Wednesday, August 08, 2007

MIFF Day 14

Tuesday August 7, the day Inland Empire premiered in Melbourne at MIFF. And it was worth the wait. More below, and more to come when time permits.

Distance (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2001)
This is the last of the Kore-eda screenings at MIFF. Time constraints prevent me writing in detail right now about this film or the retrospective as a whole, and I hope to do this some time soon. The film is very quiet and a bit of a strange beast as it's slightly obscure narrative unfolds, switching between at least three different time frames.

Basically, it's about people associated with a cult that was responsible for the mass poisoning of the water supply some years earlier. It's not concerned with the criminal act itself as much as the interactions between these five people. It has a common aesthetic with the other Kore-eda films, though each film in his body is very different from the others. Once the dust has settled on MIFF, I'd like to revisit this and all the other Kore-eda titles to appreciate them without the crowd of other films in my mind. Briefly, Distance is another quite but powerful film.

Distance was the final screening of the Hirokazu Kore-eda retrospective at MIFF.

Inland Empire (David Lynch, USA, 2006)
Where were you on Friday 13 July at 11am? I was at my computer at work booking tickets for Inland Empire. I was a man on a mission. To hell with the other 267 films - must... book... Inland... Empire. In my naivete, I feared the film would sell out on day one of tickets going on sale. In actuality, it took a week or two, the first film to completely sell out.

Last night I arrived at ACMI half an hour early to find a huge queue, the longest I have seen there ever. I was at the bottom of the stairs (the cinema is upstairs), and the ushers had managed to get the queue to spiral around the stairs, around the perimeter of the ACMI space until it wound up near the box office. It was a sight. I still managed to get a prime seat close to where I normally sit.

Well, was it worth it? Was I disappointed? Yes to the first and a qualified no to the second. Look, not only is this Lynch's most cutting edge film to date but I'm going to put myself out on a limb and say this is an historically important work. Whether cinema history will come to regard it as same, only time will tell.

Some of my anticipated fears were realised. I'm not a fan of digital film-making, though there have been notable exceptions. Last year's Em 4 Jay was my favourite film of the year, and it was shot on high definition digital camera. It wasn't evident to me at all, and I later learnt that it underwent an expensive labour-intensive transfer process to film, the first Australian film to achieve this (which was done by the lab at little or no cost to the production). Still Life's use of digital cameras was more evident but remains my favourite film at MIFF so far. (Incidentally, it's second screening had to be replaced last night when the print didn't turn up.)

Lynch films usually incorporate lush, vibrant visuals. His use of HD digital on Inland Empire is well-known, and reviews of the film from overseas had pre-warned me that this film would not share the same aesthetics. One online reviewer described the experience as akin to "looking through four screen doors". These types of reactions did prepare me, and I was able to cut the film some slack.

Lynch is using a new medium and he's not afraid to experiment. Not afraid? Hell, he's charged full bore into the medium with enthusiasm, pushing various boundaries, achieving new effects. Focus and composition are some of the obvious experimentations. Digital looks different, and Lynch has used a whole range of manipulations of the medium to try to harness it. Some aspects won't appeal to all, including myself.

It somehow doesn't sound quite right calling Inland Empire an experimental film, as those two words conjure up visual incoherence, an euphemism for something that didn't quite work or a project that belongs at a cinematheque rather than a regular cinema. Inland Empire IS an experimental film by a highly competent master. Any incoherence is more a matter of creative freedom that Lynch has allowed himself, more so than any other feature film with his name on it.

This film takes the surrealism and investigations of consciousness and identity in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, and ups the ante to a whole new level. Don't think you can come out of this film understanding it. You can't, and (as I wrote about Lost Highway) that I believe is the intention and part of the enjoyment of the experience. This is seriously freaky shit - much more so than Lost Highway, which until now I have considered Lynch's least accessible film (and, I might add, my favourite film of all time). So not only has Lynch experimented with a new medium, but he's also experimented with cinema narrative. This is why I think this film is so important, in spite of its flaws.

What is the film about, I imagine you asking. Already much reported, this is not easy to answer. All I can do is quote Lynch, it's about "a woman in trouble". Thematically, it is closest to Mulholland Drive. Laura Dern certainly puts in a remarkable performance, and this is well and truly her chance in the spotlight. Lynch is brilliant in his placement of actors. He intuitively knows that we have expectations of someone's screen history, and totally reinvents it by placing the actor in a completely different setting to what we're accustomed to. What Lynch did for Bill Pullman in Lost Highway he has done for Dern in Inland Empire. With due respect, I don't think either of these actors has done much of note with any other director.

It was great to see Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks) in a small but powerful and convincing role, a little like some of the bizarre metaphysical characters from Twin Peaks or Robert Blake's Mystery Man in Lost Highway. Harry Dean Stanton, Jeremy Irons and Justin Theroux all had good support roles.

Lynch aficionados will recognise many of his other devices as he further explores themes developed in earlier films. While there's a common aesthetic to any Lynch film, Inland Empire deviates more than any other from what people have come to expect of him. The recognisable sound of Angelo Badalamenti's music is there, but less obviously. The brilliant fusion and placement of music is still there, but also used with mostly restraint yet at times extravagance, particularly the end. And speaking of the end, this one is truly different to anything Lynch has done, with a kind of homage that references the film itself as well as others, particularly Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. Speaking in strange tongues we have seen in Twin Peaks, but in this film we have a foreign language (Polish) at times, with subtitles.

