Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Pondering Lynch's Digital Empire

For better or for worse, David Lynch has turned his back on film. After experiencing the creative freedom that only digital filmmaking can allow while making his three-hour, self-distributed behemoth Inland Empire, Lynch vowed never to touch film again. And there’s nothing that you, or anybody else, can do to convince him otherwise.

As a result, the new Lynch aesthetic captures a freewheeling, no-holds-barred style emblematic of the filmmaking process itself. Inland Empire is a 179-minute epic with a collection of interwoven, seemingly unrelated images and ideas strung together by the “story” of Hollywood actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). Grace attempts to act in a film, which her personal life eventually starts to resemble and even overlaps, and Inland Empire then develops into a surreal, uniquely Lynchian journey that cannot be accurately described in any short form.

Whether you like it or not, Inland Empire is truly an experience like no other.

While my description may bring to mind similar films from Lynch’s canon, especially the Hollywood-set Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire’s structure moves with such an unlimited freedom that it’s almost as if Lynch’s previous films were censored from his true intention by analog film. With Inland Empire, and Lynch’s newfound style, we have a Lynch totally without restraint or apology. Except it never seemed like he was restrained in the first place.

David Lynch is not for the casual observer. He is an acquired taste whose confounding, often inaccessible films force active participation on behalf of the viewer. The consumer of Lynch’s work is often forced to derive his or her own meaning from the material. And Lynch himself is no help: he always refuses to speak about any details of his films or record any commentaries on his DVDs, as he openly prefers—even challenges—the viewer to derive their own personal meaning from the film. I attended a Q&A at my university in which Lynch promoted his form of transcendental meditation. When an audience member asked him if he would describe what Mulholland Drive is “about,” Lynch directly responded, “No.” When another audience member asked if the “house in Lost Highway was inside or outside reality,” Lynch dryly stated, “Sort of,” and said nothing more.

He’s a curious character, but you have to admire his determination to let his films truly belong to the audience, and not succumb to the popular temptation of telling the inherent meaning behind every decision he made behind the camera on DVD commentaries.

But what makes Lynch’s analog films so great is that beyond the confounding structure and imagery, there seems to be a delicate and carefully chosen meaning behind everything we see and hear. While I may adopt my own personal interpretations to some of his films, I take comfort in knowing that Lynch himself makes careful decisions while filming and has a specific idea of what his films mean, even though he chooses not to disclose this. As a result, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive are works of art whose interpretations are vast and infinitely debatable.

Lynch openly states that when he first started making what would become Inland Empire, he didn’t think that it would be a feature-length film, as he was only experimenting with digital technology and later found associations between several of his projects that he would later combine into a feature. With a process like this, it’s easy to see how quickly this can make a very long movie—especially in Lynch’s style, independent of any typical narrative cohesion. Lynch even incorporates one of his previous filmic shorts, Rabbits, into Inland Empire.

This free-association filmmaking style feels drastically different from Lynch’s previous films. The problem is, if Lynch had no set goal for Inland Empire as a cohesive feature, then he probably has no specific personal idea of what the film means. What type of meaning are we supposed to derive from a project that is basically a montage of several of Lynch’s unrelated works? If the film has no inherent meaning in the mind of the filmmaker, it can’t be experienced like the seemingly deliberate Mulholland Drive or Eraserhead. Even the cast has openly stated that they don’t understand the film. Watching Inland Empire feels like the experience of making it: trying to find a film from segments of totally separate projects (ie. Rabbits).

Analog film forces the filmmaker to make better-prepared decisions because of the complexity of the medium, and the “creative freedom” digital video allows keeps Lynch from making the deliberate, informed and inspired decisions that he probably made with his masterpieces created from traditional film.

What we have now is an experimental Lynch who makes decisions on instinct instead of deliberation.

Lynch is still in an excited stage where he’s toying with the medium, and has yet to find his true voice within it. Lynch has to grasp and learn this medium until it molds itself in a way that suits his filmmaking style, and then he can make films with a new, forward-moving aesthetic that also complements his previous work. DV is a totally different aesthetic than film, like switching from oil to acrylic paint, and it must be treated in such a way that acknowledges its own opportunities and weaknesses. Lynch is elated with the freedom digital filmmaking allows, but doesn’t quite have a grasp on its unique possibilities in the way that other filmmakers who truly crafted the technology have (I’ll avoid naming any examples, because it feels ridiculous to compare Lynch to any other specific filmmaker). All great art involves restraint of some sort, even if the medium used provides little option for it.

But on the other hand, filmmaking today is treated in a way that pretends every decision made on set was immaculate and completely intentional. Behind the scenes documentaries and commentaries go on and on praising every major member of the cast and crew, and explain to a sickening degree the intentionality of every minor detail seen on screen. But anybody who has ever been on a film set is aware of the circumstance, collaboration and even accidental nature that leads to a film’s final product (whether made on DV or film). Some of the most inspired parts of a final product can be purely unintentional or serendipitous. Nobody can predict the weather, behavior of the cast and crew, or last minute decisions that affect filmmaking. Just like in writing (or any other art form, rather), there is a plethora of possibilities that affects how you intend something to turn out in your head, and how it actually turns out. There is always some distance between the pen and the brain.

We need more artists like Lynch, those who realize that “inherent meaning” in any art form only extends so far, that art is truly in the eye of the beholder, and that all art is only as good as the interpretation of the person who receives it. Perhaps with Inland Empire, we are even free from the notion that the intent of the artist needs to exist at all, as Lynch allows the art form to take on a life all its own, taking place of the artist in determining the final product. This is truly a democratic way of experiencing film, just as digital technology is a democratic way of making it.

I’m just not sure if I’ve warmed up to it quite yet.