier emotions at bay. The Last Jedi is a better film than The Force Awakens — it’s faster, funnier, and has both more sweep and more originality — but I still didn’t find any moments here as hauntingly moving as that earlier film’s first flight of the Millennium Falcon, or the death of Han Solo. The good news is that Johnson doesn’t really need them. The Last Jedi is the most entertaining Star Wars movie in many a moon, and that’s more than enough.

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The Sublime Beauty of the Moment: Kelly Reichardt on “Certain Women”

Kelly Reichardt might be the most important independent American filmmaker working right now. Over six features, she has built a body of work that stands in sharp contrast to the prefab stories and festival-friendly satisfactions of much of what passes for independent cinema today. Reichardt’s movies are immersive, even gripping, and they often reflect (albeit sometimes obliquely) the social and political issues of their day: Her 2008 masterpiece, Wendy and Lucy, about a young, broke drifter on the margins of society attempting to make her way to a new life in Alaska, opened right in the heart of the financial crisis; her 2010 western, Meek’s Cutoff, about a group of settlers adrift in the desert, was read by some as an allegory of the Iraq War. 2013’s Night Moves took on the subject of ecoterrorism, but in the most understated yet humane way.

Reichardt’s films (which were just recently featured in a MoMA retrospective) are difficult to describe. To give any real sense of them, you have to explain how they sound, and how they move, and the little moments, glances, and gestures between characters that sometimes say more than any plot synopsis ever could. Last year’s Certain Women, which played the Sundance and New York Film Festivals and is now being released on home video by the Criterion Collection, is no different. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, it tells the loosely connected tales of three Montana women — a lawyer, a wife, and a rancher — at what might be key turning points in their lives. But sometimes the significance of a moment isn’t revealed until after the fact; so often, we’re just watching these women be. Through her graceful but straightforward direction, Reichardt manages to convey the everyday nature of the events depicted, while also hinting at the mystery beneath them. On the occasion of the Criterion release of Certain Women, I spoke to her about how exactly she captures what she does.

In the past, you’ve taken individual short stories and turned them into features. With Certain Women, you took three short stories by Maile Meloy and created a semi-episodic film. What made you decide to do that?

Like everything, it’s just a process. I tried a few things that didn’t really work out, and then I came upon Maile’s stories and really liked them. But they were another thing I was sort of fooling around with; I knew that this might not work. Is there a reason that putting these together would somehow make it more than just expanding one story? Each collection seems like its own world. I started working off her two collections, and I tried different combinations of stories. This went on for like a year. Finally somehow there was a point when it started making sense to me and seemed like something worth pursuing. Part of it was settling on that middle story with Michelle Williams and James LeGros, which was not the most obvious story in her collection. But really for me, it made the whole thing work. And then I started finding some themes to be able to work from, and also changing the Rancher in the third story into a woman. It’s a long process, where you are in the weeds for a long time but then eventually things start to make sense.

You also do some interesting things, structurally. I feel like the conventional thing — to the extent that anything in this movie would ever be conventional — would have been to lead up to the Laura Dern episode, with the hostage standoff. But I love the fact that that episode comes at the beginning.

It did sort of have to start with that. But action-wise, it’s true. I would say that the emotional climax happens in the third story, and that makes the three stories come together.

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The film is filled with wonderful little details, like Kristen Stewart dabbing her face at the diner with the napkin still rolled up with the fork and knife. Do you search for moments like that, or are they the result of happy accidents?

You leave room for spontaneous things to happen. That particular thing was Kristen. That was purely her. The actors obviously bring a lot to each scene. One thing about shooting on location is the weather: The scene in the parking lot with Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone, the wind was so incredible that day — Kristen could hardly keep her skirt from flying up. And things like that end up playing a big part in choices that the actors make, and the mood of something. How loud people end up speaking because of the weather. Or dealing with animals that are not trained and are going to be doing their own thing, so you’re just responding to them. Or you’re driving, actually driving a car, and you have to be thinking about traffic. All these things keep actors in the moment, but also keep anything from being too especially planned out. That night at the diner, particularly, there was a big storm outside that you can sort of see through the window, and that ends up adding something to the feeling of the night. But that was Kristen doing that. She figured her character was in too much of a hurry to unwrap her spoon and fork [laughs].

