Dir. David Lynch
My own theory about the works of Pablo Picasso, in particular this one, is that his genius extended from his dissemination of objects and scenes so as to allow them to take on an entirely different, unknown meaning as symbols. The work of Fabulists such as Italo Calvino and critical theorists like Roland Barthes attempts to subjugate the body of symbols that make up our visual, written and spoken versions of the world, also known as semiotics. Semiotics are built upon a kind of equation. There is the signifier, which is generally the spoken or written word. Then there is the signified which is the visual representation of the word. For instance, when we hear the word “tree” an image of a tree instantly appears in our brain. Between the two, the word and the image, is a certain formlessness which allows each person to come to their own conclusion of what is a “tree”. With Picasso, I believe, the idea was to destroy the symbol in order to give form to the idea of the symbol, rather than the symbol itself. This means decoding the values latent in the subconscious process of turning a word into a visual icon. David Lynch, as a film director, uses a similar process when constructing his films. He scientifically dismantles our fear in order to show us where it comes from. The result is abstraction; an unfamiliar body of symbols and signs that are as thrilling as they are difficult. The 21st century, thus far, has yielded two astonishing, surrealist works from Lynch: 2001's Mulholland Dr and 2006's Inland Empire. While Mulholland Dr entertained the idea of a linear narrative for about an hour and a half, it then proceeded to plunge deeply into a psychedelic and wholly upsetting universe of disillusion and abandonment. Inland Empire forgets structure altogether, choosing instead to weave its epic revolting grandeur through a series of twisted vignettes. The result is cataclysmic. Lynch defines fear by ripping apart everything that scares us and displaying its bloodied, maggot filled entrails. It is in this process that Lynch reveals the abstraction of terror.
I can safely say that Inland Empire was the most nightmarish film I've seen in quite some time. More importantly though is why. While Lynch certainly utilizes certain cinematic cliches to heighten tension (shadows, microtonal music, visible character fear) as an audience we don't feel a profound enough connection to our main character to be scared for her. In fact as she contorts and defamiliarizes, we actually end up becoming afraid of her. What scares us is Lynch's keenly subconscious understanding of uncomfortable objects or persons. A gun, a man with a lightbulb in his mouth, another man smiling menacingly, a light that blinks from white to red, a Polish women who speaks of evil, people in rabbit costumes. Separately each one of these symbols is uncomfortable, but in succession that lack of comfort builds into anxiety and then into fear. We desire resolution, an explanation as to why these images are occurring, and certainly some glimmer of hope for a happy ending. However, this is a David Lynch film. His endings are hardly ever even “endings” and even rarer are ones that, by contemporary standards, might be considered “happy”. The film is largely intangible, and you gets the impression that you've missed some terribly important detail that would string the plot together. In fact the only thing that really holds the dark sketches together is a rough sense of parallel structure, with certain phrases or scenes being repeated throughout the film, although generally obscured in location or meaning, which really only furthers feelings of being on the peripheral; far away from any kind of extrinsic meaning, but also dangerously close to some greater kind of understanding.
That understanding is the truth that fear, once alleviated from its symbolic and hyper specific circumstance, is still a terribly powerful force. Lynch is a master of cataloging evil in all its various incarnations, from curiously amoral to sinisterly other-worldly. Had Lynch arranged Inland Empire in such a way that it followed a discernible plot or structure the effect would not have been quite so powerful. The way he juxtaposes conversations about trips to Pomona by bus and girls with blond wigs, drug addictions and holes in their intestines with the bloody street death of our main character kills any sense of reality, but in place of reality a greater feeling of dread. If there was ever a work of art that deserved the title Kafkaesque, Inland Empire is truly it. Its radical design and deconstruction of Hollywood tropes of suspense and horror, and subsequent reassembly of those same tropes into new, as of yet untranslatable symbols defies reason.
Symbols take on meaning only after a general idea of what they stand for can be agreed upon. But even with the most common of symbols, personal taste delineates exactly what image said symbol conjures up. For “tree” any number of kinds of trees can be imagined, but it is their general characteristics (roots in the ground, some kind of leaves or branches, a trunk, etc.) that fill the remote region between the signifier (the word “tree”) and the signified (the image of a tree). In Inland Empire a new body of symbols for fear are produced, but we are at a loss at how to translate them. It is very exciting. Like being a child again, we are granted an opportunity to allow our first impression of these symbols to govern how we feel about their appearance in the future. By disdaining from concrete examples of fear and terror, Lynch has created a work that plunges deep into the mystic formlessness of those words and cleaves from that mass a totally unique and daunting vision of fear and a revolutionary means of communicating.