In short - because this post is just about my initial impressions and I'll have more to write about Inland Empire after my second or third viewing (the DVD is on its way) - I think this is a brilliant piece of work by Lynch. It's not my favourite. It's probably even not in my top five. It is, however, an important film that commands respect. The digital medium has a long way to go, and Lynch is in the forefront of those pioneering the creative use of it.

I'm now racing out the door to see my next MIFF session. If I can make the time, I'm going to see Inland Empire again tomorrow night (even though the session is long sold out, my festival pass gives me a prime reserved seat if I choose to use it).

Inland Empire screened as part of MIFF's International Panorama. It screens again on Thursday 9 August at 9.15pm at the Forum Theatre. Official website.

Links: Index of MIFF films reviewed to date / MIFF website


richardwatts said...

Reading your post about Inland Empire has me enthralled - now I really want to see this film after its local release!

Kamikaze Camel said...

I am unable to write anything at length about Inland Empire right now. I'm not sure if I'll be able to for a while. I intend to see it again when it's released theatrically (not only because I feel I need to, but also because Lynch films need our $$$). It's an incredibly confounding and perplexing film, but one that was richly rewarding. I can't help but imagine what would it would be like had Lynch filmed it with film and not digital. Better? Worse? The same?

I got there an hour early and there were about 30 people there already, which I thought was amazing. I got a fantastic seat though so I was happy.

Paul Martin said...

Glenn, I think Lynch has gone the whole hog because of the digital camera. Had he made the exact same film with the lush visuals of his earlier films, it'd be right up there with my favourite Lynch films. I wonder if they'll ever get the richness of 35mm onto the digital format.

I didn't get to the second screening; I need my sleep more. But I want to see it again at least once on the big screen, and maybe two or three more times. I'm also keen to see whether the visuals look better on DVD. I think the importance of this film is beyond how much one likes it or not - it's a damn important film.

I'm not going to write at length right now either, but I feel I have a basic understanding of the film, but I can't really articulate it. I was just discussing it with the missus, and she was asking me about details that I don't even remember seeing! Perplexing? Bloody oath!

Kamikaze Camel said...

Apparently it does work better on DVD, which makes perfect sense. Consider the screen on a digital recorder and then consider that they've blown it up to massive proportions comparatively. So it would make sense that it would look better on the smaller confines of a household television. Less pixelation and such because it's being expanded to a smaller screen.

I would say that the digital camerawork in Michael Mann's recent films has been up there with the best.

marty said...

Keep in mind there are different levels of digital cinema depending on the equipment used. Lynch deliberately used different high and low-end DVD cameras, by the looks of it. On the other hand, Apocalypto was also shot digitally and that looks as good as film. You can hardly tell the difference.

Kat(hleen) said...

Fascinating. I had been meaning to keep an eye out for your thoughts on inland empire. the best description that i have received of it is about the nature of cinema itself, which of course perfectly compliments the use of digital cinema, which to be honest - I didn't even take note of. Well, briefly.

"It somehow doesn't sound quite right calling Inland Empire an experimental film, as those two words conjure up visual incoherence, an euphemism for something that didn't quite work or a project that belongs at a cinematheque rather than a regular cinema. Inland Empire IS an experimental film by a highly competent master. Any incoherence is more a matter of creative freedom that Lynch has allowed himself, more so than any other feature film with his name on it"

This perfectly summates the use of 'experimental film' which everyone just seems to love to ascribe to bad student filmmaking or generic 'european cinema' rather than a film which plays with form, narrative and supposed conventions of filmmaking.

Good write up.

Paul Martin said...

Glenn and Marty, as someone said to me today at MIFF, with the pre- or post-production effort that is required to get digital film-making to approach the aesthetic appeal of 35mm, you've sometimes got to wonder why they don't just shoot in 35mm to start. I'd like to think that it's just unavoidable teething problems with a new technology which will improve over time. We can hope.

Personally, I didn't like Collateral, specifically because I hated the look of the digital photography. I haven't seen Miami Vice, so can't comment.

Thanks Kat. At the risk of stating the obvious, I felt I had to qualify my comments, because people shy away from the usage of some terms, which may conjure up the wrong impression. I thought Inland Empire was an experimental film, in the nicest possible way.

I think we're on the same page with this. I have spoken to some people who agree that this is a significant film, and others who were totally nonplussed. I don't know of anyone who didn't like it, though I have seen comments elsewhere of people who did. It's impossible to make a film taking the risks that Lynch has, and expect it to have universal appeal. Even his earlier films have their detractors.

marty said...

There is a great interview with Lynch in the Village Voice and it confirms that Inland Empire was "shot with the Sony PD-150, a low-grade digital-video camera considered obsolete for serious feature filmmaking." This explains why it looked low-grade and not as high-grade as other digitally shot films. The upcoming 4k digital projection will ensure that studio films will eventually all be shot digitally using very high-end cameras and projectors. This will save having thousands of 35mm prints being made and sent around the country. Each print weighs about 20kg. It should also allow a greater diversity of films being screened including low-budget indie films which don't have the budgets to do the telecine to print.

The full David Lynch interview can be found here:,lee,77431,28.html