Speaking of location, all your films have a tremendous sense of atmosphere and place. I’m curious how you go about achieving that. You shot some of your previous films in and around Portland, Oregon, where you’ve spent a lot of time, but do you feel like you need to really get to know a location before you shoot there? You work with very small budgets, so I don’t think it’s a case where you’re hanging out on set for months before you get to shoot.

Well, we were there months before we shot. It’s not like I can always have a crew or actors there, but I can personally be there beforehand. Generally speaking, I do spend a lot of time in the locations, and finding the locations. That’s the biggest, longest thing. You need to know a place before you’re making a film there. But it’s true that you’re not there with everything you need for that long; the actual shooting and time with actors is always pretty fast. But the crew people are anxious to begin and will just start working on these sorts of things way early because they want to. That’s nice.

On this film, some of the smaller locations were changing and falling out as we shot, which made things really difficult. But the big location, the ranch…once I found the ranch, that became the center of the universe and we built everything onto that. And I was able to spend time there. I didn’t know anything about ranching when I started, which is part of the fun thing, isn’t it? So, I started working with the rancher first, and eventually brought [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt with me. Eventually, the horses were getting used to us, and then the assistant director started coming and doing the routine with us, and then the art department starts working there. We were just, like, moving our way into people’s lives and working at the ranch.

Kristen Stewart in “Certain Women”

Lily Gladstone’s character as the Rancher in that final episode feels like such a breath of fresh air in this world, where everyone is so constricted. In her own low-key way, she’s very bold, straightforward, and romantic and honest. But then she meets with heartbreak as a result of it. Do you think at the end that she’s disappeared into the brown-gray background of this world like everyone else, or…

Well, I can’t impose an ending on it. That’s for each viewer to suss out on their own. But she does realize the steady beauty of a chore, I’ll say that.

You often cast nonprofessionals in your films alongside more seasoned actors like Laura Dern or Jared Harris. Do you have a particular style of directing actors, or do you modify it based on who you’re working with?

It depends on who you’re working with. I try to just find my way around. This is a certain scale of film: It’s on locations, it’s often in the winter, and the weather’s kind of harsh. So, they’re coming into our world to a degree. Within that, I try to figure out how people want to work, and I try to facilitate whatever it is they require. There’s no magic pill for anything. Everything’s a process, and it always feels like a new start and new terrain with each film, and you’re just always sort of finding your way. Not that experience doesn’t help; certainly it does. Working with Michelle [Williams] is obviously easy because we see each other, we know each other. But then with other actors, you’re trying to suss out what it is they require, and you hope that they require something similar. And there’s usually not a lot of lead-up, so you’re just starting to get to know people when they start acting for you. Sometimes it starts with costume design, where people start getting fitted for their clothes. And maybe you start to know people when you’re sending them research or whatever. But mostly, you’re kind of thrown into the fire together. And you’re figuring it all out while you’re working.

Certain Women feels like a spiritual sequel to your western Meek’s Cutoff, in which you have a group of women wandering these vast stretches of land that once belonged to another people. Now here we are in the modern day, and an entire civilization has been built on top of that land. But we see the little remnants of what was here before, with the Indian ritual at the mall, the story about native sandstone, even Lily Gladstone’s character, who is Native American. The two films resonated in that way for me.

Well, that’s because they’re both about the West. I mean, it’s hard to write about the West and not be thinking about Native Americans on some level. I think that’s just the nature of any sort of western — however you want to define the western.

Sound seems like a critical part of your movies, but also an underrated part.

They all sort of start with sound. The soundscapes begin with scouting and really listening to what’s happening in the spaces. With Wendy and Lucy, that film came from a John Raymond short story called “Train Choir,” which had train sounds built into it, so that was sort of in my head as I started. The concept of that film was to just use the trains as score: In the spaces where you’d use music, you would use the sounds of this kind of commerce. And then in Meek’s Cutoff it was really about how to build quiet, which is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Building quiet is actually a lot harder than building a wall of sound. And it’s certainly harder to mix. We were in a place that was so quiet, and we had to get tracks of snakes and flies and just anything we could build sound with. We also had to get across the monotony and the repetitive nature of every day. And then animals brought a world of sound, and wind always brings a lot of sound.

Certain Women, we filmed in Livingston, Montana — it’s called “The Windiest Place in America.” It’s a crazy windy place, and everywhere you go — every alleyway or truck stop — the wind is making a hugely different sound. It was really hard to get clean. Wind is already hard to record, but at the truck stop, the wind going underneath the trucks has this really singsongy sound, and that was the starting idea of how to build a kind of distant ambience. And then there was the question of how to get across distance through sound for the Rancher character. Also, there’s a huge depot there, so there were going to be sounds of trains on the soundtrack whether I wanted them or not, so I needed to start planning for that ahead of the time. But then there are also these highway sounds. A lot of times, while you’re scouting, you start making notes of what you’re hearing, and then from that you start to build what the soundscape is going to be.

It wasn’t until I read Ella Taylor’s lovely essay in this Criterion booklet that I realized that in the very final scenes of the film, when we revisit each of these women, they’re all feeding someone or something.

Oh. Is that true? [Pause] Oh yeah, that is true.  Good eye, Ella! I hadn’t really thought of that. I just got the box today. And I’ve only seen the cover, and I haven’t opened the package yet.

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Reese Witherspoon Hoboes Through the Winning Wild

For reasons that are perhaps understandable, stories about women finding themselves — or their voices, or their inner courage, or any number of things that are apparently very easy to mislay — are big business. But even if Cheryl Strayed’s hugely successful 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail fits the classic self-
discovery template perfectly, it’s at least lively and entertaining. This account of the author’s 1,100-mile trek up the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to Washington State — a trip she took alone, in 1995, as a way of coping with her mother’s untimely death and the fact that her own life had gone seriously off the rails — works both as a highly descriptive piece of travel writing and a supremely candid, and often very funny, running interior monologue. As effortlessly likable as the book is, though, the chances of messing up the movie version were great: How do you dramatize a story that essentially consists of walking and thinking — breathtaking scenery notwithstanding?

Jean-Marc Vallée pulls it off in Wild, in which Reese Witherspoon, as Strayed, faces down wilderness horrors like egg-frying heat, mountain passes clogged with snow, ill-fitting boots, and tiny, slippery frogs that come out in droves at night. This woman-vs.-nature battle is, of course, really a woman-vs.-herself conflict in disguise. Although she’s joined by the occasional fellow traveler, the Strayed of Wild is mostly alone, and deeply so, with the memories of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), who died a few years earlier at age 45. In the time since, Strayed had done a marvelous job of messing up her life: She’s had a careless and dangerous fling with heroin, and she’s still feeling sorrow over a failed marriage. Though she isn’t a particularly experienced hiker, Strayed somehow decides her best move is to fill up a backpack that will end up being bigger and bulkier than she is and head out into the cruel and beautiful natural world, a place where surely she’ll be able to find herself, or something. As she says in one of the movie’s many instances of introspective voiceover, “I’m gonna walk my way back to the woman my mother thought I was.”

That kind of signpost language is best used sparingly, and thankfully, Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby keep it to a minimum. Mostly, they just show us this half-bumpy, half-glorious journey through Strayed’s eyes, and their vision is by and large faithful to her book. Both open with Strayed in mid-hike, having just scaled a challenging ridge. She stops to rest at the top and removes her boots, revealing bloodied socks beneath — she has learned, too late, that her footgear is a size too small. Still, it’s better than nothing, which is what she has after her backpack topples, sending one boot first flying and then bouncing down the steep hillside, never to be seen again. She throws its mate, now useless, after it, screaming with rage: She’s furious at her stupid boots, but even more furious at the stupid universe for taking her mother away.

Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, The Young Victoria) knows how to transform that futile fury into a kind of dramatic energy; the movie, like its heroine, is always moving forward, pausing occasionally for a reflective flashback. Strayed recalls her life with her now ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski) and relives their parting in an excruciating whisper of detail — their goodbye is heavy with sadness, like a fat raincloud that just refuses to break. She thinks back on her mother, who raised her and her brother (Keene McRae) alone after finally getting the courage to leave her abusive husband, the children’s father. Dern is a wonderfully sympathetic presence in those scenes: She appears to be bathed in that idealistic glow we create around loved ones after they’re gone, as if these imaginary molecules of light were our last hope of keeping them from slipping away into mere memories.

Strayed does an awful lot of thinking on that trail, but she does a lot of looking too, and Vallée and cinematographer Yves Bélanger are scrupulously alert to her surroundings: They show us a moon rising above the trees like a miraculous, glowing biscuit. We also get one of those snowy landscapes topped by something that’s either a bowl of feathery clouds or a misty, mythical-looking faraway mountain range — either way, it’s astonishing. (The picture was shot mostly in Oregon, as well as in the Mojave Desert.)

Both the material and the setting seem to have shaken something loose in Witherspoon (who is also one of the movie’s producers): She’s moved further away from those uptight, humorless romantic-comedy cuties she played in the mid 2000s and more toward the breezy, blunt, self-
determined characters of her early career. With her little acorn face — even as she nears 40, she still resembles one of those fairy nymphs in an old children’s storybook, the type who wear upside-down bluebells as hats — Witherspoon is generally in danger of overdoing her plucky adorableness. But in Wild, she kicks any potential cuteness right over the ridge, just like that boot.

As Strayed, she’s alive to the wonder of it all — not just to the gorgeous harshness of the landscape around her, but to the weirdos and generous souls she meets on her long solo trek, among them a nerdily enthusiastic writer for the Hobo Times (played, with goofball wit, by Mo McRae) and a
gentle-souled nouveau-hippie (played by Michiel Huisman) who engages her in a tender sexual adventure. For the time being, Witherspoon — sometimes a wonderful actress and sometimes a maddening one — has found herself. Maybe it’s the kind of happy accident that comes about only when you don’t know you’ve been lost.

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Citizen Ruth

(Alexander Payne, 1996).
Alexander Payne’s something-to-offend-everyone debut feature is coarser in its character-driven comedy than Election, About Schmidt, or Sideways but taking the abortion issue as the subject for social satire was a bold move and setting it in deepest Nebraska even bolder still. Laura Dern gives her career performance in the title role.

Wednesdays-Fridays, 1:30 p.m. Starts: Oct. 29. Continues through Oct. 31, 2008

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The Super Fun of It

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.”

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Wild at Heart

No director works closer to his unconscious than David Lynch, and, stimulated by the use of amateur digital-video technology, his latest feature ventures as far inland as this blandly enigmatic filmmaker has ever gone.

A movie about Lynch’s obsessions, Inland Empire is largely a meditation on the power of recording: The first image is a shaft of projected light; the second is a close-up of a phonograph needle dropping on a record’s groove. Familiar tropes include a movie-within-the-movie and the notion of Hollywood as haunted house. But nothing in Lynch’s work is truly familiar, as when a TV sitcom features a cast of humanoid rabbits. For most of Inland Empire, sinister East Europeans are “looking for a way in”—whether to the industry or the narrative or the empire itself. Reality is first breached when a ditzy Polish Gypsy traipses into the vintage, disconcertingly empty Hollywood mansion that belongs to actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). Spooking the star with her wolfsbane accent and aggressive prophesies, she casts a spell of weirdness that lasts throughout the movie.

Suddenly it’s tomorrow and Nikki has the role she covets, working with an over-eager director (Jeremy Irons) and acting opposite young rapscallion Devon (Justin Theroux), who’s been touted by a nasty TV gossip (Dern’s mother, Diane Ladd) as the biggest womanizer in Hollywood. An adulterous affair seems over-determined, particularly as that’s the premise of On High in Blue Tomorrows, the unlikely title of the movie that Nikki and Devon are making. Script inevitably merges with life. “Hollywood is full of stories,” someone remarks, referring to the rumor that the Blue Tomorrows screenplay is itself haunted. A previous version was abandoned when “they discovered something inside the story. . . . The two leads were murdered.”

Something or someone is lurking in the recesses of the set—and as Nikki’s c
haracter fissures, it turns out to be her. (Dern is in nearly every scene, and pondered by Lynch’s DV camera, her long, angular face is taffy-pulled by wide-angle close-ups into a mask of anguish.) As if in a dream, Nikki is both spectator and protagonist. At one point she is trapped by a mysterious spotlight and spooks herself; at another, she
climbs a shabby stairway somewhere in Poland and, suddenly another character altogether, launches into an outrageous, tough-girl confession that might be the world’s most preposterous screen test.

Inland Empire is Nikki’s world, but she doesn’t live in it. She’s variously threatened by characters out of On High in Blue Tomorrows—taunted, for example, by a lascivious girl gaggle who break into a choreographed version of “The Loco-Motion,” thus providing Lynch’s obligatory burst of ’60s pop. Nikki’s mansion devolves into a squalid dump, and a scary Pole known as the Phantom appears next door. Blood mixes with ketchup at a backyard barbecue. Nikki plays her big scene at 4 a.m. on the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, staggering across the star-spangled pavement to collapse amid the homeless.

Inland Empire is Lynch’s most experimental film since
Eraserhead
. But unlike that brilliant debut (or its two masterful successors, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr.), it lacks concentration. It’s a miasma. Cheap DV technology has opened Lynch’s mental floodgates. Inland Empire is suffused with dread of . . . what? Sex, in Lynch, is a priori nightmarish. But there’s a sense here that film itself is evil. Movies are all about editing and acting—which is to say, visual lies and verbal ones—and Inland Empire makes sure you think about both.

Lynch’s notion of pure cinema is a matter of tawdry scenarios and disconcerting tonal shifts. Everything in Inland Empire is uncanny, unmoored, and out of joint. The major special effect is the creepy merging of spaces or times. Do the characters travel through wormholes from Los Angeles to Lodz and the sad, shabby rooms of the On High in Blue Tomorrows set? Are these memories or alternate worlds? Is Lynch looking for some sort of movie beneath the movie? (His long search for closure may be turgid and unrelenting, but it hardly lacks for conviction.) The heroine’s persistent doubling and Lynch’s continuous use of “creative geography” reinforce the sense that he assimilated Maya Deren’s venerable avant-noir Meshes of the Afternoon at an impressionable age. And like Meshes, Inland Empire
has no logic apart from its movie-ness.

It’s three hours before Nikki is transfigured (by the “power of love”) and her fearful trip is done. But given its nonexistent narrative rhythms, Inland Empire doesn’t feel that long. (In fact, it doesn’t feel like anything but itself.) It’s an experience. Either you give yourself over to it or you don’t. And if you do, don’t miss the end credits.

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Delicate Balance

Laura Dern has certainly played her share of head cases, but in John Curran’s marital roundelay We Don’t Live Here Anymore, her character is quite different from the frisky corrupted-naïf roles she’s most famous for. In the film, fellow former David Lynch ingenue Naomi Watts handles the more typically Dern-like role of “other woman” Edith, while Dern herself plumbs the depths of acrimony as Terry, a wife dealing with her husband’s affair. Waxing nostalgic for the relationship movies of the ’70s, Dern says she finds Anymore reminiscent of Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge. “It’s more rare now, at least in the U.S., to find those human portrayals of crisis with such flawed protagonists as leads,” she says. Though Anymore‘s fight scenes between Terry and hubby Jack (Mark Ruffalo) have a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-like rhythm, the requisite spousal swipes are more realistically ham-handed. The dialogue, says Dern, shows how angry communication is often illogical. “Things get so fragmented that the answers aren’t clear,” she says. “From moment to moment there’s a completely different trajectory in terms of what they’re talking about.”

In the course of Anymore, Terry moves from willful ignorance to provisional acceptance of Jack’s affair, even having her own fling with Edith’s husband (Peter Krause). Terry’s tryst, Dern believes, is a desperate attempt to create balance. She says, “Women have always tried to mold themselves into what’s going to make a marriage work. I love that she tries out this thing she thinks Jack wants, to relieve his guilt, or to fit into this new structure that they’ve created through this affair.” In her own work, Dern says, “the theme I keep coming back to is that of a woman struggling to find her own voice,” adding, “I’m really interested in people who don’t necessarily utilize their voice with great dignity.” When asked about Anymore‘s exploration of the ways that rage can contort the face, stiffen the body, and make a person unattractive to a lover, Dern (whose own 2000 breakup with boyfriend Billy Bob Thornton played out in the tabloids) reflects that in lovers’ quarrels, one is often still “trying to accommodate the other person by not seeming jealous or impossible. You’re stuck because you want to seem attractive and like someone they would want to stay with.”

A veteran of dark comedies like Rambling Rose and Citizen Ruth, Dern says she’s noted that some of Anymore‘s most intense moments have resulted in a kind of protective laughter from audiences. At a recent screening, she says, “People were laughing at Terry falling apart, at her mess of a house, at her screaming over the kids. But that’s because we’ve all been there. . . . This is the humor of familiarity.”